Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ali Shaw – delving into a writer's subconscious with Abingdon Writers

The beauty of the blank page and the magical effect of tapping into your subconscious were two of the main themes at the talk Oxford-based writer, Ali Shaw, gave to Abingdon Writers and guests on March 29 at Abingdon Library.
In a generous and inspiring talk in which he shared his creative processes, Ali Shaw talked about how a single idea can grow into a novel – and how he believes that tapping into the dark, primeval part of his brain has enabled him come up with his fresh and beautiful stories.
‘One of the best things about writing is when you realise that your instincts that were causing you to write what you did were correct and that it is only when it is written that you realise what the books is about,’ he told the audience this week.

Ali Shaw’s first book ‘The Girl with Glass Feet’ was a popular and critical success, an original blend of beautiful, atmospheric writing, a fairy tale theme, and a love story. It was shortlisted for no less than three major awards for debut novels and won the Desmond Elliot prize.
It is a story, he says, about how you have to wring what you can out of life, but he didn’t realise this until it was finished, as he starts with an idea and builds from that, rather than trying to write to a theme.
He wrote his first novel while working full time and says he thinks trying to fit his writing in around this probably helped allow his subconscious take over. He often wrote when he was very tired – either late at night when he kept himself going with a glass of whisky, or he woke around 4am when he needed lots of coffee.
‘A time when you have forced yourself out of bed and are exhausted is actually a good time for writing. But I suppose you have to be honest about why you are doing it. Most people who write will do it whatever, because there are easier ways to make a living. But while people do feel compelled to do it, interesting books will continue to be written. I just tried to write the kind of book I would like to read. I just sort of plunged in and hoped.’
Ali Shaw has recently published his second novel ‘The Man who Rained’ about a boy who has been exiled from his small remote town, people by superstitious folk who believe he is the embodiment of a thunderstorm (Ali also said he had delivered his third novel to his agent that day, so we are now looking forward to that one!)
The idea for this story came from realising that many of us living in centrally-heated homes can find it difficult to understand how unstoppable and powerful the weather really is.
Writing the second was a different experience as not only was there already expectation from his first novel, he didn’t have to show his first to anyone until it was at a much further stage towards completion.
Yet he says he feels really lucky to have been published at all ‘You’ve just got to keep sending your stuff off because chance is against you.'
Local writing group, Abingdon Writers, had invited Ali to their group and had opened up the meeting to those who wanted to hear Ali's talk as part of Abingdon Arts Festival. Several members of the group spoke about how important they have found belonging to a writing group and encouraged other writers aspiring to be published themselves, to join.
Ali Shaw said one of the best things about writing groups was the fact that it encourages you to keep going.
Abingdon Writers was founded three years ago is actively seeking new members and meets two evenings a month in central Abingdon to share critique, support and marketing ideas.
Many thanks to Abingdon Writers, Ali Shaw and Abingdon Library for helping make such an interesting event as part of the town's arts festival.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Easter holiday fun, competitions...and storytelling

We have Easter treats in store with children's books and holiday reading - and as always everyone here is on hand to recommend gifts for any special people you need to buy for.

Over the Easter holiday, we will be running several competitions, including a spot-the-rabbit competition in our window (a prize for little ones who take part, and a prize draw at the end to win an Easter Goodie bag).

If the weather is good enough, the garden will be the venue for two magical storytelling events over the Easter holiday with award-winning local storyteller Peter Hearn - a.k.a. "Beltaine".

If you have never experienced Peter's captivating blend of stories, songs and music then you are in for a real treat - or do return if you have been before. He'll be accompanied by his friend storyteller Sarah again. This is a free event for ages 5+ (and parents of course). The event will be on April 11th at 11.30am and 2pm.

Tickets are free, but places limited - so PLEASE BOOK.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The beginning is half of everything: Konstantin by Tom Bullough

A few years ago, it occurred to me that we wouldn't be going back to the Moon in my lifetime. Big deal, you may think (particularly if you are not a space buff), but for someone like me who grew up reading about Apollo rockets in children's book, and dreaming of future flights into space as inevitable, this thought was both profound and depressing.

It's kind of inevitable I guess. Stripped of its role as an alternative to global conflict, shifted into a world which finds risk unpalatable, human spaceflight has spiralled in ever decreasing circles in an attempt to find commercial reasons to justify its existence, which (pay-TV and mobile phone satellites aside) it has never really found. Even space tourism will mean rich folk paying for sub-orbital flights giving seven minutes of weightlessness. Inspiring, huh?

So I found Tom Bullough's Konstantin refreshing and inspiring, a fictionalised account of the life of the grandfather of spaceflight, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. I'm indebited to Gaskella for tipping me off about this book, and although it wasn't quite the book I was expecting, it is a little gem and I loved it.

The book itself is lovingly produced, with an interesting bit of kindleproofing on the cover, which folds out into a representation of the solar system. It's an effective way of mixing art and science, which sets the scene nicely for one of the key themes of the book. 

Tsiolkovsky was the first to derive many of the fundamental principles of spaceflight, including things such as reaction-propelled spaceships (i.e. burning fuel inside a craft and using the exhaust gases to make it go - which is why you never see flames in space, there's no oxygen). He also imagined how spaceships could be kept on track using gyroscopes (these are the things that keep the Hubble Space Telescope stable, for example, and need replacing when they fail).

This is remarkable for a deaf, self-educated middle class Russian who turned up in Moscow with nothing.

His ideas inspired a generation of engineers, including the Soviet 'Chief Designer' Sergei Korolev (who's Sputnik satellite ignited the space race, lifting off almost 100 years to the day of Tsiolkovsky's birth). A translation of one of Tsiolkovsky's books was found in the possessions of Werner Von Braun, designer of the V-2 rocket and subsequently the Apollo rocket.

Despite plenty of astrophysics, it is the story of Tsiolkovsky's life (particularly his young life) that most captures the imagination. The writing style is straight from a classic Russian novel: the wonderful rhythm of the Russian names, the longing for escape from harsh rural life, the use of archaic language (notably the verst as unit of measurement). Nineteenth century Russia shapes both Tsiolkovsky's character and imagination. The sense of place that Bullough creates - pristine forest, grimy town, in and out of the grip of the harsh Russian Winter - crystalises the thought that in Russia, the landscape comes closest to something lunar and otherworldly, and that perhaps it is no surprise that it was a Russian who made the leap of imagination to wonder how humans might venture into space.

But Tsiolkovsky was not operating in a vacuum (no pun intended). Science and engineering were already changing the world rapidly, and the influence of ideas from outside Russia - most notably from a reading Jules Verne - were key to fostering his imagination.

By going back to the source of many of the most important theories of spaceflight, by recreating the world in which he lived and where he received his inspiration from, we can imagine sweeping aside the historical baggage and starting again with the essence of what space offers humanity - a future springing from the highest ideals of progress. These ideas come to Tsiolkovsky through my favourite character of the book, the fabulous Moscow librarian Nikolai Fedorov. The book incidentally serves as another reminder of the importance and power of libraries and curated knowledge, and you feel that Fedorov - with his fusing of secularism and mysticism, his resolving the paradox of needing logic allied with faith, would make mincemeat of a Dawkins or even a De Botton.

The book ends with a lyrical description of the world's first spacewalk, with Alexei Leonov on Voskhod II. Taking insane risks for propaganda purposes, Leonov risked 'The Bends' by depressurising his spacesuit so much in order to get back into his spaceship. But the fact of the matter is that he became the first 'human' to exist as a satellite of the Earth, a line drawn directly from Tsiolkovsky's imagination.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not with a whimper, but with a bang: Apocalypse Moon by MG Harris

Apparently, in some of the murkier areas of the Internet, there is quite a bit of interest in an ancient Mayan calendar, one which ends sometime around Dec 21, 2012 - which therefore (according to some people) signifies the end of the world. Something similar will no doubt occur on August 31, 4500AD. That's the furthest forward you can go on Microsoft Outlook's calendar, so in some future (presumably dystopian) world, humanity - in thrall to the God "Billgates" - will no doubt be waiting for the end of the world as well...

Several authors have drawn inspiration from the 2012 end-of-the-world scenario, but none with as much invention and fun (or as successfully) as children's author MG Harris, with her five-series, rip-roaring, code-laden, time-travelling adventure The Joshua Files.

The first book 'Invisible City' launched in 2008, with 13 year-old Joshua Garcia (Josh) losing his father in a mysterious plane crash over Mexico. But all is not what it seems, and five years (and five books) later Josh finds himself facing events - in the explosive finale "Apocalypse Moon" - which threaten the end of civilization...

In the books, Josh goes to an (unnamed) school in Oxford, and there is a strong Oxford link throughout all five books. So it was very appropriate that the launch for the fifth book took place at two Oxford schools on March 27: Gregory The Great, and Oxford High. Mostly Books was very honoured to be helping out on the day...
The stories grew out of her own Mexican heritage, as well as from an adolescence reading Erich Von Däniken (I have to put my hand up on that score too). She has also drawn writing inspiration from authors such as Robert Heinlein, Murakami and Gabriel García Márquez. 

MG Harris spoke about her own journey as an author throughout the Joshua Files - and provided a fascinating insight into the life of a bestselling author (including the experiences of signing 5,000 books over a 16-odd hour period). It was particularly fascinating to discover that her books do very well not just in the UK, but in the US, Australia, Japan - and particularly Indonesia (who seem to get the best covers).  

Apocalypse Moon isn't 'officially' published until April 5th, so these fans from Cheney School were very happy to get a signed copy early. Especially as it comes in a rather sexy plastic gel slipcase...which gathered together make an excellent-looking display:

There were some very interesting questions throughout the day. Not the typical 'where do you get your ideas from', but rather: what books inspired you as a child ("dark occult thrillers"), how much do you earn as a writer ("about as much as a teacher"), would you ever write another Joshua Files book ("never say never") and the somewhat surreal 'what's your favourite takeaway'?

There were plenty of opportunities for photos:

and I was particularly impressed with the rock-star treatment we received at Oxford High including some reserved parking (which we never get!)

It was a great day - and our thanks to MG and the two schools for making it such a memorable day.

Even more exciting (for us) is that we are now in possession of signed copies of "Apocalypse Moon", available ahead of the launch date, with limited addition Joshua Files pins and signed postcards available.

Also, anyone purchasing a copy of the book over Easter automatically gets entered into our splendid Joshua Files competition, to win an extremely exclusive Joshua files bag and T-Shirt...and if you want to whet your appetite even more, take a look at the trailer that MG herself has put together...

So - if the world *does* end at the end of this year, MG Harris will have considered her work done. But in case the conspiracy theorists are out a bit (and we do have to wait for the 46th century) then here is some more insight into what MG Harris might do next...

Five questions with...MG Harris's Writing Life

1.    What are you working on at the moment?

An occult thriller, for 13+ (Young Adults).

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?

Read a lot - and extremely widely!

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?

The best thing is the enthusiastic readers, who want to engage with the author. The worst thing is that certain structural changes in children's publishing are...challenging! That's all I'll say...

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?

I write at my desk, but don't have to (it does have a nice big monitor). But really, if I have my lovely, lovely laptop I can write anywhere.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?

Meeting my agent, who gave me a whole new insight into the nature of children's books that helped shape the Joshua Files.

Read this book! Carnegie Tea 2012

Shadowing the Carnegie shortlist is a big deal amongst the schools of Abingdon, and this year is no exception. Traditionally, it all kicks of with the Carnegie 'tea', with shadowing groups from lots of different schools learning a little about the shortlisted books, and generally preparing for the reading fest ahead (doughnuts are involved as well).
For the last couple of years, I've given a little talk about 'how to do a book review'. Delivered in my usual, understated way (i.e. excitedly over-caffeinated and with arms flailing) I basically talk about how we do the book reviews you see at the shop and on the blog, oh - and on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.

Different mediums - sometimes stripped down to 140 characters - but all trying to do the same thing:

  • Make it personal. Tthis is your review, no-one else. Who cares if everyone else likes a book and you hated it. Your opinion is important, and in a world of hype where each new book is pushed as the next 'big thing' there are still plenty of people who look for more balanced reviews...
  • Don't just describe the plot. Beginner's mistake - just describing the book. I can get this from the blurb on the back. Sure, in a longer book review, a brief description that sets the book in context is appropriate, but don't describe the whole thing.
  • Use all the senses. Close your eyes, did the book conjure up sights and smells, textures to touch. These kinds of descriptions make the book become real in the eyes of the review reader.
  • Book reviews are a kind of selling. Whether you like a book or not. If you thought the book was 'so-so' then fair enough. But so many books are published, so many great authors fail to make it, that if you truly loved a book it might be your review that makes the difference. Successful selling is all about the transfer of emotion - so put your passion and enthusiasm into the review, and let the reader be in no doubt that you loved a book - or didn't!
Obviously there may be things you have to include in a book review (that your teachers say you have to) - but hopefully this'll give you some more ideas too.

The book I talked about as an example was "All Fall Down" by Sally Nicholls. It's very good.

Oh, and I threatened to publish these too...


Monday, March 26, 2012

Slipping drowsily under the surface of a page...

I came across this wonderful quote in the pages of a marketing newsletter (seriously) this morning, and it's been on my mind the whole day. I am a terrible night-time reader, in that no matter how late it is, how tired I am, I've got to turn a few pages (even if all I can manage is an emergency Woodhouse, or in extremis, Calvin & Hobbes).

Anyway, here's the quote, the legendary poet Billy Collins and what he has to say on the matter:

"Is there a more gentle way to go into the night than to follow an endless rope of sentences and then to slip drowsily under the surface of a page into the first tentative flicker of a dream? All late readers know this sinking feeling of falling into the liquid of sleep and then rising again to the call of a voice that you are holding in your hands, as if pulled from the sea back into a boat...

Is there is a better method of departure by night than this quiet bon voyage with an open book, the sole companion who has come to see you off, to wave you into the dark waters beyond language?"

 - Billy Collins, from Reading Myself to Sleep

Apparently (and this is anecdotally from talking to users) you don't get the same effect from an eReader - something to do with using a different part of the brain. Which is fascinating (and reassuring) I think...

Billy Collins is a wonderful poet, warm, wise and witty, and I noticed today we had nothing of his in stock (which I will remedy tomorrow). If you are new to him, I recommend "Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes".

Night night everyone...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

On the Blood Red Road to writing stardom - five questions with Moira Young

It could all have been so different. A career as a dancer, opera singer - and possibly one part of a sketch-writing partnership. But for a horrific injury falling off a bus (which resulted in two broken wrists) Moira Young may never have decided to write for young adults. But we're extremely glad she did...

Moira Young visited Abingdon School yesterday, and captivated the male audience as she explained her (sometimes painful) route to writing success with her book Blood Red Road, this year's winner of the Costa Children's Book Award. As well as a trailer of the book, Moira played a snippet of 'The Wizard of Oz' to the boys (which I reckon must be a first) to illustrate the importance of change which influences the characters in her book.

Blood Red Road fits perfectly into the current hunger (no pun intended) for dystopian future novels, but what makes Moira's book stand out from the crowd is the voice of the main character Saba, which has a rhythm and cadence crucial to the success of the book (and which, it must be said, has divided some critics). Despite the grim future depicted in the book, Saba is someone who you would very much want on your side if faced with a similar scenario...Moira was bombarded with questions from the boys, shared plenty of writing secrets (and a few secrets about her family and writing influences) and we were delighted when she agreed to sit down and answer a few questions after the signing... 

Five questions with...Moira Young’s Writing Life

1.    What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on a sequel to Blood Red Road, due out in August. In fact, I really should be working on it now! I’m into final editorial revisions, so after the weekend [she was appearing at the Oxford Literary Festival the next day], Monday morning, I'll sit down at my desk – and bang!

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?

The best tip I was given – and I can’t remember where this came from – is ‘sit at your desk every day and write something'...even if you end up never using those words. You need to write regularly, every day. Whether or not you are lucky enough to be a professional writer, this is your job. You need to focus on the process.

3.    What’s the best thing and worst thing about being a children’s author?

The best thing is meeting the kids. The worst thing: certain authors, in certain ‘literary circles’, look down on children’s writers, and can be quite nasty. But children’s authors are nice people! Also, children are a tough audience, much tougher than adults. Children won’t give you fifty pages to get into a story, they don’t have the patience, and they need to be hooked immediately or you’ve lost them. Oh, and children expect the next book quickly, so deadlines – particularly for series books – are tough!

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?

I need absolute quiet. I work with earplugs in! I cannot have any distractions, in fact I rent a room (in Bath, where I live) in the back of a hairdressers. It’s my little white box, just a desk and nothing else!

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?

Blood Red Road and the Costa [Children’s Award] has changed everything. I got huge interest from the press, and has put me on their radar whenever they want a quote or comment on dystopian fiction. It has raised my profile enormously, and of course sales of the book!

(Signed copies of Blood Red Road are currently available at Mostly Books)

Friday, March 23, 2012

I don't want to join a writing group

(Ahead of next week's event with Ali Shaw, we've invited Gabby Aquilina of local writing group Abingdon Writers, to give a bit of background to the group, and the event with Ali which takes place in Abingdon Library next week. Take it away Gabby...)

Hi Mostly Book Lovers!

I’m scooching on over to the Mostly Books blog from my normal corner of the blogosphere (thanks for having me Nicki and Mark!) to tell you all about writing groups. Because, you know, writing groups are the new stitch ‘n’ bitch for people hankering for a new creative outlet which comes with a support group…

I feel fairly qualified to talk about this because way back in the middle of 2009, I formed Abingdon Writers with two lovely people I met at a Mostly Books / Oxford Writing Group event (hurrah for Mostly Books and their wonderful events schedule!) – Liah Thorley and Anna Jones.

Although the OWG had no room for new members themselves, the panel encouraged the audience to create their own group and so Abingdon Writers was born! The three of us soon grew to five and then eight; ten quickly became fourteen and we decided to cap membership when we reached eighteen and start a waiting list! Who knew there was all this writing talent just loitering around Abingdon, scribbling (well, typing) away quietly in recesses under stairs or bundled up in five layers of clothing in garden sheds.

We were surprised and delighted at the amount of interest in our group and, although we have had several people come to trial meetings over the last three years never to return, most of us have remained. Fearless, super-confident writers? Not nearly, although perhaps I speak just for myself here - quivering, insecure shadows of non-writerly people, more likely. Oddbodies who enjoy their work being dissected and mauled over by their peers? Possibly, although ‘enjoy’ might be the wrong emotion to convey here.

Now, I mentioned support groups in my first paragraph and here I am talking about ‘peer reviews’ being brutal and sort of vicious. They’re not, it just sounds much more dramatic that way. Constructive criticism is the reason why Liah, Anna and myself wanted to set up the group. That and support – encouraging and motivating your fellow aspiring writer friends is SO important. Finding out what real people (anyone who isn’t family or your BFF) think of your masterpiece can be a revelation and a huge confidence boost but it’s the shared experiences of trying to get that first chapter perfect or writing that darned query letter that makes you glad you have writer friends to help you get them right.

Admittedly, there have been times when I have read at a meeting and felt completely disheartened by the feedback. At first. After a day to stew over certain comments or, eek, facial expressions, you realise that actually, the group were right. That paragraph does require tweaking, more description is needed to ground the location and those two sentences about your florist-owning, yoga devotee waif of a heroine ranting about middle-lane drivers are, perhaps, a little bit jarring.

What I am trying to say (this would never do for a synopsis) is that Abingdon Writers has given me the confidence and encouragement to actually GET MY NOVEL OUT THERE. Without the AW members, my manuscript would probably have been languishing under a pile of two year old magazines until I dragged it out to use as scrap paper for my daughter to scribble on or kill flies with.

So, with one manuscript out there being ‘properly’ mauled over by agents, I have another one on the go. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be on the bookshelves of Mostly Books – a local author done good.

Just like Ali Shaw – author of the Desmond Elliot 2010 winning, ‘The Girl With Glass Feet’ (also shortlisted for a whole bunch of awards including the Costa First Novel Award) and the recently published, ‘The Man Who Rained.’

Incidentally (!), Abingdon Writers is hosting an evening with Ali Shaw on Thursday 29th March at 7.30pm in Abingdon Library. Tickets (£4 with £3 redeemable against a purchase on the night) are still available from Mostly Books and can also be bought on the door at the event.

Now, I know Nicki has already reviewed ‘The Man Who Rained’ and pointed you in the direction of the wonderful Gaskella for another review but let me just add my two cents here:

Both Ali Shaw’s books are lyrically written, beautifully imagined fairy tales. The imagery and ideas that he comes up with are original and spellbinding. Sunbeams that turn into canaries? Aren’t you just smiling at that idea, picturing it in your head?

If you are, then you should come and meet Ali and the Abingdon Writers next Thursday! Chat with us, get a book or two signed and have a glass of wine. Perhaps you’ll even decide that a writing group is just what you need to help you get motivated and put your name down to join us. We’ll be gentle. Ish.

Ellie's favourite books 2011

Ellie has had a very tricky time choosing her favourite books of last year. But here they are. If you haven't read them, put at least one on your 'to be read' list - and watch out for some of those new names because we feel you could be hearing a lot more of them.

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

Police procedural with more than a dash of hilarity and magic thrown in.

This was one of those books that really stands out of the crowd. It’s fun, light but clever and hilarious too. I picked up on it when a few customers came in to pre-order the paperback and was rather intrigued by the description of it as ‘Harry Potter growing and joining the Fuzz’.  This is perhaps slightly misleading – don’t think that you’re going to be reading some kind of version of an older HP using magic to solve crimes – although it is quite a nice way to sum it up.

It really is very much a police procedural with a magical element – there is a crime to solve, and maybe a few vampires and rivalling gods and goddesses get in the way of solving this, along with the fact that the perpetrator isn’t your average criminal, but the fantasy aspect doesn’t make this a fantasy novel. It’s much more about the police aspect and the wit and interactions between some of the characters.

After a rather gruesome murder takes place in central London, trainee coppers PC Peter Grant and WPC Lesley May find themselves on the loathed graveyard shift covering the crime scene over night. Cold and bored, May goes off to get them some coffee. This however is the turning point for Grant’s career. Coming to the end of his training, with aspirations for CID, he’s been flatly told that he’s just not that kind of copper – his head’s too far in the clouds and he’s not focused enough – so has been assigned to the Case Progression Unit - a euphemism for a boring desk job.

In contrast, May is flying high, the epitome of a perfect police officer with great prospects, and she, much to Grant’s chagrin, gets appointed to the murder squad (about the most exciting job in the force). On this night though, Grant has a stroke of luck when he finds a witness to the brutal murder and quickly begins to take down a statement that could help solve the case. His interview, though, leads him to stumble upon evidence that the supernatural is real.

As any good copper would, he takes this in his stride but this encounter is followed by another with Chief Inspector Nightingale and the tables turn as he not only finds himself re-appointed to Nightingale’s team (of two) but also apprenticed to a wizard.

His new role leads him to investigate a series of connected murders that aren’t all they seem to be and liaising with the murder squad – and Lesley, who has found herself the general dogsbody and administrator. The evidence soon racks up that things aren’t quite as they should be and it’s up to Grant and Nightingale to track down the evidence and capture the culprit.

Alongside this investigation, Grant finds himself responsible, in his new role as apprentice wizard, for keeping the peace amongst the magical community in London. This means a job as mediator for the rival factions of Mother and Father Thames. This was really a wonderful element of the book and added to the hilarity as the interactions between Grant and the rivers of London (who are personified as feisty river spirits in the form of actual people) were just so funny. I loved how they were depicted – with the gods and goddesses of the city rivers living in glamorous and huge flats, dressed smartly and varying from street savvy to hobnobbing with the elite. The rivers outside London on the other hand were gypsies and country folk – hence the constant antagonism between the two.

Rivers of London is a really great twist on a police crime story that is quirky, hilarious and truly inventive. Incredibly readable and brilliantly witty, a couple of chapters in you'll soon realise it’s really a jolly escapade, albeit one set in London, disguised as a crime thriller and set against an urban fantasy backdrop, featuring a brilliant cast of characters. It had me hooked from the start, eager for the next at the end and I heartily recommend this fantastic and funny book.

Caleb’s Crossing – Geraldine Brooks

A beautiful frontier novel following the life of Caleb Cheeshateaumauk – the first native American to graduate from Harvard College, 1665.

Based on fact, Geraldine Brooks has written a fantastic and evocative book about the life of Caleb Cheeshateaumauk, the first native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665.

Using the fictional voice of Bethia she is able to not only depict Caleb’s story, but to also paint a vivid picture of life in the mid-17th Century, in particular of women and Bethia’s own struggle for education and independence. This book has all the more impact and resonance because the life of Caleb is a little known story. Brooks gets the balance just right between portraying the great achievements of this young man against all the adversities and Bethia’s own struggles and life within the colony.

The daughter of a missionary, Bethia lives within a small Puritan colony on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, just off the coast of Massachusets. Living within a small area of the island, the colony keeps themselves distanced from the native Indians, maintaining certain rules and boundaries. Her father holds regular sermons both for the community and the Indians in attempts to convince them of their ‘heathen’ lives and to convert them. Living in a very religious community, Bethia has grown up being taught about these ‘savages’ although her actual contact has been minimal and only with those who have converted.

Her own position within the community is restricted by her gender, and though her father was happy for her be educated when she was younger, she gets to an age where he decides it is no longer suitable for her to continue. She now finds herself set outside of the community, more educated than most, cleverer than her brother, but unable to improve or use her education. Unhappy with the role of mother and wife she is destined to have she is powerless to choose anything else. Then one day she meets Caleb and they form a friendship built on a mutual desire for learning.

Bethia’s friendship with Caleb sets in motion events that will change her future and the future of the Indians. As their relationship develops she discovers that the Indian savagery she has been taught about is not entirely true and through their encounters they exchange lessons about their cultures and faiths. Bethia teaches Caleb to read and write and in return she learns his language.

Used to a life of hardship and loss, her family are tried by greater losses and her father becomes affected the most. A kind and gentle man, he quickly changes and his attempts to convert the local tribe become more forceful as he pits himself against the tribe’s Shaman, whose own powerful magic leads the minister to question his own abilities and convictions. This threatens to damage the delicate relationship between the Indians and the community but also leads the minister to take in Caleb and teach him in the European tradition with the intention of sending him to Harvard.

As Caleb comes over to the white culture, Bethia begins to have her own misgivings about her religion and is drawn in the opposite direction. Trapped by the narrow strictures of her faith and gender, and further by her position in her family and her own feelings of guilt, she seeks connections with Caleb’s world that challenge her beliefs and set her at odds with her community.

Bethia’s path is set to change though and entwined, as their lives have been since the age of 12 when they both set out on a journey of learning, Bethia and Caleb leave for Harvard College – he to study and she to be servant to a school master – an agreement made to enable her brother to attend the college as well. Whilst this places her greatly below her status it also opens up other doors and experiences for her that she would never have had on the island. Through her we see the many hardships faced both by women and servants, as well as the boys at the school – in particular the native Indian boys.

One aspect that makes this a truly unforgettable book, and one of my favourite last year, is the depth of Geraldine's research. It really stands out, particularly in her portrayal of these individual struggles and the conflict on the larger scale between the Native American medicine men and the English ministers. It really does feel like fact made into fiction and I was interested to learn more after reading the book.

Bethia’s voice is fundamental to the strength of this book, bringing the story to life and giving it further depth and perspective and making it much more than solely about Caleb. Brooks perfectly depicts the split between her faith and her sense of what’s right when she finds it hard to reconcile differences between herself and Caleb.

The relationship between Caleb and Bethia movingly explores the boundary between the two cultures and the inevitable difficulties, even between friends. It’s an emotive novel that will linger with you long after and leave you with much to think about. The writing is absolutely beautiful, perfectly conveying the mood and atmosphere and developing some unforgettable characters.  

I wasn't sure about this book from the description on the back, but it really was fantastic and didn't disappoint. It was an engaging, moving story and a truly wonderful read.
The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

An enchanting debut and a magical transformation of the circus as we know it.

This is a fantastic tale of magic and illusion and I found myself completely drawn in due to the incredibly visual world that Morgenstern creates – of wildly imaginative circus tents and fabulous acts, of stunning costumes and luscious dinners. This wonderfully enchanting style of writing, with evocative descriptions, almost invites you to explore this world and to re-imagine the possible. It’s a rare thing in books to describe a world so strikingly and memorably, but this makes the book all the more special and enchanting.

It’s a simple premise, about two powerful magicians who differ in the way they teach their students, and in an attempt to prove their way the best they compete in competitions played out by their pupils over many generations. Hector Bowen, also known as Prospero the Enchanter, performs in public as an illusionist, enthralling his audiences and for the latest game, he chooses his 6 year-old daughter, Celia, as his student. His friend and adversary is known only as Mr A H or the man in the grey suit and little is ever seen of him.

Unlike Hector, he picks an unknown orphan with no obvious magical talent. Their games, though, are complex and for most of the book the purpose is unclear. What is clear is that this latest competition is the most magnificent of all with the most exciting of venues.

It is still many years before the game begins and the arena for it is finally chosen – a circus known as the Night Circus or Le Cirque de Reves. Celia and her opponent, Marco, now live their lives in and through the circus – the most magical circus imaginable. It arrives without warning, opening only at night, and visitors come across the most fabulous of acts, passing through intricate paths to find and explore new tents. The most interesting thing of all though, is that it is completely black and white – from the tents and the paths to the costumes worn by the people. It’s the conception of Chandresh Lefevre and he devotes most of his time to making the circus exceptional and magical – without realising quite how magical it is.

As the game progresses, it soon becomes clear that the circus is not just a venue, it lives through Celia and Marco and everyone who’s a part of it depends on them – and the outcome of the game. The game in which neither know the rules nor how the winner will be chosen, nor that they are merely pawns in this game. As they discover this, they also discover something truly magical: Love.

Love, though, is not meant to be a part of this game and their relationship threatens everything.

The Night Circus is a real feast for the senses – the events unfurl slowly, and the beautiful, dreamlike writing conjures up beautiful scenes and delicious scents. The twists and turns in the story echoes those of the paths between the tents – each new tent is more exciting than the last. You must wonder what is real and what illusion as the unsettled feeling of the novel is reinforced by the shifting narrative – parallel stories are told about the circus in different times which slowly come together.

The elements of dark and light in the story – the black and white, the light used in the acts to enchant the spectators, from fire, to stars or illuminated ice – reflect the good and evil, the uncertain outcome of the game and the complex relationship between Celia and Marco, and you as the reader can feel the pull of both dark and light in the story. Despite the dark elements, that become more apparent as the game unfolds, it is exciting and hopeful, and with anything possible in this impossible world the imagination can be used to bend things to your will.

The Night Circus is all about crossing boundaries, between the real and the imaginable, and it’s the most wonderful storytelling, succeeding in transporting you to a place you didn’t know existed.

Be careful not to be put off by the non-linear time frame which means the story unfolds quite slowly. This works perfectly for the novel and is very much a part of the story, mirroring the disorientation felt by visitors to the circus and highlighting the timelessness of the circus itself. You soon find yourself swept up in the story and completely captivated.

It’s an enchanting debut, a story of magic, love and imagination, marked by its originality and spellbinding descriptions. It’s a kind of fairy tale but with people and real places where the familiar is transformed into something special. I definitely recommend it.

Delirium – Lauren Oliver

A dystopian world where love is a disease that must be cured, this is a story about love and fighting for freedom.

One of my residing impressions of this novel was that it had a real John Wyndham and Orwellian feel to it. It was fantastic writing and I really liked its premise, which was really well followed through with some fantastic characters. The dystopian world was convincingly created and I loved every minute of reading it.

Delirium is a novel set in a future of our world where there has obviously been some calamity or crisis. Whilst most people are relatively well off, they’re not as affluent as our society today – electricity is now rationed and cars are only for the rich. And love is now believed to be a disease. A disease that infects everyone if you’re not careful, is responsible for all the bad things in the world and must be cured.

At 18 you receive the cure, but without Love there is little emotion, which means the Government takes an active role in your life – in fact, it controls everything. Careers and marriages are arranged and everyone is matched with someone appropriate to their age, social status and personality. They encourage certain extra-curricular activities, whilst others are frowned upon, and the ‘Book of Shhh’ is obligatory reading at school. Music is regulated, along with books and films. Everyone is taught about the disease – its symptoms, what it does, what you must do if you suspect someone (a friend, a relative, a neighbour) has the disease.

Girls and boys are kept separate and interaction is not allowed. Young offenders are punished whilst persistent offenders and those who catch the disease are cured early or sent to prison, hidden away underground and never let out. Some offenders are punished with death. And to ensure people aren’t infected with Amor Deliria Nervosa, the neighbourhoods are policed by regulators who look out for signs of the disease, conducting random house checks. Everyone must carry their paperwork with them at all times and stick to an imposed curfew.

Anyone who originally refused the cure, now called Invalids because their citizenship has been invalidated, lived outside the electrified borders, in the Wilds, but are supposedly all dead now after the Wilds were destroyed during the Blitz.

Lena is a model citizen, has always followed the rules and looks forward to her cure. She is particularly afraid of the disease because her mother had it – she was cured several times before she finally killed herself. This isn’t the kind of thing you want in your background and Lena is afraid she’ll be like her mother, is tainted by her weaknesses. Everyday she focuses on what it will be like after the cure when she will forget about her mother and the nightmares will stop.

Until she meets Alex. Then everything changes and she realises the truth that has always been told to her is all lies and all the cured are really dead. The Wilds aren’t empty, but full and teeming with life. Love isn’t a disease, it’s freedom, even if it comes with a price.

This is outstanding writing and Lauren Oliver convincingly creates an alternative, dystopian future where everyone is afraid of love. I thought some of the little details she included were absolutely great – the symptoms of love (we’ll all recognise, sweaty palms, nervousness, heightened awareness, complete happiness, sadness) which get worse as it progresses and results in death.

There are nice touches with quotes from the health and safety handbook, the ‘Book of Shhh’, poems and recommended reading at the start of the chapters. Stories we are familiar with, such as Romeo and Juliet, are referred to, but as cautionary tales taught to children to show the danger of love.

It’s an exciting and thought provoking story and whilst partly a social commentary through the extreme of a dystopian world, it’s also a story of first love and what you will do to keep it, what you will sacrifice and what freedom truly means. An absolutely great teen novel, of excellent quality it’s the first in a trilogy, I couldn’t wait for the next one – which has now come out and I’ve devoured in a couple of days. Just as fabulous . . . it’s left me wanting more, thought the last one isn’t out for a little while yet!

The Dirty Life – Kristin Kimball

A compelling book about transformation on many levels, the rewards of hard work and what it means to be passionate about something.

I don’t often read memoirs but something about this one made me pick it up. I was interested in it partly because it’s about setting up a farm, although it’s a bit more than that. It’s about a city girl falling in love with a farmer and leaving her life of New York city sky scrapers, heels and cocktails for a life on the farm and hard graft from morning till night in order to pursue a dream.

It felt particularly relevant with the current focus on self-sufficiency and being green – more and more people are growing vegetables in their gardens or on their allotments, and even moving to set up small-holdings for all the family.

It was refreshingly unsentimental and didn’t really feel like a memoir. It grabbed me from the start with a gorgeous opening where Kimball describes a meal her husband is cooking after a long day on the farm from their own freshly grown produce. It sounded mouth wateringly delicious!

The start of the book explores her decision to give up her freelance writing in NY to move to the countryside and marry a farmer. A typical New Yorker, unused to the countryside, she met her (future) husband when she first went to interview him, turning up in heels and tight jeans and when asked to help out, found herself sinking into the soft soil, sweating under the hot sun and from the work of raking the soil to get rid of the rocks in the ground, ending the day with aching muscles and more than a few blisters.

Kimball breaks the rest of the book up into the search for a farm and their first year. I found it particularly interesting as I didn’t know much about how American farms worked; that they have co-ops where everyone pays an upfront subscription and then collect their vegetable baskets weekly thereafter. A practice that is beginning to come over here. Kimball and her husband wanted to go further than just providing the fruit and veg and wanted to supply all the daily groceries – including meat, milk, bread, herbs and more, and this was part of their challenge setting up their farm.

She goes into just enough detail about the daily operations of the farm and various crises that crop up (some rather large ones too!) to really draw the reader in and keep you invested in the outcome of their somewhat overwhelming undertaking.

It was a really powerful story, dealt with a light touch, humour and refreshing unsentimentally, describing both the rawness and romanticism of farming. The fantastic descriptive phrasing, particularly of some of the meals cooked, makes you want to step off the page. It’s much more than just about the farm, setting it up and making it work.

It’s also a love story – her falling in love with her husband, falling in love with the farm, the land and the very different way of life – and the community it brings. You might think it’s a memoir for those who know farm life or have an interest in it, but it really holds more for those who don’t. It’s a compelling book about transformation and the rewards of hard work and getting back to our roots and pursuing a dream. 

I was completely drawn into this from the first page and loved every minute of it. Simply told as it is, honest and heartfelt, it really grabs you from the very heart and depicts what it is to work hard to achieve a dream.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How To Train Your Author: World Book Day (ish) and Cressida Cowell

It wasn't exactly *on* World Book Day, but it was pretty close. On March 10, Cressida Cowell, author of the "How To Train Your Dragon" series, as well as the brilliant 'Emily Brown' picture books, gave a gripping and hugely energetic talk organised by the Oxford Children's Book Group and Kennington Library.

Cressida is an insanely talented author, and one possessed of a passion and energy that captivated a whole range of ages who packed into Kennington Village Centre to see her. In fact, you imagine that in a different age she would have gone exploring in the Hindu Kush, or hacked her way into the middle of a Borneo rainforest dressed in a smart tweed suit.  
And we found out why. As her child, she was taken once a year - for up to a whole month - to camp on a remote Scottish Island with her family (you can just make it out behind Cressida in the image above). And it was here - with the family left to fend for themselves, catching the weird, wonderful and often frightening sea creatures that sometimes even local fishermen had never seen - that the seeds of the Hiccup stories would take root.

Cressida urged her young audience to write throughout her talk: someone's got to become an author, why not you? Influenced by the books of Peter Pan, and someone who filled notebooks and paper continuously as a girl, there was only one thing she was ever going to do...

She shared secrets of the Dreamworks film, including the mind-boggling seven years it took to turn the book into the finished film (another one is currently in production). She also shared a few secrets about the last ever Hiccup book (which we can't tell you about).

There were plenty of fans who queued up to meet her and get books signed:

Mostly Books was very privileged to be asked to provide the bookshop. And we had plenty of volunteer help, including some younger members of the audience.:
There was a distinct Viking 'feel' to proceedings:
And Cressida was dispensing largesse in the form of Hiccup freebies, reading and writing tips, along with her signature:

Finally, in between a busy schedule, we managed to ask Cressida a few questions...

Five questions with...Cressida Cowell's Writing Life

1.    What are you working on at the moment? 

How to Seize a Dragon’s Jewel (the latest Hiccup adventure) – and a new series that is a secret and I can’t tell you about.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given? 

Read masses. I have always read loads and loads – fantasy, murder mysteries, childrens and adults and just reading is the best writing tip because it helps you to see the way stories are put together. Also – not to be too self-critical.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?

Children are interested in everything, all the really important things in life – all the big things; life, death. So you can write about those, but there are also no obstacles, so if you want magic, you can have magic. The worst is that they grow up on you and you have to write quickly.

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing of snack essential before you can start work? 

With three children you have to be pretty flexible and be able to write no matter what’s going on. I write in a shed at the bottom of the garden and you should see what builders are doing at the bottom of the garden at the moment – it’s decimated. So if I can write through that – it’s amazing what you get used to.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?

It is fantastic to see your first book on the shelf in a real bookshop. But there are so many things that happen along the way it never seems like a breakthrough. It was amazing when Dreamworks made a film of the first book – you never think that is going to happen!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Harold and Maureen and their epic journey of redemption - to Berwick Upon Tweed

We are celebrating World Book Night this year with Abingdon Library at a free event with guest speaker, Rachel Joyce – to which you are invited.

Hotly tipped as being one of the debuts of the year, Rachel Joyce has written a story about a modern day pilgrimage with a very unlikely hero – Harold Fry.

Harold Fry hasn't done anything much since he retired. In fact, looking back, he hasn't ever done very much. So when he sets out to post a letter and ends up deciding to walk over 600 miles to deliver it in person, no-one is more surprised than Harold at his new-found determination.

Fun, thoughtful and touching read where you are always willing Harold to succeed. The journey is less than smooth, but it is also redemptive and a lesson that it is never too late to start again.

Here is what Abingdon Library’s Rosie Tilston has to say about 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry':

I loved this book. I was drawn in from the very beginning, captivated by the idea of a man setting out to save someone’s life by walking the length of England. This he does entirely on impulse; he intended to post the letter to his dying friend not deliver it to her personally!

Like Christian from the John Bunyan classic, Harold Fry introduces the reader to the many fascinating people he meets on his journey and with every step and encounter he unravels the tangle of his life. As we, Harold’s travelling companions, piece together his story and each new revelation draws us further into his world we learn too of his wife, Maureen, waiting at home forced to confront her past also, by her husband’s unexpected departure.

Rachel Joyce has written a “page turner” but it would be important not to dismiss it as only that. Here, difficult issues are handled with a touching sensitivity and the reader is left at the end feeling uplifted, moved and changed by the experience

World Book Night looks set to become an annual national celebration of books – a good excuse for all lovers of good books to unite on a particular evening to swap and recommend favourite books and to find new authors to read.

We are really pleased to be hosting this joint event with Abingdon Library, Transworld and Rachel Joyce to celebrate World Book Night this year.

Tickets are free. There will be refreshments, as well as lots of enthusiasm about books. This event is expected to be very popular so you do need to get a ticket (from Mostly Books or the library) – although tickets are free.

We look forward to hearing what Rachel Joyce has to say about her own writing journey to becoming such a hotly tipped new authors. The event is on Monday 23 April at 7.30pm.

(Until 29 March, listen to Rachel Joyce on Woman's Hour - fast forward to 34 mins and 30 secs...)