Friday, September 25, 2015

3 4 Friday - The fragility of global economics, porcelain perfection and the human heart: Edmund De Waal, Vince Cable and Jojo Moyes

Today's '3 4 Friday' is about fragility - the things we take for granted that can break at any moment.

On Wednesday, at Our Lady's Abingdon, former MP and Coalition Business Secretary Sir Vince Cable compared the global economy to a heart attack patient. Seemingly walking around and smiling, and well on the way to recovering, the emergency life support (in the form of quantitative easing and low interest rates) are still plugged in, and no-one seems to have a clear idea on how we remove it...

Sir Vince endeavoured to answer this vexing question - and others - in what was an intelligent, even-handed and above all entertaining evening (three words you might not feel go automatically with discussions about global economics...).

His first book 'The Storm' - written in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis - was an unexpected critical and commercial success. Sir Vince has been able to go back to that book and take a more measured look at what has happened since - and 'After The Storm' also contains the added insight from five years as Business Secretary in the Coalition government. 

His writing is as lucid and compelling as his talk - and with the economic future as fragile and uncertain as its ever been, the book covers everything from why young people can't afford to buy houses, to the political narrative of austerity.

The sobering reality is that patient could suffer another attack at any moment. Britian needs to use its wisdom, experience and influence on an international stage to start offering solutions. This book is an excellent start.

(For a fantastic write-up on some of the details of Vince's talk, Ben has written a brilliant account of the evening - we recommend visiting his blog and reading "There may be trouble ahead" to learn more.

The Abingdon Blog also featured a report and more photos.)


Whilst there are no prizes for naming the most famous 'Potter' in literature, the second most famous might just be Edmund De Waal. The potter, ceramicist and - thanks to his book 'The Hare with the Amber Eyes' - bestselling author has just published his latest book, a history of the fragile perfection along 'The White Road', a personal history of porcelain manufacture.

'The Hare with the Amber Eyes' was that rarest of things; a book that worked on almost every level, mixing beautiful writing, heartbreaking family history, art and philosophy. In 'The White Road', De Waal starts off with his beloved 'Netsuke' and follows the history of porcelain manufacture from ancient China through Dresden, Venice and Versailles, via Cornwall and Dachau. De Waal's passion and deep love of pottery sweeps you up in an at-times dark tale of our pursuit of perfection in white objects.

And our final choice is the fragility of the human heart - and really learning to love again. Since being published in 2002, author Jojo Moyes has rapidly grown to become one of our favourite romantic novelists. Her book 'Me Before You' catapulted her to the big time, and 'After You' - the eagerly awaited sequel - was published yesterday. With a film of 'Me Before You' planned for 2016, we're very excited to have signed copies of Jojo's new book in the shop.

Set shortly after the last book ends, Louisa Clark (Lou) has to pick her self up and move on in the aftermath of her relationship with Will Traynor. Moyes' writes character perfection, with a story you can really get lost in. I think readers sometimes make too big a deal about the amount of crying and laughter that a book elicits (as if you can measure the quality of a book in millilitres of tears). But Moyes effortlessly moves the reader emotionally with the grace of a dancer and the skill of a Jujitsu Black Belt. Just brilliant...

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Maths can be Murder - Five questions with Kjartan Poskitt

If your school ever does an event with Kjartan Poskitt, and you ever get a chance to volunteer to go up on stage with him - think very carefully. During two sessions at Our Lady's School today - involving children from four different primary schools in Abingdon - children eagerly rushed up on to the stage to discover they were going to be poisoned, shoved bodily through a greetings card, or asked to perform a variety of strange and bizarre activities.

Well obviously, not actually *poisoned*. The game called poisoned chocolate didn't actually contain real poison (or, sadly, chocolate).

Kjartan Poskitt is a natural and gifted performer, comedian and mathematician - and all the children who witnessed his puzzles, games and murderous mathematical mayhem simply loved it.

There was some priceless moments. One of the girls who volunteered had to pick someone to provide a number for one of the tricks. "Pick a boy you like" suggested Kjartan. "What, in here?" she fired back...

Kjartan started with a few tricks and maths games - some of which the kids were shown how to play on hapless friends and relatives (the 'twenty nine' trick is simply brilliant) and there are many things on his murderous maths website which you can download and use yourself (click on the 'tricks' section).

Kjartan was very clear that everything in his books is checked and correct ("otherwise you get complaining letters from men with beards telling you where you've gone wrong").

Naturally we took the opportunity to ask Kjartan a few questions about maths, and his wrting journey...


Five questions with . . . Kjartan Poskitt's writing life

1.    What are you working on at the moment?

I'm working on a maths 'maze' book for younger children. I can't say too much about it, but...it's going to be the Holy Grail of maths books for learning times tables (hopefully!)

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?

Always write SOMETHING. If you get something down, you can always come back, and work out a way to improve it.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?

I love doing the festivals, meeting the kids and families. I never thought, being an author, writing on your own, that you'd get such an opportunity to get feedback directly from the children themselves. The worst? That's a tough question, I guess it'd be finding a sequel once you've had a book do well. There's real pressure to make it better, the worst thing you can hear is 'it wasn't as good as his last book'.

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?

My shoelaces have to be tied at just the right tightness. If they aren't, I just tend to fiddle with them...

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?

Murderous maths, definitely. I was a pub piano player, and murderous maths gave me the opportunity to be an author. The books are in 30 languages, it gives me the opportunity to visit schools like these, and it's been brilliant.

Friday, September 11, 2015

3 4 Friday - the joy of strips, or how we embraced graphic novels

When I was a teenager, I spent an awful lot of time reading comics: mostly a British comic called 2000AD. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I was reading stories by authors and illustrators who would go on to be some of our best-known and loved tellers of stories, such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.

As I got more into Science Fiction, I stumbled across a different kind of comic - 'Watchmen'. The book was a revelation: sophisticated, not (as with other comics) to be enjoyed in one sitting, and with characterisation and plot as rich and thrilling as any novel I'd read.

The Graphic Novel had arrived. And people have being arguing over the difference between comics, graphic novels and literature ever since...

We've carried Graphic Novels in the shop for some time - but this week we expanded our Science Fiction space to accommodate a broader range - and we've taken the (controversial?) decision to include a few comic books in there as well.

Independent Bookshops are not so hidebound to stick to 'traditional' categories anyway - but like more things we try in the shop, rapid evolution based on customer feedback is the order of the day...

Here's a few of the titles we have on the shelf to give you a bit of an idea of what we're trying to do...

Firstly, I've recommended and ordered this book for may customers over the year - but 'Pride of Baghdad' has now got a space on the shelves. Written by Brian Vaughan and illustrated by Niko Henrichon, it's based on the true story of four African lions who escaped Baghdad Zoo after its bombing during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

As a metaphor for the rights and wrongs of the war, it works well, but as a thrilling and hugely moving story in its own right, it's storytelling perfection. It also happens to be a great introduction to concepts such as war, freedom and liberty for teen readers.

Straight comic books have languished for many years, until the arrive of the DFC (short for the 'David Fickling Comic') in 2008. When the DFC closed, it was replaced by The Phoenix Comic in 2012 - still going strong.

We know the team at David Fickling well, and we're big supporters of the newly-independent publishing company, with favourite recent titles including 'Shadow of the Wolf', 'The Murdstone Trilogy' and 'Thirteen Chairs'. Within Fickling, we're rather known as 'the independent bookshop that stopped stocking The Phoenix' but actually we were so passionate about it, that I think we actually got everyone signed up to a subscription...

But the DFC Library gives us a great opportunity to relive some of the best strips from the DFC - and jostling for position amongst 'Bunny versus Monkey' is the genius that is 'Corpse Talk'. Anyone who likes 'Chatty Deaths' on Horrible Histories will understand the idea, but the format and pacing of the comic strip really allows the subjects to (no pub intended) 'come alive', and there's a surprising amount of history packed in there . And some truly awful jokes...brilliant.

We're into Season 2 now - I wonder what Guy Fawkes thinks about the current crop of MPs?

Finally, you'll notice Emma Chichester Clark's 'Plumdog' in there. Any review we do could not do justice to 'Read It Daddy''s brilliant analysis - so we'll hand over to him for why this is so brilliant.

But we are keen to learn. What other graphic novels should we get? What is a graphic novel anyway? We'd love to hear from you...

Friday, September 04, 2015

3 4 Friday - Here be wolves and dragons...and a woman's maximum security prison

There is a seasonality to bookselling. The quiet, early part of the year gives way to Easter, then the shop blooms into the Summer reading season and the end of the school year, then Summer visitors - and finally September arrives.

This is the signal to don your bookselling goggles, tie yourself to the nearest lamppost and strap in for the storm of new publications arriving in the shop. It's an exhilarating and nerve-wracking time. Amongst the Christmas heavyweights, superstar authors and multiple 'super Thursdays', you definitely want to apply the filters, curating the pick of the best books for your readers, but equally you don't want to miss the slam-dunk hit of the year whilst you were fending off the slew of hardbacks...

Over the next few weeks we'll feature some of our favourite titles on the blog - some of our very favourite authors are publishing some sublime books. But which books are worth your time and effort?

Goggles ready? Then let's begin...

There's a bit of an end-of-days feeling around at the moment, what with the last ever Discworld novel from the much-missed Terry Pratchett (who had a special connection to Abingdon). But another long-running and much-loved series also reaches its climax with the publications of the final book in the 'How To Train Your Dragon' series by Cressida Cowell.

'How to Fight a Dragon's Fury' sees an epic, apocalyptic battle between Dragons and Humans, with Hiccup on the verge of being crowned King of the Westerlands. But Alvin the Treacherous ('there's a clue in the name') has swiped the 'Ten Lost Things', and will be crowned king instead - with plans to destroy the dragons forever.

It's exciting, funny and a fantastic finale to one of the most original series in modern children's fiction - and quite frankly it's a relief to be able to now talk now about some of the secrets Cressida revealed when she visited Kennington library in 2012...

Another author we've been privileged to do events with is Katherine Rundell. Her debut 'Girl Savage' marked the arrival of a new and blistering children's writing talent on the scene, and we'd already been telling everyone how utterly marvellous her follow-up 'Rooftoppers' was when it only went and won the Blue Peter and Waterstone Children's Book Prize.

Having now joined publisher Bloomsbury, her latest book 'The Wolf Wilder' is possibly her best yet - and that's saying something...

Feodora and her mother live surrounded by the snowbound woods of Russia and with only wolves for company. In a world where there is a huge divide between rich and poor, the rich have taken to taking wild wolves as pets. But if they turn savage, they are brought to Feo and her mother - wolf wilders. But with such a divide between rich and poor, revolution is brewing and when Feo is unwittingly caught up in the fight, suddenly, having wolves on your side can make you very sought after – for good reasons and by bad people.

In Katherine's trademark style, Feo is left with no option but to go on the run, finding friends and fighting foes, finding out what her skills and her strengths really are. What follows is a story of revolution and adventure, about standing up for the things you love and fighting back, rich in language and lore and with a spirited protagonist you will be rooting for all the way.

Published as a gorgeous hardback edition, complete with atmospheric illustrations, this is a book to treasure in every way. It deserves to be on every children's book prize list going, and cements Katherine's position in the premier league of contemporary children's authors.


Finally, there is an embarrassment of riches at the moment on the fiction tables, with some of our biggest authors publishing shiny new hardbacks. Both William Boyd and Jonathan Franzen hold up mirrors in their latest books, one to the 20th century century in 'Sweet Caress', the other to our social media-soaked ephemeral world in 'Purity'. And the eagerly-awaited third novel from Sisters Brothers' author Patrick DeWitt plays fast and loose with fairy tale settings in the blackly humorous 'Undermajordomo Minor'. Take a look at each of these when you next come in.


But we are going to be championing 'The Book of Memory', a gem of a novel from Zimbabwean-born writer Petina Gappah.

On the face of it, this story of a young woman, languishing on death row in Zimbabwe's notorious Chikurubi maximum security prison, and chock full of Shona-dialect language and cultural references might not seem an obvious choice for a wide readership. But like the very best storytellers, Gappah tells one of the brightest, freshest, most surprising and above all witty tales we've read in a long, long time. We're always wary of mash-up comparisons, but think Chimamande Adichie crossed with Kate Atkinson and a little bit of Nina Stibbe thrown in. Bookgroups should be queuing up to read this, as should anyone - male or female - who is up for discovering a new favourite author. One of our favourite books of the year - read it!