Thursday, 29 December 2011

Scribble City Central's Best Books of 2011

Best Books of 2011? How on earth to choose?  I've read so many wonderful books this year - 2011 has been a veritable treasure-house of offerings.  There have been new novels from authors who are already favourites of mine, and I've also had the exciting adventure of reading great debuts from new writers who I know will be favourites of the future. The books I've chosen here are ones which have stuck in my memory for one reason or another - and from me that is the ultimate compliment.  I read very very fast indeed, and don't tend to retain much.  If I did, my brain would overload and explode.  I make no apologies for the fantasy-heavy bias - that's what I enjoy most, and this list is about what has given me most pleasure.  So, without further ado, and in no particular order (except alphabetically by author), here are my choices for 2011....

Cold Magic (Spiritwalker 1) by Kate Elliott
This is the first in a new adult fantasy series from an American writer I've rated highly for a long time.  I've enjoyed watching her style develop and mature with each series she writes, and I particularly liked this book because, while the quasi-Victorian/Industrial Revolution world she has created is still rich and full of colour and imagination, I felt that this time she reined back on the tendency to overcomplicate her plots, which sometimes make her earlier books harder work than they need to be.  I'm always a fan of strong, rebellious female characters (being a rebel myself), and Cat Barahal spoke to me very strongly indeed.  Kate Elliott mixes together the Wild Hunt, ruthless mages, dragons, and a new kind of magic in a brew which I'm eager to taste further.  The second book, Cold Fire is out now, and I'm off to indulge my Kindle habit!

The Scottish Prisoner (A Lord John Grey Novel) by Diana Gabaldon
Diana Gabaldon's Jacobite hero, Jamie Fraser has been my guilty pleasure for many years. This is not one of the 'main' novels about him, but rather covers the years when he is employed as a groom in the Lake District after he is released from prison.  I'm not, in general, such a fan of the spin-off series about Lord John Grey, but the moment I heard that Jamie featured largely in this one, I knew I would be hooked, and how right I was. You know how satisfying it is when an author fills in backstory details about one of your favourite characters? Well, that.  The writing here is as good as the early books, and I'd recommend it as a morsel to satisfy those of us who are waiting hungrily for Diana to give us the big finish of Jamie's series sometime in the distant future! If you haven't yet encountered the Outlander books, then do read the first two at least before you delve into this one.  I promise you're in for a treat. Go and buy them immediately (but only if you like historical romance with a bit of time-travel thrown in, and a seriously adult hot hunk of kilted wonderfulness).  Told you it was a guilty pleasure!

David by Mary Hoffman
Why this wonderfully imagined tale of the boy who was Michelangelo's model for the eponymous statue has not been on every prize list this year, I cannot fathom. 2011 Book Prize judges, are you listening?  You are clearly barking not to have included it.  Not only does Mary write quite beautifully and tell a gripping tale but by golly she knows her Italy and her history. When she was a guest on SCC earlier in the year, this is what I said:
After reading Mary's marvellous book, [David] exists inside my head, 3D still, but reincarnated as a living, breathing, gloriously beddable Renaissance boy called Gabriele. To be honest with you, dear readers, I could go on about this book for hours. Not only is it a marvellously plotted story, taking known historical facts and interweaving them with nuggets of possibility into a seamless whole, but it also rekindled my long-buried interest in art history. It made me look at Michelangelo's sculpture in a whole new light, made me, as a writer, think as well about the hidden things behind all art--the myriad histories lost in time and waiting for a teller to give them life.
I haven't changed my mind.  Read it.  You won't be disappointed.

Graveminder by Melissa Marr
I suppose you could call this a zombie novel, which is why it is all the more extraordinary that I am including it in this list. Anybody who knows me even slightly will be aware that I loathe zombies like the plague.  But what Marr has done with this novel is a laudable feat of re-imagining the genre, and I salute her for it (whilst still shuddering gently).  Rebekkah Barrow is the reluctant inheritor of her grandmother Maylene's post as Graveminder to the small town of Claysville, where the dead are walking, unquiet and needing to be laid to rest.  This is a new departure for Marr, best known for her Wicked Lovely faery series, and I will be fascinated to see where she takes Rebekkah's story next.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller 
You knew there'd be at least one Greek myth-based novel in here, didn't you? This is one of the best retellings I've read in years (if not ever), and that's why I'm making it my Book of the Year. For a debut novel, it's extraordinary - and I think we may have a new Mary Renault on our hands here.  Yes, she's really that good. Miller has brought alive the old story of Achilles and Patroclus (the book is told from Patroclus's point of view),  and given it a fresh and interesting angle.  She clearly knows her Homer and associated sources, but what I really appreciated was the deft, spare beauty of the writing itself.  I hope Bloomsbury know what a treasure they've got here, and I'm hoping this one will win prizes in 2012.  It surely deserves to.  If you only buy a single book on this list, make it this one. 

How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
The only autobiographical entry in my list, and definitely my favourite non-fiction read of the year.  I came across this on Twitter early on in its life, thought I'd give it a go, and laughed my socks off.  If there's a bible for the New Feminism, then this is it. Also, I'm entirely with Moran in the matter of the awfulness of high heels.  This is definitely my most-given-away book of 2011 (to date I've bought 18 copies*), and Lovely Daughter and friends are all talking about it as well - it's definitely polarised opinion among the teens in my life. This is one I shall return to many times.  (*Caitlin - where's my commission?!)

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Without doubt, this one gets the SCC prize for Most Beautiful Book of 2011, with its sumptuous design and black-edged pages.  It's also a damn good read, and a book I just can't stop thinking about. Surreal scenes from the circus of its title flash across my brain like jewelled hummingbirds, exploding into sparks and snowflakes.  It is unique, original fantasy storytelling at its best, and if Erin Morgenstern can come up with a second novel with as much wow factor as this one has, I shall be positively jealous of her talent!  Fantastical stuff, quite literally.

The Opposite of Amber by Gillian Philip
I've been spoilt for choice by Gillian in 2011, what with this one, and also the second in her marvellous Rebel Angels series, Bloodstone, featuring the fascinating faery brothers Seth and Conal MacGregor, who I've talked about lovingly elsewhere in these pages. However, in this book, Gillian has tackled a difficult subject (teenage prostitution) with great sensitivity.  I already knew she was a great writer.  I know it more now, and The Opposite of Amber had me so gripped from start to finish that I am surprised my fingernails survived the tension.  Here's what I wrote about it in my original review:
This is a brave, wonderful novel which should not just be read by teenagers. It should be read by everyone who cares about making sure that the many real-life girls like Jinn who find themselves in situations similar to this can get help and support and above all knowledge that they absolutely can have other choices in their lives. Buy it for yourself, buy it for others. A real 5* book.
Once again, I haven't changed my mind, and that's why it's here.

The Wise Man's Fear (Kingkiller Chronicle 2) by Patrick Rothfuss
I'd put Patrick Rothfuss in the Robert Jordan, George RR Martin, Melanie Rawn school of epic fantasy.  If the first book in this series (The Name of the Wind) was good, then the second is even better.  The canvas is broad, the imagination on a similar scale, and I particularly like the central framework of Kvothe's inn as the pivot around which the whole story revolves.  There's a sort of zen-like quality to him which reminds me of 'Young Grasshopper's' teachers, Master Po and Master Kan in the Kung Fu movies.  Rothfuss is just a damn good storyteller - the only complaint I have is that I want to read on, and I can't, because the next book won't be out for aeons.  However, as a fellow writer, I understand that it takes time for fantasy worlds to brew and come to the boil, so I forgive him.  If you are a patient sort, do try him out - I think this series will be seen as a classic in years to come.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
This is one of the most recently published on this list, but I know I'll remember it for a long time. I liked Stiefvater's debut series about shapechanging wolves, but this one is in a league of its own (and is, I think, a standalone book).  Kelpies have always fascinated me, and I'm clearly not alone. The particular kelpies in this YA novel are fierce, bloodthirsty - and they sometimes demand the ultimate price from those human jockeys who dare to take part in the Scorpio Races on the shore between land and sea.  Stiefvater's love for and knowledge of horses shines through, and that, together with a bad boy hero and feisty heroine makes for a page-turning read.  I could almost smell the salt and feel the wind on top of the cliffs, and the whole thing has the feel of the wild Western Isles of Scotland. It's nice when an author rings the changes so successfully and doesn't just write the same old same old.  I was really impressed with this one.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Much has been written about this book, and much praise heaped upon it.  Deservedly so, in my opinion, and also in that of Lovely Daughter, who was up all night finishing it (a rare accolade for her). Once again, it is the richness of Taylor's language which impresses, as well as a superbly imagined story. The way she uses words make me feel as if I've eaten a medieval banquet in a sumptuous room hung with brightly woven tapestries - kind of full and satisfied in both body and spirit.  I had the same sense when I read her 2009 novel for younger readers, Blackbringer, so it's definitely a hallmark of her writing. This one just missed out on being SCC's Best Book of 2011, but only by a whisker.  I think Taylor has a rare talent, and I look forward to more banquets of words from her in the years to come.

That's my Eleven for 2011 - I hope some of them will entice you to read them .  A very Happy New Year and very best wishes to all my Dear Readers when 2012 makes its appearance on Sunday, and thank you all for sticking with me this year. Scribble City Central is in the process of having a blog facelift, so watch out for an exciting new look in January!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Guest Post - The Weird and Wonderful World of Synaesthesia by Nicola Morgan

I'm delighted to have the inimitably Crabbit Nicola Morgan here today to talk about synaesthesia, which is the subject of her just-republished debut novel, Mondays are Red.  I first came across synaesthesia in the US paranormal TV series Heroes, in which one of the characters, Emma, is a form of synaesthete, and sees music as colour.  I wanted to know more, but somehow never got around to finding out. Luckily Nicola has enlightened my ignorance, both here, and in her book, which I finished a couple of weeks ago.  Nicola's rich imagery both made my imagination take off like a rocket and made me want to lick her words, which drip off the page like melted chocolate.  If I'd written a debut novel like this, I'd be bloody proud of myself - and so should she be! Do read it - it's marvellous. Anyway, enough of me.  Welcome to Scribble City Central, Nicola, and over to you! Make yourself comfortable... *pops a celebratory cork*

Hello, Lucy, and thank you for letting me visit your lovely blog today. Excuse me while I remove my shoes and wriggle my toes a bit. So, where’s the fizz? Ah, there. Cheers!

So, synaesthesia. You’d like me to talk a bit about it. Since it’s one of my favourite topics, I’d be delighted!
What is it?
First, it’s NOT a medical condition or a negative thing. Second, almost everyone who has it has had it since birth, so they don’t know anything different. Often they don’t even know they have “something” that makes them different from the rest of us.
Yes, but what IS it, you annoying woman?
Well, it’s when two (usually, but occasionally more ) senses are oddly combined. The most common combination is hearing combined with seeing colours. So when you hear a particular sound you “see” a colour. Everyone with synaesthesia is different, but here are some examples of things that might happen:
  • Certain sounds could make colours – for example when you hear particular musical notes or musical instruments, you see certain colours.
  • Letters and numbers could have colours. If, for example, the letter ‘a’ was pink for you and ‘p’ was black, but ‘l’ was blue and ‘e’ butter yellow, the word ‘apple’ would produce all those colours.
  • Similarly, days of the week (and months) could produce colours. That’s possibly the most common form of synaesthesia.
  • Sounds could have shapes or tastes. One man talks of going to buy an ice-cream and finding that the voice of the ice-cream seller put such foul tastes in his mouth that he couldn’t face buying an ice-cream!
  • Tastes could have shapes. In The Man Who Tasted Shapes, by Richard Cytowic, he tells of eating at someone’s house and the host talking about the chicken needing more spikes. (I can relate to this hugely.)
There’s more info here.
How do I know if I’ve got it?
Well, if you see yourself in any of those descriptions, you probably have. But there are some “rules” to establish if it’s true synaesthesia.
  • The sensations must be physical and automatic. You would not have to think about them. For example, I can relate to giving shapes to tastes (and colours to sounds) but I can only do this by thinking, “What shape would salt be?” And I know it would be slightly curved, rounded, and warm. BUT, I’m doing this by thinking and it’s not an automatic reaction, but a cerebral one, taking into account meanings and sounds and everything. I do not have true synaesthesia. (When I visit Mary Hoffman’s blog on Dec 9th, I’ll show how most of us can “do” synaesthesia and how we can use it as a powerful writing tool.)
  • The sensations must be the same every time. If Mondays are red to you today, they won’t be blue next week.
  • You will be able to describe the sensations in extreme detail. Mondays won’t just be “red”, they will be the most specific type of red, and you’ll be able to describe it easily because you can really “see” it, either inside your head or actually in front of your eyes, like a screen. (Which is how Luke in Mondays are Red sees it.)
Is it useful for writers and artists?
I argue that true synaesthesia isn’t necessarily particularly useful! This is mainly because the correspondences are too individual and “odd”, rather than “meaningful” in a traditional or accessible way. (I’ll explain more on Mary’s blog.) So, they will feel surreal to the rest of us – nothing wrong with surreal but it makes it hard to share meaning. But some famously interesting writers and artists have or had synaesthesia and it certainly did them no harm! The writer Vladimir Nabokov, artists Kandinsky and David Hockney and the composer Messiaen and are the best known.
What’s it got to do with Mondays are Red, my novel?
Luke wakes from a coma and finds he has a very overwhelming synaesthesia – highly exaggerated and confusing. But he discovers that it gives him huge power, the power of language, which I argue is the greatest power of all – the power to change minds. He even discovers he can fly. (NB: you can’t. Please don’t try. Also, his power corrupts him, so you wouldn’t want it. Really.)
An amazing test
This works for people who have a very vivid form of coloured numbers or letters and is an amazing objective proof of the condition. (It’s rare for people to have it this strongly.)
Create a sheet of paper with lots of rows of the number five, but interspersed with a very few examples of the number two. Get a load of people to find and count the number 2s. Most people would take some time to do this, needing to look at each figure. BUT…people with this particular form of synaesthesia would find them instantly because the 2s would appear as a different colour to them. Even though they are printed in black. Amazing! (This test appears here and there are more interesting facts.)
Do you have synaesthesia? Do any of these things seem familiar?
At the launch of Mondays are Red, several adults discovered they had it because they all got into an argument about whether Mondays were red, green or silver! Whether you have synaesthesia or not, I hope lots of readers will want to enter Luke’s world. You need to let your imagination go but I promise you an exciting ride, even if you don’t actually fly!
Do hop over to Mary’s blog on Friday to read more about synaesthesia! Thank you, Lucy!
Thank you, Nicola. As always, it was a pleasure - and now I know I am not a colour synaesthete, although I do seem to feel particular tastes in my mouth with certain people and places...

PS: There's a fab (and very revealing) post about Nicola's music choices for writing over on Ros Morris's blog, The Undercover Soundtrack today, which ties in perfectly with this one.  Do go and read it!

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 see here.  You don't need a Kindle to download it, and the price is approx £2.23 on Amazon and will be similar on other outlets (coming soon). There's also a wonderful trailer, made by Nicola's daughter, which you can see below:
About the bookWhen 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.
Nicola's next stop will be at Mary Hoffman's Book Maven blog on Friday 9th December.
Nicola's website is here
You can also find Nicola on Twitter (where she Crabbits regularly as @nicolamorgan).
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