Sunday, January 31, 2016

Crooked, twisted, but having a great day: BBC Oxford Afternoon Book Buzz

This week we were utterly thrilled to watch as Oxford-based author Frances Hardinge picked up one of the biggest prizes in British publishing - the Costa Book of the Year award.

Frances' books are a bold and imaginative blend of science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, history and horror for children and young adults. But aside from her exquisite writing, she's a thoroughly lovely and generous person - and when we've taken her into local schools, the children have always been inspired to write themselves.

So we were excited to be able to rave about her Costa-winning book 'The Lie Tree' on BBC Radio Oxford this week. You can listen to the show here (fast-forward to approximately 2 hours 40 minutes).

Here are the books we reviewed:

The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge (PB, Macmillan, £7.99)
It’s Victorian England, and Faith knows she has no future as a scientist like her father. But when he is found dead under mysterious circumstances, she discovers that a woman in Victorian society can be good at influencing and manipulating behind the scenes, and she sets about trying to uncover the truth, despite no-one believing her. In her father’s belongings, she finds a strange tree that seems to feed off of whispered lies, and the bigger and more believed the lies, the more the tree grows. She decides to experiment with it, but things start to spiral desperately out of control.

This is another brilliantly thought-provoking, imaginative tale that weaves science and fantasy, drawing on deep storytelling and fairy tale themes but totally original. Frances Hardinge is definitely at the cutting edge of YA writing – and now she’s one of our most celebrated authors.

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans (Black Swan, PB, £7.99)

Where Frances Hardinge has written a book which has plenty of appeal for adult readers, Lissa Evans is an author who writes for children and adults. Lissa’s children’s books are brilliantly imaginative mystery stories and have been shortlisted for just about every children’s award going (here's a review we did in 2011 for 'Small Change for Stuart', one of favourite children's books ever)

In Crooked Heart, we reckon she’ll get plenty more nominations. It’s simply a rollicking good story, told with dark humour, showing how different people, with different skills, can be thrown together and blossom in the confusion of war.

The story is set at the outbreak of World War II, and Noel Bostock - aged ten, with no family - is evacuated from London to escape the Blitz. He winds up in St Albans with Vera Sedge. They seem the polar opposite: where Noel is studious, serious and analytical, Vee is instinctive, opportunistic and always on the make, drowning in debts and always desperate for money.

On her own, Vee’s a disaster, but with Noel, she's a team. But the consequences of their activities start to make them dangerous enemies, and Noel finds evacuation hasn’t exactly made him safer. Funny, original, a wonderful read.

How to Have a Good Day : Think Bigger, Feel Better and Transform Your Working Life – Caroline Webb (Macmillan, PB, £14.99)

Finally, we're big suckers for personal development or ‘how-to’ books (or, as we like to euphemistically call them, ‘success literature’) but in recent years the move has been to back up traditional recommendations of success (positive thinking, positive affirmations and goal settings) with the latest developments in how the brain works.

What we love about Caroline Webb’s ‘How to Have a Good Day’ is how it’s written as a handbook to achieve better outcomes in your life, with a folksy, attractive style which sets nice, achievable steps and contains plenty of real, recent proof that her tips really work.

It’s not grandiose, it’s nicely self-deprecating, and contains all sorts of science-backed, small changes we can make to achieve really desirable outcomes e.g. getting a better night’s sleep, getting along better with work colleagues, feeling fitter and achieving more. What a great way to start the year!

Friday, January 15, 2016

3 4 Friday - New fiction for 2016: Secrets, Lies and Blurred Realities

2016 has started with a bang, with loads of new fiction coming into the shop. For today's '3 4 Friday' selection, we've picked three new titles for you to enjoy.

In ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ documentary maker Kate Hamer has written an intriguing debut: with elements of a thriller, it is more an exploration of religious ideas, family ties and personal identity.

Inspired by fairy tales - as well as Hamer's discovery of an infamous ancestor who ran a cult - it is the story of an abducted girl - Carmel - told from the point of view of both her and her family. The book is published in paperback this month.

When Carmel disappears the police comb every piece of evidence trying to discover who on earth might have snatched her. But the reader sees the story from Carmel’s eyes and know her abductors have been planning this meticulously for years. Her captor, pretending to be her estranged grandfather, believes Carmel has special powers and has taken her because he believes she should be doing the work of God. So begins Carmel’s extraordinary new life, struggling to keep her identity while ‘grandfather’ plans something quite different. But at home, neither her mother nor the police have ever given up on finding a lead that will lead them back to Carmel...

With plenty of themes to discuss, we think it would make a great bookgroup read.

Different points of view are also at play in 'The Widow' by Fiona Barton. This is one of 2016's big new hardback releases, and it's definitely tapping into the unreliable narrator aspects of last year's huge hit 'The Girl on the Train' (even the cover looks familiar).

What works brilliantly is this three-way story – the widow of a man (Glen Taylor) who went on trial for child abduction, the policemen who doggedly collected evidence, and the journalist who sees a career-making chance at a story when Glen Taylor dies.

As the truth is teased out of the widow, will it emerge that the police set him up as Glen always claimed? Or has the silent widow always known a lot more than she claims?

Barton is a former journalist who covered some infamous court cases for The Daily Mail and The Telegraph - and found herself drawn to the wives of those men accused of terrible crimes. You'll be hearing a lot about this book as the year progresses...

Our first event of 2016 is in conjunction with Abingdon Library, when author Francesca Kay will be discussing her new novel 'The Long Room'.

The novel - set in 1981 - is the story of Stephen Donaldson, who’s day is spent listening into the endless taped conversations of others – ageing communists and small-time revolutionaries – for giveaway signs of terrorist activity. But being part of the secret service is not the dashing job Stephen imagined and life has failed him in so many ways.

Listening brings him into the world of the wife of one of the suspects and he quickly becomes obsessed with offering her a better life. From diligent, quiet and lonely, ‘The Long Room’ charts Stephen’s descent into risk-taking and rule-breaking as the line between obsession and reality starts to blur,

Francesca Kay’s first novel, 'An Equal Stillness', won the Orange Award for New Writers in 2009. She lives in Oxford with her family. She will be at Abingdon Library on Wednesday, January 27 at 7.30pm. Tickets are £2 and are available from the library - and find out more here.

Here's to finding your next favourite author in 2016...and we'd love to hear what you are reading!