Tuesday, 20 December 2011

My year of books and book-matters

It has been a real year of books for me, written, published, read, reviewed, researched in, awarded prizes and celebrated with other readers. It began in January at Oxford Town Hall, listening to Philip Pullman's impassioned speech in defence of libraries. By February my local library that was the most under threat, Bampton, which is in the village filmed for Downton Abbey (the library is the cottage hospital) had an action group in place and we had a brilliant Save our Libraries day with local celeb, Kirsty Young, Linda Newbery and me reading from loved books.

It was in February that Martin Amis said he would have to be brain-damaged before writing a children's book.

March was the first World Book Night and I stood in Trafalgar Square listening to Mark Haddon, Dvaid Nicholls, Philip Pullman (again!) and the wonderful Lemn Sissay, before giving out my WBN choice - Fingersmith - in Bampton library. Because of a bit of a mix-up I ended up with extra copies of Fingersmith, which meant I could launch my own book group.

We are the Nordic Readers, not because we specialise in Scandinavian crime but because it grew out of the Nordic Walking group I am part of. We've read half a dozen other novels since, our favourite being Kathryn Stockett's The Help and the one we liked least Christian Tsolkas' The Slap.

The spring took me back to the Bologna Book Fair as usual and I also made it to the London Book Fair. The two are so very different, but I'm determined to crack how to "do" the London one properly in 2012.

In April, a group of seventeen writers of historical fiction gathered in Michelle Lovric's fabulous Thameside apartment to talk about a mad idea I had. By the beginning of July we launched as The History Girls. We get the most wonderful posts from twenty-eight writers for children, teenagers and adults and in six months we have had nearly 60,000 hits and gained over 200 followers.

Something that had been started rather selfishly by me to promote my novel David, has become a terrific resource in its own right and next year we'll be having guest posts from Kevin Crossley-Holland and Hilary Mantel among others.

So David came out at the beginning of July and I did a Blog Tour with thirty-two stops! All were scheduled in advance but for two of the four weeks plus, I was in different cities in Italy, without WiFi, and had to rely on my daughter Rhiannon Lassiter and my good friend Anne Rooney to make sure they were up on the right day.

Promoting one book while writing another sounds like one of the silly games on British radio's "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue." And I certainly don't recommend it, but Stravaganza: City of Swords got handed in on time at the end of July and will be out next year.

August found me in Venice, at a "Writers' Boot Camp" on the Grand Canal, working on the adult novel I've written and am now restructuring. There's nothing like swapping ideas with two other writers over prosecco and olives on a terrace overlooking that green water and spotting egrets.

Caroline Binch and the Book Maven

In September Grace at Christmas was published and we had a party to celebrate twenty years of Grace in December.

October was a bit less literary as our middle daughter got married (in Bampton) in a heat wave but November took me to Somerset for another writing retreat, this time with other members of the Scattered Author's Society (SAS). I was able to do almost all my City of Swords edits there. We drank hot chocolate in the woods but failed to see badgers.

I've also joined a literary salon, about which my lips are sealed, but I have goggled at the amount of talent around the dinner table, combined with the warmth and friendliness of the other writers.

My books of the year

I bought a Kindle last year and the first book I read on in this year was Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. This would be a book of the year for me whatever format it was read in but this was convenient to hold in bed and on public transport. The others were all read conventionally on dead trees: Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, Edmund de Wahl's The Hare With Amber Eyes and Tea Obrecht's The Tiger's Wife, which won the Orange Prize, most deservedly. (Actually maybe I should have put the Hare on my Kindle since the Faber paperback fell apart as I read it). My non-fiction favourite, which I'd been waiting to get in paperback, was James Shapiro's Contested Will, about who wrote the plays known as by Shakespeare. (He thinks Shakespeare and so do I!)

My Children's Books of the Year

The best picture book was for me Penny Dale's Dinosaur Dig (Nosy Crow), brilliantly combining two elements endlessly interesting to small readers. For juniors A Dog and his Boy by Eve Ibbotson was perfection. For older children, Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls(Walker Books), based on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, will win prizes for sure. The most interesting teenage read was Sally Gardner's The Double Shadow (Orion) (I hope my Guardian review of it comes out before Christmas).


Three great children's writers died this year: Diana Wynne Jones, Eve Ibbotson and - just recently - Russell Hoban. I am a cover-to-cover reader of DWJ, though my favourites are Fire and Hemlock, Howl's Moving Castle and A Tale of Time City. She will be much missed. I haven't read as much Eve Ibbotson as I should but after A Dog and his Boy and The Secret Countess, I know I'll follow up on the others.

My daughters were brought up on Russell Hoban's Frances the badger books and phrases from them have entered family vocabulary. But in his adult novel, Turtle Diary, a writer is haunted by the children's books she has written about an insect and I wonder if he hated being remembered for Frances rather than his many fine adult books.


Sadness at losing these great writers can be tempered by noting that Tea Obrecht is only twenty-six and The Tiger's Wife her first novel. There were four débuts on the Man Booker shortlist too, though a veteran, Julian Barnes, won. New children's writers were Miriam Halahmy, whose Hidden was published by Meadowside, Sita Brahmachari, whose Artichoke Hearts (MacMillan) won the Waterstone's First Book Award and Candy Gourlay, whose Tall Story (David Fickling Books) was truly original.

The Book Maven wishes all readers a happy and bookfilled year in 2012

Friday, 9 December 2011

Know Your Reader’s Inner Synaesthete by Nicola Morgan

Book Maven is happy to welcome Nicola Morgan today for a guest post on her Blog Tour. Mondays might be red but this makes Friday a Red Letter Day. Thanks, Nicola.

Mondays are Red was Nicola Morgan’s debut YA novel, published in 2002. Nicola is now delighted to be producing the ebook, with a new cover and brand new extra material, including creative writing by school pupils inspired by the book. For details about how to buy (price around £2.23) See here

About the book
When Luke wakes from a coma, his world has altered. Synaesthesia confuses his senses and a sinister creature called Dreeg inhabits his mind. Dreeg offers him limitless power – even the power to fly – and the temptations are huge, but the price is high. Who will pay? His mysteriously perfect girlfriend, with hair as long as the sound of honey? His detested sister, Laura, with the wasps in her hair? When Laura goes missing, Luke realizes the terrible truth about himself and his power. His decision is a matter of life and death, and he will have to run faster than fire.

Thank you, Mary, for letting me invade your excellent blog today. I am honoured! You said you’d like me to talk about synaesthesia and because there’s so much to say about it, I’ve paired it with Lucy Coats’ blog. So, Part 1 – the facts and how to tell if you have the condition – was there and Part 2 – about what it means for writers – is here.

Synaesthesia, in short, is when two or more of the senses are “crossed over”, so that the person experiences colours when hearing sounds, or tastes when feeling shapes, or coloured shapes when smelling something. Days of the week, letters and numbers can have colours, and the sensations are always automatic, not deliberate, and remain identical over time. (More factual stuff on Lucy’s blog.) 

It’s my belief that, although true synaesthesia is rare, the vast majority of people can “do” synaesthesia. We almost all have an inner synaesthete. I also believe that understanding this gives writers an incredibly powerful tool – a much more powerful tool than true synaesthesia, an experience which most people don’t share. (A true synaesthete’s sensations are effectively random and will sound surreal to the rest of us, whereas the normal reader’s synaesthesia is connected with meanings, semantics, emotions, things we all share.)

I think it’s about time I explained. Or, more appropriately, showed.

Imagine the sound of a violin, the high, shrill notes. Now tell me which of these three colour groups you think most suit that sound: 1) pale lemon yellows and lime greens, 2) bright reds and orange, 3) dark blues and purples. Around 5% of you will have said 3. 10-15% of you will say 2. And at least 80% of you will say 1. And that’s a conservative estimate. How do I know? Because I used to have a game on my website and I collected hundreds of responses to these and similar questions; I also do this when I talk about Mondays are Red at school events, and the proportion of responses vary little.

Here’s another question. Think of the low sounds of a cello or bassoon. Which colour group? 95% will say 3. Around 4% will say 2 and almost no one will say 1.

Imagine two fish. One is thin and spiky. The other is round, fat and smooth. One is called a Baroom. The other is called a Kikxis. Which is which? Around 90-95% of people will say that the spiky one is the Kikxis. (Fewer if I’m talking to teenagers because they like to be provocative.) There isn’t a correct answer, by the way – the fish are invented.

Why? Well, the fish thing is obvious. The letters – shape and sound – in Kikxis are spiky and sharp; the letters and sounds in Baroom are round and soft. The music-colour thing seems obvious to me, too, but may seem less so to others. But when you think properly about the ways in which we naturally describe sounds, it’s not so surprising: a voice, for example, could easily be sharp, thin, thick, rounded, soft, hard, light, heavy, dark, warm, cold, rich, bitter. And many words can be attributed to different sensations. “Sharp” can be taste, shape, or touch, for example. Extend this to describing a voice (as I do in Mondays are Red) as buttery, melting, or tasting of apple-purée and it’s not much of a stretching of the imagination.

Part of this – as writers recognise – is because any word comes with a load of secondary attachments. So, apple-purée is more than mashed apple: it is warm and thick and sweet and soft, rolling on the tongue, slipping down the throat. It is not dry or dusty or icy or blue or spiky. In Mondays are Red, the girl with the cinnamon skin has “hair as long as the sound of honey”. Well, honey may not have a sound but it is thick and moves slowly and if dropped from a spoon is long and straight and golden and full of goodness. And that is what her hair was like. It’s not beyond the bounds of imagination to feel that it could have a sound, too. Violin sounds are lemon-sharp and lemon-yellow and lime-tangy, thin, sharp, bitter, stringy. All these words bring with them more than a single literal meaning.

And that’s what we harness when we write. We join our wordsmithery to the shared meanings and emotions and experiences in the mind and heart of our reader. We cross the void between two minds and truly connect. When we recognise the inner synaesthete in ourselves and our reader, and harness it, there’s no limit to the power of language. And that, in a nutshell is what Mondays are Red is “about”, as Luke discovers the infinite power of language.

Thank you, Mary, for allowing me to come and sound off on your esteemed blog! I hope your readers will give Mondays are Red a try and see more of what I’m talking about. http://www.nicolamorgan.com/author/books/mondays-are-red

Thank you, Nicola, for stopping by on your tour. Now you can relax on the sofa with a glass of something seasonal, as this is your last stop!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Charles Dickens and me

Over the years, when I've been asked "Who is your favourite writer?" I have often answered "Charles Dickens." And sometimes added that a lot of people say that without having actually read many of his books, while I have read them all.

And that is approximately true; I think I gave up before finishing quite all of the essays on America and Italy but I've read books like Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop and the "big" novels many times. My favourites are Our Mutual Friend, which has now become quite popular, Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son.

But why do I like him enough to read and re-read him? We have had a long relationship, Dickens and I, but one thing I have always liked about him is that his dates are so easy to remember: 1812-70 and I have real trouble with dates, which is a drawback for a History Girl. I know things like the deposition of Richard 11 (1399) and Battle of Bosworth Field (1485) but that's really because of an obsession with Shakespeare (1564-1616) and currently the Plantagenets.

If you ask me even Jane Austen or J.S.Bach, I have to look them up - or ask my husband which is quicker because he has real penny-in-the-slot recall for facts of that kind.

Anyway, born 1812 means a big anniversary next year and the biographies are already coming out, with Claire Tomalin's having been shortlisted for the Costa Book Award. It is being read on radio 4 currently and a fact I learned this morning interested me very much. Apparently Dostoevsky said that Dickens told him (imagine - Dickens and Dostoevsky having a chat!) that all his villains came from his own inner demons and all his "good" characters from the way he tried to live his life.

So Quilp, Mr Squeers, Bill Sykes, Mr Murdstone - what a wealth of villains there are! - were all aspects of Dickens' own personality. And why not? If Freud reckoned every person and thing in a dream is an aspect of the dreamer, that works just as well for writers who dream on to the page all day long.

When I was a child, my parents had a complete set of Dickens' novels bought through the Daily Express I think. They had a red binding and as soon as I was old enough I devoured them. When I left home I bought a similar set from a secondhand book shop. I have the Oxford complete set now, a present from the encyclopaedic husband, and the cheap ones are up in the attic but still on shelves, not hidden away in boxes.

They have been companions and friends, read while ill in bed, on long train journeys, on evenings without a TV, when I lived in London and the man I was to marry lived in Cambridge one long year.

And the reason? Because Dickens is such a generous writer, so prolific in his ideas, so prodigal with his plots and characters. I have always believed that he could have written a full-length novel about any one of his minor characters. And the physical descriptions are so memorable: Mr Vholes scratching with black-gloved hands at his pimples, Lady Tippins with her face like a reflection in a spoon, Mr Twemlow from the same novel, who is like an extra leaf in a dining table, inserted on certain occasions to make the dinner go more smoothly.

My late father-in-law disliked Dickens intensely and thought him a bad writer - "so crude." He preferred Flaubert. His privilege, but I think what he saw as crudeness, expressed after reading Hard Times, is what I think of as the energy and vigour. No, the prose is not refined, but the sheer inventiveness is a gift made freely to the reader.

So many favourite characters: Dick Swiveller, Betsy Trotwood,  Flora Finching, Peggotty, Mr Jingle - every book yields up a gem or two. There are maddening ones too, like Dora Spenlow and Tiny Tim and Little Nell, where the popular taste for sentimentality knocks Dickens temporarily from his splendidly keen observational perch.

There is also always a murder or violent death somewhere in all those hundreds of thousands of words. And those are the passages Dickens loved to read aloud at the personal performances which might have shortened his life, so physically exhausting were they. It reminds us of what he said to Dostoevsky; he had a strong sense of the potential for evil in himself, in every one of us, as I do.

In the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood, a foul murder is suspected and the main suspect is John Jasper. The late great Leon Garfield wrote a splendid completion of the book - utterly convincing - which I keep beside the collected novels. If that wasn't how Dickens was going to end it, it should have been: the convicted man waiting in his cell for the 8 o clock of his last morning on earth, knowing that there will be no reprieve and no spangly Christmas fairy coming down with a wand to make all things well.

I think we don't need another biography to tell us that Dickens did not live up to his aim of living "like his good characters" - though I shall certainly read Claire Tomalin's. But it is never a good idea to let the life dictate how the reader feels about the writer, or the composer or painter, come to that.

The Complete Works of Charles Dickens was one of my first purchases on my Kindle, along with Shakespeare and Jane Austen. With so many ways to read him, in and out of the house, there will be no excuse not to make 2012 the year of the Big Re-read. I can't wait!