Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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10 Top Books of 2010

In case you feel the need to slap me, I have already submitted the novel revisions to my agent. Despite having a houseful of guests this weekend and childrens’ social calendars to massage, I was a good little writer. And there is a secret to my success: you know how all the famous artistes of history had wives who did all the actual bloody work, while the fellas scratched their bums, sucked their quills and tried to find words that rhymed with orange? Well folks, I have a husband and a damn useful one at that. I have to admit that there was a certain amount of bliss, sitting in my office, hearing the noises of my family and our friends above me, smelling the scent of food being cooked by someone else, knowing that all was well in the world and my only responsibility was to put words in a row.

One of my blog readers recently bemoaned the fact that I no longer keep a list of the books I’ve read during the year and that she and her Swaziland book club would like some top tips. So this post is dedicated to M (how are you, honey?) and the ladies in Piggs’ Peak, Swaziland, who are in need of hot book recommendations.

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten Books of 2010:

The How We Miss You, Stieg Larsson Crime Fiction Award goes to Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman. This is a biting, edgy crime thriller set in a wintery Oslo with jaded cops, evil murderers, lots of corpses, inappropriate sex and heavy drinking. A great read and a page-turner that would make an excellent Christmas present for anyone who loved the Millenium Trilogy.

The Laughing All the Way to the Bank Award for Literary Fiction goes to Emma Donaghue whose novel Room did not win the 2010 Man Booker Prize but which consistently out-sold the other five short-listers. Room, reviewed here, is a brilliant exercise in first-person narration and a stunning depiction of incarceration from the perspective of a five-year-old child. It’s moving, surprisingly funny and very beautiful.

The Maybe I Won’t Emigrate to Australia After All  Award for Difficult Fiction goes to Christos Tsiolkas for The Slap. At a suburban barbeque, someone slaps another person’s child, and the novel tells how family ties and friendships dissolve and unravel as a result. Tsiolkas, dare I say it, does not pull his punches and Aussie society is revealed, warts, prejudices, misogyny, racism and all.

The Beautiful Book in Translation Award goes to Julia Franck for The Blind Side of the Heart. This is World War II written from the German perspective and it is tragic, heart-wrenching and exquisitely written. Read it if you dare.

The I Laughed, I Cried Animal Lovers’ Memoir of the Year Award goes to John Grogan’s Marley and Me. I read this against the background of my family’s debate about whether to get a dog or not. Marley, being a good-natured oaf given to idiotic pratfalls, did not press his species’ case successfully, but it is a delightful book.

The Damn, I Wish I Was this Clever Award goes to Margaret Atwood for The Year of the Flood, part two in her dystopian trilogy. I’m not usually a huge fan of science fiction, but I’m loving this series, and Atwood is of course brilliant, incisive and sharp.

The Put Your Feet Up And Dive In Big Fat Page-Turner Award goes to Stephen King for Under the Dome, reviewed here. The reviewer says he ‘constructs a world so compelling  that you are obliged to keep reading, pressing the accelerator against your more civilised instincts, because you just know the end is going to be ghastly and grim.’

The Makes You Hungry Without Wrecking Your Confidence in the Kitchen Cookbook of the Year Award goes Bill Granger for his fabulous Holiday, a feast of fresh flavours, novel ingredients and charming pictures of the lovely and boyish Bill.

The Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Jane Smiley whose thirteenth novel, the beautiful Private Life was published this year. The tagline reads ‘Marriage can sometimes be the loneliest place’ and in this book she traces the relationship  between two people who really shouldn’t be together, but who survive a lifetime of marriage against society’s expectations of them.

The Wolf Hall Book of the Year Award goes to Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, reviewed here. This is an ambitious book and I was nervous of reading it, because I don’t much like George Bush and I didn’t want to feel sympathetic to him in any way. However, it is brilliantly done and of course is not really about George or Laura Bush, but about Alice and Charlie Blackwell. It is an audacious attempt to fictionalise the lives of people who are still living, and while my mind swung from the fictitious characters to the real ones and back again, in the end I gave in to the sweep of Sittenfeld’s story. She deserves prizes and paeans for a big, bold novel and quite frankly it is she, not Jonathan Franzen, who the USA should be lauding as the leader of their modern literary canon.

And in case anyone wishes to send me books or give me gifts, here is my remaining wish list for 2010:

Anything by Margie Orford

Tom Vowler’s The Method and Other Stories

Polly Samson’s Perfect Lives

A Million  Miles from Normal by Paige Nick

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

In Search of Adam by Caroline Smailes


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Hope Against Hope, Review and Author Interview

Hope Against Hope by Sally Zigmond is a fabulous Dickensian slab of a novel. Readers who like a big thick book, as I do, will be entirely satisfied by its ambitious scale and rattling tempo. Just like the railways against which it is set, Hope Against Hope thunders along its track, taking some twists and turns along the way, but delivering the reader safely to her destination at the end.

At the dawn of the Victorian epoch, sisters Carrie and May Hope are separated by unfortunate circumstance. Carrie goes to work in a Harrogate hotel, one which barely lives up to its name as it seldom has any guests, and May is inveigled into a ‘girls’ school’ which turns out to be anything but. For the next ten years, fate and history conspire to keep the two apart. One strand of the novel follows Carrie as she becomes one of Harrogate’s most successful hoteliers and the other follows May to Paris, where she becomes a seamstress and later a dressmaker to the rich and famous. After following the sisters on their separate courses, Zigmond skillfully winds them back together, as May is forced by tragic loss to leave Paris which is in the throes of revolution. The sisters have to overcome a decade of misunderstanding and learn to trust each other again.

Set against a backdrop of revolutionary industrial progress, Hope Against Hope is a very modern novel. The sisters, while they fall in love, are not reliant on men for their safety and security. They both make their own way in business, are independent and resourceful. They both set up alternative family structures and while they have their share of obstacles, they both pick themselves up and start over, using the skills they have learnt and summoning the support they have built around them.

Sally Zigmond has done a sterling job. Hope Against Hope is a great read, firmly located in its setting and underscored by humour and warmth. It’s the kind of book you could comfortably give your mother or mother-in-law for Christmas, knowing there are no rabid scenes of sex or violence. I loved it and it’s on my Christmas list for Mrs O senior (avert your eyes, Betty!).

Sally has kindly agreed to come and join us here at Charlotte’s Web for an interview about Hope Against Hope in particular and writing in general. Thanks, Sally, and welcome!

Charlotte: Your novel, Hope Against Hope, is set in Harrogate, Leeds and Paris between 1837 and 1848. What attracted you this particular period specifically and to historical fiction in general?

Sally: ‘I don’t know’ is the easy answer to both questions but I’ll do my best! I have always enjoyed reading historical fiction (not necessarily that about kings and queens but about the way ordinary people lived) and although I have written contemporary short stories I began to find myself writing more and more based on historical events, people and characters. I can’t really say why.  I have always been drawn to the very early Victorian period. (Again I don’t know why.) It was a time of great change and turbulence. The industrial revolution was changing the way people worked and lived. It was a time of great scientific and engineering progress  and, of course, the railway revolutionised travel. Plus it was the time of the Romantic poets and romanticism in general.  

C: On Amazon, the novel is described as ‘a halfway house between literary historical and family saga.’ While you were writing it, did you have a specific genre in mind and were you conscious of the conventions of that genre?

S: Yes and no. I wanted to write what I like to read. I like meaty and satisfying novels like the great Victorian ‘triple-deckers’ popular in  Victorian times. I was aware, however, that this would be frowned on today and that I would pretty early on be classed as a romance or a saga writer. I have deliberately fought against writing a ‘typical’ historical family saga because I  think the genre has got itself in a bit of a rut these days and has come to be known pejoratively as ‘Clogs and Shawls’. Catherine Cookson was the absolute queen of saga where a downtrodden beauty overcomes poverty and such things as a drunken father-husband and I don’t think there’s a writer today who can do it as well as she did. So I deliberately chose to steer clear of what has now become a cliche. I also wanted to inject some humour. I realise that I made things difficult for myself but I am unrepentant!

C: In the novel, Carrie Hope and Alex Sinclair are clearly made for each other, yet you manage to keep them apart for 568 pages. This delicious but agonising separation keeps the reader turning the pages, as does the separation between Carrie and May. Did you find it hard to achieve?

S: Funnily enough I didn’t. I needed that time to show them both changing. Carrie was a bit bossy and determined to ‘go it alone’ at the start and Alex had a habit of running away from emotion so I wanted to show them slowly maturing and thereby moving closer together. The same with May, too. She was a bit of a silly girl to begin with but her experiences in Paris changed her for the better, too.  

C: Hope Against Hope has a multi-faceted plot, many characters and a variety of settings. How much of this did you plan and how much of it developed organically as you wrote?

S: As I said in answer to your second question, I made the decision very early on that I wanted to write a Dickensian type ‘baggy’ novel with various plot strands that keep twisting and turning around each other. Initially there were two plot strands that I removed completely-on the advice of an agent who still didn’t take me on! I wish ion a way that I’d kept them but I saw her point. Having said that, several of the sub-plots I kept in grew organically as I told the story. Both Bob Old and Tildy began as very minor characters but the more I wrote, the more they came to represent the inexorable rise of the Victorian middle class. And it became a bit of a joke to provide them with a new child every time we saw them! 

C: On your blog, the very excellent Elephant in the Writing Room, which I recommend every aspiring writer should follow, you describe Hope Against Hope’s momentous journey towards publication. Did you learn any specific lessons from your path to publication and do you have any tips for apprentice novelists? 

S: I learned an awful lot along the way. The first obvious thing was that 250,000 words (the original length) was far too long for today’s market! A shame in my opinion but I can see why. The second was how relatively easy it was to remove those 100,000 words. (Although time-consuming.) Whilst I have learned that editors and agents do know their stuff and what they say is well worth listening to, one shouldn’t be too quick to obey them unless you know they’re the right agent for you. One agent made me write a totally different novel set in a different period and more of a traditional saga. She did try to find a publisher. This failed because the editors were saga editors and they said it wasn’t a ‘proper’ saga. So she failed and therefore she ‘let me go.’ This taught me that although she worked at a very reputable agency, she was not the right agent for me and that I should stick to writing what I want to write, whilst still making sure others might want to read it. It’s a hard balance to achieve and I’m not sure I’ve found it yet.

C: You are a much-published short story writer and have won many competitions. Is there a short story of yours that you are particularly proud of and why?

S: Sometimes, out of the blue, a story comes to you that seems to flow from the moment you start writing it. Such was the case with a story called The Millennium Miracle. I wrote in it 1999 and set it in 999 at a time (Anglo-Saxon period) when people thought the year 1000 would mark the end of the world. It was both funny and sad. I loved writing it. And my own personal ‘miracle’ was that it won top prize in a quarterly short story mag (now defunct) and then went on to win their ‘story of the year’. I’ve never since matched either the ease of writing or the staggering prize money!

C: You have worked as commissioning editor for QWF, a literary short fiction magazine for women. What are the most common errors novice short story writers make?

S: The four most common mistakes I came across were:
A great opening paragraph that made my ears prick up only to get bogged down in convoluted back-story and explanation.
Too much ‘throat-clearing’ by which I mean that the ‘real’ story didn’t begin until page three or four, which is far too late for a short story. And some were dragged out for far too long after it had really finished. I think it was Chekhov who said that when you’ve written your story, chop off the beginning and the end.
No story. A short story (indeed all fiction whatever its length) needs to incorporate cause and effect and also a moment of change, however small, either in the character(s) or the reader.
Lack of editing. Nothing is perfect the first time. And don’t just tinker when you edit. Learn to be ruthless until the very last stages when tinkering is allowed!

C: You are presently working on a new novel. Will it have the same kind of sweeping vistas as Hope Against Hope?

S: No because it’s a different type of novel. Set between 1919 and 1926 in Leeds, my characters are all coming to terms with the legacy of World War One. It’s about brothers rather than sisters although the two main characters are women; one a shop-keeper’s daughter and the other an aristocrat who becomes a Socialist and peace campaigner.  Oh dear, that sounds pretty grim but it’s not. Honest!

C: Do you have a specific writing routine or methods that help you write?

S: Not really. I am a terrible procrastinator and will do anything to avoid getting on with it. I never plan and discover my story as I write. This can make progress messy and slow but I can’t do it any other way. If I try and plan or do character biographies, it takes away that sense of discovery, which I love and makes me not want to bother because I’ve found it out before I’ve even begun. I am easily bored!  Mind you, I hate writing the first draft and that slog of getting new words down but I love editing and adding detail and texture layer by layer to the rough outline.

C: Name your top five historical novels.

S: That’s impossible to answer because I’m always reading–and not all of my favourite authors write historical fiction.  But my two favourite historical fiction authors are Philippa Gregory and Elizabeth Chadwick. I have also ‘discovered’ Christie Dickason who should, in my opinion,  be much better known. 

C: What are you reading now?

S: Perfect Lives by Polly Samson, her latest short story collection. Not historical. 

C: When you are not reading or writing, what do you do?

S: My husband has recently retired and our two sons are both grown up so I do very little apart from pottering about the house and garden. We live an a lovely part of England and I enjoy walks and village life and support my husband when he takes part in long-distance triathlons, which take us all over the country and sometimes abroad.