The best books about Oxford where town meets gown - the bits the tourists miss

Why am I passionate about this?

I was a freelance writer for The Oxford Times for 20 years when it was well respected. For ten of those years, I wrote the Oxford Castaway series in which I cast away inspirational people from 5 continents whose lives have been affected by their time in the city. Even Lord Chris Pattern of Barnes – the Chancellor of Oxford University and former Governor of Hong Kong let me cast him away on Oxtopia! Oxford is still divided between Town and Gown but I stride the two and my husband was an academic at that other Oxford University: Oxford Brookes.


I wrote...

Sculpting the Elephant

By Sylvia Vetta,

Book cover of Sculpting the Elephant

What is my book about?

Sculpting the Elephant is half set in Oxford but mostly in the not-so-well-known, ex-working-class district called Jericho. Opposite the Jericho Tavern where Radiohead started, artist Harry King sets up a business called Deco-rators. Chance encounters can change lives and Harry was catapulted into another world when he encountered Indian historian Ramma Gupta. My story not only crosses TOWN and GOWN but also continents, class, colour, culture, and time. I am interested in lost or forgotten histories so the historical subplot concerns the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India and Ashoka who in effect created the religion we know as Buddhism.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Tower of the Winds: Works on Paper

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love this book?

Weimin was the university's artist-in-residence recording the restoration of the C18th Observatory and Radcliffe hospital, the bulldozing of the site, and the building of the Maths Institute and Blavatnik School of Government near Jericho. This historic collection of art evokes past, present, and future, and Town and Gown. The artist comes from Manchuria so to me, it represents Oxford as an international city.

This book is only available from the author, email Weimin He for a signed copy for £20 plus postage. 

By Weimin He,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tower of the Winds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Book cover of The Hunting of the Shark: The Story Behind the Tale That Crash Landed on an Unsuspecting Oxford Suburban Street

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love this book?

The artist John Buckley made this shark to go into the roof of American Bill Heine’s terraced house. I cast both of them away on my mythical island of Oxtopia. They explained that their aim was to feel shock and awe falling from the sky. When American warplanes were leaving nearby Heyford to drop bombs on Libya, they asked what it would feel like to have your domestic world penetrated out of the blue. Not everyone liked the shark and Bill had a six-year battle against bureaucracy. This book tells that story. It is now a TOWN icon but for me, it has both personal and international significance.

By Bill Heine,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Hunting of the Shark as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It's 1986 and American jets take off near Oxford to bomb Tripoli and take out Gaddafi . . . meanwhile another missile has crashed through the shattered tiles of a quiet Oxford suburban home. This is a true story. Dive into this book which celebrates the 25th anniversary of one of England s quirkiest icons. The Hunting of the Shark spills the guts for the very first time on how this bizarre 25-foot fibreglass sculpture was conceived, constructed, erected and kept up on the roof against the full blast of Oxford City bureaucracy. Told by Bill Heine who commissioned its…


Book cover of The Midnight Press: And other Oxford Stories

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love this book?

For me, Oxford is the Hollywood of stories and indeed it is now home to The Story Museum. One of the stars of Oxford storytelling was Colin Dexter, whose Inspector Morse novels have spawned three TV series. He was the patron of the Oxford Writers Group and recommended this anthology. It includes stories from Town, Gown, and County so it is a good holiday read while in Oxford or dreaming of the city.

By Oxpens Writer's Group,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Midnight Press as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fourth collection of tales from the OxPens writers with intrigues set in Oxford coffee shops, colleges, the old Jewish Quarter and at Henley Regatta. Experience the escape from the castle, strange happenings on Platform 3 and discover who the chocolate people were.


Book cover of King of All Balloons: The Adventurous Life of James Sadler, the First English Aeronaut

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love this book?

James Sadler was the first Englishman to fly. He was a brilliant man – his balloon design is the one we still use – but because he was an Oxford pastry cook he was ignored by the university. I am interested in lost and forgotten history and this is a story that needed to be told.

By Mark Davies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked King of All Balloons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The daring flights of the early balloonists that were the first steps on mankind's upward journey to the Moon and beyond have been strangely neglected, and their names have been largely forgotten.

This book helps to redress that situation. James Sadler was an extraordinary English pioneer who overcame many obstacles to achieve his dream of flying. Born the son of an Oxford pastry cook in 1753, he defied his lowly upbringing to become the first Englishman to build an air balloon. When not flying he applied himself to engine design and the medical uses of gases, and kept busy as…


Book cover of The Princess Who Hid in a Tree: An Anglo-Saxon Story

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love this book?

This is the story of Frideswide and the creation of Oxford as a place of learning told for young children. Our grandchildren are weaned on superheroes and I would like them to know the stories of heroes and heroines from the past as well.

By Jackie Holderness, Alan Marks (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Princess Who Hid in a Tree as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 4, 5, 6, and 7.

What is this book about?

This story is about a brave and kind Anglo-Saxon princess called Frideswide who lived in Oxford a long time ago and just happened to be brilliant at climbing very tall trees. Her talent came in useful one day when a wicked king tried to kidnap her. How did she and her friends escape, and what happened to the king and his soldiers?

With stunning illustrations by award-winning artist Alan Marks, Saint Frideswide's legend is retold for young children as a tale of adventure, courage in the face of danger, friendship, and kindness, with a few surprises along the way.

The…


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The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

Book cover of The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

Sammy Stein Author Of Fabulous Female Musicians

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been passionate about music for almost my entire life. Jazz music in particular speaks to me but not just jazz. I love music, full stop. I really discovered jazz when I attended a jazz club workshop in London and there, I had to join in or leave. I chose to join in and since then I have never looked back. I was introduced to more jazz musicians and now write about music for three major columns as well as Readers’ Digest. My Women In Jazz book won several awards. I have been International Editor for the Jazz Journalist Association and had my work commissioned by the Library of Congress. 

Sammy's book list on female musicians

What is my book about?

With input from over 100 musicians, the book discusses what exactly jazz is, and how you know you are listening to it. Do we truly know when and how jazz first originated? Who was the first jazz musician? How does jazz link to other genres? What about women in jazz? And writers and journalists? Do reviews make any difference? 

This book is a deep dive into jazz's history, impact, and future. It discusses jazz's social, cultural, and political influence and reveals areas where jazz has had an impact we may not even realize.Its influences on hip hop, the connection to…

The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

What is this book about?

This book is very different from other, more general jazz books. It is packed with information, advice, well researched and includes experiences from jazz musicians who gleefully add their rich voices to Sammy's in-depth research. All genres, from hard bop to be-bop, vocal jazz, must instrumental, free jazz, and everything between is covered in one way or another and given Sammy's forensic eye. There is social commentary and discussions of careers in jazz music. The musical background of those in the book is rich and diverse.
Critics comment:
"This new book by Sammy Stein is a highly individual take on…


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