Friday, May 22, 2015

3-4-Friday Out Of This Word: Exploding Moons, Astronaut handbooks and post-apocalyptic Shakespeare

(c) Daniel Bursch / NASA
"The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program" - Larry Niven

Abingdon sits at the heart of a lot of science - and increasingly that includes Space Exploration. Whether it's next generation spaceplanes at Culham, space test facilities at the Rutherford Appleton Labs or the new European Centre for Space Applications at Harwell, it seems like dozens of new space organisations and companies are springing up all over the place.

So no apologies if today’s 3-4-Friday has a slightly out-of-this-word, sorry, world feel to it.

This November, astronaut Tim Peake will be the first British astronaut to be launched into space on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS), and he’s written the forward for Louie Stowell's ‘The Usborne Official Astronaut's Handbook’. It's a funny and fascinating how-to guide for budding astronauts, and Usborne says it provides a 'crash course' on what it takes to travel into space (but hopefully not that sort of crash).

Given that it costs about £300 million per ISS mission, we reckon £6.99 is a highly cost-effective way of learning how to train for, get to and live in space for kids – without actually going there.

Of course, if we don’t learn how to live in space, we’re sitting ducks for any rogue asteroid, nearby supernova explosion – or just wandering exo-planet that might stray too close. And that is the starting point for Neal Stephenson’s epic new science fiction novel ‘Seveneves’, published yesterday. 

When something (or someone) blows up the Moon, humans are forced to evacuate the Earth – and we follow the survivors over the next several hundred years as they evolve in space. As with all Stephenson’s novels, the science is merciless, the scale is epic, and you have to be up for the ride. But the result is a blistering, catch-your-breath, against-the-odds tale that might just serve as an emergency handbook in case we ever have to leave Earth in a hurry.

And if you’ve ever wondered what a post-apocalyptic life on Earth might actually be like, then ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St John Mandel won this year’s Arthur C Clarke award for the best science fiction novel of the year (it was also longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for women’s fiction).

It’s the elegiac story of Kirsten, who, part of a touring theatre group, performs Shakespeare to settlements that have grown up in the aftermath of society’s collapse. Haunting, yet strangely reassuring, it reminds us of what we can be thankful about in the absence of flu epidemics (or any other world-ending scenario).

For whilst we may strive to go off into space, we can't ignore what we have to protect here on Earth. If only there were a way of linking the two?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Could you write the next chapter for Mostly Books?

It's been nearly a year since we made the difficult decision to put Mostly Books up for sale. Since then, we've had a lot of people ask us about how our plans are proceeding to transition the shop to new owners, so we thought you might appreciate us taking the opportunity to keep you informed on the latest developments.

Having spoken to other booksellers who have gone through the same process, we were told that the process would be a slow one! 

We have had much interest – from all over the world - but so far, for various reasons, all have decided not to proceed.

The reasons for knowing we will no longer be able to continue running Mostly Books in the long-term future are very personal. Not surprisingly, most of the potential buyers reasons for not proceeding have been personal too – and it probably comes as no surprise that Abingdon is an expensive place to relocate to.

But we are still actively looking for someone to take on Mostly Books. 

We feel it has an important place in the community, and we believe it is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. We love doing events, doing outreach work in schools, and recommending the right books to the right people. So we feel the right person is out there who will want to come in and continue the Mostly Books story.

We just haven’t found them yet.

Do you know anyone who would like to own a bookshop? We want to cast our net as widely as possible to find the right person. You can find out more here.

From a business point of view, we have taken feedback from some of that early interest, and have reduced the asking price of the business, which makes it less of a financial commitment for anyone buying Mostly Books. We have a very experienced team - who have been involved in our decisions at every stage, so anyone wanting to have a life in books would find they could make the hours very flexible to fit their lifestyle.

We believe that the right person will want to come in to Mostly Books, and use it as a platform to bring their own ideas and enthusiasms, whether it's different events or even (as we discussed with one potential buyer) opening up the back to create extra space and a cafe.

We have been interested in the ideas that people expressing an interest have talked to us about, but no-one has been quite right, quite yet. 

We are very open to suggestions, and if you want to talk to us about your ideas - shared ownership, community ownership – we're keen to listen. Even if you think you know nothing about bookselling, but have a passion for books, we'll definitely be here to guide you through the process. Full training will be given!

Email us for more details!

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

John Henry Brookes: The man who inspired a university

On Wednesday, May 20 at 7.30pm we will be celebrating the life of John Henry Brookes, educationalist and founder of Oxford Brookes University, with Abingdon-based designer and author Bryan Brown, to coincide with the launch of his ground-breaking biography ‘John Henry Brookes: The man who inspired a university’.

When John Henry Brookes (JHB) became head teacher at the Oxford School of Art in 1928, there were just two members of staff teaching 90 students. By the time he retired in 1956, the institution had grown significantly and was by then called the Oxford College of Technology. He had set the foundations and ideas enabling it to grow into the internationally recognised university of today. 

During his 28 year career, Brookes, believing that education should be available to all, also helped to create two other schools; Oxford Spires Academy and Cheney School, as well as the Oxford College of Further Education, now known as the City of Oxford College.

"A goal of all formal education should be to graduate students to lead lives of consequence" - JH Brookes

This was a truly remarkable achievement during one of the most challenging periods in British history, including the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 30s, World War 2 and its deprived aftermath.

With photography dating back from the early years of the 20th century, and beautiful colour reproductions of artwork produced by Brookes, the biography will provide a compelling insight into the life of a man who was determined to change education for young people in Oxford. 

As well as an insight into one of the most influential educational leaders of the 20th century, the book explores how the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement influenced the development of education in Oxford. 

Bryan Brown is closely associated with John Henry Brookes. He was born in Oxford, attended Cheney School (founded by Brookes), and similarly trained as a designer. In 1992 when Oxford Polytechnic became a university, he recommended the name and developed the brand identity for Oxford Brookes University.

In 2005, he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the University and in recent years has led a campaign to reassert John Henry Brookes’ fading legacy. 

The event takes place at Mostly Books on Wednesday, May 20 at 7.30pm. Bryan will be discussing the man, his legacy and how what he did and achieved hold lessons for today's educationalists.

Tickets are £4, including a glass of wine, and redeemable against a purchase of the book on the night, which will be on offer at a special price.

We hope you can join us. Email us to reserve a place.

(Keen to learn more about JHB? Visit his page on the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques website)

Friday, May 01, 2015

Super Thursday indie-style: is that the sound of Summer Reading we hear?

Sometimes in the Autumn, it seems like every Thursday is "super-Thursday", a day when huge numbers of books are published, and bookshops up and down the land struggle to cope with the number of boxes coming in.

Generally speaking the book trade loves these events - it generates huge interest in books, and creates a real buzz about the big-hitters that are going to bring customers into the shop in the crucial Christmas period.

Independent bookshops tend to have a more mixed feeling about these days (particularly those checking books into stock!). We are much simpler folk, tending to mistrust the pile 'em high philosophy of traditional retail, and prefer instead a steadier stream of great titles that we can sort through, curate, and introduce to readers by placing a book into someone's hands.

But here's the curious thing. Inevitably, about six months later, many of these big titles get published in paperback. On the same day. Along with quite a few big-hitting new titles. And yet - not a peep it seems from the publishing world?

Now there may or may not be a few other things happening next Thursday, but - in the spirit of independent retail, and on the basis that the majority of readers prefer paperbacks and wait for them eagerly to be published as paperback (particularly fiction, particularly bookgroup books, particularly as the holiday reading season approaches) we're having our own 'Super Thursday' in the bookshop next week.

We can't promise scantily-clad publicity assistants (of either gender). Or features on Start The Week. Although Mark may bare his knees if you are unlucky...

But we can promise some great reading to fire the gun on some of favourite reads ahead of Summer...

Kate Atkinson's dazzling 'Life After Life', explored the possibility of infinite chances, as Ursula Todd lived through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. In 'A God in Ruins', Atkinson turns her focus on Ursula's beloved younger brother RAF bomber pilot Teddy.

This is a highly engrossing and often heartbreaking journey though post-war Britain from the point of view of someone who witnessed so much death in his young life, his greatest challenge becomes to face living in a future he never expected to have. It manages to be a story about death, about life and also about narrative and story itself and certainly deserves to be considered a masterpiece and to be treasured as such.

One of our favourite books when it was published back in the Autumn (and with a much friendlier picture of Alan for the paperback cover!) 'Not My Father's Son' by Alan Cumming is part memoir, part family-history mystery, and part whodunnit as an appearance on Who Do You Think You Are sets off a landslide of family secrets and half-truths that make for a genuine page-turning read with a hugely satisfying ending.

You cannot help but get sucked into the entwined tale of two strands of Alan's family and the revelations at times are jaw-dropping. An uplifting, effortless read that's also an unexpected meditation on the shadows - and light - cast on us by our ancestors. 

We love Louise Levene - her debut 'A Vision of Loveliness' brilliantly evoked the dark-edged realities and possibilities of being a young woman in 60s London. So it's appropriate the we've moved into the 1970s with 'The Following Girls' (and we love that cover!)

Amanda Baker is part of a school gang 'the four Mandies', girls who are constantly in trouble at school. Stuck in the 1970s, where there is still a fight over woman having jobs and not being bound to the house all day, they have the teenage mindset of hating everything; from school to their parents rules. A funny, sharp story about growing up, life and friendship that could be more dangerous than good. This is one of Imogen's picks for the Summer.

One of Mark's favourites from last year is 'The Axeman's Jazz' by Ray CelestinA killer is on the loose in New Orleans at the end of World War. A letter to the police promises to kill on a specific date, but also to spare anyone in whose house ‘a jazz band is in full swing’. Thus starts a frenetic jazz-fuelled race against the clock in the sultry, swampy, racially-charged state of post-war Louisiana. Corruption is rife, but it’s in everyone’s interest – politicians, police and Mafiosi – to catch the killer. But just who is responsible for the Axeman’s Jazz? Original, suspenseful and based on true events, this is cracking entertainment.

The death of Terry Pratchett was widely - and fittingly - mourned throughout the reading world, so it's very appropriate that Julia has voted for 'A Slip of the Keyboard', published in paperback on May 7. This collection of the best of Terry Pratchett's includes observations on subjects as diverse as animal rights, Gandalf's love life, banana daiquiris - and the disease that eventually killed him. With a forward by Neil Gaiman (with who he collaborated on the book 'Good Omens') this is a fine way to honour one of our greatest writers. 

A few times a year, a book is published that isn't just a bestseller, but a literary phenomenon. David Nicholls' book 'One Day' certainly fell into that category, but the tone is altogether darker in 'Us' which arrives in paperback ready for one of our big Summer reading picks.

With their teenage son all grown up, is there any reason for Connie and Douglas to stay together? Unwisely they plan an elaborate last family holiday – taking in the whole of Europe. What follows is a well-observed, sometimes hilarious, often painful bittersweet story of a marriage.

A new No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novel from Alexander McCall Smith is a cause for shouting for huge numbers of readers (and a celebratory pot of redbush tea), so we're delighted that 'The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe' arrives in paperback on May 7. 

This is Mma Ramotswe's fifteenth adventure (can you believe that?) and this time the focus is fully on Mma Makutsi, Ramotswe's enthusiastic, ambitious business partner (although officially she's only 'an assistant full partner' of course). Launching her own new enterprise, the 'Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe' ("only for the fashionable people") she's soon up to her neck in grumpy chefs, drunken waiters. So who's she gonna call? Mma Ramotswe, of course.

One of our favourite children's authors, Frances Hardinge, is riding high at the moment with her novel 'Cuckoo Song' being read across the country by children shadowing the Carnegie Award. And 'The Lie Tree' is another blistering original piece of storytelling that seems destined for awards.

In Victorian England, Faith knows she has no future as a scientist like her father. But when he is murdered she discovers women can be good at influencing and manipulating behind the scenes and she sets about trying to uncover the truth, even though no-one will believe it. Another thought-provoking, imaginative tale that weaves science and fantasy - Frances Hardinge is definitely at the cutting edge of YA writing.

(Frances had some cracking writing tips for aspiring authors when she came to Abingdon a few years ago - if you are interested about her writing process, our interview with her is well worth reading)

Back to non-fiction, and this was a giant of a book last Autumn - and a book we recommended a lot (and even spoke about on the radio). 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 changes in our brain that allowed us to tell stories, imagine alternative scenarios, and out-manoeuvre other species (notably Neanderthals). From there we became farmers, developed religion, invented money, harnessed technology and threatened widespread extinction.

The writing is superb – fresh, brazen – 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?

Another incredible book from one of Imogen's favourite authors - particularly relevant because two of our staff (no names!) will be travelling down to London later in May to a big event with author Sarah J Maas...

'A Court of Thorns and Roses' is a unique retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Follow Feyre as she is dragged from her home to live in a world dangous for Mortals. Filled with fey and magic, nothing is ever as it seems, and as the time she spends there lengths, she realises that the fey she lives with are hiding more than just their faces under the masks that they wear. Perfect for any fairytale loved, the magic of this book will not leave you even after finishing the last page...

With a highly prolific career - including a fictional retelling of the battle of Waterloo - it may surprise you to learn that 'Waterloo : The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles' is Bernard Cornwell's first ever non-fiction title.

Cornwell combines his storytelling skills with a meticulously researched history to give a riveting account of every dramatic moment of the battle of Waterloo, from Napoleon's escape from Elba to the smoke and gore of the battlefields. Through letters and diaries he also sheds new light on the private thoughts of Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, as well as the ordinary officers and soldiers. Published to coincide with the bicentenary this year, Waterloo is a tense and gripping story of heroism and tragedy - and of the final battle that determined the fate of Europe...

Finally, mystery stories are big at the moment for children, and we are big fans of Lauren Child and her undercover, wisecracking, teen sleuth Ruby Redfort. With funky new jackets for the whole series, book 3 arrives in paperback on Thursday: 'Catch You Death'. Ruby finds herself in a survival situation, with tigers and other wild animals on the loose. But if anyone can solve the mystery, it's going to be Ruby...

So - twelve of the best for Super Thursday. The odd one not (strictly speaking) published on that day, but near enough. And with other hardback titles from Mostly Books favourite Jeffery Deaver (Solitude Creek, the new Kathryn Dance novel), Kathy Reich's latest on paperback ('Bones Never Lie') and Wilbur Smith's 'Desert God' there will be a lot of activity in the shop next Thursday...