Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


What I’m Reading

Ms Musings is a style leader, both in terms of shoes and reading, so I’m grabbing her books meme and outing myself as a slavish follower of fashion. I hereby give you:

The Five Books Meme

1. The book I’m currently reading:

a. Paper book

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. When I love a book, it’s usually because there’s a sentence that grabs me like a trout on a hook and I know I have to let the author’s mind reel me in. With most books, the hook sentence usually occurs somewhere in the first chapter. With The Marriage Plot it was the very first one: “To start with, look at all the books.” Done! Here’s my lip, please hook it! TMP makes me think of Freedom, but Eugenides is much warmer about his characters than Franzen is. He reveals their flaws and foibles, but with a generosity and warmth that is heartening. Also these are three characters who mediate their love lives through the books they are reading at the time – luckily, since I’m reading and writing crime, I no longer do this, but I do remember having Jean Rhys and Angela Carter days at university. I’m halfway in, but I’m taking it slowly because this is a book that I never want to end.

b. Ebook

I’m also reading Before I Go To Sleep, the runaway crime success of 2011 by SJ Watson. It tells the story of a woman who loses her short-term memory while she sleeps, so every morning her husband, Ben, has to tell her who she is, who he is and remind her of the story of their marriage. In order to keep some sort of order, she keeps a diary that she hides from him (her psychiatrist phones her every morning to tell her where to look for it), and on the front page of the diary are the words ‘Don’t trust Ben.’ I’m heading into the final act, and it’s getting very exciting – when I can wrestle the iPad from the four Angry Birds addicts with whom I live.

2. The last book I finished

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo. I am a desperate and huge Nesbo fan, but this one let me down. I thought it was overly-long, far too gruesome and there were too many plot strands for the tension to remain high. However, I am more than a little in love with Harry Hole, so will continue to read the series. Note to Jo: your audience won’t be bored if something happy happens to Harry.

3. The next book I want to read

Well, it’s hidden in the Christmas drawer, but I doubt I will be able to wait that long: Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

4. The last book I bought

I bought Germany’s Top Husband the Steve Jobs biography for his birthday, but I have a growing wish list on The Book Depository that contains these books.

5. The last book someone bought me

Germany’s Top Husband bought me The Marriage Plot. Did I mention that he was top?

What’s on your book list? Feel free to play along.


Wish Lists

Having been given carte blanche from you lovely lot to keep on keeping on – and that fact that both Marks & Spencers and Aldi have already got their Christmas aisles groaning with mince pies and Lebkuchen respectively – I am happy to share with you my Christmas wish lists. Here are the movies and the books that I have missed this year and which I am desperate to see or read. Please feel free to add suggestions in the comments – I welcome your thoughtful tips for both. Please note that on the movie front, I am an “easy listening” watcher. I don’t do violence, torture, sex marathons, zombies or slashers. However, I can cope with very edgy humour – welcome it, in fact.

Without further ado, here is my movie wish list:

1. The Kids are Alright

2. Bridesmaids

3. Beginners

4. We Need to Talk About Kevin

And now for the books:

1. Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson.

2. Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. Nova is long-term blog friend, who is rapidly becoming a YA superstar. Imaginary Girls is her second novel published under her own name.

3. Deep Country by Neil Ansell. Neil’s a Litopia connection, but I read the Guardian review before he joined the writing site and earmarked the book then and there.

4.  A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth

5.  Darkside by Belinda Bauer. I loved her debut Blacklands and can’t wait for this.

6. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. This is the Booker Prize shortlister that appeals most to me.

7. Reading Women by Stephanie Staal. A history of feminist writing.

8. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

9. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

I have just reactivated my Goodreads account, so if you are there, do let me know. I’ve just lost half an hour wondering around reading everyone’s recommendations, so will reserve the right to update my wish list according to what I find there and what you recommend.

What’s on your watching and reading wish lists?


I Submitted

… my revisions and therefore I deserve a list. After I open a large bottle of wine, that is.

Thanks to the lovely Ms Musings – who found it at Thomas’s Porch – here is a list of The Sunday Times 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945. Which ones have you read?

1. Philip Larkin – yes
2. George Orwell – yes
3. William Golding – yes
4. Ted Hughes – yes
5. Doris Lessing – yes
6. J. R. R. Tolkien  – yes
7. V. S. Naipaul – started, got bored, put down
8. Muriel Spark – yes
9. Kingsley Amis – yes
10. Angela Carter – yes
11. C. S. Lewis – yes
12. Iris Murdoch – yes! big favourite here and long overdue for a re-read
13. Salman Rushdie – yes
14. Ian Fleming – nope
15. Jan Morris – nope
16. Roald Dahl – yes
17. Anthony Burgess – no
18. Mervyn Peake – yes
19. Martin Amis – yes
20. Anthony Powell – no
21. Alan Sillitoe – no, not even heard of
22. John Le Carré – yes
23. Penelope Fitzgerald – no
24. Philippa Pearce – no, not heard of her either
25. Barbara Pym – yes
26. Beryl Bainbridge -no, but I want to
27. J. G. Ballard – no
28. Alan Garner – no. Who he?
29. Alasdair Gray – no
30. John Fowles – yes
31. Derek Walcott – yes
32. Kazuo Ishiguro – yes
33. Anita Brookner – yes
34. A. S. Byatt – yes
35. Ian McEwan – yes
36. Geoffrey Hill – no
37. Hanif Kureishi – yes
38. Iain Banks – yes
39. George Mackay Brown – no
40. A. J. P. Taylor – yes
41. Isaiah Berlin – no
42. J. K. Rowling – yes
43. Philip Pullman – yes, but only part of, aloud to a child
44. Julian Barnes – yes
45. Colin Thubron – no
46. Bruce Chatwin – yes
47. Alice Oswald – no
48. Benjamin Zephaniah – yes, but how does he get on the list and Zadie Smith doesn’t?
49. Rosemary Sutcliff – no
50. Michael Moorcock – no

Out of my ‘nos’ are there any I should chase down and fling onto my TBR pile? Unmissable books that I’ve missed and without which my reading education is poorer and sadder?

Do tell.


Books, Stats, Prizes!

This old granny blog is about to hit 300,000 views thanks to you, my lovely readers. In addition, I also have to thank the person who searches on ‘charlotte lurken’ for their visits and the people who really really want to know about ‘young women with grey hair’ for theirs. Mr ‘Is it cheap to love in Germany?’ deserves a special mention, and an answer: no, it isn’t, my dear. Love in Germany does not come cheap.

Anyway! To celebrate this milestone in the life of Charlotte’s Web, I’m announcing a competition. But you have to read through the whole post to find out what it is.

I have a lovely new pile of books awaiting reading. First off is fellow Litopian Sally Zigmond’s Hope Against Hope. Described as ‘a rich slice of Yorkshire Victoriana’, Hope Against Hope is the story of sisters May and Carrie who are driven apart by misunderstanding, pride and a mutual sense of betrayal and resentment. One Amazon reviewer said it is ‘one of those books where both the characters and the settings are strongly written and hugely memorable. It would appeal to anyone who likes historical fiction – it’s a half-way house between literary historical and family saga.’ I’m halfway in and loving it.

Next on the pile is a book by another Litopian: The De Lacey Inheritance by Elizabeth Ashworth. Elizabeth is a historian whose first three books focus on the history of Lancashire and this is her first novel. It is apparently a ‘tale of loves lost and found during the exile of Richard the Lionheart.’ Dying to dive in.

I also have a couple of Man Booker Prize contenders to read: C by Tom McCarthy (according to my most well-read friend, the most literary of this year’s short-list) and The Long Song by Andrea Levy. Looking forward to those.

The last two books on my TBR pile are new books by old favourites: Sex and Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido and Private Life by Jane Smiley. I feel a glow of warmth each time I see these on my bookshelf, just knowing the pleasure that awaits me within their pages.

And now to the competition part …

You can win one of these celebratory, 300,000-visit milestone books. Tell me in the comments which of these six books you most want to read and why. I’ll draw a winner in a couple of days and post you the book after I’ve read it, when it becomes yours for evermore.

Thanks for reading and for being part of my blogging journey. It means the world to me.


Big American Books

I’ve just read two chunksters by two American master storytellers. In the one corner, weighing in 562 pages is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and lolling in the other is Stephen King’s Under the Dome, which comes in at a massive 880 pages. Freedom is a literary darling, feted by The Guardian as ‘the novel of the century’, by the NY Times as a ‘masterly portrait of a nuclear family in turmoil’ and by The Economist as having ‘the sweep of a modern Paradise Lost’. Under the Dome has also received glowing reviews. The Sunday Times says it is ‘a remarkable achievement’; crime novelist Lee Child says ‘Seven words; the best yet from the best ever. America’s greatest living novelist delivers his masterpiece’ while the Irish Times says it is ‘utterly compelling’.

While I think attempts to define people as ‘the greatest living novelists’ or novels as ‘the novel of the century’ are sophistic, it was an interesting experience reading the two back-to-back. Franzen’s book is intimate, focusing on a love triangle that breaks a family apart. It is nuanced, thoughtful and mines deep into the workings of its three main characters. You can open any page and find a quotable paragraph that reveals Franzen’s mind analytically at work. Here is a random example:

Katz’s susceptibility to women over thirty-five was a source of some embarrassment. It felt sad and little sick in the way it seemed to reference his own lunatic and absent mother, but there was no altering the basic wiring of his brain. The kiddies were perennially enticing and perennially unsatisfying in much the same way that coke was unsatisfying: whenever he was off it, he remembered it as fantastic and unbeatable and craved it, but as soon as he was on it again he remembered that it wasn’t fantastic at all, it was sterile and empty; neuro-mechanistic, death-flavored.

Paragraphs like these are archetypal Franzen; with long and winding sentences using multiple clauses, the fascinating mix of everyday language (‘coke’, ‘kiddies’) and academic (‘neuro-mechanistic’, ‘reference’) and the self-torture as each character flays him or herself for our reading pleasure.

The novel starts and ends with neighbours; people on the outside looking in and judging his protagonists as they muddle along in their twenty-year relationship, getting things right and getting things spectacularly wrong. He invites the reader to judge them too and it is tempting: Katz, of the above paragraph, is an aging rocker, juvenile in his predilections; his friend Walter is a goody-two-shoes who gets his comeuppance by being too innocent and trusting, and his wife Patty is emotionally scattered and needy, loving Walter, lusting Katz and playing out all these emotions dangerously in her relationship with her son Joey.

Here are two neighbours contemplating the Berglands in the early pages of the novel:

Merrie Paulsen wasn’t entertained by Patty’s storytelling. Late in the evening, loading the dinner-party dishes into the dishwasher, she remarked to Seth that it was hardly surprising that Joey should be confused about the distinction between children and adults – his own mother seemed to suffer from the same confusion about which of the two she was. Had Seth noticed how, in Patty’s stories, the discipline always came from Walter, as if Patty were just some feckless bystander whose job it was to be cute?

“I wonder if she’s actually in love with Walter, or not,” Seth mused optimistically, uncorking a final bottle. “Physically, I mean.”

“The subtext is always ‘My son is extraordinary,'” Merrie said. “She’s always complaining about the length of his attention span.”

This neighbourly bitching frames the question the novel seeks to answer: is Patty in love with Walter physically? It also points to Franzen’s great theme of sub-text; how people say one thing, mean another and do something entirely different. He is fascinated by what drives people to make their choices and we watch in agony under his microscope as Patty, Walter and Katz do just that.

King’s Under the Dome also puts people under the microscope, but in his case it is a whole town. One autumn morning, the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill is cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. Food, water and electricity run short and the rules on which a quiet, decent town is built begin to shift and mutate. The Times appropriately said it is ‘something of an American Lord of the Flies’ and the reader senses that overpowering creepy logic that things are going to go horribly and violently wrong.

Under the Dome is a page-turner of the finest order and it gallops along at a breathless pace. But King is not called a master storyteller for nothing; while chasing his plot he also builds an array of characters whom the reader either loves and roots for or loathes and hopes for their comeuppance. 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.

Novice writers need to study King’s dialogue. He could write an entire book just of dialogue, just so taut and snappy it is. Here’s a brief scene:

‘Cool, Mrs McClatchey,’ Benny said. He raised one hand. ‘Give me five, mother of my soul brother.’

Smiling wanly, still holding the picture of her husband, Claire McClatchey slapped Benny five. Then she said, ‘At least the town common’s a safe place.’ She paused to consider that, frowning slightly. ‘I hope so, anyway, but who really knows.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Norrie said. ‘I’ll watch out for them.’

‘Just promise me that if you do find something, you’ll let the experts handle things,’ Claire said.

Mom, Joe thought, I think maybe we’re the experts. But he didn’t say it. He knew it would bum her out even more.

‘Word up,’ Benny said, and held his hand up again. ‘Five more, o mother of my -‘

This time she kept both hands on the picture. ‘I love you, Benny, but sometimes you tire me out.’

He smiled sadly. ‘My mom says the exact same thing.’

Stephen King is more than a master craftsman; he is a world-builder. Chester Mills and its inhabitants take up residence in the reader’s mind, showing us how humankind responds when things fall apart. King takes a grand theme and miniaturises it for his readers. Franzen miniaturises his even further, down to a world of three.

As a reader and a writer, I’m fascinated by both exceptional genre fiction like King’s and by literary fiction like Franzen’s. I know there are many readers out there who would choose one over the other, calling genre fiction prescriptive and literary fiction pretentious and that is their prerogative. I don’t see it as a literary versus genre debate. There is no duking it out. The reading world is big enough for all kinds of writing and I’m never happier than when I’m observing sheer writing talent in action.


Living with Books

In the New Yorker, Susan Orlean admits to being a book snoop. When she’s on holiday in rental houses, she tries to figure out who the owners are by their books:

I always start with the bookshelves, which makes me worry about my future vacations, when all reading material will have migrated to an electronic format and the bookshelves are empty except for Hummel figurines. Then what? Where will I begin my snooping—in the spice cabinet? Fortunately, the owner of this house is obviously a dead-tree kind of reader, and I have deduced that he is a physician. (I do think I’m a genius, but the stacks of diagnostic manuals would have been a pretty big clue even to lesser minds.) The Leo Rosten books are a religious giveaway—did Rosten ever sell a single book to a non-Jew?—and while the majority of the books are high-toned and intellectual, they are leavened by the yeasty Steve Martini thrillers half-hidden under the night table. My guess? A Jewish doctor who travels and buys the thrillers for diversion during flights, even though he was really and truly planning to use the time to read something serious, like the Beethoven biography that sits on a prominent shelf, untouched.

To be honest, I’m a bit of a book snoop myself. I love seeing what people have on their bookshelves and I’m always a bit shocked when there isn’t much. Then I know it’s going to be a superficial friendship rather than a deep one, because I can’t really be friends with someone who doesn’t read. One friendship was cemented for life when a new friend came to dinner and saw that I had The Girl of the Limberlost on my bookshelf. She hugged me with shining eyes, saying, ‘I can’t believe I’ve finally met someone who has also read it.’

If a book snoop visited my house, she would have a field day. We are dead-tree readers, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the hallways, sitting-room, all bedrooms and in both offices. Plus, she would need more than one rainy day because there’s no system. Apart from the shelf of cookery books in the hallway, it’s abitrary.

I once attempted a system, and it looked like this:


It was based on colour and fuelled by a very nice bottle of red wine. And three years later, it doesn’t look like that anymore. (Now that I think about it, my Girl of the Limberlost friend was the same one who helped me colour-code the books. This is what we booky types do for fun when we get together.)

In my house, a book snoop would find history books cuddled up to books on human capital management and thrillers, classics in the childrens’ rooms and a disorienting array of contemporary fiction everywhere. One selection from one shelf would find Elizabeth Kostova next to Donald Maass next to James Wilson next to Qiu Xiaolong next to Mary Gordon next to Doris Lessing next to Jane Smiley next Anne Tyler next to Deon Meyer. She’d find chick lit in bed with Booker Prize winners and crime fiction making eyes at dictionaries.

She would come to the conclusion that the owners of the house are book-hoarders who are passionate about reading, people with an intellectual bent that is tempered by an addiction to genre fiction. Someone might work in HR systems, someone might be a writer or writing a book, there are definitely children in the house, they love to cook, they are chaotic and random, but one thing is for sure, they love living with books.

What would a book snoop say about you?

(Hat tip to DGLM for the link.)


Summer Wish List

The books on my wish list are multiplying like rabbits with nothing better to do, so before they escape me, here they are noted down. Just so I don’t forget and in case anyone wants to give me a non-birthday related, summer-celebrating present. (I live in hope.)

Without further ado, I give you The Summer Wish List:

1. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. From the Amazon product description: ‘At a suburban barbecue, a man slaps a child who is not his own…The reverberations call into question the relationships between all those who witness it. At a suburban barbecue one afternoon, a man slaps an unruly 3-year-old boy. The boy is not his son. It is a single act of violence, but this one slap reverberates through the lives of everyone who witnesses it happen. In his controversial, award-winning novel, Christos Tsiolkas presents an apparently harmless domestic incident as seen from eight very different perspectives.’

2. The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton. From Rosy’s website: ‘The Tapestry of Love is the story of how a woman falls in love with a place and its people: a portrait of landscape, a community and a fragile way of life.’ Rosy is my favourite romantic novelist and I’ve read all her books. I especially loved Hearts and Minds, set in a Cambridge college.

3. Hope Against Hope by Sally Zigmond. Sally’s an award-winning short story writer and this is her first novel. She’s running a short story writing tutorial on her blog at the moment, which is not to be missed. Writing tips! For free! From from someone who knows what she’s talking about! What’s not to like?

4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The story of the woman whose cells became the most important tools used in medicine. Because I’m falling in love with science.

5. The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson. My favourite caveman has written a book, subtitled ‘How to ReProgram Your Genes for Effortless Weight Loss, Vibrant Health and Boundless Energy.’ I lost four kilograms in a month just following his blog. Imagine what reading the book will do …

6. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. If Hilary and Barbara hadn’t been in the Orange Prize shortlist, this was apparently the book that would have won. Lorrie came up against the heavies. Called ‘lyrical, beguiling and wise.’

7. This Body of Death by Elizabeth George. The 16th in the Inspector Lynley series. I’ve read them all and I can’t stop now.

8. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Because Bloglily says it’s good and I was never brave enough to read Cloud Atlas.

9. Dead Like You by Peter James. The latest in the Roy Grace mysteries. Addicted!

10. Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi. For what is summer without a new recipe book?

This list is by no means complete. I reserve the right to add more books at random, willy-nilly and so forth, and in response to wise readerly recommendations.

What’s on your wish list?