Books in front of a log fire


We kick off the New Year with a wild plunge into fantasy, romance and crime, a fiction-only installment...

Published: 8 January 2024

Author: Richard Lofthouse


Share this article

Book jacket for New Rock, New Role

New Rock, New Role by Richard Sparks (December 2023, CAEZIK).

Richard Sparks (Exeter, 1970), is a celebrated British scriptwriter and noted US opera librettist, and director, and has just released his debut fantasy comic novel, which he describes as ‘fantasy, fun and games & gaming, with plenty of comedy’. We love ther artwork on the cover. And the minute you start reading it has a uproarious comedic feel to it, as though he’s lifted the gaming crown off the heads of the spotty youth and run away with it up and over the hills, in what might be a sort of intergalactic send-up, as if Rowan Atkinson set out to critique Minesweeper. It tells the story of retired former teacher, Joss Palmer, who, with little in the way of family or friends around him, discovers the world of online gaming in his later years.

The plot tells the story of how Joss, retired and widowed and aching to fill the vast quantities of time on his hands,  finds himself developing an unexpected knack for MMORPGs (Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games). As his gaming skills improve and his online community connections deepen, Joss finds new life in his avatar alter-ego ‘Daxx’, a heroic, young battlemage. But then it goes bananas and he finds himself in the world he had until then only been gaming in. Dot dot dot. We think this is a suitable book to start 2024 with, especially if it is raining or snowing but most of all because it sparkles and will make you laugh.


Book jacket for Knowing Me, Knowing You

Knowing Me Knowing You by Jeevani Charika (11 Jan 2024, HarperCollins/HQ)

Romantic comedy, another genre we see too little of in Off the Shelf. Five years ago, Alex met the man of her dreams on New Year's Eve - but he never called. Years later, and after a string of failed relationships, she's given up on men and accepted that 'New Year's Eve Guy' will always be the one who got away.

Until the day he turns up in her office - a management consultant tasked with 'streamlining' the company. New Year's Eve Guy - Gihan - might shut down Alex's team!

Gihan is as just as gorgeous as Alex remembers, and she swears there's still a connection between them. As she gets to know the real Gihan, will sparks continue to fly - or will Alex have to accept that the man she knew as New Year's Eve Guy was never real to start with?

The author (St Peter’s, 1994) has also published under the name Rhoda Baxter, and if you go to you can find out why – a rather cautionary tale we might add.

It is also our pleasure to note that Jeevani has also just published When Soma Met Sahan, in November 2023,  published by Hera Books. Sounds like an enviable work ethic.


Book jacket for Albert goes to Oxford

Albert goes to Oxford by Maria Ploumaki Bigler (Dec 2023, Avriano)

Moving on, here we have a fictional wonder aimed at children of all ages, extending the author says (Said Business School, 2012) to the whole family. And we can see why. Albert inhabits a wonderfully illustrated world in which books are freedom and knowledge is an adventure, values too often forgotten in the quest for grades and exams. A heartwarming story of a little boy who is transported to Oxford through the book he is reading and embarks on a journey to learn ten of the greatest discoveries that have shaped our modern world, from the Pythagorean theorem to Einstein’s theory of relativity. During his journey he learns to inquire about the world around him, asking questions and seeking to understand how knowledge is developed, while building the confidence to dream big and pursue his dreams. In the book you can reminisce about Oxford by reading about the Bodleian oath, see the Radcliffe Camera, and in the very last scene view the skyline of Oxford with Great Tom in the background.


Book jacket for Lost and Never Found

Lost and Never Found by Simon Mason (Riverrun, 18 January 2024)

Published mid-month, this latest installment in the DI Wilkins series of crime fiction is just growing and growing – in scope, in popularity, and as ever in its sheer ‘Oxfordness’, a city of lost things and buried pasts, including crimes. The motor driving the plot is a very British grit between a suave Oxford-educated senior cop Ray Wilkins, and a wild card character who plays the underdog, Ryan Wilkins (no relation). The similarity of the names is deliberate, and creates an intended messiness that seems to amplify lived experience. It’s the intensity of character as much as the plot itself that seems to have paid dividends here, with Colin Dexter’s Oxford now sliding into memory, replaced by this one – full of street names, places exrtending out to Littlemore and back again to the tourist attractions. Unfamiliar and familiar both, haunted by vagrancy and an underbelly which is all too obvious to the lucky few own own million pound freeholds in Jericho.


Book jacket for Watching Bees

Watching Bees by Michael H. Levin (Finishing Line Press, 2023)

Michael’s poetry is excellent, and in one or two places touches on the rich musical/historical hinterland he has explored in previous volumes featured in these pages, co-authored with his partner Nora Jean Levin, A Border Town in Poland: A 20th Century Memoir (2021) and Firebird: The Musical Life and Times of Rebecca Burstein-Arber (2023).

But for here, we thought we’d just reprint a wintry reflection to celebrate the January Off the Shelf:






(Capitol Hill, November)

Behind this row of windows
squared against the snap of evening
air, light nests like coals. Repointed chimneys plume their hellos. The dusk grows soft with satisfaction
and collecting ash. Tracing
the embers’ crack and fall, I do not
feel deep roots contract; trees thickening their bark, expecting ice.

When the white coat
of winter splits, what season
will emerge? Spare me the irony
of being sucked dry by thirst.
Let me be poised and patient,
plangent as a guitar. Let me
absorb this golden haze, while day declines and leaves quilt up the ground against the dawn.

Off the Shelf typically concerns books where there is an Oxford connection, whether the place, the University or of course the author. Our editorial selection rests on books appealing to the broadest alumni audience.

For more recommended books of 2023 from Oxford academics and alumni, head over to the @oxfordalumni social channels on Instagram, Facebook and X.

Alumni can claim 15% discount in any Blackwell's store with a My Oxford Card.

Alumni can claim 20% discount at Oxford University Press.

Join the Oxford Alumni Book Club at: