Friday, September 30, 2016

In space no-one can hear you eat chocolate: five questions with Cas Lester

Last Thursday we were delighted to support a visit to Our Lady's Abingdon by children's author Cas Lester, author of the 'Harvey Drew' space stories, 'Nixie the Bad, Bad Fairy' and, most recently, 'Wilfred the (Un)Wise'.

Cas spoke to children from five different schools over three separate sessions throughout the day (itself an achievement!) and explained her journey to becoming an author, and where the ideas for her stories came from.

The children were fascinated to learn Cas started her career as a children's author after an incredibly successful career making children's TV drama for CBBC (including 'The Story of Tracy Beaker').

Her first book, 'Harvey Drew and the Bin Men from Outer Space' is a madcap story about an ordinary school boy who - via a malfunctioning app and an intergalactic communications screw-up - becomes Captain of the Toxic Spew and its stroppy, bickering, pizza-obsessed crew, and a very bad-tempered central computer. Thanks to some remarkably similar experiences managing a school football team (!) Harvey soon starts to take control of this bunch of alien misfits. (Via lots of space-based, rubbish-related, seriously smelly adventures, obv). 

To an audience of over 250 children, Cas explained the very real problem of space junk, bringing with her plenty of objects imagined lost in space and led the children through a raucous quiz on their space knowledge that got them thinking about the very real challenges of waste in space (not to mention trying to do a 'Number 2' in low-earth orbit...yes, exactly)

Cas also spoke about her latest books. In 'Wilfred the (un)Wise', a young magician from the middle ages who gets pitched forward in time. He has to team up with a young girl in the 21st century, who has set her heart on learning cool street magic. Between them can they pull off magic good enough to get Wilf back to his own time?

Troublesome magic is also the theme of Cas's series for younger readers, the first of which is 'Nixie the Bad, Bad Fairy'. Nixie is no ordinary fairy - she's usually slightly grubby, she's often naughty and she has a very mischievous wand. Nixie's adventures are perfect for anyone just learning to read independently.

Cas is a local author and works brilliantly with all sorts of schools, introducing readers to her wonderfully imaginative, chaotic stories.

This was the first time we had a chance to be up close and personal, so Nicki Thornton grabbed the chance to find out all about the hugely talented and hard-working Cas and her writing life...

Five questions with...Cas Lester's Writing Life

1. What are you working on at the moment?

That is quite hard because I’m not supposed to talk about it. It’s a story about a rather different friendship and it is coming out with Piccadilly next August, but it’s a top secret project so I can’t say any more!

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

Don’t give up.

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

The worst thing about being any sort of writer is you are doing it on your own and you can be quite isolated. But the best thing about being a children’s writer is that you go out and do lots of events and you meet all the lovely children and it’s wonderful to have that great contact with your readership.

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

Chocolate, space and a dog. 

For the first time I actually have an office and my dog will come and lie down next to me, which is very settling. Then after a while she will sigh and jump up and go and get my walking boot. I used to be able to work anywhere and can cope with noise except for two things I can’t work through – a child crying and a single fly buzzing.

(Cas also confessed to a drawer full of chocolate - the dangers of being interviewed with your daughter present).

5. What was your biggest breakthrough?

I don’t know if there was a moment when I thought I can now talk about myself as a children’s writer. It wasn’t my first book or even the first time I signed a book because when you first become a published children’s author you feel that you are really a fraud. But I think it might have been when I heard I had only sold one less book than Brian Blessed at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival.

Friday, September 23, 2016

We are all made of stars - the best science, space and physics books for Autumn 2016

"Make no small plans.  Dream no small dreams." - George Ellery Hale"

The 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar
This week, as part of Our Lady's Abingdon Reading Week, we had the opportunity to support an evening screening of the film 'Star Men'.

It's a poignant, thought-provoking documentary which sees four ageing astronomers - all British, each involved in some of the biggest breakthroughs in astronomy over the past fifty years - recreating a roadtrip and hike they made in 1960, against a backdrop of ponderings on their own mortality, humanity and the secrets to friendship and success.

After the screening, there was a talk from Becky Smethurst, astrophysicist at Oxford University, and one of the team behind Galaxy Zoo, or the spectacular success of crowdsourced public help in classifying galaxies and breakthrough discoveries in everything from supermassive blackholes to the dominant direction in which galaxies spin throughout the universe.

With our love for space and science at Mostly Books, we needed no excuse to put together a bookstall at the event, and gives us a chance today to tell you about some of the new books out this Autumn which we think will stimulate the mind and send your imagination soaring...

'Homo Deus' - Yuval Noah Harari
Anyone who has come into the shop in the last couple of years will have had a copy of 'Sapiens' by Yuval Noah Harari pressed into their hands. There aren't many books that get universally recommended in our shop, we think everyone deserves personalised recommendations, but with 'Sapiens' (like 'The Martian' or 'Pride and Prejudice') we make an exception: everyone should read. It featured in Mark's essay on 'How Reading Shapes Our Realities' and is no less than the epic story of our species. But the ending finished on a bit of a cliffhanger - what's going to happen next to our species?

In 'Homo Deus' Harari sets off to find out, along the way taking in a variety of post-apocalyptic and frankly frightening scenarios, mostly involving the end of the world as a whimper rather than a bang, with a few spectacular Jeff Bezos-style winners, but the vast majority not losers as such, but managed, monitored, little more than biochemical systems plugged into a global network relieving boredom in ever more immersive virtual-reality fictions to save our fragile mental states.

If all this sounds depressing, it isn't. Harari offers plenty of 'it doesn't have to be that way' alternatives which actually makes this book surprisingly upbeat and inspiring. After all, the big thing about the future is that it hasn't happened yet.

'The Origin of (almost) Everything' - New Scientist
Where did the Earth come from? Or the Universe for that matter. In fact, where does 'matter' come from? Where does anything come from?

New Scientist deputy editor Graham Lawton and illustrator Jennifer Daniel try - with the aid of a few scientists and 13.7 billion years of universal history - to tell you about the origins of almost everything. After starting with some of the big stuff, they go into more human-scale things such as the origin of oil, human emotions, cities and alcohol, and stuff from post-it notes to the QWERTY keyboard.

Informative and surprising, and topped off with a great foreward by Prof Stephen Hawking, this book entertains and educates in equal amounts and it's been produced in a gorgeous hardback that we think works for anyone young or old. And you do need to know this stuff. After all, as legendary astronomer Carl Sagan once said, 'if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe'.

'Seven Brief Lessons on Physics' - Carlo Rovelli
A lot of people run screaming from maths and physics, which is a shame, because if you are not too bothered by the maths equations and instead focus on the concepts, you can discover some of the truly wonderful and weird theories about how the universe works. Rovelli's small (78 page) book will not take you long to get through, but you'll definitely feel more comfortable with some of the biggest ideas in modern physics. He is a masterful science communicator, and the effect is an armchair chat with someone who's overriding goal is to prove that you are way smarter than you think you are.

This was a big hit in the shop when it came out in a gorgeous paperback last year, and now available in an equally lovingly-produced paperback.

'The Darkest Dark' - Chris Hadfield and The Fan Brothers
Astronaut Tim Peake visited Harwell this week, but he would be the first to admit that the rock star of the astronaut world is 'Chris Hadfield', the guy who made space cool again, with his tweets from the International Space Station, and his in-orbit rendition of 'Space Oddity' becoming one of the most-watched videos in history.

In this, his first book for children, Chris tells the story of a young boy who is scared of the dark, but through watching real astronauts on the Moon, discovers that there are places in the universe darker yet more exciting. It's a pitch-perfect, heartwarming story about facing fears and following dreams - even when they are slightly scary.

The illustrations - from Toronto illustrators Eric and Terry Fan - are both cute and adorable, and the whole story is based on Chris’ own childhood. Children (and adults) can read about this softly-spoken, inspirational man and realise that we can all face our fears, and end up doing whatever we want to.

'The Story of Astronomy and Space' - Louie Stowell
Few people do space better than Usborne, and we're huge fans of author Louie Stowell. We've a big selection of Usborne's space books at the moment, but we've picked out her 'Story of Astronomy and Space' which we love.

It's the history of spaceflight told in a masterful storytelling experience, packed with scientific facts about the solar system, comets, the Big Bang theory, telescopes and space exploration. Complex ideas are easy and fun, and there's also star charts, a glossary, and an astronomy timeline.

Professor Astro Cat's Atomic Adventure - Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman
We love this book - simple as. The 60s-style retro illustrations are a joy, the content is perfectly thought-out and presented.

Professor Astrocat is a brave and engaging guide, together with his mouse companion, as he explains all kinds of complex ideas from energy and gravity to what atoms are made of. The result is a brilliant primer for children of all ages, and a sneaky pleasure for anyone who likes original and beautifully produced books.

To infinity and beyond! If you've any space books you'd like to share, tweet them to us - or post something on the blog.