Monday, April 30, 2012

Treatment of disposal wives: Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale - review

Kate Summerscale, author of the fabulous and gripping ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’, has published her latest book and turns her attention to another case which scandalised Victorian society.

Kate Summerscale previously uncovered the truth behind a sensational case from one of the very earliest days of professional detectives, now she turns her attention to another area of life where private middle class affairs could be suddenly thrust into the public arena.

A relaxation in the laws of divorce brought a flurry of scandalous cases to the courts in the second half of the nineteenth century as divorce became a possibility for not just the rich, but for the middle and lower classes. 

Enter Isabelle Robinson, lonely and isolated, bored in her marriage to Henry, who was often away on business, and who had a mistress and other children. Not surprisingly, lonely Isabelle became infatuated with a married doctor – and poured all her thoughts and passions into a private diary.

The diary formed the basis of their infamous divorce case, with every detail of her imaginings probed over, to see whether the diary really convicted Isabella of adultery and answered the question ‘Did she or didn’t she?’

But of course this is much more than a salacious story of an intelligent, passionate woman who desperately craves society, kindness, and to be loved –  and her unloving husband who seizes his chance to be rid of her.

The divorce courts became symptomatic of the way women were treated in Victorian Britain, a time when wives were ‘chattels’ – if a wife brought money into the marriage it usually went straight to the husband. Now, with the relaxed divorce laws, all a husband had to prove was infidelity and he could cast off his wife with no further need to provide for her – even if the money was hers in the first place.

Summerscale uses the case to throw a spotlight on just how wretched the role of wife could be in a society that tolerated behaviour in men that in women led not just to disgrace, but to loss of one’s children and all income and wordly goods, often on very little evidence, such as Isabella’s diary. Or in one case evidence that was no more than the witnessing of a few kisses and an arm around her waist.

There are plenty of familiar stories about men’s treatment of wives they no longer wanted –  the ease with which women were declared insane and confined to institutions (leaving husbands to remarry) meant this had been the usual route to dispose of unwanted wives, until divorce became a possibility.

Isabella turned to people she respected for help and this brings another fascinating thread to this story – the perceived threat in Victorian times of a woman’s sexuality.

It is the early days of understanding the mind and Isabelle was advised to plead insanity on the basis that even to have written such thoughts down proved she was insane. 

It is a vivid portrait of an age that treated women scandalously – and deserve to be as widely read and enjoyed as the hugely successful ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’.

Buy securely from Mostly Books now - or reserve and collect from the shop for £3 off the RRP (£13.99):

Friday, April 27, 2012

3 4 Friday: On Two Wheels...and Two Shelves

We've done a bit of 'rearranging' in the shop - and for today's Friday picks we selected three local titles forming part of our walking, cycling and local books. Never mind the weather - just get out there!

Simon Warren's '100 Greatest Cycling Climbs' has been a favourite in the shop since it was of our big Christmas picks at the end of 2010. And now he's back with more! With the publisher's cry of "Longer! Higher! Steeper!" this sequel comes with more ridiculously steep hills that only a cyclist would understand why you would even consider them.

There are monsters hills from the tip of Cornwall to the Highlands of Scotland via East Anglia and the Isle of Man. Roads include Asterton Bank, Gospel Pass, Millook, and the mighty Great Dun Fell...get your lycra on...

If you are getting out with the family, and are looking for some inspirational places to cycle away from the traffic 'Cycling Traffic-free Home Counties' by Nick Cotton contains lots of inspirational places in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and beyond.

It's particularly good value for our neck of the woods as it looks at paths around Oxford and along the Kennet and Avon Canal.

And finally, if you you just want to get out, with or without the bike, and enjoy the rather special place we live in, we heartily recommend "52 Things To Do far from the madding beaches". Produced locally and confirming what delights lie on our own doorstep, we've got a special review of this book on its own page here...

52 things to do...far from the madding beaches

Mostly Books is a bookshop in Abingdon (or rather, Abingdon-on-Thames, as it says on our carrier bags). It sits in the Vale of the White Horse, a particularly beautiful and tranquil part of England - and to celebrate, a book has been published which shows us just what a special place it is.

From the opening of the book: "The Vale of White Horse is an ancient place steeped in both history & legend. It was where The Hobbit & Lord of the Rings were dreamed, where the Moles of Duncton Wood wandered...But it is a thriving place with communities, with innovative hi-tech companies discovering and making things that might be better understood by the Ancient Gods at the Wayland Smithy than by us: mere mortals."

The book was put together as a result of a whole host of organisations coming together in the vale: chamber of commerce groups (including Abingdon Chamber of Commerce), the Choose Abingdon partnership and the Vale of the White Horse District Council. It grew out of a desire to celebrate our local area. The pages comprise a mixture of scenes, photos and descriptions that have inspired or intrigued individuals living in the Vale. The beautiful images are a simple balance of amateur photography and artistic interpretation. They all capture a particular time or place important to the contributor.

Initial contributions came through a local competition organised by the contributing groups , with over 300 entries submitted. The winning entries are identified in the opening pages. The idea was to create a publication that would encourage the reader to get out and about, to do one thing each week and to explore what the Vale has to offer.

The book is beautifully produced, and - with our parenting hats on - can confirm that provides plenty of excellent inspiration for getting out to local towns and villages, and doing something fun, local and things which are definitely good for the soul.

We have copies in the shop - so come in and take a look. It retails for £9.99 - or you can order a copy securely using PayPal and have us mail it anywhere in the UK for £12...

Purchase a copy from Mostly Books:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Unrest by Michelle Harrison - unsettling, unnerving...and coming to Abingdon

When I was a teenager I loved ghost stories, and the scarier the better. As well as lots of 'true life' ghost books (Reader's Digest Book of the Unknown is one that springs to mind) I devoured every collection of ghost stories I could get my hands on, and this rich diet of the undead brought me to the attention of my English teacher, who - after a harmless walk around the school ended up with me describing trees as 'twisted victims of Satan' - wrote 'See Me' in big red pen, and at that point we both decided to 'widen' my range of reading...

Anyway - a chilling, well-written ghost story for teens is always welcome at Mostly Books, and Unrest by Michelle Harrison is simply superb. We know Michelle very well for her '13 Treasures' series of books, which are written for slightly younger readers. There are plenty of scares and shocks in these 'dark fairy' books which served as a kind of reboot of the fairy genre - but in Unrest, Michelle has gone off into much darker territory, entirely appropriate for an older audience - one that would have grown up on Michelle's twisted fairies...

Unrest is the story of Elliot, a seventeen-year-old who feels and sees strange things when he falls asleep. His doctor tells him it is sleep paralysis and hallucinations as a result of an accident but Elliot thinks he is leaving his body when he sleeps - and also seeing a ghost. In pursuit of the truth, Elliot gets a job at the (supposedly) haunted museum, where he meets not only the enigmatic Ophelia, but also someone (or something) far more sinister. Elliot begins to suspect it is the ghost of a boy who died 100 years before, and as events take an increasing horrifying turn, there is a race to discover the truth.

Julia at Mostly Books read this as soon as the proof came in, in a single sitting. She said "this is a genuinely chilling and totally gripping ghost story, and - with Elliot's nightitime experiences and visions - it shares elements of, say, The Sixth Sense in terms of the atmosphere it creates. There's a particularly scary night-time sleepwalking scene that is *definitely* not for the faint-hearted, the book grips (and shocks) from the start, and doesn't really let you you go to the gruesome (and very unexpected) twist at the end. I loved it".

So - how chuffed are we that we are welcoming Michelle to Abingdon next Friday (May 4) and taking her into two Abingdon schools? First up is a joint event with Larkmead School and St Helen & St Katharine at midday, then onto John Mason School in the afternoon.

Having been a editorial assistant in children's publishing, and even a bookseller (how cool is that?) Michelle now writes full time and lives in Oxfordshire.

If you are lucky enough to hear her talk, you'll be able to get copies of her book - and get them signed - on the day. But if not, we will have signed copies, and you can pre-order them from us at the shop...

And if you would still like to know more about Michelle and the book, take a look at the trailer...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

World Book Night 2012: The Unlikely Writing Journey of Rachel Joyce

On World Book Night - an evening of bookish celebration around the country - Abingdon Library was packed to welcome debut novelist Rachel Joyce, author of 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry'. The event was the culmination of the 'Oxfordshire World Book Night Read', put together with the energy and enthusiasm of Oxfordshire librarians and publisher Transworld.

The idea was simple: reading groups around Oxfordshire received proof copies to read and discuss ahead of the event, and other Oxfordshire libraries hosted book events on the night too with a variety of authors. It seems to have been a great success.


We've loved recommending 'Harold' in the shop (although the title sometimes morphs into the author's own name: we have described it variously as 'Harold Joyce', or 'Rachel Fry', or some other mash-up. Having met the author now, this may become worse). It's one of those perfect books (for us) that appeals to a wide range of readers, but has real emotional depth and ensures Harold stays in the mind for a long time after the book ends.

The physical book itself is very desirable: Transworld have produced a gorgeous hardback, particularly in its choice of understated yet pitch-perfect illustrations at the start of each chapter. (There were appreciative comments on this from the audience).

Rachel has the endearing quality that I think the best writers have of seeming slightly bemused about all the fuss, as though she looked up from writing one day and realised all these people were there wanting to discuss it. Fittingly for a book about a compelling journey, her own route to published author was both fascinating and revealing.

Rachel's background is writing for radio, and has been hugely successful in that field (you can read her impressive radio CV here). She described how writing for radio requires skills honed for telling a story in 7,000 words, and the need for 'hooks' when writing over several episodes (and much bigger hooks if episodes run over the weekend!). Again, as with the best writers, there's a feeling of a long apprenticeship, and so no surprise perhaps that a debut should feel so assured.

Neither is it surprising that 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' grew out of a radio play, one written initially after her own father was diagnosed with cancer. The initial motivation was, she felt, to try to keep her father alive, and though he never saw the book, it is more poignant when, at the start of the novel, when Harold resolves to walk to where an old friend, Queenie, lies dying, he writes "I will keep walking, and you must keep living."


Rachel described the act of writing as something she has to do, and despite plenty of obstacles to this (four children, 'nuff said) she described writing as "knitting in your head". This 'knitting' gets done wherever convenient (even in at the cinema whilst on chaperoning duties) and it seems her family also keep her on the straight and narrow, with her husband intervening when trips to research the route threatened to get out of hand ("you're writing fiction, not a travelogue!").

(Following on from learning a little about how Frank Cottrell-Boyce writes, maybe a chaotic household should be seen as a pre-requisite for writers?)

Rachel spoke quietly - but passionately - about her love of the countryside, a plea for map-reading (as opposed to sat-navs) and how these passions end up woven into the books.

We were delighted to be involved, it was a wonderful evening, and again shows the magic that can happen when bookshops and libraries come together - particularly to celebrate such a splendid book with a delightful author.

Kudos to the library staff who came out in force (and had to stand at the back) but mostly to Alison Barrow from Transworld who chaired the evening so brilliantly, and Rachel herself - go Harold!

We have signed copies of 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' at Mostly Books. Buy a copy through PayPal and have it delivered post-free within the UK here:

Purchase a copy from Mostly Books:

Alternatively, reserve a copy in-store for collection on 01235 525880
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Monday, April 23, 2012


This weekend, Mostly Books was very pleased to provide the bookshop for the Abingdon Quilting Groups Exhibition. I think the bookshop was much improved with the splendid quilting background it was given by the organisers...
We were also very pleased to sponsor the Spectator's Choice Prize - which Anna Christiansen won with a beautiful Japanesey quilt in black, white and red which was very dramatic:

This evening it is World Book Night, and if you are a giver (or even a receiver!) around the country, ignore the rain, and enjoy a night of bookish pleasures. We will be looking forward to meeting Rachel Joyce at our joint event in Abingdon Library later...

Friday, April 20, 2012

3 4 Friday: Woodlice, Wartime Paris and Winterson

(Every Friday, in time for the weekend, we pick three books to humbly suggest for your reading pleasure. Look out for them when browsing in a bookshop over the weekend. Our '3 4 Friday' books can be found by popping into Mostly Books of course...)

Jeanette Winterson's moving memoir 'Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal' is new out in paperback. It is short, powerful, distressing (although at times very, very funny), and compelling. Having recently opened a shop in Spitalfields Market, Jeanette is setting up a one-woman campaign for real food. She has lived a life very differently, is one of our most original writers, but be prepared for an emotional journey...

The Orange Prize for Fiction was published this week, and chair Joanna Trollope and her fellow judges have selected what we feel is a really strong list. Amongst the well-known names of Ann Patchett and Anne Enright, and the remarkable 84 year old American novelist Cynthia Ozick we recommend 'Half Blood Blues' by Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan, a gripping wartime tale of three black jazz musicians caught in wartime Paris.

Also writing on a wartime theme is the wonderful Georgina Harding - the only British writer on the list and author of 'The Solitude of Thomas Cave'. Well-deserved on the list with 'Painter of Silence', this is a compelling story of loss and hope, set in Romania, and considering the effects of war on ordinary people.

Finally, if you *do* break out of the house this weekend with the children, 'Wild Things to do with Woodlice' by Michael Cox is a brilliant little book by the RSPB with tons of ideas for wacky nature activities for children. From making a bee box, taking great garden snaps that look like the jungle - to the infamous woodlouse Lego maze (seriously!) this is total fun...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The benefits of a life of crime

For someone who has had more than twenty years to get used to the fact that he’s one of the nation’s best-known and best-selling crime writers, Colin Dexter still has the air of someone who is slightly taken aback by all this fortune and fame.
In an evening where we were exceptionally honoured to be able to welcome him to St Helen’s and St Katharine, Abingdon, on March 20, Colin Dexter said he still thinks of himself as a school teacher (which he was for many years) rather than a writer (and be warned, because if you write him a letter, it sounds as if it is very likely to get marked). 
His great storytelling abilities meant he managed to make all present feel he was having a personal conversation in their front room – all 200 of those present – as he shared some of the journeys life has taken him on since the incredible worldwide success of the Inspector Morse television series, which was based on his books.
Whether appearing in cameos in the television series, working on set with the likes of Anthony Minghella and John Thaw, to receiving letters asking for his assistance in matters urgent and small, Colin Dexter manages to make it sound as if life has been very good to him and really rather jolly good fun.
From the inspiration of Oxford, the wonders of the Ashmolean, to the muse in a bottle of scotch, he also manages to make it sound as if writing his intriguing and compelling mysteries has been pretty effortless – and also pretty good fun.
He wrote the first when bored on a wet family holiday in Wales and went on to write 13 Inspector Morse books, which was expanded in more than 30 episodes of the popular television series, plus the spin-off series ‘Lewis’ and the programme ‘Endeavour’. The success of the television series - and their establishment as a cultural institution - continue to bring people to Oxford to visit the scenes of the crimes.
He has received several Crime Writers' Association awards: two Silver Daggers for Service of All the Dead in 1979 and The Dead of Jericho in 1981; two Gold Daggers for The Wench is Dead in 1989 and The Way Through the Woods in 1992; and a Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement in 1997.
And as well as Oxford making a permanent mark on his books, his books have also made a permanent mark on Oxford. For example a bar in The Randolph Hotel (both a landmark in Oxford and a place Morse would often head for a pint) has been renamed The Morse Bar.
The evening finished with plenty of questions for one of our best-known local celebrities, and an audience eager for the chance to get to the bottom of some of the intriguing elements of Inspector Morse’s character.
And there was even time to offer a few tips for writers – Colin Dexter said his best advice is to just get it written, because from then it can always be improved, and to expect that first draft to be pretty awful, but not to let that put you off.
It was a thoroughly convivial evening, and an inspiration of just how unexpected life can be from the roots of writing a simple detective story when on a wet holiday in Wales.

Secret theatrical life on the farm

There’s a mix of schoolgirl acting ambition, disappointments of first love, and a bit of lost family treasure at the heart of ‘The Secret Hen House Theatre’ by Helen Peters, a delightful nostalgic tale and a nod at classic favourites such as ‘The Swish of the Curtain’ and the Noel Streatfeild ‘shoes’ stories.
But there is also plenty of modern-day edge running through the story of a schoolgirl wrapped up in her own thoughts and slowly waking up to some of the harsh economic realities of just how hard it is sometimes for parents to pay the bills.
Hannah is busy being interested in a boy at school and persuading her friend, Lottie, to put the play on at the farm (even though Lottie hates mud so much, Hannah sometimes has to carry her through it), and she is oblivious to the fact that the farm is not thriving.
Clayhill Farm is set in glorious Sussex countryside, and covers s enough acres for everyone to have completely forgotten a building substantial enough to stage a play. But at the start of the book. nobody cares very much about the farm.
Hannah only dreams of being an actress (like her mum, who died), and sneaks off to write poetry and plays, leaving her three siblings to help Dad (not an expert farmer or a businessman) with all the work.
But Dad has lost heart and would rather be taking the day off to show his antique tractor ‘if dad ever got anything mended, Hannah thought, he wouldn’t have to use his children as fences’.
Hannah fuels her ambition to be an actress and playwright and secretly enters her play for a local competition and stages it in her hen house, not thinking through any of the consequences of inviting members of the public (and non-farming folk) onto the farm – with truly catastrophic results.
She learns that her actions are only the final straw in a long decline, and she finally starts to wake up to what is truly important. Hannah realises that the farm has never made money and where all the funds have been coming from to keep it going – and now it looks like they will have to sell up, she finally realises how much it means to her. But will it all be too late?
When she focuses her attention on getting her family to pull together and help her father, everything starts to improve.
One of the strengths of the story is how unsentimental it is and it is not surprising to learn that the author herself grew up on a farm.
It’s a fun story with plenty of action, unexpected events and humour – vengeful schoolfriends, the inevitable competition disasters, arson – and it even all ends up with a big finish at Sothebys.
But there is also a subtle backstory that underpins all the action that it was Hannah’s mother that held everything together, who loved the farm more than acting, and without her the soul of the farm has gone too, making this story enjoyable on many levels.