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February 2015

Books to inspire young women
28th February 2015 - 12 Midnight Emily Brown


It was as long ago as 1909 that the very first International Women's Day was marked in New York. Since then, 8th March has been adopted worldwide as an occasion on which to mark the achievements of women and to continue the campaign for equality, with the UN offering official backing since 1977.

 

This year, you'll find a display of books by and about great women, chosen by our booksellers, in each branch of Foyles. Children's books have a particularly important role in offering inspiring models for young women and, as Emily Brown, from our shop in Waterloo Station, there are many more of them available than there once were, from picture books to young adult titles. Here she shares some of the books she relishes recommending to customers.

 

 

International Women's Day is almost upon us, so let's take a moment to appreciate all the great books out there written with young women in mind. This month at Foyles Waterloo, as in all our branches, we have a special promotion highlighting all the wonderful books for children and young adults that have an inspirational female character fighting the good fight against patriarchy (or at the very least traditional social norms). 

 

The Paper Bag PrincessI have always loved genre-bending stories, and as a child I loved stories of princesses who didn't live up to the Sleeping Beauty standard. Books like The Paper Bag Princess (in which the princess in question has to rescue her Prince from a dragon) and Princess Smartypants (who decides that marrying a silly self-obsessed prince is just not her cup of tea) made much more sense to me than princesses who fell asleep at the first sign of trouble. Julia Donaldson has added to this wonderful trope with Zog and a Princess who is more worried about being a doctor then being scared of a dragon.

 

I'm going to say something controversial now: I don't like Enid Blyton. For me, her books are simply too formulaic, with cardboard characters making the same mischief and getting in the same trouble, and girls who always eventually fall into the same 'gender-appropriate' roles. I can't help but believe that if she were alive today she'd be churning out books like the factory-line Rainbow Fairies and their ilk. Pah! Give your kids something with bite to read. Chris Riddell's Ottoline and the Yellow Cat would be a good start – Ottoline Brown is an ingenious Mistress of disguise who solves mysteries with the help of her hirsute best friend Mr Munroe. Or inspire a love of the great outdoors by having your kids read Dick King-Smith's Sophie's Adventures, about farmer-in-training Sophie who makes friends with local snails and tom cats.

 

There are some great three-dimensional female characters in the 9-12 age range too. Lauren St John's Laura Marlin, who first appears in Dead Man's Cove, is a great character. Laura is a girl determined to solve any crisis with a cool head and quick thinking and she's fantastically realistic. I want her to be my best friend now, and it hurts to think about how much I would have loved these books when I was ten or so. Another set of books I would have raved about if they were around 15 years ago are Laura Dockrill's Darcy Burdock books, with a hilariously inspiring kid who knows her own mind and refuses to bend to pressure to be 'normal'. Today's young readers really are spoiled for choice when it comes to engaging and progressive books, so there's no reason why girls should have to do without inspring characters.

 

Only Ever YoursYoung adult fiction is where feminist books really shine, and I've read some truly exciting books in the past year that are a testament to this fact. Louise O'Neill's Only Ever Yours is an original take on the very real pressures that young women are faced with every day. Set in a dystopian world where women are created and live only to please men before gamely committing suicide when they get too old to be pretty, this is a novel to shock and make you think more than twice. Small details like all the girls names starting in lower case letters and the not-so-subtle nod to the damage social media can inflict make this what I believe will be a future classic.

 

For more rebellious teenagers who don't yet think they are feminist, try E Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, a story about a girl in a posh boarding in New England who is appalled to find out she can't join the prestigious secret society because she is a girl, so goes ahead and takes it over anyway. And one of my favourites is Non Pratt's Trouble, a novel about teen pregnancy which falls into none of the potholes normally associated with the genre – the very first lines show how different it will be compared to other similar books: “So I had sex with Fletch again last night. It was all right, better than last time anyway, and Fletch is a laugh.” No slut-shaming here, girls, so if that's your thing, move along.

 

What all these books have in common is the ability to open up the world and expand minds, and show kids that just because something is standard it doesn't mean that it's right. Books should entertain, but they should also educate, and some of the most important books you will buy your daughters - and sons! - will be the ones that introduce them to the way the world works and inspires them to change it. 

 

GUEST BLOG: Little Black Classics
22nd February 2015 - 12 Midnight Simon Winder


Little Black ClassicsSimon Winder is Publishing Director at Penguin Press, responsible for the black or silver classics that are part of what makes Penguin the world's most recognisable publisher, as well as the pocket-sized Great Ideas series. (Simon is also the author of Germania, The Man Who Saved Britain and Danubia.)

 

This year Penguin celebrates 80 years since Sir Allen Lane oversaw the production of their first paperbacks, sold at sixpence each, with the Little Black Classics, a series of 80 short reads, at 64 pages and 80 pence each that echo the Penguin 60s that proved so popular 20 years ago. Here, Simon tells us about how the 80 titles were selected. (You can see a complete list of the Little Black Classics at the bottom of the page.)

 

  • See the full list of Little Black Classics here

 

The choice has been ridiculously fun to make, giving everyone involved a God-like feeling (unusually for publishing) as we swept through whole continents, eras, genres and cultures. The backlist is massive, steadily accumulated over many decades and encompasses everything written, from the dawn of the human record to the beginning of the 20th century (when the separate Penguin Modern Classics series takes over).

 

To-morrowDelving around to create Little Black Classics has been a curious process. We wanted to make sure that every book in the series was really and genuinely excellent - a pleasure to read, and a surprise, rather than being merely pious or a chore. We also had to work in an extremely tight format - 64 pages turns out to be a big problem for many writers whose best work was in a much bigger format - so out went such obvious figures as George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray, Fanny Burney, John Milton, George Gissing and Alexandre Dumas. We didn't want anything if it was short, but actually quite boring. Even writers who did do truly exceptional short works sometimes ran into trouble - so Hoffmann's macabre stories sadly were either too short or too long, and we had almost despaired of Joseph Conrad until the hair-raising story To-morrow magically fitted.

 

We also did not want too much overlap with Penguin's Great Ideas series, which is mainly philosophical, ethical and political, and also quite short. So we could not help keeping in some Plato, Ruskin, Nietzsche and Marx but were otherwise quite strict.

 

Having decided what not to include (which helped) we were still inundated with possibilities. But at only 15,000 words or so it is surprising what suddenly shines - short stories of course, but also poetry, essays, travel - this turns out to be the perfect format for enjoying the curious, playful and beautiful. All kinds of sub-themes can be read through the individual books - there is a miniature history of great Russian short-story writers; there is a heroic sequence of great visionary women of the 19th century; there are giants of ancient and medieval epic; peculiar, wacky little fables of all kinds and cultures; explorers, witnesses and adventurers; a smouldering and gory heap of Grand Guignol!

 

TangOur hope is that everyone looking at these books will notice and enjoy quite different things - but also that they will trust the series enough to try things they have never heard of. Almost accidentally, for example, Little Black Classics has turned into a celebration of the generations of translators who have worked in a vast range of languages to bring you the greatest works in Persian, Chinese, Greek, Russian, Latin, Arabic and so on and so on, allowing the reader to spin around the world, visiting everywhere from Tang Dynasty China to Renaissance Florence, from the Arabian Gulf to an idyll in the Roman countryside. There are also great witnesses, so the reader can travel with only a simple set of hand movements to a sailing ship in the Southern Ocean or a burning 17th century city, to a tropical swamp or an Indian opium-den. Countless people jostle through these pages: lovers, sorceresses, pirates, demons, merchants, maniacs, pie-sellers, holy men, soldiers, con-artists, courtesans, plus Aesop's unfortunate gudgeon. But beyond the exceptional, these are also books about women and men caught up in lives with inner dramas as rich and strange as the grandest epics. Here are writers as various as Emily Brontë and Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and CP Cavafy, in just a few words conjuring up the turmoil of private worlds.

 

We hope there are a number of books in the Little Black Classics series which different readers will absolutely hate - we hope that the range of sensibilities, places and ideals on offer is wide enough to be obnoxious to some people just as much as they are wonderful to others. Only someone with very peculiar sensibilities will have come across all the writers here - we have deliberately wandered beyond the obvious because of an individual editor's enthusiasms. If you have never read such crazily various, rich and charming writers as Shen Fu or Nashe or Hebel or Leskov - then you should!

 

 

GUEST BLOG: Before and after
19th February 2015 - 12 Midnight Stuart Prebble

 

Stuart Prebble was a BAFTA-nominated Commissioning Editor for ITV's World in Action, later setting up his own production company, Liberty Bell. Their most successful programme was Grumpy Old Men, an idea which stemmed from reading an article in the Daily Telegraph.

 

It was also the chance reading of a news article that provided the inspiration for his first novel, The Insect Farm, a novel whose plot turns on a brief moment that irrevocably divides the lives of brothers Jonathan and Richard in two: before and after.

 

 

Grumpy Old MenI tend to find the seeds for some of my better ideas by reading the newspapers. For example, twelve years ago I was sitting in my study reading the Daily Telegraph, when I saw an article which said that 35-54 year old men were the grumpiest of any demographic group. According to a survey, this was the group least likely to think that the world was getting better, that our politicians know more than we do, that the NHS was improving, etc. I was 52 at the time and that felt right to me - I thought that everything was going to hell in a hand-cart - and in a rare and lucky moment of inspiration, I had the idea for Grumpy Old Men. The notion seemed to strike a chord of familiarity for a lot of people, and eventually became the basis of about 73 TV programmes, five books and a West End stage show. So that wasn't a bad return from a light-hearted item in a broadsheet.

 

Much more recently I had some thoughts about a plot for a novel percolating around my head when my eye was caught by a story from the opposite end of the seriousness spectrum. It was about a man who was alone in his car, driving on the motorway at speed. He reached across to the passenger seat to pick a toffee out of a bag, tilting the steering wheel just ever-so-slightly, and causing a collision which left him unhurt but killed an entire family in another car.

 

Nightmare.

 

The story made me think about all the times I have allowed myself to be distracted for just for a moment while driving; maybe to glance at a map, or to sip from a coffee cup, or to accept an offered sweet. And about how random fate can alight upon any one of us at any time, and turn our entire lives upside down, making everything in the future totally disconnected from everything that has gone before. The story of your life would forever be divided into two halves - whatever happened before those few seconds, and whatever happened afterwards. Like BC and AD for Believers.

 

The consequences of that moment of distraction for the man with the sweet tooth were utterly outside of his reasonable expectations or imagination. And that could be you and it could be me. On 999 out of any 1000 occasions, we get away with it and never give it a thought, but on that 1000th occasion... well, it hardly bears thinking about.

 

The Insect FarmHowever that's exactly what I forced myself to think about when I was dreaming up the plot for The Insect Farm. Suppose you unwittingly became involved in an incident which took just a few seconds, the effect of which was to redraw every parameter of your existence. And then, just suppose that the same capricious chance which got you into the situation in the first place, also gave you the opportunity to get away with it. Something happens which leaves you with a burden of guilt heavy enough to crush your soul, but the rest of the world knows nothing about it.

 

And finally (and I promise this is the last layer of hypothesis I'm going to invite you to go along with), imagine that its now several decades since this fleeting incident took place, and no-one other than you has ever known about it. Do you think you might begin to wonder whether the incident happened at all?

 

So that's the situation which the narrator of The Insect Farm picks up after the prologue. It's a first-hand account from a man who is looking back all the way to his childhood, and narrating events which led up to, and then followed, the life-changing few seconds in the middle. As I found myself writing the novel on what turned out to be some sort of auto-pilot, what happens as he tells his story came as a surprise to him, it came as a surprise to me, and I very much hope it may come as a surprise to you.

 

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GUEST BLOG: The best of Patricia Highsmith
12th February 2015 - 12 Midnight Peter Swanson

 

The Kind Worth KillingThe Kind Worth Killing is the second thriller from Peter Swanson, author of The Girl with a Clock for a Heart.

Delayed in London, Ted Severson meets a woman at the airport bar. Over cocktails they tell each other rather more than they should, and a dark plan is hatched... but are either of them being serious? Could they actually go through with it? Could they get away with it?

A devious tale of psychological suspense involving sex, deception, and an accidental encounter that leads to murder, Sophie Hannah describes it as "extremely hard to put down" and Lee Child as "chilling and hypnotically suspenseful".

Perhaps the closest comparison is Patricia Highsmith's classic Strangers on a Train, an acknowledged influence on Peter's writing, so here he picks out his five essential reads for anyone new to Highsmith's writing.

 

 

Patricia Highsmith, who died 20 years ago, is best known for Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley. And rightly so. But she wrote over twenty thrillers (plus one non-thriller), and many great short stories. Pick up any of them, and you are instantly plunged into Highsmith country, a place where dark and gruesome deeds are commonplace, and characters slip in and out of masks. Here are five of her best.

 

Strangers on a Train
Her first novel has one of the most ingenious murder plots ever written. Two men meet on a train, and one suggests that they each commit the other's murder. No one will ever connect them. A classic of guilt, psychosis, and darkness.

 

The Price of SaltThe Price of Salt
Highsmith's second novel was a lesbian romance without a murder in it. It was rejected by her publisher so she published it elsewhere, and under a pseudonym. It's a dazzling book, unsentimental, that beautifully evokes New York City in the 1950s. A film version with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara is due next year.

 

The Talented Mr Ripley
So good it spawned four sequels. Tom Ripley is the archetypal Highsmith protagonist, a sociopath skilled at forgery and mimicry who just wants to fit in, and will do whatever it takes to make sure that happens.

 

Deep WaterDeep Water
A slow-burn thriller about a dysfunctional marriage. The monster at its center is so ordinary and gentle that you might not even recognize him until it's too late.

 

The Cry of the Owl
A strange psychological thriller in which the plot is kicked into motion by an act of voyeurism on a dark country night. It's filled with wicked twists, plus one of Highsmith's best endings.

 

 

Waterloo sunrise
7th February 2015 - 12 Midnight Kat Hacheney

 

On the first anniversary of the opening of our Waterloo Station shop, bookseller Kat Hacheney looks at why this oasis of culture and calm has become a destination as much as it has a stop on the journey.

 

LWS01Waterloo train station at rush hour is like an anthill: people bustling to catch their trains, others rushing down escalators and spilling into subterranean tunnels. Trolleys are pushed and dragged over white tiles; an endless hum of voices fills the departure hall. Occasionally an announcement cuts through the buzz: 'We are sorry to announce that the 17:21 train to... has been cancelled'.

Oh, the doldrums of modern commuter life. I feel for you, I really do. But, there are more pressing issues facing the weary traveler. Forgot that last minute present for someone that you've left at home? Somebody else did the crossword in your newspaper? Perhaps, the smart phone battery has run out of steam? Traveller, don't despair! One thing that you can rely on is that every journey starts with a first step. And a good book. That's where we come into play.

It's already time to celebrate our first birthday here at Foyles Waterloo. Has it really already been a year? It feels like only yesterday when we were unpacking all the boxes, piling the books up high and hoping for the best as we slid up the black shutter for the first time.

The press often seems determine to portray bookselling as a business in decline, but our first year here offers plenty of evidence to the contrary. It's been a blast! From the first book we sold - Love Monster by Rachel Blight, if you were wondering - we've been up on our feet and running, fetching books from the shelves for our customers all day, every day. Each morning Waterloo's flurry of intrepid passengers pours through our door and brings our shop to life. Even after a year people still walk up to us and say: 'It's good to have a proper bookshop here.'

LWS02But what do they mean by 'proper'? My guess is that it's the choice that we offer. My bookish heart beats faster when I think about the gems you can unearth here. Yes, we have the bestsellers like Gone Girl and The Fault in Our Stars, but there are also Birgit Vanderbeke and Thomas Bernhard to discover, for example, or a collection of Paul Celan's poetry. At Christmas, Saga, a space opera in comic form, and Soldiers of Salamis, a novel about the Spanish Civil War, were bestselling staff picks.

We've learnt that cats not only dominate the internet, but that they also rule the book trade; The Guest Cat has been another particularly big hit in store. (In fact, its editor credits our shop with kickstarting the book's march up the bestseller lists.) In general, Waterloo's commuters seem to love animals, if the success of The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly and The Genius of Dogs is anything to go by. That, I think, is what best characterises our bookshop as 'proper'.

And if that doesn't tick the character box for you, then our chandeliers certainly should do. These chandeliers are the starry sky above booksellers' heaven. And let it be known, booksellers don't joke when it comes to their bookshop! Sometimes we tend to dream though, and one of my dreams is to sell people books straight out of the old ticket booths we still have in the shop.

Even our customers are something to boast about: recently Hilary Mantel was seen leafing through the greetings cards. The proximity to the Old Vic probably explains why Kristin Scott Thomas was in here buying books. All sorts of TV regulars have been spotted browsing, although, as someone who wasn't born in Britain, the names of most mean nothing to me and I have to rely on my colleagues to let me know when I've served someone famous! But it's not the celebrity spotting I love about the job; it's working with people and books.

LWS03Just last week I had a young woman coming in; blond hair and wearing a blue parker. She pushed The Great Gatsby and another book over the counter, asking for a student discount. While she was filling out her student card, I asked what she was studying: it turned out to be Russian literature. We soon found ourselves discussing to Gogol's The Nose, a wonderful piece of satire. For everyone unfamiliar with it, it's literally about a nose that runs through St Petersburg. We both ended up speculating how this nose manages to move, as in Gogol's text there is no description of it, let alone how big the nose is, as it also dresses in human clothes. Before the transaction was finished, I asked what she would recommend to me and to my surprise she answered with Economics: A User's Guide, because, she said, 'I had no idea about economics whatsoever.' I thought this sounded a lot like me and I've now added it to my ever-growing book mountains at home.

Chandeliers, beautiful original fittings and celebrity shoppers aside, there's something very comforting in the thought that, amid Waterloo's daily hurly-burly, Foyles provides the answer to the challenges of a journey. And with the inevitable delays that come with commuting, it's always best to have a book on you.

 

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Photographs © Jonathan Hordle/REX

GUEST BLOG: Quick Reads
5th February 2015 - 12 Midnight Adele Geras

 

Adele GerasAdèle Geras is the author of nearly a hundred books, writing fiction for both adults and children, as well as poetry.

She's also the author of Out of the Dark, one of the six new titles published this year by Quick Reads, the scheme devised to provide accessible, bite-sized reads by well-known writers to those who lack confidence in their reading skills, as well as readers who are short of time.

Here Adele explains why the scheme is so important and why she was so keen to contribute to the series.

 


When I was asked to write a short novel (a novella, really) for Galaxy Quick Reads, I was thrilled to bits. I've written one before (Lily: A Ghost Story in 2007) and from 2006, when Dame Gail Rebuck came up with the idea and launched the first set of stories, I've been a huge fan of this charity.

 

For anyone who doesn't know, Galaxy Quick Reads produces short books by well-known writers for adults who are not altogether confident about their reading skills and who may be nervous of opening a thick, densely-printed book. It's a fact (though not one that many people know, I think) that one in six adults in this country finds reading difficult. Even when reading is not a problem, a horrifying one in three adults in the UK do not read for pleasure.

 

Books have been a delight and a huge comfort to me for 66 years. I feel very strongly that those who can't access this treasure are seriously missing out. It's true that there are many ways of accessing 'stories' nowadays, through film and television, for example, but it's not quite the same thing. The pictures in your head, the characters you bring to life for yourself are always more vivid, more striking and of course, unique to you.

 

To date, Quick Reads has distributed over 4.3 million books, which is an amazing achievement. They take these stories (and the non-fiction books in the series) to places like prisons, for example, where they are popular with men and women trying to improve their skills ahead of release. Over 3.9 million Quick Reads library loans have been recorded (this figure according to Public Lending Right) and they are in every possible way A GOOD THING. They only cost £1 so that no one can say: oh, I can't afford that. This low price is one of the most inspired things about them. You could buy them in bulk and send them out for birthdays... £1.00 is less than the price of a card.

 

Out of the DarkSix new Galaxy Quick Reads are available form today and mine is called Out of the Dark. It tells the story of a young man coming back from the First World War with half his face shot off. He is haunted by the ghost of his Captain, and struggles to lay this phantom to rest. The story is also a love story and a story about finding your way in a world which seems to have no place for you.

 

When I was invited to contribute a Galaxy Quick Read for this year, I knew at once that I wanted to write about the aftermath of the First World War. So many men came back wounded, in all kinds of ways and had to find a place in a society that had been transformed by the conflict. I was also interested in the fact that this coincided with the growth and flourishing of the film industry. There really was an early film studio by the canal in Islington. And it is a fact that many men with disfiguring facial wounds became projectionists in the cinemas of the 1920s.

 

I'd like to say one last thing about Galaxy Quick Reads. I wouldn't want any avid and regular readers of novels to be put off by the fact that these books are short and simply told with a typeface slightly bigger than books they've been used to. I've read Quick Reads by many wonderful writers (eg Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid, Minette Walters) and it's clear that none has altered either style or subject matter to make their story 'easy' to read. I know that what I've written in Out of the Dark is something I'd be happy for any reader of mine to enjoy. I have not dumbed anything down. I have written simply and directly in the first person voice of a young man who is not 'literary' in any way and I hope very much that everyone who reads my book finds they enjoy it and goes on to read the other excellent Galaxy Quick Reads out there.

 

 

Latest Blog
Books to inspire young women
28/02/2015

Each of our shops is currently featuring a display of books by and about great women, to mark International Women's day on 8th March. Emily, from our Waterloo branch, explores the wealth of recent fiction for younger readers that offers inspirational role models for the next generation of young women.

GUEST BLOG: Little Black Classics
22/02/2015

Simon Winder, Publishing Director at Penguin Press, reveals how he and his team chose the 80 titles that make up the 80-pence Little Black Classics marking the publisher's 80th birthday.

GUEST BLOG: Before and after
19/02/2015

Stuart Prebble, whose production company came up with the idea for TV hit Grumpy Old Men after he read a news article, looks at how lives can be changed irrevocably in seconds, as they are in his new novel, The Insect Farm.

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