Thursday, April 30, 2015

Don't get caught in 'The Rain': five questions with Virginia Bergin

Before Easter, we did a fantastic school event with YA author Virginia Bergin, author of 'The Rain' and it's newly-published sequel 'The Storm'. Fantastic because Virginia was born and brought up in Abingdon...and we got to take her back to her old school, Fitzharrys.

The Rain tells the story of Ruby Morris, and what happens when something seeds the rainclouds and wipes out large numbers of the world's population. What really sets this dystopian novel for young adults apart - and why we love it - is it's British setting, and the central character of Ruby - who already had plenty of problems before the world started to end...

As you might guess, having always been a writer, Virginia was never the most likely pupil to be up on stage when at school, so the opportunity to stand up and talk to pupils was both exciting and terrifying.
After an (understandable) wobble at the start, Virginia got into her stride, and if there is one thing Virginia can do brilliantly it's to pick a great piece from her book, and read it to great effect. The pupils were stunned, and responded brilliantly...

Virginia signed copies for students, and gave them advice on everything to do with writing their own books.

Given her Abingdon heritage, we were particularly interested to learn as much about her writing life as possible - particularly with 'The Rain' coming out as H2O in the US (with an extremely cool cover with the effect of drops of rain burning through the book jacket!). Here's what she said... 

Five Questions with...Virginia Bergin's Writing Life

1.    What are you working on at the moment?
Being a multi-tasking octopus! Having just got back from The Rain/The Storm UK schools tour, I’ve got tons of news posts to do for my website, blogs to write, photos to post, emails to respond to and people to thank (including you, Mr Mostly Books!), plus Rain has just come out in Germany and I need to work on the American version of The Storm. Writing-wise, it’s pretty quiet – which is no bad thing as last year was non-stop crazy – but I’ve got a couple of new story ideas I’m thinking about. I can’t say more than that because they’re top secret at the moment!

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
Hmmm . . . I’ve been writing seriously for about 20 years, so I’ve taken part in a lot of workshops and courses and writers’ groups and picked up a lot of tips . . . but I think you learn more by doing, so I’m going to tell you my favourite writing exercise instead! It works best when you don’t know why you’re doing the first part, but . . .

Pick a subject – any subject – and give yourself 5 minutes to write down as many words as you can think of that you’d associate with it. Your subject could be ‘rain’, for example, so you’d write down things like ‘pouring’, ‘wet’, ‘drip’, ‘drop’, ‘torrential’, ‘cloud’, ‘storm’, etc. Be thorough. Be imaginative. Test your vocabulary.

Now . . . give yourself 10-15 minutes to write a seriously chunky paragraph all about rain WITHOUT USING ANY OF THOSE WORDS.

(You can even do this with a friend; just swap your lists of banned words and challenge your friend to write about your subject.)

It is fiendishly difficult – but it will really push your writing!

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
OK, I'm going to change this question to 'Writing for Young Adults', OK? OK. The best thing? Up until the Rain/Storm schools tour, I would have said the best thing was the freedom it gives you. I like to have quite big/serious themes and ideas in my writing, but I also like to tell a cracking good story – and when I write for young adults I feel free to do that. It’s really liberating! But . . . maybe now I would say it’s getting to meet young people. It was brilliant!

The worst thing? Not having enough time to chat to those young people! Students usually have to rush off to their next lesson, I need to make sure I sign everyone’s book, so we’re all under time pressure. It’s still great to meet everyone, though!

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, e.g. a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
No . . . but I think I work best in my little writing room in my flat. I’ve tried writing in other locations, but I find it too distracting. I’m so used to working in this tiny room I don’t even see the walls, I just see whatever it is I’m working on. Then I step out of it and realise my kitchen is in a mess and I’ve forgotten to go shopping.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?
Both in terms of my own writing and in terms of success in the outside world, it has to be The Rain. When I was writing the first draft, there was a time when I wanted to stop. Apart from the usual worry about whether what I was writing would be any good, I was afraid it was too horrific a story to write . . . but I found I couldn’t abandon Ruby Morris, my main character, so I kept going. 

I did it! I finished a novel! And then Macmillan wanted to buy it! 


Friday, April 10, 2015

Marginals, Mad Men and Adam Smith's Dinner - vote for books this General Election

Shortly before opening Mostly Books, another bookseller told us to always remember that “bookselling is a privilege”. Over the years I've spent a lot of time trying to work out exactly why that is.

Of course, books are wonderful, transformative gateways to other worlds and ways of thinking. Reading delivers so many benefits you sometimes wonder why it isn’t available on the NHS (perhaps it is?). But in terms of being a bookseller, I think the ‘privilege’ part comes from being the gatekeeper between customer and the entire book world. We are the people who talk to customers, try – sometimes socratically, often obliquely – to understand what they are looking for, coming up with suggestions that allow them to move beyond the obvious, the best-selling and the hyped.

It’s a great responsibility. And with great responsibility comes great power (I think that’s right?).

Power – and its pursuit – inevitably leads to the General Election, now less than a month away. Mostly Books finds itself in one of the most marginal constituencies in the country (Oxford West and Abingdon) which means campaigning will be fierce, and inevitably there will be a lot of political talk in the shop.

This year, on Tuesday April 14 at 6pm, we'll be chairing the Abingdon Chamber of Commerce Business Hustings at the Abingdon Guildhall (you'll need to email the Chamber if you want to attend).

So if you fancy grilling the candidates - or just informing yourself of the facts ahead of the vote - here is our pick of some of the best new political books. You may be surprised by some of our selections...we've tried to pick books that reflect the candidates standing and the conversations we've already had in the shop.

Last year we had a special selection of books ahead of the Scottish referendum vote, and after Nicola Sturgeon's solid performance in the election debates, let's start with 'The Dream That Shall Never Die' by Alex Salmond. This is the inside story of the IndyRef from Salmond's point of view (although your enjoyment of the book will probably align with your opinion of Salmond himself). Whatever you think about the referendum, or how the vote eventually went, the energy and engagement shown by the Scottish people is something we hope spills across the border into this year's General Election, so it's a fitting book to begin with.

Many people get infuriated with politics at the best of times, so the intensity of campaigning in Abingdon this year may require an escape valve. We recommend John Crace's satirical pop at the status quo in 'I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: A Short Guide to Modern Politics, the Coalition and the General Election'. Crace - better known for his 'digested reads' in the Guardian - hits the nail on the head of coalition politics by conjuring up some fly-on-the-wall imagined conversations that various politicians might have had. It works brilliantly and hilariously - but may actually soften harsh judgments about how certain parties 'sold out', and the realities and compromises that are inevitable in any coalition...

It's easy to be cynical about modern politics - and the 'they're all as bad as each other' approach is an easy response that let's you off the hook of any responsibility to get involved. The more difficult job of course is to actually bother to think about the issues, do some digging to discover who the good guys are - and give them your support...

In 'Honourable Friends?', Green MP Caroline Lucas explores the results of her own digging during her five years as an MP. This book - a heartfelt and passionate argument about wholesale political reform - rises above narrow party allegiances simply by dint of the high respect Lucas is held in by other MPs, and the wide-ranging experience she has had before her election to Westminster (she was a Green MEP - and she held an Oxfordshire County Council seat in the late 90s).

Lucas was awarded "MP of the Year" in the 'Women in Public Life' Awards in 2011 - but it's the role of women in economic life that is examined in Katrine Marcal's fantastically witty 'Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner?'. Arguing that it's women who are the 'missing mass' in failed economic systems (throughout history) this walks a perfect line between angry polemic and incisive argument. As Marcal states in the opening paragraph "Feminism has always been about economics. Virginia Woolf wanted a room of her own - and that costs money."

We have a very active Christian community in Abingdon, and in recent years - particularly following the appointment of Justin Welby as archbishop - the church has strongly reengaged with politics. Recent books such as John Sentamu's 'On Rock and Sand' have argued for more Christian values in politics, but we've plumped for Andy Flannagan's 'Those Who Show Up', which encourages those involved in religion to roll up their sleeves and get active - because it is often members of the church, through involvement with food banks and debt counselling, who end up helping the victims of society's failings. The title is a quote from Bart Simpson of all people - giving you a flavour of Flannagan's contemporary, humorous style.

After last year's close IndyRef, the possibility of a British exit from the European Union is a distinct possibility, and 'Brexit' by ex-Labour MP, and former Europe minister Denis MacShane provides a timely look at the UK's relationship with Europe - from Churchill to UKIP. MacShane is probably better known for his expense-fiddling (for which he was jailed in 2013) but this is a sobering look (from someone who 'was there') at the context of our relationship with Europe, the pros and cons of membership, and how Britain really is sleepwalking towards an EU exit.

Most of us are born in it, die in it, and spend considerable amounts of time in it during our lives. It directly employs 720,000 people, and we spend 9.4% of our GDP on it (less than the EU average of 10.2%, interestingly). With an ageing population and an obesity epidemic, it is no wonder few subject stir passions as strongly as the NHS. But what about our own personal relationship with this behemoth? Dr Phil Hammond - author, comedian and doctor - has written 'Staying Alive: How to get the best from the NHS' which not only does what it says on the front, but contains a lot of sensible advice on how to improve the NHS written from someone on the front line. Dr Phil visited Abingdon in 2009 - and he is a passionate, intelligent, trusted and highly entertaining guide to the realities of 21st century healthcare. Highly recommended for both personal and political reasons.

We're going to be subjected to a lot of propaganda via the media and advertising hoardings over the next month, so get the low-down on politicians and their relationship with advertisers and the press with the following two books.

'Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising' by Sam Delaney, starts with the well-known history of Saatchi et al in the 1980s, and tells you what happened next. The anecdotes are at times genuinely shocking and frequently hilarious, with Delaney talking to many of the key players. A brilliantly entertaining (if slightly sinister) history of political advertising.

'Beyond Contempt' by Peter Jukes is (we feel) the best account of the phone hacking trial. To be read with Owen Jones' 'The Establishment', it's a remarkable look at how power operates in this country. Ultimately depressing but thoroughly recommended.

A lot of people feel extremely patriotic during an election, and there really can be nothing more patriotic than recalling the plucky individuals that helped us to defeat the axis powers in World War Two. Zia Chaudhry's 'Just Your Average Muslim' recalls the 400,000 muslims that did just that - and if you are passionate about returning to a time when Britain stood up to the world, this book works hard to dispel some of the more modern, lazy stereotypes of muslims in British society - and encourages us to work harder to reflect on our similarities, not our differences.

No matter who you vote for, the government always seems to get in, eh? Political education needs to start young, so we're going to recommend DK's 'Who's In Charge?'. With a foreward by Andrew Marr, this is the perfect introduction to power and politics for the young. There are big challenges to our continued existence on the planet - it's the youth who are going to be resolving them. Start them young!

P.S. Feeling politically awakened? Want to support something that every major political leader has called for? We recommend voting for books, with the 'Read On. Get On' manifesto for reading.

P.P.S. The bookseller who offered us that 'privilege' advice nearly ten years ago? Anna Dreda of Wenlock Books, still going strong and definitely a bookshop you must visit