Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Top Five Novels of 2011

The books I love most are the ones I press on others, saying, ‘You must read this. Absolutely, you must. Ignore the wet patches where I read it in the bath, the tear stains where I wept, the coffee blotches where I spluttered with laughter, the lint from my handbag when I carried it around with me, the small drops of blood where this book dived into my veins and took up residence there with its beautiful sentences and refused to come out. Ignore all these, and read this book because you will be better for it.’

This year, I’ve had the privilege of reading five books that I want to press on people, bloodstains and all:

Ali Smith There But for The

This is the book that got away, the one that should have topped the Booker and Orange Prize lists and didn’t. Smith is the queen of sentences, of the poetry of words, of rhythm and of little short sharp electric shocks that bite you at the full stop. I’m not a re-reader but this is a book I will return to.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

I’m only on page 326 and still have another 250 pages to go, but this book is also making me jealous on sentence level. For example, ‘He spoke German nicely, keeping an amused pedantic eye on the slowly approaching end of his sentences’  is exactly what speaking German feels like. Hollinghurst’s descriptions of English social situations are masterly – the double of layer of what is happening and being said and the undercurrents of what is being felt and thought. I’ve never seen another writer do it as well. He also writes beautifully about desire. It’s taking me forever to read, mostly because I am savouring every mouthful.

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle

I rampaged through this in a day. It’s hilarious and wistful, and the protagonist Cassandra is superbly charismatic. One of those books you dive into and when you look up again, you can’t quite believe that the world is the same because you are changed on the inside. Glorious.

Jennifer Egan A Message from the Goon Squad

Sadly, since I read this as an ebook, I can’t foist a blood-stained copy on anyone, but I can urge you, urgently, to read it. It has a similarity to There But for The, in that it covers a cast of characters vaguely related to each other without much in the way of what creative writing teachers would call a plot arc. Not to say it’s plotless, not at all, but the value is in the way she draws her characters (sharp lines, funny, often hard). Egan also shocks and surprises on sentence level and, as it turns out, that is a quality that  makes me love a book.

Which leads me to – ta dah! – The Charlotte’s Web Book of the Year:

David Grossman’s To the End of the Land

I cried when I read it, cried when I described it to my book club and I get a lump in my throat when I think about it now. This novel is a punch in the solar plexus, a long slow gentle punch that you only wake up to about 400 pages in. It rivals one of my other favourite novels, Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, for its depiction of grief and it throws the messy, neurotic, fearful underbelly of parenting into the light. Read it if you dare! I recommend tissues for the tears and something stauncher for the blood, for it will haunt you.

What were your top reads in 2011?


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The De Lacy Inheritance, Book Review and Author Interview

After a brief blast of sunshine this weekend, German weather has returned to form: cold, wet, Novemberish. With the last few autumn leaves lashing the windows, this is perfect snuggle under the covers and read weather, and luckily I have a piles of lovely books to do just that.

One book I have just finished is Elizabeth Ashworth’s debut novel The De Lacy Inheritance. Set in 1192, the year Richard the Lionheart was captured in Austria, its central character is Richard FitzEustace, an aristocractic soldier who has returned to Lancashire from the Crusades with a damning disease – leprosy. His family cast him out, but at the same time, place him under obligation to seek out their relation, Sir Robert de Lacy, rumoured to be near his deathbed, and press the family’s claim to his estate.

Roger, his headstrong bully of a younger brother, is now head of the family and is determined to marry off their sister Joanna to a wealthy and unattractive old landowner. Joanna takes matters into her own hands and follows Richard on his quest, where, to complicate things, she falls in love with Geoffrey whose father, the arrogant Dean of Wallei, is the other claimant to the De Lacy Inheritance.

Richard is a fascinating character, who, despite his leprosy and the fact that he has been cast aside by society, still manages to secure his family’s future without wanting the rewards for himself. It is quite odd to read a book where the main male protagonist is a hermit and outcast, but Ashworth makes him appealing by recalling his lost love in the Holy Land and showing his deep warmth towards his younger sister. At the end he is offered a chance to rehabilitate himself, to claim his land and his birth-right, but he chooses a spiritual path. He is an unlikely hero, but all the more admirable in contrast to the venial Roger and Dean of Wallei.

The De Lacy Inheritance is a delicious, complex web which Elizabeth Ashworth deftly weaves for our reading pleasure. As a historian with a special focus on Lancashire, her writing is lit from within by the acuteness of her historical detail and her love for the county and its history makes the novel all the more vivid. This is definitely one for the Christmas list.

Elizabeth kindly agreed to answer some questions about The De Lacy Inheritance and her writing process. Many thanks, Elizabeth!

Charlotte: The De Lacy Inheritance is your fourth book, but your first novel. After writing three history books, how different did you find the novel-writing process?

Elizabeth: I think the important word that’s missing there is first ‘published’ novel.  It isn’t the first one I’ve written.  When I was a child I used to churn them out relentlessly, and a few years ago I wrote a modern day novel but never pursued publication because it was too personal in content.  I’ve always been a story-teller, though my fiction work has been mostly short stories.  I used to think that a novel would be much harder than a short story, but surprisingly I found it easier.  I find that I can swap from non-fiction to fiction fairly easily because my non-fiction work does tend to have a narrative style and the historical fiction does include facts – so the books overlap rather than being distinctly different.

C: Part of The De Lacy Inheritance is based on fact. How did that come about and how did you weave fact and fiction together?

E: It began when I was writing Tales of Old Lancashire.  I discovered a legend about a Holy Hermit who lived in a cave under the castle at Clitheroe and the legend says that he was a member of the de Lacy family who was a leper.  I was fascinated by the idea and went off to dig deeper into the factual history.  After writing a short account for the book I kept thinking about this man who was a leper and who could have inherited a fortune except for his disease.  I felt compelled to tell his story.  So, using the facts as a backbone, I began to add detail which was fictional.  I found that I liked having a ready-made story to build on although it was also a challenge because I had to write within those facts rather than letting my imagination take over completely.

 C: Although TDLI is set in 1192, I thought it had a modern sensibility, espoused by the main female character Johanna FitzEustace. Could you talk about how Johanna’s feistiness and refusal to kow-tow to family pressure is essential to the novel?

E: I don’t think Johanna was the only girl in 1192 to refuse to give in to family pressure.  In medieval literature there are girls just like her.  One named Christina, for example, who was determined to become a nun and refused to marry no matter how much her parents tried to persuade her.  I don’t think Johanna was typical, but I hope that she is believable and although she is ‘modern’ in some ways I tried to keep her contemporary to the times in which she lived.  How essential she is to the storyline is an interesting question because for me this was always Richard’s story and Johanna wasn’t in the original version.  It was only when I realised that the novel was far too short, and that I probably needed a female character and some romance if I was to interest a publisher, that I threaded her story around Richard’s.  It’s reassuring that the join doesn’t show and that she is seen to play an important part in the eventual outcome.

C: Your central male character, Richard FitzEustace, is a leper who is condemned to live alone for the rest of his life. He is, however, a very appealing character. How did you manage to strike that balance?

E: I don’t think of Richard as a leper.  To me, he is the handsome and attractive man that people saw before he contracted the disease.  As a leper he is viewed differently because of his outward appearance, but that does not change who he is – only how he is perceived and how people treat him.

 C: You are now writing your fourth novel. Can you tell us anything about it? What is the status of novels two and three?

E:  I’m currently wrestling with a novel about a later member of the family, Alice de Lacy.  The factual history that surrounds it is very complex with barons and earls changing allegiances more often than their underlinen – and it’s proving challenging to explain the necessary facts without becoming boring.  It’s very much a work in progress at the moment and I’m enjoying stretching myself but some days I cross out more than I add to it.

Novels two and three are currently with my publisher and I’m hoping to share some news about one or both of them quite soon.  One is based on another Lancashire story about Sir William and Lady Mabel de Haigh.  The other centres around a little known fact about Richard III and identifies a possible identity for the mother of his two illegitimate children.  Perhaps I should have people vote on which one they want next, though I hope that both will make it into print eventually!

 C: What is your writing process? Do you have any particular routines or methods that help you write?

E: I’m not sure I have a writing process.  I have scenes that run in my mind like a film and when I’ve imagined them for a while I try to write them down, though what I write often has no resemblance to what I was thinking.  It’s rather like going into a trance and it all comes tumbling out.  I try to sit down to write whenever I can find the time.  It can be hard to begin, but it’s even harder to finish and if I can’t write I become very frustrated.

 C: As a much-published author, do you have any tips for apprentice novelists? Any pitfalls that we might avoid in our writing, or in our approach to agents and publishers?

E: Persevere: lots of people give up after a few rejections.

Write: the more you write the better you will become.

Read: you can learn a lot from seeing how other people do it.

Be lucky: try to be in the right place at the right time.  It helps.

Make your own luck:  seek the opportunities that will ensure you are in the right place at the right time.   

C: You have been writing since you were 11, when you had your first article published in Diana magazine. What are the aspects of storytelling that particularly appeal to you?

E: I enjoy making a connection with readers.  I want them to come and share my fictional world and enjoy themselves there.  I want them to meet my characters and get to know them, and I like to send them away with something new to think about.

 C: Are you a keen reader? Do you have any favourite authors? What is the best book you’ve read this year? 

E: Do you want to see my groaning bookshelves?  Yes, I love to read.  I read fiction and non-fiction.  I’ll try anything and I like to challenge myself by reading books that wouldn’t always be my natural choice.  Best book this year?  It’s hard to pick one, so I’m going to pick two that complement each other:  Agincourt by Juliet Barker (non-fiction) and Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell (the fiction version).

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

E: If I’m not either reading or writing I’m often in a state of frustration wanting to do either one or the other.  The only things that distract me are old castles and bookshops – though I do quite like eating as well.


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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.