Wednesday 10 August 2016

My Life In Books ~ talking to author Isabel Ashdown

My Life in Books is an occasional feature on Random Things Through My Letterbox
I've asked authors to share with us a list of the books that are important to them and have made a lasting impression on their life.

By the fireside with Leonard
I'm delighted to welcome Isabel Ashdown to Random Things today.
Isabel is the author of five novels, winner of the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition and along with Leonard the dachshund, a volunteer for the Pets as Therapy Read2Dogs scheme.
She has a first class degree in English and a Masters in Creative Writing, and she lives in West Sussex with her carpenter husband, two teenage children and two dogs, Charlie and Leonard.

Her next novel Little Sister, a psychological thriller is due for release spring 2017 from Trapeze/Orion Publishing.

I'm a big fan of Isabel's writing and am really looking forward to reading Little Sister next year. Her last novel, Flight, was one of my favourite books of 2015.  I've reviewed Flight and Summer of 76 here on Random Things.

My Life in Books ~ Isabel Ashdown

Thanks so much for inviting me to talk to you about my life in books, Anne. Let me say from the outset, this is an impossible task you have set me, and so I'm afraid I've been a little greedy .... As a fellow booklover, I'm sure you'll forgive me!

The Complete Works of Roald Dahl   I was lucky enough to grow up with a library at the end of my coastal street, and it provided me with some of my earliest experiences of independence, being a place where small children could meander unaccompanied and unchallenged. I always felt Roald Dahl's books spoke directly to me, marvelling at the same strange things I marvelled at; laughing at the same daft things that tickled me.

A Book of Milliganimals by Spike Milligan  This book is a little piece of heaven; lyrical, nonsensical, warm and silly. It was given to me by my kindly catechism teacher, Mrs O'Dwyer, and I must have read it a hundred times, until I could just about recite every poem and story by heart. My particular favourite was The Bald Twit Lion - the tale of a lion who 'had an attack of strongness' on his 21st birthday and roared so loudly that all his hair fell out.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend  No need to expand on this choice, because surely everyone else read it at the time? It's just so funny.

Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews  At fourteen, I was obsessed with this book and its sequels, my fascination being as much about feeling part of a cultural gathering as it was about the stories themselves. I remember a kind of collective hysteria surrounding the series, as we all rushed to buy/borrow the next instalment, eager to discuss it at school together the next day. We were certainly more animated by the fortunes of the captive Dollanganger children than we were by the dry curriculum of our 1980s English Lit class.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen  My primary years were creative, nurturing and fun; my secondary years were not. I hated my large comprehensive girls' school and my only ambition was to leave (which I did with three O Levels and a typing speed high enough to secure me employment). I was still a voracious reader, but by the time I reached my late teens, I realised just how much literature I was missing out on, and I set about reading every classic I could get my hands on. Pride and Prejudice marked the start of that particular odyssey, and I spent many lunchtime in the quiet of my rusty old VW Beetle, immersing myself in the worlds of the Elizabeth Bennett - or Jane Eyre - or Cathy and Heathcliff - before returning to my secretarial job and the joys of data entry.

The Shining by Stephen King  Alongside my catch-up of the classics I was devouring every other genre, and Stephen King was a particular favourite in my twenties. I'm pleased to say my 15-year-old son is now racing through my old collection, and we've taken to watching the films together and discussing the merits of the books versus the movies. And for anyone interested in the process of writing, Stephen King's On Writing is just about as good as it gets - straight talking, informative and moving.

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff  I hope you don't mind me sneaking a non-fiction book in here - because throughout my reading life I have enjoyed many memoirs, and this one deserves a special mention. This Boy's Life tells the story of Wolff's adolescence as he travels across America with his mother, fleeing a turbulent home life and running towards the hope of new fortune. I fell in love with Tobias Wolff's writing from the opening line: 'Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.' In those few words he conjures up time, place, relationship, jeopardy - and the book continues in this way, a poignant, beautifully drawn story of love, family and loss.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver  By my mid-thirties I had come a long way since my early admin days and I was now a senior manager for The Body Shop in Europe, and married with two small children. But since the birth of my first child five years earlier, I had barely read a word of fiction, being too busy/exhausted/distracted to contemplate much more than a glass of wine and a TV show after the kids had gone to bed. That all changed when I threw in my career, and enrolled for a degree in English and Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. Suddenly, I found myself in an environment where reading and writing was the job, and where I could talk endlessly with other students as book-obsessed as me. What's not to like? What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was one of the first books I read there, and it felt to me like everything I wanted to talk about when I talked about 'story'. Carver's insights dig beneath the thin veneer of human nature, exposing us for the magnificent, flawed and complex creatures we really are. This is writing, I thought to myself, this is real life. I loved my university years, and it was at this point I started work on my debut novel, Glasshopper.

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan  I first read this when I was nineteen, during a period of great sadness in my life. I remember recognising so much in its story of grief, and having a sense that it was a very important, very special piece of writing. I returned to it again in later years, only to be reminded that it really is extraordinary. The tale is a quiet, claustrophobic portrayal of a family in crisis - and as I write this I'm struck by the thematic parallels between it and Flowers in the Attic - both telling stories of children pushed together in confined bereavement and secrecy. As a writer, I'm continuously drawn to the notion of escape and so it goes to reason, I guess, that I'm also drawn to the disturbing idea of captivity.

Gaining Ground by Joan Barfoot  I was introduced to this novel by a wonderful tutor at Chichester (thank you Dr Isla Duncan), as part of the reading list for the Canadian Women's Fiction module. Not just as a mother, but also as a naturally solitary soul, the narrative of Abra, a woman who abandons her children on a personal quest into the wilderness struck a chord with me, in both unsettling and uplifting ways.  The book haunted me for several years, and I can only assume it played some part in the conception of my own novel of escape, Flight, in which a mother wins a share of the national lottery and leaves her old life behind.

In recent years I have read more books than I'm able to choose from, so I list here just a few highlights from my last twelve months. Each one of them is marvellous in their own way - read them and see what you think for yourself.

Isabel Ashdown ~ August 2016

For more information about Isabel's writing, dog walks, photos and weekend reads, visit her website at

Follow her on Twitter @IsabelAshdown

On Instagram @isabelashdown_writer


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