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 d├ębuts 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


Miriam Halahmy said...

Wonderful to have a mention here Mary and good to see all the great things you are doing. You are a force in literature for all ages. Wishing you a bountiful 2012.

Ness Harbour said...

What a delightful post and an amazing sounding year. Thank you! I hope 2012 brings you as many delights.

Stroppy Author said...

A grand bookish year, Maven-friend. You have crammed lots in - as usual x

Katherine Langrish said...

A marvellous year, Mary - and as one of the History Girls, I'm so glad you had that idea!

Candy Gourlay said...

What a terrific year you've had - a big bookish hug of a year! And thank you for welcoming Tall Story - as a beginner author I gaze with awe at how you live the book life with joy and grace.

michelle lovric said...

Very proud to have shared the Life of the Book with you quite a few times this year, Missis Maven. You are a One Woman Book Industry.

The History Girls is a joy, too!

And that adult novel just needs a few more olives and glasses of prosecco thrown into it ... (Who was it who said his guitar had such a raw rich sound because he kept it in a corner and threw lumps of raw meat into it occasionally?)

C D Meetens said...

Your year sounds full of amazing and fun things. I'm in awe of how you managed to finish a book while promoting another!

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