Friday, July 24, 2015

Book reviews - The Sequel!

A job description of a bookseller might include something like the following: ‘someone who gets excited about books you’re going to want to read’. We often see a new book and think “that would be perfect for...” or “we must show that to...”

But what also gets us excited is when a favourite author comes up with his or her next novel. Sometimes it's a sequel, sometimes another stand-alone. There’s obviously trepidation (what if it’s not as good as the first?). But follow-up novels are a chance it’s a chance to introduce you to a new author – and seeing an author grow and develop is definitely one of the joys of this job.

So today we’re going to tell you about some sequels that have come into the shop this week from authors who’s first books we absolutely loved (appropriate given that ‘Go Set A Watchman’ is still generating plenty of debate...). Here are some of our favourite picks:

We loved Benjamin Wood’s debut novel ‘The Bellwether Revivals’, one of the most impressive debuts of recent years. Whilst that book was a gripping exploration of the line between genius and madness, Wood’s latest book ‘The Ecliptic’ is set in an artist’s community off the coast of Istanbul, and examines the sources of – and prices paid for – artistic creativity. Woods own special genius is to blend exceptional writing, imagery and characters with a plot that grips. The story of Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conroy, her struggle to produce a masterpiece and what happens when a teenager – Fullerton – arrives on the island will suck you in and grab hold of you – much like ‘The Bellwether Revivals’ did.

We have also enjoyed recommending Ernest Cline’s ‘Ready Player One’ over the past few years. This dystopian novel, set in an environmentally-degraded future, is largely a treasure hunt set in an 80s-themed virtual reality world. Cline’s new novel ‘Armada’ is easily Julia’s favourite book of the year so far, and here’s what she says about it:

“Another amazing novel from the author of 'Ready Player One', it tells the Story of Zack whose father died and left behind a small notebook in which he outlines his theory that computer games and sci-fi films are the governments way of preparing us for an alien invasion. With strong comparisons to The Last Starfighter and Ender's Game, this enthralling read has the same unique blend of lyrical storytelling merged with other eighties culture that fans of Cline's writing style will really love.”

If you have any children going for the Summer Reading Challenge – we recommend Jennifer Gray’s follow-up to ‘Chicken Mission’ (illustrated by Hannah George). The first book was a fun, frantic adventure story involving Amy Cluckbucket, inducted into the Kung Foo School for Poultry in Tibet under the tutelage of Professor Rooster and involving hapless duck spy James Pond. The sequel ‘The Curse of Fogsham Farm’ sees Amy and her elite chicken squad go up against a vampire mink and an army of zombie chickens...imaginative fun with bags of appeal for boys and girls 7-10.

We also recommend taking a look at ‘Violet and the Hidden Treasure’ by Harriet Whitehorn (beautifully illustrated by Becka Moor). It’s the follow up to ‘Violet and the Pearl of the Orient’ and is a gorgeously illustrated, gripping mystery which should appeal to ‘Goth Girl’ fans. Involving Indian Maharajahs, a missing fortune and an unusual cockatoo, it’s quirky and brilliant. As her godmother Celeste says “Sherlock better watch out, ‘cos Violet’s about!”

There's loads more in the shop - come in for a recommendation...

Friday, July 10, 2015

IBW2015: the slingshot effect, or how to get to Pluto using only books

This post is a biggie. It will take us deep into the world of books and independent bookshops. It will also take us to the very edge of the solar system.

Hold on to your hats...

The last few weeks have been *busy* for us - the end of June means the end of term, and that means prizes and school gifts, the start of lots of visitors visiting the beautiful town of Abingdon (from all over the world) and the Summer reading season. And nice weather just means there are more folks out on the street...

In recent years this heady mix has also included Independent Bookshop Week, a chance to celebrate the passion, expertise, quirkiness and general wonderfulness that is the world of independent bookshops.

In recent years we have taken advantage of the tremendous support of publishers and authors to put on events and set up promotions. This year has been no different.

Bookshops have a love/hate relationship with events. Good events are some of the best experiences we have, and create real magic in the shop and around the community. But the sheer range of events that we put on - bookgroups, children's activities, author readings, signings, not to mention all the online activities - mean that it's tricky to get the balance right. Too few of the right events and customers won't come. Worse, if you do too many, you risk collapsing with exhaustion, or just distracting yourself from the basics - being a great bookshop.

Given our enthusiasm for all things space at the moment we are going to share with you what we did during IBW2015, and share with you our theory of bookshop events. It's called 'the slingshot effect' and it has everything to do with a journey that reaches its climax next Tuesday, as a small, fragile satellite bristling with technology whizzes past the dwarf planet Pluto.

We want you to think of that satellite as an independent bookshop. The story of how it got there remarkable, and stories are what we are all about...

First up for us was the annual Carnegie Shadowing event at Abingdon's Guildhall. Six secondary schools, over 100 pupils, get together, are mixed up into different groups, and spend a day preparing and then 'pitching' short performances about each of the shortlisted books. We're extremely proud to be one of the sponsors of the event - and we also sit on the panel of judges, reviewing and awarding prizes to the best reviews.

The amount of energy generated - and the sheer enthusiasm about reading and reviewing often challenging new books - is infectious and hugely enjoyable. As in previous years, some of the shortlisted titles generated a lot of controversy. But, as in previous year, the children involved proved themselves resilient, open-minded and mature in the way they considered the books.

As one young reviewer said of 'Buffalo Soldier', the eventual winner, "It captures your heart in a stunning way by really highlighting the travesty of war. It lingers on how you can't wash away blood, no matter how hard you scrub".

A big annual event with a halo of good stuff surrounding it. This event is a bit like Saturn.

Then Independent Bookshop Week began in earnest. We had shop visits by school groups from three separate schools. We were able to talk to them and get them excited about books - as in previous years, some of the children had never visited a bookshop before. Even our customers got involved at one point, becoming ad hoc reviewers amongst the bubble of enthusiasm and new titles from newly-discovered authors.

Chaotic. Intense. The readers of the future. And given that at least one of our year 10s chose 'The Martian' - Mars seems very appropriate.

On the Thursday evening everyone was utterly charmed by Laura Barnett, author of one of the hottest debuts of the year 'The Versions of Us'. 

On a sultry Summer's evening in a packed courtyard garden, Laura described her writing journey and the themes of her book - which takes three characters on their own journey through three different versions of their lives.

We love doing events with authors at the very start of the literary journey, and Laura is destined to go far. An evening star, with exquisite and beautiful prose, we have to compare her and the event to Venus!

We had plenty of other things going on during IBW2015 - storytimes, promotions - and of course plenty of new titles to recommend to those people coming in to show support.

But on the final Saturday we had a very special event indeed to coincide with the meeting of our YA bookgroup. We had invited Sally Nicholls along to talk to the group - the challenged and delighted of writing for children, and her own journey as a writer - and we were utterly thrilled to learn that Sally's book 'An Island of Our Own' had won the IBW2015 Children's Book Award.

So we were proud to present Sally with her award, welcome some important visitors to the shop, and listen to her talk to the group in the blistering sun of the courtyard garden.

In terms of the temperature, and excitement, this was hot. Sally's fleetness of foot, and her delivery of some very good news means we have to choose Mercury.

(There was also an abortive attempt to appear on BBC Radio Oxford during the week - mission scrubbed due to traffic - 'space is hard' as they say...)

We told you to think about that tiny satellite. In order to get 'New Horizons' out to Pluto quickly, it had to be looped around at least five of the other planets, exactly as if you were using a slingshot and a tiny pebble.

We believe the 'slingshot' approach to independent bookselling is a great one for scheduling events. Some events are big, some are small, all change your trajectory and endeavour to propel you faster towards your distant goal.

And what is that goal? An excited community. A widening readership. Serendipity and discoverability. And the continued existence of a diverse bookselling world.

In short - the very best of what independent bookshops can be.

As you may know, Mostly Books is about to embark on a slightly new direction and the next stage of its journey. To everyone who supported - and continues to support - us, and all the other wonderful independent bookshops out there, thank you!

Friday, July 03, 2015

Happy Birthday Alice - origins, inspiration and timelessness

One of John Tenniel's
original illustrations
‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is 150 years old in 2015 and to celebrate there will be lots of Alice-themed events happening at Mostly Books over the Summer.

But how did such a timeless classic begin?

It’s a fascinating story and one we thought you might be interested in...

The river outing of maths lecturer, Charles Dodgson, with the Liddell family on 4 July 1862, from Folly Bridge to Godstow, is now famous for the fact that the Alice story was told and Alice Liddell asked for the story to be written down.

It took him more than two years to finish, but it was a success from the moment it was published, with Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde among early fans.

Political cartoonist John Tenniel, was asked to do illustrations (and has been cited by new children’s laureate, Chris Riddell as a huge influence) and not only brought the story to life, but created pictures which have become part of the public consciousness.

You can read the full story on Macmillan's rather wonderful Alice150 website.

Particularly intriguing is the influence of the restrictions of colour printing on the colour of Alice’s dress. For example, did you know that originally Alice’s dress was red – and in one edition, yellow.

The book has never been out of print, but changed in its early years.

Not long after Carroll’s death in 1898, a new edition was planned and as Tenniel’s eyesight was fading. Harry G. Theaker was commissioned to colour sixteen plates of the Tenniel illustrations for a one volume edition of Alice and Through the Looking Glass published in 1911.

The blue that he used for colouring Alice’s dress, together with the white apron and blue striped stockings, established the iconic dress colour that has remained in the Macmillan editions ever since. It was later adopted by Walt Disney for their 1951 film.

After a couple of alternative titles for Carroll’s story were rejected - Alice Among the Fairies and Alice’s Golden Hour - the book was published by Macmillan in 1865 as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

There are editions now for all ages, from gift versions to picture book retellings, but our current favourite is the Little Folks Edition. It is a charming miniature edition of Lewis Carroll's classic tale which is specially abridged for younger readers. A sixth of the length of the original 1865 edition, it features 32 brightly coloured illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, uniquely featuring Alice in a red dress and faithfully reproduced from a rare archive copy, this unique little book retains all the charm of the historic original.

Celebrate 150 years of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with a pocket-sized piece of history!

Of course, Alice in Wonderland has inspired all kinds of other books and creative works, from Damon Albarn's musical to The Matrix.

Some of the themes familiar from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ take on a nightmarish tone in Cathy Cassidy’s ‘The Looking-Glass Girl,’ written in celebration of 150 years of Lewis Carroll’s timeless book and brings many of the themes to a modern audience.

Cathy Cassidy is one of our best-loved authors, cherished for her family stories of friendship and early teen romantic fiction (and we were very pleased to be involved with her at a recent event at Didcot Girls School). So it’s a departure and a move into new territory that ‘The Looking-Glass Girl’ takes on a thriller tone right from the start.

Alice has been increasingly isolated since her best-friends from primary have moved into a much ‘cooler’ set at secondary school. So when she gets invited to a sleepover with them she is not sure whether to be pleased or concerned – a feeling many girls of this age will easily relate to. 
What does the night have in store? Is there some other motivation for inviting her along? What will they being doing and will she be ‘cool’ and grown-up enough?

From when she arrives at the Wonderland-themed party, everything from costumes and the painted faces of the other guests is unsettling. The drink is served in a teapot that Alice suspects is spiked with alcohol, Alice knows she is out of her depth, but desperate to be included.

She has to tread as carefully as her namesake to work out friend from foe, but it all goes horribly wrong.

We know from the opening of the story Alice will end up in a coma, with everyone lying and covering up exactly what went on.

The tension is cranked up from unexpected arrivals at the party and a few games where Alice feels she is less of a guest, more of bait. 

The arrival of a boy Alice likes ratchets up the tension as she can see clearly that one of the other girls likes him too . . .

Taut plotting means the story of what actually happened that night and what is really going on among Alice’s ‘friends’ is revealed only slowly, partly through confessions at her hospital bedside and her nightmarish dreams as she tries to find her way back from unconsciousness to the real world.

Tweens and early teens will love this fresh tale with more than a hint of threat and danger in amongst this tale of friendship and early romance. A total triumph and really true to the original tale, while being really fresh and different.