Thursday, January 30, 2014

Our Favourite Books of 2013 Part 1: Nicki's Picks

It’s a head-to-head this year for my ‘favourite book of the year’, which is always a good sign that it has been a year of great reading, with some wonderful titles coming through in adult fiction, crime fiction and children’s books. 

Out in paperback this week is ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson, which has already marked itself out as a must-read by scooping the first award of the year - taking ‘best novel’ at the Costa Book Awards (nearly 20 years after her debut ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ triumphed in the same prize).

‘Life After Life’ is a feast of a narrative structure – being not so much the story of Ursula, but her many stories.

Ursula has many different imagined futures, from circumstances that means she dies within the first few pages, to ones where fate deals her a different hand and she grows and marries.

But whatever life path Ursula follows, it’s a life fraught with lurking danger, as Ursula dies frequently – but the upside to this is that this is literature, so she gets a chance to do better each time. 

There is lots to love about this unusual and complex story – such as characters who appear in different versions of Ursula’s life, moving from bit-part to central role. One of the most satisfying is the narrative on Ursula’s role in World War II as this would have made a satisfying enough story on its own – the heartfelt descriptions of London bombings, each death given as much weight and significance as each of Ursula’s untimely ends.

How often have you wondered how differently things might have turned out if you had just done this, or not done that? I love the literary premise to play with this whole idea and allow one character to have many chances to do it better next time around. What a brilliant concept – and also fun to read, which is a remarkable achievement given that the repeated sections of Ursula's life become quite familiar.

When you’ve waited more than a decade for Donna Tartt to write another novel, it was very satisfying to finally read ‘The Goldfinch’ and it’s hard not to join all those saying how special it is, head and shoulders above everything else I’ve read this year and predicting this will be the one to scoop all the awards over the coming year.

In ‘The Goldfinch’ you can discover a dazzling, Dickensian read, akin to Pip’s journey in ‘Great Expectation’. A modern fable about the highs and lows and essential randomness of modern life, with success just one slip away from failure and any number of people living lives of quiet desperation, just hoping that things will just somehow all turn out all right.

Theo’s journey into much-admired gloss and success is swift and spectacular. But without a centre to his world (the grief at the loss of his mother in the early pages is always present), his judgement and moral values are utterly adrift. His life empty and inexplicable and steering closer and closer to the criminal.

With dips into philosophy about the human condition, philosophy on the value of art, instruction on the forging of antiques; even the detail of the effects of serious dependency on prescription drugs, the journey leaves you feeling in awe of Donna Tartt’s ability to be so precise and so compelling and to make you want to stay with her for every word, not even drawing away or skipping ahead when she’s simply describing a room. It’s also, simply, a good story.

The plot twists its way through unexpected reversals of fortune, unexpected kindnesses and equally devastating let-downs. It cranks up into being a fully-fledged edge-of-the-seat thriller. You hope friends won’t let Theo down again, but you fear the opposite.
It may be tangled and complex and about lots of very big things. But fundamentally, I was left with a feeling that it’s about friendship. And that if you have one person in your life who’ll take a bullet for you, in the end, you haven’t done too bad.

Please don’t make us wait another eleven years to read another.

From one big-stage thriller to another that’s a bit more slow-burn and a very pleasurable read and a romp, Mick Herron’s ‘Dead Lions’ was this year’s perhaps surprise winner of the Crime Fiction Gold Dagger for best crime book of the year.

It centres on a disparate team of spies who have been put out to grass (and has been likened to the hit television show ‘New Tricks’). There is much fun in a bunch of characters who are bickering over whose career is the most derailed and seeing them slowly return to life as they realise they may be right in the centre of something big. As they start to sniff a chance to claw their way back to glory - can they work as a team and remember those skills they used to have?

This is fun writing and a really complex, well-thought through plot, where lots of seemingly random threads only slowly build up to make a coherent picture. It reminded me a lot of the late Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series, with trails going all over the place until you start to wake up yourself to what is actually happening. It’s also got that trademark of Hill’s – witty, intelligent writing and prose that is just really enjoyable to read. Great stuff.

In all the circus surrounding the revelation that Robert Galbraith was none other than JK Rowling, it was easy to overlook the fact that The Cuckoo's Callingwas a terrific crime novel in the traditional style – a private eye taken on to challenge the police conclusion that a model committed suicide.

Never taking no for an answer, former military man-turned gumshoe Cormorant Strike, navigates the unfamiliar world of fashion, making for a likeable sleuth in his determination to look past her wealth and success and to bring justice for Lula Landry, a successful, yet troubled woman.

His investigation is a dogged round of interviews, sieving for inconsistencies, getting under the skin of vividly drawn suspects and witnesses and never giving up, and makes for an intelligent, intriguing and satisfying read.

How great to find gems where the plot didn’t descend into gratuitous violence, a serial killer story thread, or a credulity-stretching conclusion, or expecting us to be satisfied with ‘oh the killer was actually completely insane, but no-one noticed.’

Give me a cerebral plot with a satisfying, properly thought-through ending you couldn’t see coming purely through the strength of the storytelling and I am a happy woman.

It was also a good year for children's books, notable in a welcome increase in the number of illustrated books for older children. Hear, hear for this. A book that is a joy to look at and hold, as well as to read? What a good idea.

Chris Riddell’s ‘Goth Girl’ is enhanced by it’s eye-catching design; even so it’s probably the glorious literary references that will have parents fighting over whether they get to read this with their children.

Ada Goth lives in Ghastly-Gorm Hall with its Secret Garden, its Even-More-Secret Garden, Unstable Stables and a host of literary visitors (Mary Shellfish, the distinguished lady novelist, arrives to stay at a house party) who come to visit poet Lord Goth. Is there a dastardly plot to foil his literary career?

Chris Riddell’s drawings are as generous as the literary references (even the ghost mouse gets his own version of 'Gulliver’s Travels’) and the whole thing is an absolute joy.

It probably won’t be an enormous surprise to learn that one of my favourite children’s reads of the year was actually a mystery story.

In Rebecca Stead’s ‘Liar & Spy’ Georges moves house and meets a new friend, Safer, who has suspicions about one of the neighbours. The pair get involved in all sorts of surveillance trying to work out what the neighbour is up to.

It’s all very intriguing, and then things start to get a little darker, motives and friendships questioned. There is more going on than meets the eye in this short, yet quirky story, which is also a great lesson about standing up for ourselves. Why do we let the bullies make up the rules and why do we play them, is the central question of this really delightful and intriguing tale which is never short on surprises.

Finally, Tom Moorhouse's 'The River Singers' is another book with high production values, wonderful illustrations and a great story set in the modern day with endangered water voles as its main characters.

This unusual but exciting story manages to draw attention to the genuine plight of a threatened species by turning the story into a thrilling adventure and a quest for safety in the shadow of a real-life threat.

And that, in the end, is what storytelling is all about.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

To Kepe a Hufband Faithfull - Five Questions with Ruth Warburton, author of Witch Finder

Last Thursday, we took YA author Ruth Warburton to John Mason School in our first event of 2014.

About 150 children listened to Ruth tell the story of how she came to write her Winter Trilogy, and read from her latest book 'Witch Finder'.

The series tells the story of Anna, whose life changes forever when she moves to the small town of Winter and events conspire to lead her - unwittingly and inexorably - to the discovery that she is a witch.

The books are a fabulous combination of adventure and romance - but with the trilogy at an end, Ruth has now taken her readers back a century or so to Victorian London and an altogether darker tale told in 'Witch Finder'. The story features the fearsome brotherhood of the Malleus Maleficorum, dedicated to hunting witches in the name of justice in Victorian London.

Ruth explained to her audience about the background to her books, the reality of witch hunts in the 15th and 16th century, and the religious-backed groups that set the laws for witch trials - and hunted down witches.

In researching her books, and to get inspiration for the spells that her characters use, Ruth has had to delve into some very old books indeed, getting to grips with anglo-saxon spellbooks, spells - and spelling.

As she explained, there was no real spelling 'standards' back then - if people could basically understand what you wrote, then words could be spelled in many different ways. There were also more characters in our alphabet. For example, the 'thorn' (written as Þ) was our 'th' sound, descended from the runic alphabet. This letter only slowly got replaced, often being substituted by 'y' when the printing press arrived (hence 'ye olde').

Ruth read from her books, and there were a lot of questions from the students, including my personal favourite 'if you were to write your books again, what would you change?' (the answer: I couldn't bring myself to rewrite my books, so nothing!).

A big thank you to Ruth and her publisher Hodder for travelling up from London for the event, and to John Mason School for being such great hosts. We had a chance to have a chat afterwards and find out a little bit about Ruth's writing life...

Five Questions with...Ruth Warburton's Writing Life

1.    What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently editing the sequel to Witch Finder (Witch Hunt). I’m just going through editing changes with my editor. It’s quite enjoyable, a bit like homework! Once that is over, I’ve got a new idea which I’m going to be working on.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
Almost everyone experiences a dip at 30,000 words. Lots of writers give up at this point. The reality is that, with a new idea, the momentum carries you through, and those first 30,000 words get you set up. You need to take stock, appreciate that it’s a natural lull and PUSH ON THROUGH!

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The best thing is that children’s writing is cross-genre. With adults, there’s a lot of pigeonholing, and someone who reads (for example) fantasy might never read crime. Kids don’t read like that, they will usually be quite happy to read different genres. The worst thing is that there is less and less coverage for children’s books across the media and broadsheets. It’s a shame.

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
A proper chair! I used to write on the sofa, or curled up in bed, but I gave myself back problems. I was given some advice that, when you get your advance, go out and buy a proper chair – it’s great advice! I went out and bought myself the ugliest office chair, but it’s really helped.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?
The decision to write for children. I’d always written for adults, but as I work in that world (publicity for a large publisher) I didn’t think I could possibly show my writing to my fellow professionals, particularly if they had turned round and rejected me! Then I had an idea for a young adult book, and when I thought about who to send it to, I thought – I don’t know anyone, they're all completely different people!

Friday, January 24, 2014

3 4 Friday - Sugar, Shakespeare and Plumed Shakos. How *are* those new year's resolutions going?

Ah, new year's resolution. By now you should be well into the new routine (it takes three weeks to form a habit - or so they say) or it's a dim and distant memory (like the rest of Christmas). Either way, for today's 3 4 Friday #fridayreads we've three inspirational books to help you keep up the good work - or inspire you all over again to restart.

There is a big backlash going on against the amount of sugar that's put in our food (largely because of this video that went viral a few years ago), and in 'I Quit Sugar' self-confessed Australian sugar addict Sarah Wilson documents her own battle to reduce - and then eliminate - the estimated 25 teaspoons of sugar she ate or drank every day. It's part recipe book, part diary of a recovering addict - and even if you are not up for removing all sugar from your diet, it's packed with healthy eating suggestions and alternatives.

(If you don't feel ready for some of the more extreme measures to ween yourself off the white stuff, then take a look at 'Sweet Poison' by David Gillespie, to learn some of the uncomfortable truths linking sugar, modern food production and obesity).

Ever fancied researching your family history? Acclaimed author Nicolas Shakespeare did just that, but after stumbling on a cache of documents and photographs, his research took a darker turn. Shakespeare had been brought up to believe, as did the rest of his family, that his mother's half-sister Priscilla, a glamorous, enigmatic figure married (somewhat improbably) to a bad-tempered mushroom farmer and living in Sussex, had spent the war in terrified hiding in occupied France, much of the time incarcerated in a concentration camp.

Shakespeare's gripping new book 'Priscilla' is the result of his forensic researches into Priscilla's years in occupied France. They reveal experiences and choices that sit somewhat awkwardly among these stories of ordinary people's courage under fire.

And what about improving your understanding of world events? We can thoroughly recommend the paperback release of 'Return of A King', William Dalrymple's masterful account of the experience of the British Army fighting in Afghanistan, that ended in violent rebellion and ultimately 1839.

Dalrymple's style is one of page-turning, storytelling brilliance - drawing out subtly the parallels to more recent conflicts without losing his sight on the historical details of this momentous nineteenth century conflict.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wartime Secrets and below the stairs at Darcy's House - the BBC Radio Oxford Afternoon Bookclub

The bookselling year has its own rhythms, and after the intensity of Christmas comes the opportunity for fresh starts and new directions in January. During the first BBC Oxford Afternoon Bookclub of 2014, we discussed what happens in the bookshop during January, and looked at a crop of books old and new.

Click on the link and fast-forward to approximately 1 hour 7 minutes. You'll have 30 seconds of Lionel Richie to deal with, but it''ll be worth it - promise!

Included is Nicholas Shakespeare's 'Priscilla', a fabulous piece of detective work and soul-searching by the acclaimed novelist, uncovering (as near as possible) the truth behind his mother's half-sister, and her experiences living in wartime France (buy and download the eBook here).

Also we discuss Pamela Butchart's 'Baby Aliens Got My Teacher' and the triumph that is Longbourn, the story of Pride and Prejudice, told simply from the servants below stairs. You think 'fan fiction' is a modern phenomenon? Writers throughout the ages have found Austen irresistible - and Jo Baker's clever spin on the classic is a wonderful treat...

(You can also buy and download Longbourn as an eBook here).

Friday, January 17, 2014

3 4 Friday - Watch out for Witches in Abingdon

Passing on a prediction from our trade magazine The Bookseller this week – that witches are the new vampires!

We’ll see as the year goes on whether they are right or not, but strangely, our first event of the year is about . . .  witches. Ruth Warburton visits John Mason School on Thursday January 23 to talk to students about ‘Witch Finder’, after her successful series ‘A Witch in Winter’ came to an end last year.

Luke’s parents were killed by witches, and to avenge their death he has become a witch hunter. His final test is to track and kill a witch he picks at random, Rosa, a witch-girl living in rapidly fading grandeur on the west side of town. She's the last bargaining chip in her family's struggle to avoid bankruptcy and is about to be married off to the handsome, cruel, grotesquely rich Sebastian Knyvet but things become complicated when he falls for Rosa...

This book is to be recommended if you love historical fiction mixed with danger and magic (and some powerfully-written romance). Engaging, Warburton takes great care to describe Victorian London and shows the importance of strength and perseverance, plus the need for your own independence when making your own choices in life.

(eBook download here - Click and Collect in store)

Our second pick of great witch stories at the moment is ‘Student Bodies’ by Sean Cummings. Student Bodies takes over from where Poltergeeks left off. Julie Richardson is a witch, and her mother is still trying to teach her everything that goes with her special powers.  After witnessing the death of a popular kid at school she knows her job as a shadowcull is only beginning because there’s someone lurking the halls of Crescent Ridge High School with enough malice to unleash an epidemic of Soul Worms – supernatural larvae that feed on the very fabric of a victim’s humanity.

Even faster in pace than its predecessor, with a ending to leave you breathless, it tackles difficult teenage issues, and themes such as bullying and responsibility in an effective yet respectful way. An all-round, more mature book cloaked in urban fantasy. And as it's published by Angry Robot, don't forget to ask for your free e-book as part of its CloneFiles initiative.

(eBook download here - Click and Collect in store)

Finally, we're all looking forward to one of the biggest YA debuts of this year in ‘Half Bad’ by Sally Green. It's a story of a boy's struggle for survival in a hidden society of witches. It’s set in modern-day England where witches live among humans. Although it is fantasy, it has a powerful real-world quality about it - and film rights have already been sold.

(eBook download here - Click and Collect in store)

And we have to say there has been an upsurge in interest in Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series after Jill brought out a brand new story - 'The Worst Witch and the Wishing Star' - just before Christmas. We appreciate that these appeal to a slightly younger audience...

Friday, January 10, 2014

3 4 Friday - Ghostly mice, mischievous felines and baby aliens

Congratulations to Chris Riddell for being awarded the Costa Children’s Book Award with ‘Goth Girl’, particularly because it has been a particular favourite with us all. We love not just the story, but that the publishers have done such a terrific job of making a book that is beautiful to look at and to hold. 

If you haven’t get discovered this treasure of a story, about lonely Ada Goth; or the wonderful silvery gothic detailing inside this book – come and feast your eyes – and discover how Ada with a ghostly mouse called Ishmael foil a dastardly plot that Maltravers, the mysterious indoor gamekeeper, is hatching. Seriously good stuff and one of those books that would appeal to a wide age range (7-12) and just gorgeous.

For today's 3-4-Friday #FridayReads, we thought we'd tell you about three new children's books that we feel will become favourites in 2014 - for pre-school, middle-grade and teen.

It's always a joy to see a new Slinky Malinki book and in ‘Slinky Malinki Early Bird’, Slinki creeps up the stairs to wake up a family who would rather stay in bed and who don’t react in a very friendly fashion. With its familiar rhyming text and delightful pictures of Slinky Malinki going about life in his cat-way, this is a picture-book delight for fans old and new.

Another book we have been enjoying is ‘Baby Aliens Got My Teacher!’ by Pamela Butchart. Here is a review by nine year-old Alex:

      "This was a very funny book about four friends, Izzy, Zach, Maize and Jodi, whose teacher, Miss Jones, suddenly starts acting really weird (by actually being nice to them). Zach tells them that he has seen a film about a lady who is really horrible to everyone in the village but then starts acting really nice to people . . . and she has a baby alien in her ear and starts putting baby aliens into their ears and is planning an alien invasion. 
     The next day Miss Jones is still acting weird and they start sneaking around the school looking for evidence that Miss Jones may be planning an alien invasion. I really enjoyed this book and got really stuck in. It is hilarious and has lots of brilliant words and illustrations. I think this book will make the charts in no time. So all I can say is, READ IT."

For older readers who may be looking for a change of scene from the wave of dystopian fiction of late, Nicki enjoyed ‘Stella’ by Helen Eve. 

This is an engrossing modern day teen drama about a school Queen Bee and the arrival of an American girl who sets out to take her crown. It’s a world of the beautiful and successful – and the deadly. There are shocks a plenty, some good social observations about popularity and control, and a good gothic feel to this story about the rivalry that threatens a whole school. What lengths will two girls go to as they fight for the top and is there nothing they won’t stoop to not to come second? 

As always, if you are looking for something to get children reading, we are always here to help with recommendations.