Friday, April 28, 2017

3-4-Friday - Serpents, Wickedness and Watery Secrets

With two heavyweight books out this week - one in paperback, one in hardback - we thought it was great opportunity to start putting together our pick of the best fiction that you'll be wanting to read over the coming months (yes, OK, we admit it - we've called it 'The Summer reading Table')

Yes, Summer is some way off. And yes, we've a few big 'events' politically to navigate our way past in the meantime. But it looks to be a bumper crop of books out over the next few weeks, so we thought we'd better start early.

So for today's '3 4 Friday' #FridayReads here's our starter-for-3...

With one of last year's biggest books 'The Essex Serpent' by Sarah Perry coming out in paperback, here's what Nicki wrote as her review last year. It's a book that we wholeheartedly recommend from one of this country's most brilliant new writing talents.

The friends of newly-widowed Cora Seaborne in Victorian England are indulging their passions for science, medicine and social reform. Cora is just happy to be out of an abusive relationship and finding herself both independent and wealthy, she is determined to follow in the footsteps of her heroine, Mary Anning, and discover fossils.

Her amateur geology draws her to a tiny village in Essex and rumours of a giant sea serpent, perhaps still living from prehistoric times. Science and Darwin have yet to penetrate the mud and the salt marshes and fear and rumour about the serpent means every crop failure, every death, is attributed to the creature. Local pastor, William, is having trouble convincing his flock and not allow myth and hysteria to take over.

A finely-tuned cast of characters get drawn to the beguiling Cora and her quest for science to be able to answer every question with reason. They all do battle on her behalf as she argues against superstition, pagan fear and religion. But whether it’s a community increasingly troubled by fear of the unknown, or the urban squalor Cora’s friends back in London are struggling to reform, the ideals of science have much to contend with in this rich and wonderfully human story of the clashes of the Victorian age.

As rumours and sightings of the serpent persist, will the ideals of science triumph in this rich and wonderfully human story of the clashes of the Victorian age?"

Out on May 2, Paula Hawkins follows her bestselling ‘The Girl on the Train’ with another claustrophobic tale, this time about the pressure of long-kept secrets...

'Into The Water' is set in the water-centred community of Beckford, where teenagers and families go to the water, sometimes to play. But it's best-known for being a famous suicide spot. Nel Abbott is writing a history of the many deaths and the narrative is shared between all of those living in the village who have been affected by a drowning – and no-one is left untouched. This leads to the central question that Nel is probing – is it a place where people go to die – or is it a handy place to cover up a murder?

Some of the deaths are none too so recent, so the narrative swoops between times as well as people as the hidden connections and secrets, like all good detective fiction, are slowly uncovered. The threads that tie everyone together are also tested to breaking point. A twisted story of secret affairs and the damaging effect of too many lies in a community makes for a compelling, claustrophobic thriller and a brave new direction to follow up the monster hit that was ‘The Girl on the Train’.

It's difficult to believe that it has been six years (!) since we welcomed author Kate Summerscale to Abingdon the day after her triumph at the British Book Awards with 'The Suspicion of Mr Whicher'.

Here latest book 'The Wicked Boy' is another forensic examination of a true-life murder that shocked Victorian society, but - on closer examination - isn't quite the story that you first think it is.

It's both horribly compelling, but also thought-provoking, and has lesssons to teach us about empathy and ethics, and the responsibilities that wider society has to its most vulnerable members.

Over the next few weeks we'll be picking more of our Summer reading choices, but for now - come in and browse our picks on the table!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Day That Went Missing with Richard Beard

On Wednesday, May 3 at 7.30pm, Mark Thornton will be in conversation with author Richard Beard at an event at Mostly Books. They will be discussing his new book 'The Day That Went Missing' and we'd really love you to come along. Why? We'll let Mark tell you about this remarkable and extraordinary book, how he came to read it, and why he thinks you should definitely come along...

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"Towards the end of last year, I was lucky to get an advanced reading copy of ‘The Day That Went Missing’ from our rep at Penguin Random House. He didn't know a great deal about it, but I was chuffed to get one and it went straight to the top of my TBR pile.

You see, we’ve known Richard as a customer for years. But we've also gotten to know him as a writer of bold and often experimental fiction, and in the last few years his books - which he cheerful admits are never going to be 'mainstream' - have started garnering notice and critical acclaim. His most recent novel 'Acts of the Assassins' was shortlisted for the Goldsmith’s Prize and also found its way onto the longlist for the Guardian's 'Not The Booker'.

I really didn’t know anything about the book either – even to the point of whether it was fiction or non-fiction – and so when I sat down to read it at the start of this year, I was totally unprepared for my reaction, and blindsided utterly by what I consider to be a little miracle of a book.

I realise the currency of words like "moving", "shocking" and "awe-inspiring" have been greatly devalued from years of blurb ‘hype’ on book jackets, but please understand that these words absolutely nail it. Shocked by the events that occurred in Richard's life, moved (emotionally knocked for six was how I came to think about it) because of the worthiness of his quest, and in awe of the brilliance of what he's achieved with his writing.

Having rather clumsily and cluelessly tweeted a snap of the book initially with a message of 'Hey Richard, I'm about to read your book!' I was also at a loss of how to then contact him to discuss an event (I knew we would want to do an event, by about page 5). It wasn't a case of saying "I loved your book" it was actually wanting to communicate just what I felt after reading it, with a swirl of emotions, and the idea that you can know someone well yet have not one clue about the sad secrets anyone might have in their past.

Anyway, after weeks of prevaricating, I contacted Richard, shared what I felt after reading it, and asked him to come do an event with us. I’m delighted he agreed – so we’d love you to come along on Wednesday May 3.

I’d rather not say too much about the book itself – I would prefer you to come to it in much the way I did (which is impossible, obvs, after this blog post, but you get my drift).

However, here is the bare bones of the true story that Richard tells.

On an August day in 1978, on a family holiday in Cornwall, Richard and his brother Nicholas went for ‘one last swim’ after a day at the beach. Richard was 11 and Nicky was 9. One moment the boys were fine, the next the tide had swept in and they were out of their depth. Nicky drowned.

What happened next was an almost epic act of denial and family stoicism. This was followed by the kind of hard-baked, emotional repression that you only really get with a specific type of 20th century boarding school education.

Forty years later, Richard – facing problems in his own life – decides to excavate his family’s memories and recollections of the incident, which is anything but straightforward. When your own memory plays tricks on you, how can you trust anyone else’s? With his emotions barely contained, Richard embarks on what amounts to a 'cold case' reconstruction: painfully but meticulously tracking down every personal item, fact and scrap of memory about the day. What emerges – slowly, painfully, unbelievably - is as accurate account of what happened on that day in Cornwall in 1978 as is possible to reconstruct.

The book is told in simple, spare prose, and this style means that his discoveries strike home with unusual and profound force.

Yes, Richard is a local author of whom we can feel extremely proud, and that's reason enough to support him and this book. But 'The Day That Went Missing' is important for other reasons.

I wrote recently about bookshops and loneliness, and grief and loneliness can often be wrapped up in each other. Richard's book – when put together with Cathy Retzenbrink’s ‘The Last Act of Love’ and Max Porter's ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’ - form a remarkable troika of titles published in the last couple of years which provide deep truths about the nature of grief (and love) within families. Books (and booksellers) often find themselves on the front line when it comes to dealing with grief, however long ago it happened, and I believe these books offer help in ways that no self-help book or 'grief processing formula' ever can.

I'm not alone. In the Spectator, Nicholas Shakespeare says "'The Day That Went Missing' is a wonderful memoir...the language does exist to make sense of grief. His book deserves to stand on the same shelf as William Fiennes’s 'The Music Room', as a remarkable homage to a lost brother."

Brian Viner in the Daily Mail describes it as "a captivating book, both heartrending and jaw-dropping, [unfolding] like a detective story" and Tom Holland describes it as "a brilliant piece of writing: a book that is as mordantly and often brutally funny as it is moving. Beard’s exploration of how we used to cope with grief, and of how we cope with it now, is compassionate, unsparing and unforgettable.".

Ultimately Nicky’s death – and 'erasure' from history – created a void that exerted a real gravitational pull on Richard’s life, like some distant ‘Planet X’ tugged imperceptibly but constantly over forty years to tilt Richard’s own orbit until the point when he could no longer ignore its effects and had to go back and recover the truth.

That gravitational pull has also resulted in his appearing at Mostly Books on Wednesday May 3. We really you can come along and share Richard's story. Tickets are £4, redeemable off the price of the book and includes a glass of wine. Email us to reserve a ticket.

Even if you can't join us, please do consider buying and reading the book - and discover more about Richard's writing here.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Water, water everywhere: murky, black yet filled with wonder - Easter Reading from Mostly Books

With the Easter Holidays looming or well underway (depending on where you live) this is a great excuse to showcase some of our favourite holiday reads fresh into the shop. Last week we shared some favourite activity books (for young and young-a-heart) and with the Bailey's shortlist recently announced, and a slew of books new out in paperback, we've got some great books to recommend for reading as the weather dramatically improves...

We're big fans of Louise Doughty in the shop, and following the huge hit of 'Apple Tree Yard' Louise has followed it up with 'Black Water' and masterful, slow-motion suspense tale of skulduggery, murky state-sponsored murder and some of the biggest events of the 20th century.

The incessant drumming of the rain stands as a great metaphor for both the erasure of the past and the drip-drip of tension as chickens come home to roost for John Harper - intelligence operative with some very bad things on his conscious.

Doughty once again pulls off a remarkable feat: a thought-provoking, morally ambiguous tale written with page-turning skill that will have wide appeal.

'Rush Oh!' by Shirley Barrett is a completely different kettle of fish - or rather, whale blubber. Many people might be put off with the subject matter (a coming-of-age story set against a whaling community in New South Wales in 1908) but that would be a huge mistake - this is one of those novels that transports you utterly and completely to another place and time that is hard to believe ever exists.

Mary Davidson cares for her ailing father, his motley crew (literally) of vagabonds, chancers and loyal acolytes that work with the killer whales (yes, they have this amazing symbiotic relationship, one of the treats of the book) to hunt and land whales for their own survival. Into this mix walks John Beck, a man with a murky past, who threatens to knock both the boat and the domestic set-up completely off-balance. But there are bigger changes happening in the wider world, and the whales seem to be coming more elusive.

With both timeless and contemporary themes (including ones of community and environmental stewardship) this is a favourite debut of the past year new out in paperback.

A sultry summer, two bored schoolgirls and a disappearance of Mrs Creasy, one of the neighbours, means Grace and Tilly are determined to turn it into a mystery to solve...

'The Trouble with Goats and Sheep' is another impressive debut, this time from Joanna Cannon and set in the 1970s. There’s a definite love for the period that comes through in this quirky story where two schoolgirls find excuses to chat to the whole of their small community and are treated to generous amounts of coveted penguin biscuits along with the gossip.

The narrative weaves among a group of uptight individuals, a group of unchanging residents, who have lived close together for too long and know each other just a little too well. The suspicions also ring true: of anyone who doesn’t fit in, or worse, measure up to the ambitions of the lower middle-class. It’s a story of the small tragedies of ordinary life.

The girls end up uncovering more secrets than they bargained for and find some sad stories about what is really going on behind those starched net curtains and tidily-mown lawns. A little gem.

Sometimes a children's book comes in that's so good, you end up wanting to recommend it to adults as well - and that's definitely the case with Scarlett Thomas' 'Dragon's Green'. Scarlett has already had an impressive writing career with books such as 'The End of Mr Y' and 'The Seed Collectors', and this - her first for children - is one of those books that feels instantly like an absolute treat to settle down with.

Firstly, it features a really important library, which turns out to be magical, and just when you thought it couldn’t get any better it has the best contest with a dragon ever...

Effie Truelove is determined to save her grandfather’s library when he is suddenly attacked and a sinister book-buyer is desperately keen to get his hands on the collection. When Effie realises the books are magical she is plunged into an entire parallel world where she must learn how to defeat the book eaters and save the precious library that was her grandfather’s life’s work.

Wonderful world-building, an exciting race to the finish and the gathering together of an unlikely assortment of friends, means there is tremendous enjoyment to be had in this smart, bold, imaginative and adventurous story of magic and books.

This is the first in a planned trilogy and we have signed copies in stock. Something tells us it might be worth getting your hands on this and being amongst the first to discover us to reserve a copy.

Over the last few years we've loved championing SF author Chris Beckett in the shop, and his 'Dark Eden' series - even to the point of having our bookgroups read the original in the series. 

The third book in the series is now out in paperback, and 'Daughter of Eden' follow in the footsteps of the original colonists of Eden - and a deadly war between the people of New Earth and Mainground. Unashamedly solid SF themes, but just powerful, timeless storytelling - and definitely continues to be a classic series in the making.

It's always good to take a risk with a book, and we're asking you to to take a risk with 'Mirror, Shoulder, Signal' - Pushkin Press' translation of Danish author Dorthe Nors angst-ridden tale of loneliness, first-world problems and culture in translation.

The book itself defies genre, but there are plenty of hints: the main protagonist is Sonja (non-conformist, fish-out-of-water) is a translator of violent crime fiction (think Stieg Larsson or any black scandi-noir), and when she finds herself single after being dumped by another translator, Paul, she's determined to get her life back on track - but has no clue on where to start. Through her attempts at learning to drive, abortive meditation classes and other endeavours (from well-meaning but equally clueless acquaintances) Sonja recovers the events of her child which have led her to her current impasse. We reckon this would make a great bookgroup read - but also a chance to discover a totally new voice in European fiction.

If something lighter - but nevertheless enjoyable - is more up your street, 'One-in-a-million Boy' by Monica Wood definitely fits the bill. It's incredibly moving, and yes - you'll shed a few tears.

But great books shouldn't solely by measured by how much salty water leaks from the eyeballs - and we heartily recommend the story of 104-year old Ona, and the mystery disappearance of the 11-year-old boy who has been helping her out.

The Bailey's shortlist was out this week - which many people still know as the Orange Prize for woman's fiction, and will again have a new name again next year (as Bailey's have decided this isn't a good match for their corporate goals).

But whatever globalised alcoholic beverage you choose to wash down your reading with, we reckon this year's list is both imaginative and a great mix of genres, styles and stories. Frankly we could have recommended any of them - and we've been recommending Margaret Atwood's 'Hag-Seed' and Madeleine Thien's 'Do Not Say We Have Nothing' for months. But we're plumping for 'The Power' by Naomi Alderman which has been a described as an instant classic - and it's a science fiction thriller which should wide appeal.

All across the world, teenage women are discovering that they suddenly - and thrillingly - have the power to inflict pain and even kill with the touch of their hands. Male domination seems to be at an end - and initially it seems a good thing with sex-traffickers and rapists getting their comeuppance, and revolutions around the world in all the world's patriarchal societies. But be careful what you wish for: As power balances are upset, things get out of hand, what's the end-game for this deadly battle of the sexes.

Brilliant, thought-provoking and a rip-roaring read, this feels like an end-game in itself: a fully-fledged grown-up novel sprung from the YA revolution.