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November 2017

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#FoylesFive: Swap Snowflakes for Stardust
17th November 2017 - Jamie-Lee Turner

 

#FoylesFive: Swap Snowflakes for Stardust this Christmas

Jamie-Lee from our Birmingham branch is here to add a bit of Sci-Fi cheer to your Christmas reading. It's not only the Christmas lights that shine at this time of year, the stars do too. 

 

Red Rising by Pierce Brown 

Everything Pierce Brown writes turns to gold and the same goes for his unflinching protagonist, Darrow. Red Rising chronicles the epic struggle of one man's determination to avenge his wife and ultimately destroy the ruthless Gold Society that has ruled on high for too long. With a sequel trilogy, a prequel comic series and a movie on the way, you'd be gorydamn stupid to miss out.

 

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants is an interstellar thriller unlike any other.When a young girl accidentally unearths a robot hand, it doesn't take long for other mechanical body parts to start emerging all over the world. But the question on everyone's lips is who put them there? Masterfully blending the political with the apocalyptical, this epic saga forces you to question everything you thought you knew about science, physics and humanity itself.

 

A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The cult favourite that needs no introduction, Becky Chamber's stellar debut is the Firefly-esque adventure that you didn't know you needed! A mishmash crew of species and personalities band together for the job of a lifetime - they just have to survive each other long enough to get the pay-check. Wildly entertaining, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the space opera of the generation.

 

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline is certainly set to be one of the most iconic authors in science fiction with his refreshing take on the genre. Ready Player One is dripping with pop culture and eighties gaming references that will delight and entertain young and old readers alike. Wade Watts is an exceptionally likeable character with all the relatability of a kid just wanting to escape the real world and play games with his friends – whilst also saving the world, naturally.

 

 

Empire Games by Charles Stross

Charles Stross expertly redefines espionage as we know it with the utterly captivating Empire Games. A high stakes cloak and dagger thriller set against the backdrop of alternate realities and world-hopping assassins. Richly envisioned, Stross weaves a world that's both intriguing and entirely believable with all the perils and repercussions of the real world amplified tenfold.

 

 

 

Read an extract of The Book of the Year
15th November 2017 - QI Elves

Read an extract from The Book of the Year

 

 

Behold The Book of the Year, by the “No Such Thing As A Fish” podcasters a.k.a the QI Elves. The book is a surreal, silly and wonderful compendium of irreverent and topical facts that show 2017 in a unique light. In the year when fake news became a thing, the elves have taken it upon themselves to mine the truth, finding facts which are often weirder than fiction. The book has come out of the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast which has been a phenomenon which now garners more than 1.4 million listens per week. The podcast boasts fans such as Tom Hanks, Neil Gaiman and Corey Taylor from Slipknot.

 

The Elves have found out a a few Foyles related facts for us: 

  • Until 1999 you had to queue three times in Foyles to buy one book: once to collect your invoice, once to pay for your book, and once to collect your book.
  • During World War II, it was said that Foyles's owners covered the roof with copies of Mein Kampf to protect it from the Nazi bombs.
  • Elizabeth Taylor once shoplifted a copy of AE Housman's A Shropshire Lad from Foyles.

 

We've an extract from the F section of The Book of the Year below.

 


The Book of the Year

F... 

In which we learn …

 

FACIAL RECOGNITION

A Ming-dynasty temple started using robots to ration toilet paper.

China is on a massive face-recognition drive. Some traffic junctions now spot jaywalkers and display their faces on giant video screens to embarrass them; companies use facial recognition to let customers access vending machines or make deposits; and this year a Beijing marathon installed scanners to make sure people didn’t take short cuts.

 

What’s more, the lavatories at Beijing’s 15th-century Temple of Heaven are scanning visitors’ faces to make sure they don’t take too much toilet paper. The change was instituted because the authorities had found that people were stealing huge lengths of toilet paper by stuffing it into backpacks. Customers now have to stare for three seconds at a machine outside the cubicle, which then spits out a single two-foot length of paper. If customers want more, they have to wait nine full minutes, then return. A temple spokesman told a local newspaper, ‘If we encounter guests who have diarrhoea or any other situation in which they urgently require toilet paper, then our staff on the ground will directly provide the toilet paper.’

 

The technology behind face-recognition software is good – it can even tell if you’ve had plastic surgery. But it’s not yet perfect. Last year, Wang Yuheng, a Chinese man with a photographic memory, defeated a face recognition machine in a trial that involved matching women with their childhood photos. Wang’s skills are extremely rare: on a TV show he once successfully identified a specific glass of water out of 520 identical glasses of water.

 

FAILURES

Sweden’s Museum of Failure was a huge success.

The museum, which opened in June in the small town of Helsingborg, contains over 70 exhibits, all of them commercial products which turned out to be disastrous failures. They include:

 

  • A rejuvenating face mask that gave the wearer electric shocks
  • The Bic for Her: a range of pens with floral patterns on them
  • Heinz’s experimental green ketchup
  • Coffee-flavoured Coca-Cola
  • Colgate Lasagna, from the 1980s
  • A cologne by Harley-Davidson called Hot Road
  • The TwitterPeek, a handheld device whose sole purpose was to show Twitter messages, but that could display only the first 20 characters of any given Tweet
  • Trump: The Game*

 

The museum also hosted ‘Nights of Failure’, such as a renowned classical pianist performing the early, ‘far from perfect’ versions of Beethoven’s 5th.

 

In press terms, the Museum of Failure was a massive success. Explaining the reason for the museum, director Samuel West said that he was ‘tired of all the success stories … failures never get any attention and they are so much more fascinating’. When he first registered the domain name for the website, West managed to misspell the word ‘museum’. He later said, ‘That could happen to anybody after a few beers.’ When asked why the museum was located in the town of Helsingborg, he said, ‘It’s where I live.’

 

* This is a Monopolyesque board game released in 1989. The museum director said it was ‘vile; it’s got a huge Donald Trump picture on the front, it’s got Donald Trump pictures on the money and on the cards – everywhere. We tried to play it the other day and it’s impossibly dull.’


 

 

Japan: the Perfect Setting for a Crime Novel
14th November 2017 - Nicolas Obregon

 

Japan: the Perfect Setting for a Crime Novel

 

 

Nicholas ObregonBritish-born of a Spanish father and a French mother, Nicolas Obregon grew up between London and Madrid. He is a graduate of the acclaimed Birkbeck Creative Writing Masters course and a former bookseller. As a travel writer, Nicolas has had extensive experience of Japan, but the beginning of his fascination with the country came from watching Japanese cartoons as a young boy. The inspiration for his novel Blue Light Yokohama is easy to mark: during his first trip to Japan, Nicolas came across an article about a real-life crime which was to haunt him. Sixteen years after this atrocity, the case remains unsolved. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Nicolas explains why Japan is the perfect backdrop to a crime novel.

 

 

 

 

 

cover of Blue Light YokohamaOn the face of it, Japan isn’t an obvious choice for the backdrop to a crime novel, renowned as it is for its public safety. And while national stereotypes should be taken with an armful of salt, the numbers bear this one out: reported crime in 2015 hit a postwar low, with just one gun-related homicide. In Japan, you’re more likely to die of a mistimed selfie than you are of copping a stray bullet. So how does any of this make it a good setting for a crime novel? I’ll attempt to answer by looking at murder weapon, motive and crime scene.

Murder Weapon
The lack of gun crime in Japan is hardly surprising when you consider the requirements for a license: a full-day class, written exams, a shooting test (with a minimum pass grade of 95%). Next up, there are substance abuse and mental health tests. The police will then speak to your relatives and colleagues. Oh, and this only for shotguns or air rifles — handguns are banned completely.

Now as everyone knows, the gun is a faithful friend to the crime writer. It’s a time-honoured literary device, whether in the form of an inciting incident, an unforeseen plot twist or climactic ending. In a split second, the gun takes away lives, or changes them forever. But if your novel is set in Japan? Not so much. However, I’d argue that, far from being a drawback for the crime writer, this is actually fertile ground. A lack of guns means that murder in Japan is, by and large, committed with knives, blunt weapons or bare hands. A crime writer can play around with unconventional demises (Japan may not have bullets, but it has bullet trains — being thrown off at 200mph would do the trick). Whichever way the crime writer slices it, in Japan, her murderer is going to get have to get dirty hands and see the eyes of the victim up close.

 

Motive
How a killer kills has never really been what’s drawn me to the page, it’s the why that intrigues. For me, blood and violence shouldn’t be the focus, it should be a simple byproduct of motive. So let’s look at the Japanese context.

The country is 73% mountainous, meaning most people are crammed into the leftover space — sprawling cities. Tokyo’s population alone is upwards of 37.8 million (two-thirds of England’s total). The observation of custom and societal role is highly important and many are under intense pressure to meet expectations. And, like in any society, there are those that fit in and those that don’t. The child killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who drank the blood of his victims and ate the ashes of his grandfather, blamed his actions on his alter ego, Rat Man. But we know he was ostracised in his childhood, telling police: 'All I really wanted was to be listened to.' The perpetrator of the Akihabara Massacre, Tomohiro Katō, drove a truck into a crowd and stabbed strangers to death, saying afterwards: 'Anybody with hope couldn’t possibly understand how I feel… I don’t have a single friend.'

Of course, this sort of thing is an aberration. But, the fact remains. People are packed in. People are isolated. People are under pressure. People snap. Or, we can look at it from another angle. Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 islands, yet only 430 of them are inhabited. It’s a country replete with empty spaces, remote mountain forests, abandoned towns — places to brood, places to hide, places to bury a body.

 

Crime Scene

As a crime writer, I see setting as its own character. The landscape dictates the mood of a story just as much as its events or the characters that drive it. If a body is found by a scarecrow in a frozen field, that will provoke one set of feelings in the reader. If it’s found on a blood-spattered dance-floor, those feelings will differ completely. Crime scene tells the reader not just what happened but gives clues to why. It provides information and misinformation all at once.

So what about Japan’s crime scenes? I think the word ‘Japan’ tends to conjure stock images of Tokyo: neoteric corporate skyscrapers, the neon-candy cavalcade of Shibuya. And all of that is there. But Tokyo is a million neighbourhoods. Ancient temples hide away behind tower blocks. A thousand tree-lined canals seem to be nameless. Behind thimble-sized bars in Shinjuku, shifty men in suits whisper in alleyways. The smell of fresh fish wafts through the cyberpunk open-air market of Ameya-Yokochō. Herons nest on the concrete banks of the Kanda River. In the breathlessly humid rainy season, snakes slither out of gutters. And Japan is thousands of islands. Far away from Tokyo, the train from Toyama heads south along the shockingly blue Jinzu River, carriages almost gliding through deep-green forested hills. In Takayama, a ruined bandit castle sits on top of a mountain and affords a solitary panorama of the never-ending Gifu landscape. In Osaka’s spring, five-thousand cherry trees bloom along the Okawa River, daydream beautiful.

What I’m trying to say is, for the crime writer, there’s no end to the unique scenery, whether she chooses the stark or sublime. Japan is spilling over with moody landscapes, ripe for painting jealousy, greed, lust, revenge.

Conclusion
For many, a visit to Japan will be the single most courteous experience of their lives. An uncommon amalgam of cyberpunk futurism and ancient custom, it’s a ridiculously beautiful country full of fascinating history. People fall over themselves to help you and, as we’ve covered, crime is something of an aberration.   

On the other hand, its conviction rate is over 99% and those sentenced to death will hang by the neck (with one hour’s warning). The Japanese police have more sweeping powers than most law-enforcement agencies in the world. Every country is a pile of contrasts and contradictions. But Japan’s are just so wildly vivid. Ultimately, it’s a country that refuses definition. But endlessly invites depiction.

 

 

#FoylesFive: Paddington
10th November 2017 - Magdalena Gundmundsdottir

#FestiveFive: Paddington

Paddington is back in his second film, which is as good an excuse as any to reacquaint yourself with this friendly and curious bear, and possibly eat a marmalade sandwich or two. Here are five of my favourite Paddington books and toys.

 

Paddington Classic with Boots 

Please look after this bear. He has his own fine, blue duffel coat, a fabulous bright red hat and matching Wellington boots. He is a perfect gift for any human, big or small.

 

A Bear Called Paddington 

This is where it all began. Meet Paddington, who has travelled all the way from darkest Peru. Follow him as he finds his feet, as he meets Mr Brown, Mrs Brown, Judy, Jonathan and Mrs Bird and discovers his new home. These classic stories stand the test of time and are worth reading over and over again.

 

Paddington at the Rainbow's End 

It is never too early to be introduced to Paddington Bear and this board book is designed for the smaller Paddington fan. There are a few to choose from, but I would recommend Paddington at the Rainbow's End. Go shopping with Paddington and look out for all the lovely colours he finds.

 

Paddington Helps Out 

A lovely collection of stories where Paddington tries to help; what could possibly go wrong?! Follow Paddington as he goes fishing, visits the cinema and the launderette. These sweet and funny stories are the best reminder of why Paddington is such a loved character. This book also has some particularly charming black and white illustrations by Peggy Fortnum who illustrated the original books; my favourite picture is on page 25.

 

Paddington Pop-Up London 

This book actually features in the new film! Take a tour of London with Paddington and Aunt Lucy, as they explore some of London's most loved attractions. This pop-up book is gorgeous and the beautiful details make it especially lovely. 

 

 

Why Craeft?
9th November 2017 - Alexander Langlands

 

Why Cræft?

 

 

Alexander LanglandsDr Alexander Langlands is a British archaeologist and historian. He is a lecturer in medieval history at Swansea University and a regular presenter for BBC and Channel 4. His current and ongoing TV projects include Full Steam Ahead (BBC Two) and Britain at Low Tide (Channel 4, TX November 2016). He lives in Wales with his wife, two children, chickens and bees. In his new book, Craeft, he examines the richness behind the Old English word craeft, which encapsulated an almost indefinable sense of knowledge, wisdom and power that goes much further than our growing appetite for hand-made objects, artisan food and craft. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Alexander explains why traditional crafts, as we know them, are about so much more than just making things. Plus, watch a video of Alexander introducing his book.

 

 

 

Cover of CraeftI guess I needed to make a distinction between how we think about the modern definition of craft and what it meant when it first appeared in the English language over a thousand years ago. In a keynote lecture given to the Heritage Crafts Association in 2013, Sir Christopher Frayling echoed the sentiments of David Pye, in The Nature and Art of Workmanship, when he called craft, ‘a word to start an argument with’. I don’t want to start any arguments but it’s true: craft has become so ubiquitous that it’s increasingly difficult to state with any exactitude a definition precise enough to satisfy everyone. Certainly, it has something to do with making – and making with a perceived authenticity: by hand, with love; from raw, natural materials; to a desired standard. It doesn’t necessarily have to result in an object, though. A recent craze for craft beers means that we can consume craft and essentially come away with nothing to show for our purchase – except perhaps a slightly fuzzy head the next day. In the world of art it can be a methodological process as much as a conceptual tool. In the world of luxury, a reassurance that you are acquiring the very best product money can buy. In the world of the everyday, the success of the retail giant Hobbycraft is the best illustration that we still revel in the pastime of using our hands to make something that can be given, enjoyed and cherished.

 

But even in today’s versatile use of the word craft there is only the faintest overlap with the definition cræft had when it first appeared in written English over a thousand years ago. The Oxford English Dictionary can find no one word to exchange, like for like, for Old English cræft, and instead offers an amalgam of ‘knowledge, power, skill’, and an extended definition where a sense of ‘wisdom’ and ‘resourcefulness’ surpass in importance the notion of ‘physical skill’. It would seem that we can’t quite put our finger on exactly what cræft was.

 

It is this inability to assign a precise contemporary meaning that justifies the ideas put forward in this book of a lost knowledge and of how traditional crafts, as we know them, are about so much more than just making. We don’t have cræft in our lives any more. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors certainly had it, but at some point we mislaid it and with it its true meaning. Over the course of the last fifteen years I’ve found many occasions to think through the idea of a lost knowledge. As an archaeologist I’m constantly confronted with the material culture of past societies: objects that were once fashioned, used, altered and discarded. Through the analysis of these objects, archaeologists attempt to draw conclusions about the nature of the human condition and, in particular, how our thinking, our actions and our relationship with our environment have changed over time.

 

I rarely study anything archaeological that is more recent than the fifteenth century. But for a period of ten years, from 2003 to 2013, I participated in a number of television series for the BBC that charged our various team members with recreating life as it would have been on British farms from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Unlike the work of an archaeologist, whose task it is to survey essentially static remains, in the making of Tales from the Green Valley (2005), Victorian Farm (2008), Edwardian Farm (2010) and Wartime Farm (2012), I often observed material processes in action, and was involved in how an archaeological record was actually created. In filming these overtly nostalgic historical programmes, I was consistently confronted with a narrative of the old ways, a sense of unrelenting change and a feeling that something was for ever being lost.

 

At first, I railed against this cliché of retrospective regret. For the angry young man that I was back then, Billy Bragg’s invocation to damn nostalgia as the ‘opium of the age’ rang loudly in my ears. But gradually I began to realise there was more than a kernel of truth in the nostalgic motifs we were revisiting.

 

Society, I concluded, was losing something. As I became more and more engrossed in the traditional ways – and not just historical methods of farming but ways of making and living in the past – it occurred to me that the modern world was depriving us of many of these skills. What I saw as a wider knowledge – one that enabled us to exist in a world where our sustenance and survival depended on our interactions with the materials we had at our disposal – was slowly slipping from our grasp.

 

Having finally got myself up to speed with the digital world, I have begun to wonder whether the vast complexity and infinite interactions digital technology promises are in fact doing quite the opposite: are they actually narrowing our sensory experiences? We’re increasingly constrained by computers and a pixelated abridgement of reality that serves only to make us blind to the truly infinite complexity of the natural world. Most critically, our physical movements have been almost entirely removed as a factor in our own existence. Now all we seem to do is press buttons.

 

Richard Sennett, in his ‘template for living’ The Craftsman, talks about craftsmanship as the state of being engaged: how we interact materially, with each other and our immediate surroundings. Perhaps we should consider this as a key component of the long-lost cræft. Against a narrative of progressive technological innovation, what has happened to cræft, the indefinable intelligence of our Anglo-Saxon forebears? What reasons lie behind its drift into obscurity? Chiefly, I accuse industrialisation and the introduction of cheap and vastly superior forms of power – resulting in what I call our illiteracy of power. We simply don’t need to factor power into how we make from and process raw materials. Nowadays, with a flick of a switch, we can generate what would take far more time, human energy and cost to produce by hand. The point when industrial processes emerged as the dominant means of production was the point at which the concept of craft as a form of art emerged as a self-conscious counterpoint to factory-made goods. Craft became defined in opposition to industrial manufacture.

 

Mechanisation too, and especially the small electrical motor, has largely robbed us of the need to be physically skilful and dextrous. Everyday skills, such as mixing ingredients with our hands, have been given over to electrically driven implements. The growth of formal knowledge – an intellectualised understanding of the world – has meant that learning through practice, by rote and experience, has been relegated. It’s more customary today to refer to the text – the formal knowledge – of the manual than it is to take something apart and see how it actually works.

 

I’m not saying that either of these developments is necessarily bad. There are many occasions when I probably should have consulted the manual before taking a malfunctioning machine apart. But mechanisation has changed the way we think, the way we build knowledge; so familiar has post-industrial power become that we genuinely find it hard to relate to the world before it. This may be why a true definition of cræft is so remote to us: we have forgotten how to think like the generations before the Industrial Revolution.

 

 

Author photo © Russel Sach

 

 

 

#FestiveFive: American Gothic
6th November 2017 - Adele Twohig

Festive Five: American Gothic

#FestiveFive: American Gothic

While Christmas is the perfect time for gifting handsome tomes to one's nearest and/or dearest, credit should also be given to winter itself for providing days so cold and miserable that you are obliged to curl up under a very large blanket and read something reflective, dramatic, spooky even. Here are my top choices for dark, lonely winter days when you are simply not in the mood for baubled and tinselled festivities, and would much rather consider your own mortality and the desperation of humanity, possibly listening to Radiohead and wearing all black.


Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
O'Connor's fascinating views on faith are explored here in her first novel, following a preacher who establishes the 'Holy Church of Christ Without Christ'. The classically unsettling tropes of American Gothic are hard at work throughout the head-spinning plot, which involves seduction, death, a stolen mummy and a gorilla costume.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Arguably Faulkner's finest work, and with good reason. Never before has a novel forced me so lyrically to consider the gruesome physicality of death and poverty, and the unspoken ties between family members. Grisly, distressing and hilarious in equal parts, this is a singular novel that sounds like it should have been impossible to write, let alone read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Another female great of American Gothic, praised by Stephen King, master of horror. Jackson's writing will grip you with every tense page, insisting that you listen to the creaks and unexplained, monstrous activities of the castle as the characters do. A short and incredibly rewarding novel, perhaps our greatest haunted house story.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Carson McCullers
I found an ancient, worn copy of this miraculous book in a flea market when I was 22 - perhaps too young to appreciate its tale of loss and unrequited love, or so I thought at the time. That overwhelming sense of isolation that visits us all at some point is examined with an almost magical skill, made all the more astounding when I discovered McCullers crafted these admirable, rich, characters aged just 23. The most essential post-breakup novel, if there is such a thing.

Diane Arbus by Patricia Bosworth
We may wonder why a photographer's biography belongs in this collection, however, we again see a highly skilled artist drawing beauty and self-reflection by giving us some of the most neglected places and supposedly unsavoury characters. The power of an artist to present us with something superficially horrifying but that also invokes a sense of beauty and delightful sadness is one I admire.
 

 

 

Latest Blog
#FoylesFive: Swap Snowflakes for Stardust
17/11/2017

Swap snowflakes for stardust this Christmas with some recommends that are out of this world, from Jamie-Lee from our Birmingham branch.

Read an extract of The Book of the Year
15/11/2017

Behold The Book of the Year, by the “No Such Thing As A Fish” podcasters a.k.a the QI Elves. The book is a surreal, silly and wonderful compendium of irreverent and topical facts that show 2017 in a unique light.

Japan: the Perfect Setting for a Crime Novel
14/11/2017

Nicolas explains why Japan is the perfect backdrop to a crime novel.

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