Friday, 22 July 2016

My Life in Books ~ talking to author Sarah Vaughan

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 special to them and have left a lasting impression on their life

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome Sarah Vaughan today.  Sarah is the author of two novels, I've read and reviewed both of them here on Random Things.  
The Art of Baking Blind was published by Hodder in August 2015, her latest book The Farm at the Edge of the World was published, again by Hodder on 30 June this year.

I loved both of these books and recommend them highly, if you've not come across Sarah's books yet, you really must buy these, I promise you that you are in for a treat.

My Life in Books ~ Sarah Vaughan

I found compiling this list quite difficult. I've a tendency to be indecisive so how do I possibly limit the books that have influenced me to five or six?  I was a voracious reader as a child and then read English at university so I've copied Cathy Rentzenbrink and limited my choices to those I read up to the age of 20 - my formative reading years - then added a tiny list of those I've recently loved. Hope that isn't cheating!

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl  Roald Dahl was to my generation what David Walliams is to my children's. And this is my favourite of his novels (with Fantastic Mr Fox - or 'My Dear Foxy' as he's known to Badger - coming second.)  It still has Dahl's grotesques but it's the intensity of the father/son relationship that really makes this - and, for a child, the thrill of Danny's autonomy: the fact that this nine-year-old gets to drive a car in the middle of the night to resuce his Dad from a moonlit wood.  I recently read this to my children and they could barely cope with the tension, or the excitement as father and son come up with a plan to hoodwink Mr Victor Hazell - a plan at which you want them to succeed though you know it's illegal. "What a child wants - what a child deserves - this is a parent who is sparky", Dahl advises at the end. So: no pressure. But it's the sort of novel that makes you want to be that sort of anarchic individual.

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder  While my father read me Roald Dahl, the Little House on the Prairie series are the first novels I can remember reading myself. I've a very clear memory of devouring them under the duvet with a torch at nine o'clock at night, aged seven or eight. I'm not sure how well they've endured over time but I loved them because they opened up an entirely different, discrete world - one as distinct from my own as that of the Narnia books, which I also devoured. The sense that an entire family could live out of a wagon and be virtually self-sufficient fascinated me. Brown-haired and brown-eyed, with a blue-eyed, blonde-haired sister - ironically called Laura - I also identified with the protagonist.

Ordinary Jack / Absolute Zero (The Bagthorpe Saga) by Helen Cresswell  Jack Bagthorpe is the only ordinary child in a family of geniuses - all of whom have several "strings t their bow" - and is determined to do something about it.  These comic novels are satiric and prescient - Absolute Zero features the family being filmed in a 1980s nod to reality TV - but what I loved most about them apart from their outlandish characters was that they didn't patronize their readers: I've recently tried reading them to my eight-year-old an have been surprised by how advanced the vocabulary is; and how slyly allusive they are to parents.  As a child who was bullied, I identified with Jack and his sense of being an outsider and also with his socially awkward, if brilliant, siblings.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte  My mother was nine when she first read Jane Eyre and so, at nine, she suggested I should too.  I'd never read anything so terrifying or with such creative power.  It coincided with our moving from a 1960s house to a detached Victorian one where I was given a room alone on the top floor next to two box rooms.  A paper sun - casting a reddish glow - burned outside my door and I was convinced that Bertha Rochester lived in the room next door and was waiting to set me on fire each night.  Yes, Jane was a fascinating character but at nine I was more preoccupied by the mad woman in the attic.  Later I read Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells Bertha - or Antoinette's - side of the story; later still Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination. I think you're either a Wuthering Heights or a Jane Eyre fan.  The sheer terror Charlotte  invoked in me, as well as the strength of her heroine, ensured I had to be in her camp.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen  When I was ten I won a creative writing competition - Devon Young Writers of the Year - coincidentally judged by Helen Creswell. The prize included £50 in book vouchers: a fair amount in 1983.  I wanted to buy as many Judy Blume's as possible - Are You There, God? It's Me Margaret was a bit of an obsession - but my mum insisted I buy some leather-bound classics.  I groaned - and then, at eleven or twelve I opened the Jane Austen's.  I had never come across anything like it: her wit, her bitchiness, what I would later come to identify as free indirect speech but which at the time I saw as an economical way of conveying character and having a sly dig; the sense that these were bright, sparky women even if they wore bonnets and spent their time waiting to be married.  Emma would be my favourite for Austen's sheer audacity in creating a protagonist who is snobbish and sometimes downright unpleasant and yet still redeeming - but who can resist Lizzie Bennett and her dysfunctional family?

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier  I went through an Agatha Christie stage and then a du Maurier one. The rather hammy Jamaica Inn was a GCSE set text but it's Rebecca which is her Gothic masterpiece.  I recently reread it as an adult and was surprised by how disturbing I found not just the terrifying Mrs Danvers but the morally problematic Maxim de Winter.  I've always loved novels wiht a strong sense of place - The Go-Between and Atonement are others - and a killer first line.  This evokes the lushness of south Cornwall so well and I'm sure has influenced my own Cornish novel, The Farm at the Edge of the World.

Tess of the D'Urbevilles by Thomas Hardy   Another obvious classic.  I could equally have chosen EM Forster's Howard's End; both are strikingly modern in their depiction of sexual double standards and class; both have a profound sense of place; both are infused with - and hurtle towards - tragedy. But I think Tess has the edge.  If you think of the era in which Hardy was writing, you realise quite how subversive Tess and Jude the Obscure, in particular, are. Plus I love his powerful evocation of place, which also influenced my new book (I'm sensing a theme here). I can't look at a Hardy, Forster, DH Lawrence or George Eliot without being reminded of my late teens and my luck at being able to study - and just immerse myself in - the nineteenth-century novel.

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding  OK, I admit that I haven't read this for years; not since I studied eighteenth-century literature. But I loved this comic novel for its satire, its rollicking good humour, its sense of a very fallible hero succumbing to the temptations as he embarked on a quest.  I remember being surprised at how fresh and anarchic it felt for something written in 1749.  It's probably time I had another read.

More recently .....

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin  Utterly immersive. I felt as if I was Eilis - and I railed at the ending.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes  An unreliable narrator and an ambiguous ending that infuriated me for weeks.

Atonement by Ian McEwan  A strong sense of place, thwarted love across the class divide; a terrible accusation; tragedy; war; the desire for atonement; the desperate hope that all will be well and then the tear-jerking realisation that this will be thwarted.  Near perfection.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel  I loved Wolf Hall, as well, but found this even more compelling.  I was Cromwell: then half fell in love with him; then out of love as the extent of his ruthlessness became apparent. We all know what's going to happen to Anne Boleyn and yet the suspense is ratcheted right up.  And the writing's stunning. I think Hilary Mantell is a genius.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson  Utterly immersive as well as audaciously ambitious.  The Blitz scenes - like the bombing scenes in A God in Ruins - are quite brilliant and taught me a great deal about how to lightly carry historical research.  And both novels made me cry.  Her Brodie literary detective novels are pretty good, too, but this is a step up.

Sarah Vaughan ~ July 2016

Sarah Vaughan read English at Oxford and went on to become a journalist. After two years at the Press Association, she spent eleven years at the Guardian as a news reporter, health correspondent and political correspondent, and then started freelancing.
Sarah lives near Cambridge with her husband and two young children.

Find out more about Sarah at
Follow her on Twitter @SVaughanAuthor



  1. Great choices. Some of my all time favourite books are on Sarah's list !

  2. Really well written !! such a great post !! thanks for sharing!!!

    Live in carer