Friday, September 26, 2014

The Word At War with Philip Gooden and Peter Lewis

War words have embedded themselves in our collective psyche; British politicians are fond of invoking the 'Dunkirk spirit' whenever the country is faced with major crisis or even minor adversity, and Roosevelt's famous description of Pearl Harbor as 'a date which will live in infamy' was echoed by many US commentators after the 9/11 attacks.

So far, so familiar. Or is it? How many of us know, for instance, that 'Keep Calm and Carry On', far from achieving its morale-boosting aim, was considered at the time to be deeply patronizing by the people it was directed at, and so had only limited distribution?

The 'Word at War' explores 100 phrases spawned and popularized in the lead-up and during the conflict of World War Two. Substantial essays explore and explain the derivations of, and the stories behind, popular terms and phraseology of the period, including wartime speeches (and the words of Churchill, Hitler and FDR); service slang; national stereotypes; food and drink; and codewords.

We're delighted to be hosting an event with the book's eloquent authors Philip Gooden and Peter Lewis at Mostly Books on Monday, October 13 at 7pm. So why not 'Keep Calm and Come Along' to listen as they 

Come along and listen as the book's eloquent authors explain the origins of Jeep, SPAM, flak, kamikaze and mega (amongst others) - and how a Daily Telegraph crossword clue almost wrecked D-Day. But more importantly, they examine the way language rapidly develops in times of crisis and disaster.

This is a special launch event, and is free to attend, but space is limited - please email us to reserve your place.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Become a fan of family reading

We’re hoping we can persuade you to start a new family tradition – we want you to start a family reading group.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of reading.

There are plenty of studies and research into this. There’s all the obvious stuff, stuff you probably know (although it is worth reminding yourself occasionally). Reading improves concentration, vocabulary and comprehension. 

But there is a growing body of evidence that shows that children who read for pleasure do better in just about every area of human activity. Interestingly, all these studies show it's the reading of fiction that seems to open doors into wider experiences.

There is now compelling evidence that links reading with creativity. And creativity seems to be the key skill in responding to a rapidly changing world.

Reading can quieten the noise of a 24/7 twittering world clamouring for attention and creates a space in which to explore, consider and think. It teaches us to be happier within ourselves. 

Yet reading is on the decline. Literacy is significantly in decline for both adults and children.

Like any skill, it is more difficult to start it again if you don’t commit to doing it regularly.

Reading is a skill like anything else. Want to be better at football? Train more, get fitter. Want to be better at reading? Read more, get better.

So many people come into our shop and tell us how they would really like their children to read more (mostly because they recognise how good it is for them – but hopefully, also, because it is FUN).

But do your children ever see you read?

Admit it, you tend to read just before going to bed. Or from an electronic gadget. When do they ever see you obviously taking time during the day, when you are not tired, to put aside everything else to enjoy a book? 

Children (particularly boys) can hit an age when they look at their parents and think ‘this isn’t something my Mum or Dad do for fun, it’s babyish’. And as levels of schoolwork increase, and life gets ever more complex, reading for pleasure seems like a luxury.

So here’s our idea: start a family reading group. It’s simple, compelling and we think you’re going to really enjoy it.

How to start a family reading group.


“The path of a reader is not a runway but more a hack through a forest, with individual twists and turns, entanglements and moments of surprise.” – June Holden

And it always helps not to do it alone!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Independent Reading - some books for the referendum

We've had a lot of discussions about the Scottish Referendum in the shop with customers over the past week. Some have been a bit bemused by the whole thing, some intrigued, some saddened. But for anyone living in Scotland and allowed to vote, it must be exciting and heady; it's only about once a generation that democracy brings potential for genuine change.

Unable as we are to vote, however, we thought we might come up with a few of our favourite books - recently published - that contain themes being played out in what is this evening (on Sep 17) the northern part of the United Kingdom.


'And the Land Lay Still' by James Robertson is possibly the novel to read that encapsulates the modern history of Scotland. This ambitious, sweeping tale grows out of a retrospective exhibition of photographs to take in a quest for Scottish identity, but one set within the ebbs and flows of politics and culture from the wider world. If you (unfairly) had to pick a custodian of Scottish culture and identity, it'd be Robertson  - and the complex feelings stirred up by Thursday’s votes are almost encapsulated in miniature by an extract from the novel you can read here.


It has been fascinating (and disconcerting) in the past few weeks to see the various 'iron fists' slip out of numerous velvet gloves, as the big guns come out to defend the union. We know of no other recent novel that describes this process better than ‘Other People’s Money’ by Justin Cartwright (who lives very near here). The modus operandi of 'power' is something we should all take a keen interest in, but in this tale of a fading banking family's attempts to shore up their business in the face of the credit crunch, Cartright absolutely nails the slow stripping away of breeding and manners when entrenched power is really threatened. You'll never look at newspaper headlines in the same way again (and if you're interested in power-plays, this analysis post-vote is well worth reading)...


Of course, you might just want to skip the metaphors and go for a factual expose of who runs the country and how they do it. Owen Jones' ‘The Establishment’ caused a stir even before it was published, but this passionate, consistent and brilliant investigation into the often shadowy (and unaccountable) organisations and individuals who control almost every aspect of our lives is a tour de force. Yes, Owen is an (unashamed) leftie, but whichever side of the political divide you happen to be on, we can all agree that some aspects of social justice in this country could be improved upon...


Lighter in tone, but pitch-perfect in its observations of modern Britain, 'Meeting the English' by Kate Clanchy provides us with a wry look at English (or, more accurately, London) life from a Scotman. Kate talked about this book when she visited the shop over the Summer, and her eloquent poetic sensibilities gives us a highly entertaining read.


Thatcher (or more accurately Thatcherism) is often fingered as the big baddie that stoked Scotland to the edge of independence (as this Spitting Image sketch from 1987 demonstrates), but in Damian Barr's 'Maggie and Me' he paints a far more nuanced interpretation of the 1980s, with his touching and darkly witty memoir about surviving Thatcher's Britain, and of growing up gay in the shadow of the Ravenscraig Steelworks. We read this book for our morning bookgroup earlier this year, and it provoked a lot of uneasy discussion.

'Acts of Union and Disunion' by Linda Colley examines the Union in the context of a wider historical context. Is the Scottish nationalism a recent phenomenon, or just another piece of the longer break-up of empire? A short but extremely thought-provoking book. If the union of Scotland and England was really just a joint-venture for Empire, is it time to break-up - or renegotiate?


Finally, and no matter who prevails in the vote, Graham Robb's 'The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe' provides a neat historical perspective that reminds us that before Empire, before The Union, even before The Romans, we were part of a much older connection with Europe - one which still echoes in our landscape and cultures. Based on original - and breathtaking - research, Robb has pieced together hitherto unknown aspects of the Celts, revealing a civilization of previously unrecognised intellectual sophistication.

So there we are - our contribution (albeit slight) so some of the themes thrown up in recent weeks. Whatever the vote on Thursday, we’ll still be living on the same island, we’ll still have the same Scottish friends, and we’ll still be facing the same global problems that threaten the world and don’t care a jot about borders or nationality. I think all of us who perceive ourselves as underdogs feel - as Philip Pullman says - 'a bit yessish', and if voters go to the polls and gain catharsis of ‘sticking it to the man’, it might lead all of us to scrutinise and challenge the status quo just that bit harder – yes or no, might that not be a good thing?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Forbidden books, dangerous secrets and a deadly species...it can only be the BBC Radio Oxford Afternoon Bookclub

There was a lot happening in the book world on Monday. A quivering of anticipation about the Booker Shortlist and a national debate about a reading crisis among children. Oh, and the busiest time of year for new titles arriving at bookshops up and down the country.

What better time to step into the fray and recommend a few titles?

As always, you can listen to the show on BBC iPlayer until Monday Sep 15 - fast forward to 1 hour and 7 minutes - there is also a cracking interview with Kate Mosse in which she discusses her writing, and what inspired her to become an author.

Here are some of the books we discussed:


As far as themes go, they don’t get much bigger than the entire history of our species. Yuval Harari’s ‘Sapiens’ is one of those monumental works that gives a dizzying perspective on how we came to rule – and threaten – the entire planet. It starts with the changes in our brain that allowed us to tell stories, imagine alternative scenarios, and out-manoeuvre other species (notably Neanderthals). From there we become farmers, develop religion, invent money, harness technology and threaten widespread extinction – including our own. The writing is superb – never dry, occasionally brazen, at times almost sardonic – and never afraid to come off the fence in areas that are controversial: did we domesticate wheat, or did it domesticate us? Did stockpiling food lay the psychological seeds for consumerism? Are we happier now than *any* of our ancestors? And what is going to replace our species, as surely as we replaced earlier species?


In 'Archie Greene and the Magicians Secret' by DD Everest, Archie receives a mysterious book on his birthday, written in a language he doesn't recognise, and one with a Special Instruction. Archie must then travel to Oxford to return the book to the Museum of Magical Miscellany. The journey leads Archie to discover the world of the Flame Keepers - a community devoted to finding and preserving magical books. But the magical book under Archie's protection is dangerous, and dark spirits hunt it out. With the help of his new-found cousins, Archie must do everything he can to uncover the book's hidden powers and save the Flame Keepers from evil.

Archie’s adventure takes place in an Oxford bookshop (one that sounds nothing like Mostly Books!), full of underground caverns that house the books of dark magic under lock and key, and fantastical creatures and people busy at work keeping magical books in the right conditions. It’s a fabulously imagined and exciting tale, beautifully produced, with a special Oxford flavour!


In terms of suspense, we don't think anything can match Tana French's 'The Secret Place', a journey into the dark heart of loyalties, rivalries and secrets in the intense emotional landscape of teenage lives. A murder at an exclusive girls school gives detective Stephen Moran the chance for his big break - and an open door into the Dublin murder squad. But the suspects he has to crack are a bunch of close-knit girls, to whom friendship is more important than playing by any other rules. Trying to get teenagers to talk is about as impossible as enjoying working with Detective Antoinette Conway - tough, prickly, an outsider - with a background that couldn't be less like the suspects they are trying to win over. Both have a lot at stake and watching them in action is really compelling, particularly in the claustrophobic school setting as they move painfully closer to the truth. A really different, original piece of crime fiction.

To hear all these books - and plenty more (including the latest Martin Amis) click the link and fast forward to 1 hour 7 minutes...

(You'll remember last month we were raving about 'The Bone Clocks' by author David Mitchell? Kat interviewed David on the show yesterday and you can listen to *that* interview here by forwarding to 2 hours and 7 minutes...)