Friday, February 22, 2013

3 4 Friday: Three characters coming of age...or becoming someone else

Coming-of-age or becoming someone else? We've selected three very different books today - but they are connected in two important ways: they all feature brilliantly realised (though totally different) main characters on a profound journey of change...and they are all books that we have loved.

In 'Land of Decoration' by Grace McCleen, ten year old Judith McPherson lives with her father. They belong to a devoutly religious group who tour the local area, searching for souls to save rather like door-to-door salesmen trying to sell Armageddon.

Judith’s life might be narrow and confining – full of Necessary Things, like pondering God’s will, eating bitter greens and being the grateful object of the congregation’s knitting enthusiasts. But Judith lives in a land of her imagination and constantly combs the ground for scraps of rubbish she can take home and craft into the Land of Decoration, which fills her room at home as well as her mind.

But when bullying at school reaches worrying levels, Judith begins a dialogue with God, asking God why he doesn't do anything about it - with unexpected consequences when God appears to step in leading Judith to believe she is responsible for a miracle that saves her.

'Miracles don't have to be big and they can happen in the unlikeliest of places. Sometimes they are so small people don't notice them; sometimes miracles are shy. They brush against your sleeve, they settle on your eyelashes. they wait for you to notice, then melt into air. Lots of things start by being small. It's a good way to begin because no one takes any notice; you're just a little ting beetling along. Then you grow.’

At first she feels she is gaining control of events and her life. Even a new teacher, Mrs Pierce, seems to signal that her life is about to turn around. But no actions are without consequences. Quickly events spiral beyond her. After all, if you step in to save one person, who else might be affected? As God says to her, in an increasingly bitter dialogue, who would want to be God?

Full of philosophical questioning, full of remarkable insights and description. We are drawn into Judith’s world – a world in which she is never judgemental, yet she has such perceptive eyes we are able to see exactly the terrible poverty that surrounds her and the deep grief of her father. But also her intelligence and humour and mental strength all shine through, making for an emotionally satisfying novel.

This was our first book group choice of the year and one that received a rare universal thumbs up. Not an easy read, but at the same time manages to be utterly engrossing and satisfying and absolutely brilliant.

Often with debut authors you don’t expect to discover such a well-crafted and well-rounded novel with such a freshness that is maintained throughout. A well-depicted world with believable characters and a gripping sense of crisis growing and is compelling in the way it can move from humour to disaster in a moment.

Author Grace McCleen, despite having been selected by several prizes for debut authors says this will be her one and only book. Apparently heavily autobiographical, it might be difficult for her to repeat this feat. But we all hope she changes her mind and does another.

Frances Thorpe on the other hand is a whole different character in the gripping psychological thriller 'Alys Always' by Harriet Lane.

Described by one reviewer as being "controlling and emotionally deficient", Frances - a newspaper subeditor - is on her way back to London one night, when she comes across a car crash. Pulling over to help she waits with the lady who's trapped in the car, Alys Kyte, until the ambulance arrives. This encounter is a chance for Frances to change her current existence as just one more drone in the the production process of the magazine she works for, and she won't let it slip by...

This is how Ellie found the book:

"This is a gripping, slim read with a really intriguing character. At first Frances appears boring and vulnerable but changes before our eyes and shows just how resourceful she really is. The writing is spot on and Harriet Lane is perfect at knowing what to leave out and how to tantalise. Suspenseful and utterly believable, with a slight chilling undertone, this is a fantastic read that reels the reader in."

Finally, one of Nicki's favourite books from last year - Carol Rifka Brunt's 'Tell the Wolves I'm Home' - is new out in paperback.

When June’s uncle, a renowned painter, dies, she isn’t prepared for all the family secrets that begin to emerge in this really engrossing, emotional coming-of-age tale. The small intricacies of growing up are beautifully invoked in this story of love and loss and how finding that simple closeness you shared as children doesn’t always come easy when you leave childhood behind. A fantastic debut that adults or teens might enjoy.

(Read Nicki's full hardback review here)

All three of these titles are in the shop now. And of course, all of us are very happy to recommend you something to read for the week ahead...

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Becoming a Writer - Katherine Langrish's journey into the future

It was William Faulkner who advised "read, read, read...then write". But when Katherine Langrish was a girl, and having read everything that CS Lewis had written, she discovered that CS Lewis - unfortunately - was unlikely to write much more (on account of being dead) and decided to take matters into her own hands...

The result - her own Chronicle of Narnia - was an early, pre-Internet form of fan fiction, and one loving produced in a hardback book complete with illustrations and designs. It was the start of Katherine's journey to becoming an author, one revealed in front of members of the Oxford Children's Book Group on Tuesday evening in Boar's Hill.

As her journey progressed - through E Nesbit, Alan Garner (who she has been rightly compared to) and Walter de la Mare - so did her writing. After initial rejections ("I gave up submitting almost immediately") she took up oral storytelling during time spent in the United States - and arrived back in England stiffened and 'full up' with the stronger Grimm's Fairy Tales, such as The Juniper Tree - with the result that she started writing again in earnest, leading to the creation and publication of the critically acclaimed 'Troll Fell' series.

More recently she has written 'Dark Angels' and 'Forsaken', a retelling of the Matthew Arnold poem 'The Forsaken Merman' told from the point of view of one of the daughters - and based on discoveries she made whilst researching the Scandinavian folk origins that almost certainly inspired Arnold's poem.

Katherine revealed the 'chill running down her neck' when she encounters an idea or inspiration to write - and her discovery of a copy of Sintram and his Companions in Barter Books (a hugely popular and much-praised book from the 1820s, one read by Jo in 'Little Women') led to the seeds of an idea and her current book (see our interview with Katherine below) albeit one set almost as far into the future as 'Sintram' was in the past... 

Being able to listen to the opening prologue of an unpublished book is a real thrill for anyone interested in the genesis of a book, particularly when told by someone like Katherine and her storytelling pedigree.

You'll need to wait until the book is published to discover much more about it (and I really hope 'Gog and Magog' make it through the bruising publishing process) but in the meantime we were able to ask Katherine five questions and shine some further light onto her life as an author.

Five questions with...Katherine Langrish's Writing Life

1. What are you working on at the moment?
A post-apocalyptic fantasy with SF elements set in a future, ring-fenced flooded London - full of gangs, drug-dealers and religious maniacs!

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

3. What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The best: children are such adventurous readers, nothing fazes them and they come with you wherever you take them. The worst? there isn't really a worst...

4. Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work? A bit like Virginia Woolf, I need a room of my own with a door you can shut. My room is surrounded with reference books, maps...and no music, I need quiet.

5. What was your biggest breakthrough? Troll Fell, it was a phenomenal success for me. It went to auction...which, actually, was down to my brilliant agent, so I guess my breakthrough was getting her!

(In 2011 all three books in the 'Troll Fell' series were reissued, abridged by the author, as 'West of The Moon'.

Read our interview with Katherine about the book, her favourite authors, 'beheading' schoolchildren...and Granny Greenteeth...)

Friday, February 15, 2013

3 4 Friday: Stories, Spice and the return of 'Mostly Bookbrains'

This Friday, we have three rather wonderful events to tell you about - starting with the return of our now famous (some might say infamous) 'Mostly Bookbrains' Quiz.

Yes, it's time for all your wonderful book knowledge to be put to the test, as we once again invite you to take part - either as a team, or individually - on Friday April 19.

Kick-off is at 7.30pm sharp. Teams should be a maximum of eight people – but if you’re not on a team, do come and join in the fun anyway and we’ll find you a team to join on the night. A huge thank you is due once again to The Manor School in Abingdon for providing us with a venue, and also to the wonderful Annabel Gaskell, who will again be setting the questions and running the quiz. Tickets are £5 per person.

If you’ve not been before, it’s a really fun evening, all for charity, with questions on every possible book topic you can think of. We are delighted that several teams of book groups, book crossers, librarians and writers have battled it out in the past – anyone who enjoys reading will find it a fun and informative evening! Email us to reserve a place for you or your team.
On Saturday, March 2nd, join artist, writer and filmmaker Ted Dewan and friends Bill Heine, illustrator Korky Paul, Michael Smith, 'Joshua Files' author MG Harris, artist Weimin He and other famous and local authors at a fabulous Cabaret-style evening dinner in aid of The Friends of Kennington Library. Tickets to 'The Story and Spice Gala Night' cost £13.50 and include a three-course meal. More information here - tickets are available from Kennington Library or can be booked by emailing the library directly. Mostly Books will be there on the night with a bookshop...

Finally, we have a special offer on theatre tickets to see The Gobo Theatre Foundation (Oxfordshire’s newest professional theatre company) perform 'Alice' by Laura Wade at the Unicorn Theatre, Abingdon, between 20th and 23rd February.

This modern adaptation of Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland' follows Alice into the barking mad Wonderland where she encounters a whole host of wacky characters who, in their own special ways, help her come to terms with the death of her brother. Comedy, tragedy, song, dance and lightning costume changes combine in a highly entertaining and thought provoking production.

Tickets usually cost £10 (£8 concessions), but readers of this newsletter can receive a £2 per ticket discount if you mention that you have seen this offer. The offer applies to tickets purchased on the door. For more information visit – enjoy the show!

Monday, February 11, 2013

"You only enter a dark room if you think you can light the way out": Alan Gibbons at the Abingdon Joint Schools Author Event 2013

Last year it was The 2 Steves. Before that it was Julia Golding and in 2010 Marcus Sedgwick. This year over 400 children from five Abingdon secondary schools came together to welcome Alan Gibbons for the annual Abingdon Joint Schools Author Event - easily one of the highlights of our school's event year.

Officially, Alan Gibbons is 'a Blue Peter Award-Winning Children's Author'. Unofficially he's a hyperactive bundle of subversive ideas and creative energy who by turns gripped and entertained his audience over two sessions last Thursday. Those lucky enough to be on the end of his fizzing, rapid-fire romp through his writing life didn't just discover about his books - they got tips on a whole host of important life lessons, ranging from what to read and why, to the correct application of foundation, and 'where to put your nose when kissing'.
Alan is the author of over fifty books, and he has been unafraid to tackle often dark and disturbing themes which at times makes his writing challenging - but he's such a natural and optimistic storyteller that readers inevitably emerge on the other side of his books, changed - but full of hope.

Alan was talking about his latest title - 'An Act of Love' - but he also took students through other books he has written. He estimates he does nearly 200 school events a year, not just in the UK, but around the world.

He won the Blue Peter Award in 2000, and if you had to draw up a more intimidating list of authors to have been against, then I challenge you to pick a line-up better than Jacqueline Wilson, JK Rowling, Michael Morpurgo and David Almond (a sort of 'Real Madrid' of children's authors if you like).

As an ex-teacher (and one with some serious firebrand pedigree – he once jumped up on stage, grabbed the microphone from Keith Joseph and was ‘helped’ offstage by security) he’s both vociferous and uncompromising when it comes to children and learning. Believing that children shouldn't do comprehension ("children should read 'Of Mice and Men' for example, then write what they think as a result, with no rules...and that’s it") he nevertheless had a great tip for any budding writer to improve their writing.
With a book that you like, where you respect and admire the author, take a chapter that you particularly liked and read it through again very carefully. Try to tease out those elements which work well. Learn from the masters...

His own recommendations of classic children's literature included 'Emil and the Detectives', 'Treasure Island', 'Danny, The Champion of the World' to 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Jane Eyre'.

There were some great questions from the audience, including "How old were you when you first started writing?" (37), "How many books have you written?" (53) and "If you had a hamster, what would it be called?" (Darth). My personal favourite – which character in literature would you have wanted to have been. The answer: Rochester from Jane Eyre ("gets to marry Jane Eyre") but not Heathcliff ("far too destructive").

He signed books after both sessions, and we naturally tried to pin him down with five questions about his writing life...
Five questions with...Alan Gibbons' Writing Life

1.    What are you working on at the moment? 

My next book is called 'Raining Fire', it's now written and is going to be published on March 7th. It's about gun crime and gangs in the North of England. The book I'm currently working on is 'Hate Crime' which is a novelisation of the real-life murder of Sophie Lancaster, killed for wearing alternative clothing. However, I'm already planning my next novel, and (although my publisher doesn't know it yet!) it's an alien invasion story which is an allegory of the war in Iraq. So I'm keeping busy, writing lots of stuff really.

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

Do it a lot! You learn to write by writing, and also making mistakes.

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

The best thing about writing for children is that most kids are charming, and therefore school visits are the absolute highlight of my writing life. The worst thing is that there are not that many kids around, so you don't get as many sales. But that's not a problem, I love what I do and I'm totally committed to children's education and literacy.

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

No, not really. I write anywhere, I'm a complete writing traveller. Give me a laptop, I'll write anywhere, hotel rooms, on the stairs...

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?

'Shadow of the Minotaur' which won the Blue Peter Book of the Year. Winning that award, when I was up against Michael Morpurgo, JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson and David Almond it was (laughs)...I still don't know quite how it happened. That book went on to sell 100,000 copies, more than all my other books put together at the time...

Friday, February 08, 2013

What's wrong with Peace, Love and Potatoes? Ten picks for (quirky and different) Valentine's Day Reading

If, like us, you think a book would make the perfect Valentine’s Day gift, then check out our list of favourite slushy (and a few not-so-slushy) reads.

You can’t go wrong with poetry as a gift and how could you go wrong with a poet who can find inspiration in anything from a Dalek to a potato? ‘Peace, Love & Potatoes’ is by John Hegley, surely Britain’s favourite comic comedian and a true original. The grandmother's loving albeit critical appraisal of a young grandchild's drawings is a comedy classic, and of course we have very fond memories of when John performed in our garden a couple of years ago...

One of Nicki’s favourite uplifting reads has been ‘The Cleaner of Chartres’ by Salley Vickers, a contemporary story about a cleaner who arrives unexpectedly in a French town and the lives she touches.

Mild Agnes has a secret past and when she falls foul of the town’s worst gossip, the life she had fought so long to leave behind her starts to catch up. Themes such as faith and love produce a heartwarming story about good intentions gone wrong and second chances. A lovely indulgent read.

'Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather' by Pierre Szalowski is a feelgood read that one of our booksellers, Bailey, says she will read again and again.

When a young boy’s parents break up he looks to the skies to
help. That night a terrible ice storm occurs in Canada causing chaos as power fails and supplies become scarce. ‘Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather’ captures a community in times of trouble and tests the theory that we do not determine the path of our lives, it is the people that cross our paths that do.

If something a little more nostalgic is just the thing ‘The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp’ by Eva Rice is a swinging tale of a naive vicar’s daughter who gets on the giddy path of stardom.

Set in fifties Britain, rock'n' roll is sweeping away the old, even in the depths of Cornwall where sisters Tara and Lucy live, part of a big family in a rambling parsonage. But when both girls are given a chance to try their luck in London will it be Tara with the voice or beautiful Lucy who have the world at their feet?  A fabulously nostalgic feelgood novel.

If you prefer lyrical writing to happy endings ‘Orkney’ by Amy Sackville is the love story about a literature professor who can’t quite believe he has captured the heart of his beautiful student. Set on their honeymoon, he can’t shake the feelings that he simply won’t be able to keep her.

A blend of storytelling that bleeds into fantasy it’s a small gift of a novel (and a beautiful cover too).

The true-life love story told in ‘Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets‘ by Jessica Fox is full of fun moments in this fish-out-of-water memoir about a 26-year-old Californian who craves a change of scene to mend a broken heart.

When she finds herself in a town of just 1000 people on the west coast of Scotland it’s a cue to revel in gorgeous scenery, old castles and fresh air where pool parties with bikini-clad actresses are about as likely as traffic jams and smog.

She surprises the locals with her jogging, dislike of BBC radio and her request for 'matzo meal' at the Co-op. Will she be able to survive the culture shock or the Wigtown version of a bikini wax? Will the locals survive her introducing a talent show into their local literary festival? Will she be able to make sense of her dour Scottish host? And will it just be the scenery she falls in love with? A dreamy tale of unexpected adventures in the unlikeliest of places.

John O’Farrell is a master of comic writing and in his latest ‘The Man Who Forgot His Wife’ he turns his attentions to romance.

Losing his memory is a great starting point for Vaughan to re-evaluate his life as he can’t remember any of it. What could have ended up as a series of run-of-the-mill vignettes about blokes and relationships is actually a very romantic read. It’s a tribute to John O’Farrell’s skills as one of our finest comic writers, pulling off a genuinely laugh-out-loud funny book that nevertheless has real emotional depth about issues of men, middle age, and how marriages need to be worked at.

Julia has an unusual Valentine's recommend this year - involving, er, zombies. 'Warm Bodies' by Isaac Marion was a word-of-mouth hit when published in 2011, and made it onto the big screen just last week. Obviously, you need to be up for reading about zombies in the first place (i.e. undead creatures roaming around, general mayhem, eating people, etc.) but this story takes that premise and gives it an almighty (and very endearing) twist that serves to emphasise the important things that make us human. I won't go into the gory details here, but when 'R' (a zombie) kills Perry (a human) he starts to develop feelings for a girl Perry loved called Julia, saves her from being eaten by his fellow zombies and things start to change...

And for another brilliantly original twist on the romance novel - this time for teens - take a look at 'Neptune's Tears' by Susan Waggoner. Shortlisted for this year's Romantic Novel of the Year - Young Adult Romance Novel (part of the RoNAs), this takes a cracking romantic tale, placed smack-bang in the middle of a 23rd century dystopian future. And it really works.

Angelmaker’ by Nick Harkaway doesn’t have many romantic moments, but as we said at the start, not everyone wants a slushy read for Valentine’s Day. It is, however, a cracking technothriller, jumping between our time and world war two, which plays with ideas of technology, time, consciousness and what it means to be human.

There's also a very nasty baddy who is attempting immortality - and a kick-ass, nonagenarian superspy called Edie who may have accidentally triggered a 1950s doomsday machine. It was one of Mark's favourites from 2012 - and it has a huge chunk of good old-fashioned romance woven into the frenetic and gripping denouement... 

And this year we are delighted to be offering once again our tie-in treat with Fabulous Flowers. If you spend £25 on books this Valentine’s Day we will present you with a simply divine, finest long-stemmed red rose to give to the person of your choosing.

As ever, if you want recommendations we would be delighted to help – send us an email if you’ll find it difficult to come in yourself – or send us a tweet - and we’ll do our very best to come up with a top read for you.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Spare me the happy endings

It’s more than I can resist to pass on the 200th anniversary of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ without taking the opportunity for a list of ‘romances most likely to stand the test of time’.

The first one is easy, because EM Forster’s ‘A Room with a View’ has long been a favourite of mine, particularly romantic because of its glorious Italian setting and as it’s survived its first 100 years of being in print, I can’t see it being any less readable in the next 100 years.

On return from a tour of Italy, Lucy Honeychurch gets engaged to the divine Cecil – a handsome man with a strong social position who offers both elevation and education. But fate throws her back into the path of George, whom she first met in Italy – a young man less hung up on social convention.

George works on the railways and he once stole a passionate kiss from Lucy on a picnic in Italy – a kiss that reverberates throughout the book, because it’s set in 1908 and passionate kisses are strictly off-limits.

Lucy must choose between George, with his modern outlook and attitudes, and the traditional desirable husband material in Cecil. There are great scenes of Italy, plenty of comic characters and it is a great ‘looking backwards and looking forwards’ novel that epitomises the changes happening at the turn of last century. And, of course there is That Kiss. Ahh.

Another fantastically romantic story to stand the test of time is Graham Greene’s ‘The End of the Affair’, a tautly told tale of Maurice Bendrix, who by chance, encounters the former lover he never got over. His determination to find out why she broke off their affair becomes an obsession, even hiring a private detective.

Of course what he discovers is not at all what he expected but is very Greene-esque. The scenes that have stayed with me are not of the ones between Bendrix and his lover, but between Bendrix and his lover’s husband – the man Bendrix once felt triumphant over becomes the only man he feels comfortable spending time with as their share the fact of having both lost her. Gloriously tragic.

Further terrific heart-wrenching is to be found in another classic, Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, where the lovers defy all social convention and with no hope of going back, sacrifice everything just to be together. Deeply romantic. But this is Russia – will Anna’s love for her dashing count be enough to withstand their exiled existence and impending war? Or will it all end horribly under a train?

If, like me, you think there is possibly nothing so romantic as a doomed romance with everyone sacrificing everything to be with the one you love then more recently there is Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’. Probably perfect. Never has the deep love of two people led to such a chain reaction of disaster and death. I was traumatised for at least a week after reading it.

We can't forget ‘Wuthering Heights’ – we are all doomed to madness and death. Terrific stuff that has also withstood the test of time.

But it doesn’t all have to be deep tragedy to be lasting. Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture the Castle’ is possibly best described as a bittersweet romance than a totally doomed one. It’s a fantastically fun tale of two impoverished sisters living in a dilapidated castle. When handsome, rich American heirs arrive the sisters make ridiculous mistakes trying to make a good impression and finding their feet with first romance.

The moment where one character has eloped with her man and throws open the window of the hotel and sings through pure joy is magical. But the one where a proposal of marriage is turned down because the man doesn’t love her in the wholehearted way she loves him is heartrending and show-stopping. Beautifully sad.

Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ also makes it onto my list. When a young paid companion is whisked away to the terribly glamorous world of Max de Winter her happiness is slowly but devastatingly undermined by the combination of his impossibly perfect first wife who died in tragic circumstance, and the fact that her memory is kept alive by the terrifying housekeeper, Mrs Danvers.

This is one of my favourite books – the way you are obligingly led to view everything in a certain way and the gradual realisation of what the story is really about, I found totally irresistible. One I just turned over and started again the moment I’d finished it.

I love all of Austen, probably because her heroines are all doomed to be architects of their own misfortune. Whether for your own amusement you help a young girl to be more marriageable only to find she’s about to steal the one you want for yourself, to accusing your beloved’s father of murdering his wife, her heroes all have to learn to love their heroines flaws and all. And such great flaws.

Almost the whole of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ appears to be about a doomed romance. It's edge-of-the-seat stuff because every time you read that book you are barely able to believe Darcy and Elizabeth will ever get together. 

The author sets up so many obstacles against their happiness – their dislike of each other, her awful family, his pride, her sister marrying his worst enemy, his role in destroying her sister’s happiness, his family’s stifling opposition against his marrying beneath him etc etc. It’s undoubtedly the eleventh-hour incredible turnaround of both character and circumstance that makes this such a popular and enduring story.

Is ‘Persuasion’ possibly even more romantic? Again, the social restrictions of the time that give this its poignancy and romance that are more difficult to recreate in a modern romance. When Captain Wentworth appears on the social scene, rich, heroic and successful there is flurry of womanly interest. But it breaks the heart of Anne, who followed her family’s advice years before and rejected his offer of marriage.

One of the most romantic scenes ever surely has to be where they are finally in the same room together and she is desperately trying to communicate that she still loves him, but they cannot talk, he can only sit in a corner and pour his heart out in a letter. Glorious stuff.You just wouldn’t get that today. 

If it is much easier to choose ‘romances most likely to stand the test of time’ from ones that have not only been in print for a good few years, but are set in times when there were far more reasons to keep the hero and heroine apart - where does that leave the romances of today?

Jefferey Eugenides ‘The Marriage Plot’ is a wonderful dissection of romance in the modern world. Set in the eighties its heroine is Madeleine, a scholar studying the romantic plots of classic English literature while also trying to navigate love in her own life. It’s not so much a romance as about the current state of romance. If choice is becoming limitless, then the biggest challenge is knowing what you want and finding the determination to stick with it.

And where does that leave romance where star-crossed lovers don’t suffer enormous hardship to be together, but can instead say; ‘I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you’ and find someone else with whom things might be a whole lot easier and simply start again? All those heroes in the past never chose the easy path.

How about John O’Farrell’s ‘The Man Who Forgot His Wife’, a modern and romantic story about a man who realises he’s already married to the person he wants to spend the rest of his life with – only it takes a catastrophic memory loss to realise it and then is in a race against time to stop his own divorce. A fantastic plot device to keep the hero and heroine apart. This one is also funny.

‘Bridget Jones Diary’ by Helen Fielding is worth a mention because it is credited with launching the whole genre of chick-lit with its modern, flawed heroine. 

It’s so of its time it’s quite possible to miss that it’s an extremely well done reworking of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, where Bridget’s pointed prejudice against the stuffy Mark Darcy leads her to believing every bad word his arch rival says against him, only to realise she’d been unutterably prejudiced and has ruined forever her chances of being with Mr Right.

I shall be interested to see what results from six authors commissioned to write updated version of Austen’s classics, the first of which will come out in the autumn. If we get another Bridget Jones out of it I will be happy.

You can’t really mention modern romantic fiction without Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’.  Not a personal favourite, but definitely makes it to my list of ‘romances likely to stand the test of time’. Maybe not the whole 200 years.

Again, is it the doomed nature of the romance that keeps you reading? The enormous sacrifices that have to be made – not just by the couple themselves, but of their families and wider community in order to keep a couple so obviously meant to be together, in each other’s arms. This time overcoming the drawback of being of a different species.

John Green’s ‘The Fault in our Stars’ is the very latest romance climbing up the bestseller lists with his heartbreaking story of love among cancer patients. Maybe it's the doomed nature of the romance which makes me think this might be one that stays in print for a good long time.

Is it worth even trying to have a meaningful romance with someone who you know is going to die any day? Or is your romance simply doomed from the outset? Or is that what makes it just so romantic?

You’d think in producing a list of romantic books you’d end up with a list of slightly more uplifting reads, but there you go. Surprising also the number of books written by men. Praise their romantic souls.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Power of Stories - BBC Radio Oxford Bookclub

Nigel French and I discussed books on the BBC Radio Oxford Afternoon Bookgroup this afternoon. We had a wide-ranging discussion with presenter Sybil Ruscoe, whizzing through independent bookselling, bookgroups, the 'Wolf Hall' phenomenon, 'Restless' (William Boyd) and some classic favorites: 'Birdsong' (Sebastian Faulks), 'A Spot of Bother' (Mark Haddon) and 'Carter Beats The Devil' (Glen David Gold).

We then talked about World Book Day coming up on March 7th, the importance of reading stories to children, and rounded it off with a couple of recommendations - including 'Heretics' by Will Storr, a quite brilliant book which explores how stories are how we see the world, and the implications of this in terms of how we see ourselves, and the narratives we construct.

Listen to the show here (which you can do until Feb 11) - you'll need to fast forward to 1 hour 9 mins to get to the start (although if you start at 1 hour 5 mins you get to hear Blondie's "Heart of Glass" as well!)...

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Half term events and competitions

We are celebrating all that’s great about Lego by hosting a Lego activity party in half term. There will be some minifigure-based fun, and a Lego-build competition (design a Ninja palace) and we’ve got some great activity goodie bags to keep the fun going at home too.

We will be holding a party on the Tuesday morning at 11am and the Wednesday afternoon (2pm) of half-term. Tickets are £5, just give us a call or send us an email to book your place. We need names and ages of the children please.

We have launched a new regular story time, every Tuesday at 2pm and this will be carrying on through half-term as we take the chance to read and share some of the best new books as well as firm favourites and classics.

Win a Hugless signed print by drawing a hug

To celebrate our new story time, we are offering a totally fabulous chance to win a Hugless Douglas signed print by David Melling.

We need your drawings! 

Draw us a picture of who you like to hug – it could be a parent, a brother or sister or a favourite toy. 

Come into the shop and draw, or bring one in from home, it’s up to you. But we would love you to draw a picture for us - and you could win your very own signed print.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Our Favourite Books of 2012 Part 2: Nicki's Picks

Not since Kate Summerscale's 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' in 2009, has my outstanding book of the year gone to a non-fiction title. I sincerely hope that Susan Cain's 'Quiet – the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking' is going to be an equally popular success and as widely read and enjoyed.
'Quiet' is an absolutely fascinating book that celebrates the world's introverts and challenges big corporations, employers in general, and teachers, to reconsider whether the relentless attempt to realise the extrovert ideal is really something to be celebrated. It is a call not to overlook the value of what introverts provide and most of all, a call for balance.

You can also read it as a self-help book – particularly if you are an introvert. It's a great insight to help to understand the value of introverts the world over and understand that by listening to your inner voice you can sometimes achieve remarkable things – even in the face of being constantly told that you should socialise more, speak out more readily and stop worrying about things like details and consequences.

I also found it fascinating to read how differently an extrovert's mind works. My understanding of how they tick and what they find stimulating and enjoyable has been a hugely valuable journey in my ability to understand other people.

It is also a history of psychology over the last century and how personality types are as prone to fashion as anything. Thus in the nineteenth century virtues such as duty were highly regarded, whereas in the twentieth century personal magnetism and ability to be gregarious and work sociably in teams have taken over as the traits we value and reward.

Susan Cain in her own quiet way has set out attempting to redress the balance. She asserts that introverts (rather than seeing themselves as 'failed extroverts') should celebrate their preference for a strong inner life and need to find occasional solitude as the only way to recharge batteries. And she finds countless examples of introverts – from high flying business executives, inspiring teachers, expert negotiators and financiers who have made their investors billions – who have found success by having the quiet strength to go their own way.

It's also a reminder to employers and teachers that anything up to half of the people they have charge of are likely to under-perform when working in big groups or offices with no private space and no time to be creatively alone.

It is being reviewed as one of the most important books for years and her research is both detailed and convincing. Hopefully it might become essential reading for introverts everywhere, but also for extroverts to perhaps understand why some of their fellows are better at coming up with ideas when left alone. And it definitely should be essential reading for anyone who has introvert children, is involved in education and training, or even involved in management and business, to help understand that many accepted practices – such as brainstorming and working in big teams - might actually be counterproductive to getting the best ideas from their most creative people and thinkers.

Interesting, insightful stuff.

My favourite novel of the year was a small, understated novel, but one that was rather special and left me thinking about it a long time afterwards.

Julian Barnes' 'A Sense of an Ending' is a terrific example of 'less is more' and how powerful it can be to leave the reader to do the thinking.

On the face of it the story belongs to an unreliable narrator, one who doesn’t appear to have a very good grasp of what's going on around him.

But as the book goes on it becomes more about how this narrator could be any of us. How many of us can possibly know the consequences of our actions as we don't have the luxury of a novelist's view of the action of our own lives.

It's a fabulously thought-provoking read that questions how successfully any of us are able to re-examine key moments in our lives, to even know what they are, how we might not only have mis-remembered everything, forgotten the rest, and may never understand the consequences of things we have done in the past.

It's a short book that you feel like immediately turning over and reading again the moment you get to the end. It was also a perfect book group read as it provoked so many different thoughts and discussions.
My favourite debut of the year was 'Tell the Wolves I'm Home' by Carol Rifka Brunt, an intricate story told from the point of view of a niece after a beloved uncle has died. It's a story of family secrets (I am rather fond of stories about family secrets) and the pain of growing up and starting to see the world how it really is. And it's about how, however hard we try, we don't always do the best thing for those who are closest to us.

I loved its quiet good sense and unpeeling of layers of family silence. And I felt the quiet tragedy of how from spending every moment playing together as children, how difficult it is to retain that closeness with siblings as we grow up.

I also like a debut with a good publishing story. 'Tell the Wolves I'm Home' was rejected by 50 agents over five months before Carol Rifka Brunt finally got three offers in the same week. Definitely a case of it all being about it landing on the desk of that person who is going to be able to relate to what you are writing.
I think my favourite event of last year was with crime-fiction author Ann Cleeves and I did take great pleasure from her latest novel 'The Glass Room', for just being so thoroughly enjoyable. It was a classic murder mystery, set in an isolated house, where a group of writers, bringing all their ego and envies to a weekend course that ends in a murder. Beautifully atmospheric and very engrossing.

She is very good indeed and to be recommended to anyone who enjoys well-plotted crime fiction with believable characters.

Spies seem to be back in vogue – lots to enjoy in 2012 and looking forward to 2013. But my favourite spy book was William Boyd's 'Waiting for Sunrise', which is a terrific tale of a man who becomes a spy by accident. It's a pacy story, with some great plot twists, but all told with Boyd's wonderful observant character detail.

I always think his women characters are particularly strong and can't wait to see the result now he has been commissioned to write the next Bond novel...

My two favourite children’s books of the year were both contemporary stories, slightly out of odds with the current popularity of dystopian futures and fantasy, perhaps.

The heroine in 'Wolf Princess' by Cathryn Constable seizes a chance to go on a school trip to Russia, something she has always felt drawn to doing.

When things don't go according to plan, Sophie and her two friends are happy enough to stay in a crumbling palace as a guest of a real-life princess. The descriptions of the faded glory and bullet holes in the walls as a constant reminder of revolution are never far from the girl's minds, even as they enjoy sumptuous clothes and fabulous skating parties.

But all is not as it seems and danger is not all over and done with in the past. It's an atmospheric story with a hint of the fairytale about it, and a mystery at its heart.

My second choice 'I’ll be There' by Holly Goldberg Sloan was another debut, one that on the face of it looks like a standard teen romance. But an unexpected plot soon seizes you and it becomes a tale of survival, ending more as a modern fable about what families can mean.

While on the subject of children’s books I can't not mention the fabulous ‘Quest of the Gods’ series by Dan Hunter. It's a young reading series featuring Egyptian gods and it was really the first series my eight-year-old was reading which such enthusiasm and demanding the next in the series, as well as astounding me with his new-found knowledge about Egyptian gods.

Of course, as I write this I can think of plenty of other books that really deserved a mention, but my reading pile is as big as ever and I can’t wait to start discovering my favourite reads of 2013.

(For part 1 of our favourites of the year, click here to view Ellie's picks from 2012)