Apologies for the extreme length of this post.

IMG_20160529_002247I have meant to go to Hay Festival for years, knowing I suppose that once I had dipped my toe into the waters of the Hay Festival I would want to go every year. I already knew the town well having visited several times.

The festival runs for about ten days, though I decided to just go for the weekend – staying in Hereford (18 miles away) as accommodation in Hay-on-wye is hard to find. As a non-driver I was grateful for the special festival bus that runs from Hereford station to Hay several times a day. There was a lovely camaraderie between those of us gathering for the 10.15 bus on Saturday night- the last bus back to Hereford that day – everyone was there in good time – no one staying in Hereford wanted to miss that bus. IMG_20160529_210356

I had tickets for six events, and although I had intended to spend some time in the town of Hay I found I only went there to catch my bus – instead I spent the whole of two long days at the festival site (a little up the road) soaking up the atmosphere – and standing in queues. I loved the way the festival site was organised, covered walkways, a huge festival bookshop, Oxfam bookshop, lots of cafes, restaurants and bars, grassy areas to sit out in (we were blessed with fine weather) and great signage – signage is important when rushing between different stages.

I don’t intend to talk in too much detail about each event I attended –– I didn’t take notes. I was alarmed to see many people around me doing just that – dutifully scribbling down little nuggets of wisdom – while I sat there a rank amateur. So a little flavour – you might well be relieved to hear – is all I will be able to manage.

Shirin Ebadi talking to Helena Kennedy
(in Farsi with English translation)

IMG_20160529_002558 (1)Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian human rights lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Her award was confiscated by Iranian authorities (although this has been naturally denied by the Iranian government). Shirin Ebadi’s latest book Until We Are Free tells the story of what happened to her after she had won that prize. It is this that Helena Kennedy talked to Shirin about – it is a remarkable, harrowing story of terrifying intimidation at the hands of the authorities, including menacing phone calls late at night. Through all of this Shirin kept fighting for justice for others. She became something of a theologian as she argued in court over points of law – particularly the interpretation of Islamic law which she believed to be always the worst possible interpretation. Time and again she and her team won small victories – each one meaning so much to the people they involved. She was responsible for changing the custody laws, which now favour mothers. Shirin made many enemies – and for this reason she now lives in exile in London. There was an awkward moment when a young Iranian man tried to ask a question – in Farsi – which the interpreter had to deal with – but never did get to the point or ask his question, he did I suspect get a bit over excited – and started making a speech, and was cut off in no uncertain terms by a very irritated Helena Kennedy. My first event and what a one it was – a wonderfully inspirational woman – I was proud to queue up to meet her and have her sign my book.

Svetlana Alexievich talking to Bridget Kendall
(In Russian with English translation)

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for literature this year and until then there were people I think who hadn’t heard of her – me included. It was the first time someone had won for non-fiction writing – her work – which does really appeal to me though I haven’t read it yet – explores the oral histories of Russian people living through terrifying and extraordinary times. Svetlana explained how she approached her work, for example, how as a woman she was able to follow the women out to the kitchen hear their stories of war – having been regaled with the male stories of valour over dinner, she knew the women’s stories would be different – and they were. The women who had left their homes to be snipers – their stories were not of killing or heroism, and this enraged the men listening who disapproved greatly of these stories. She talked a lot about this difference between the stories of men and women, how the attitude to conflict is so different – the women, much less interested in heroism and valour.

Tracy Chevalier, Lionel Shriver and Joanna Brisco – Reader I married him

Tracy Chevalier has edited a new collection of short stories, called Reader I Married Him. In the year of Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday Tracy Chevalier commissioned lots of already well known writers to write a story inspired by the most famous line in Jane Eyre. Novelist Kirsty Gunn was also supposed to be on the panel but was unable to attend for personal reasons. Tracy Chevalier began by explaining her own relationship with Jane Eyre – how she first read her parent’s copy at the age of ten. She explained how the stories only had to be inspired by at that line – they didn’t have to be about Jane Eyre or even refer to it – they didn’t even have to include the line itself. What she ended up with was a diverse range of stories; stories of people coming together, of relationships which should never have been, one story narrated by Grace Poole. Lionel Shriver and Joanna Briscoe both then read extracts from their stories, each very different to the other, but definitely compelling. A friend bought me this collection for my birthday, so really looking forward to it now.

Chris Packham talking to Horatio Clare

IMG_20160529_002424I had looked forward to this all day and I was not to be disappointed. I was enthralled by Chris Packham from the first moment. Horatio Clare – declared that Chris Packham was not just a TV personality who had written a book – that he is in fact a writer – a distinction many readers will appreciate. Chris Packham talked about how he began to write some years ago – purely as an exercise for himself with no thoughts about publication. He wrote short stories initially, then later while abroad filming began writing his own story. Fingers in the Sparkle Jar came out recently to rave reviews I believe; another book I already had at home unread – and Horatio Clare explained to us the unique structure of the book, how sections are written in the third person – unusual for an autobiography. Chris explained how he had wanted readers to have an adult perspective for aspects of his childhood. He delighted us with descriptions of how he had sketched out his ideas on graph paper stretched out around his living room. Chris talked honestly about his Asperger’s and how difficult and miserable his adolescence was, and how in his love of creatures and the natural world and the kestrel he kept as a boy (and writes about in his book) he found himself. During an enthralling hour or so we learned what tadpoles taste like (I know!) and heard what Chris thinks about rabbits in hutches (he’s not wrong) and how he believes we as a species are simply not looking after ourselves. He spoke with moving honesty, great wisdom and a lot of humour. When a child in the audience asked what his favourite British animal is he answered her brilliantly- talking about grass snake poo (children love that kind of thing) and turning the question back on her.

Lionel Shriver talking to George Alagiah

Lionel Shriver’s new novel The Mandibles has just come out in hardback – and I haven’t bought it yet but I think I will– I have had mixed feelings about the three Lionel Shriver novels I have already read, although I think she is a fascinating writer. She is also a great speaker at events too, I first heard her speak at the Birmingham literature festival a few years ago. Her new novel is set in the very near future, and imagines the complete financial collapse of the US. Her novel features four generations of a wealthy family – the eponymous Mandibles. Lionel explained how really her novel is not that far-fetched – how when countries have such enormous debt that will never be paid back – the money becomes in effect fake currency. It was fascinating to hear Lionel Shriver talk about the current financial situation in the US which led naturally enough to George Alagiah to ask her the inevitable question about the rise of Trump. Her response was brilliant – saying she probably doesn’t spend enough time in US to understand it. Reading from her novel – which she says she put an older version of herself into in a character I think George Alagiah particularly liked, – Lionel Shriver was every bit as entertaining as I have found her to be in the past.

Peter Carey talking to Martha Kearney

Peter Cary is another writer who I have only read about three times and have had mixed feeling about. He is however a very interesting man, and in this talk – which I found meandered around just a little bit – he talked about many different things, only one of which was his most recent novel Amnesia – from which he also read. He rather lambasted the US – referring to the removal of the Whitlam government in the 1970’s – which I know nothing about. His novel concerns an Australian woman who furious at US political interference – like that in the 70’s – releases a computer virus into the computers of Australia’s prison system – hundreds of asylum seekers walk free. Was it a mistake or has this young woman declared cyber war on the US? The book sounds fascinating, as were many of the other things Peter Cary had to say – he talked about what it means to be an Australian now living in New York, and how he reconciles that with the things he so vehemently disagrees with. Obviously a man with an eye on political situations he said many people in Australia are ashamed of their goverment’s attitude to refugees, reminding us of how Australia was a country created by exiles. I suspect a lot of his comments would be seen as controversial – I wondered how he is viewed in his country of birth. He too talked about Trump – and how he believes the media have helped the rise of Trump – as they talk of almost nothing but him.

IMG_20160529_204738 (1)Terribly aware of the length of this post already – I am going to leave it there. I had a lovely weekend – the sun was a bonus – and I only bought five books for myself (two others for my sister and a friend) – which considering the temptation I had wasn’t bad at all.


Thanks to Holland Park Press for the review copy.

Cities are teeming with life, so many different people, so many different voices – and so naturally they are deep in stories, and He Runs the Moon a collection of stories by Wendy Brandmark acknowledges this, subtitled Tales from the cities, the collection takes us to three different US cities. Short story writing is an art and Wendy Brandmark is a superb storyteller, here each story is well crafted. Endings come at just the perfect moment, lovely twists in the exploration of relationships (one of my favourites between a girl and her car a red mustang) leave the reader wanting just a little more – but are sufficient to fully satisfy. I’m not going to talk about each story in this collection – as I think it would take too long – and be a little dull – there are a lot of overlapping themes.

“After hours spent gleaning and writing, we meet up in the afternoon beneath a sky blue as the virgin’s dress. Dry blue with never a tear. ‘Heaven’s hell,’ Ruthie calls Denver.”
(From – The Denver Ophelia)

Wendy Brandmark is a new author to me, although this is not her first book, she is also the author of two novels, The Angry Gods and The Stray American.

Capitol Hill, Denver, The Bronx, New York and Boston are the cities we explore in this collection, the time the 1950’s 60’s and 70’s. We meet the people of these cities, apartment dwellers, students, grandparents, book sellers, a dental hygienist and members of the Jewish community. This collection is organised into three sections, one for each city -: The Denver Ophelia, The Borders of My Self, and He Runs the Moon.

Many characters in these stories are at a point of change in their lives, growing up, finding out things they didn’t know before. In the first section of stories, thieves and predatory males live alongside those city dwellers whose rootlessness make them outsiders – having moved from one place to another, they don’t yet fit. In The Denver Ophelia, two women rifle through the clothing at their local Salvation Army store – looking for clothes to impress a professor. My Red Mustang; a young woman develops a relationship with her car – with which she has endless trouble. In Irony a university creative writing professor who indulges in inappropriate relationships with pretty young students, finds his standing with his class undermined by a new student. In a wonderfully strange story The Palm of my Mind an astrologer who reads palms, meets a woman convinced she will die that year. In The Book Thief a book seller is determined to put an end to the shoplifting that has been taking place at The One Hand Bookstore.

“I find Cindy’s house just off Colfax, a shambling clapboard place, yellow fading and garbage in the front yard. I’m thinking she could be a danger but I’m a foolhardy girl. It’s how I got together with Tomas who caught me sauntering around the Mission in San Francisco. She opens the door to her one room. Bed in the corner, kitchenette but no smell of cooking. An all together room, hard and cold as if no life was ever lived there.”
(from – The Palm of Mind)

The stories in the second section The Borders of My Self – concern coming of age stories. Set in New York, the author recreates the atmosphere of the Jewish community of this period, people damaged or merely worn out – memories of the war years never explicitly talked about but somehow always there. The stories of ‘over there’ are part of the people who live in this area of New York, permeating the lives they live in America. There are links between these stories and the people we meet in them, creating a wonderfully atmospheric sense of place and community. In The Stone Woman, probably my favourite story in the whole collection, a young girl is scared by ‘the witch’ who lives in the basement, who has strange numbers on her arm. A seven-year-old only child – Anna stays with her grandparents while her mother has a baby – and has a lot of adjustments to make, and things still to learn. In Where Have you Been, Saul a furniture upholsterer is tempted into a relationship with a woman who comes into his shop.

“He feared she was losing her words and soon would speak in some other language. He didn’t like to ask her about the other side, where she had come from before, who she had been in that place. He had a second cousin who had been in a displaced person’s camp after the war and laughed all the time.”
(From Where Have you Been)

The final section of stories; He runs the Moon, four stories from Boston concern the frailties in people’s relationships. In these stories there is a slight feeling of uncertainty, the events in the lives of these people could so easily spiral out of control. We meet the users of a museum members room – in a story entitled Vagabond – who until the arrival of a rebel in their midst had never spoken to each other. A dental hygienist in The Other Room becomes obsessed by a patient who doesn’t show up for his appointment. Miss Wick is a revered hygienist – no one ever misses their appointments, sending notes of apology should they be surprised by going into premature labour for instance. So when Mr Silverman doesn’t appear – Miss Wick can’t fathom it – and her wondering Mr Silverman the missed appointment begins to take over her life.

He runs the Moon is an excellent collection of stories, giving voice to the people of these cities and in so doing to the cities themselves.


20 books of Summer


So many things to love about the coming of summer, long bright days (we hope), seaside holidays, ice-cream, reasonably priced strawberries, sitting in the park with a good book. To that (very incomplete list) we can now add 20 books of summer brought to us by Cathy of 746 books – which we all enjoyed last year, and I am glad to say is back.

Last year I very nearly failed this challenge, I spent ages putting together a lovely, tempting pile of books – confident, as I can easily read 20 books in three months, so I thought I had plenty of wriggle room. I hadn’t realised what a fickle reader I can be. Once I had started on my list I found myself constantly wanting to read other things. Still I think I just about completed it – by the skin of my teeth.

Of course I am a sucker for a reading challenge especially when there is a hashtag involved. So I am joining in again – having learnt from last year, so with Cathy’s permission I have chosen thirty books – from which I will attempt to read twenty books between 1st June and 5th September. The challenge for me isn’t so much in the number of books, but in sticking to the list.


1. Fingers in the sparkle jar by Chris Packham
2. The Green Road by Anne Enright
3. Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre
4. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
5. Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin
6. A Dedicated Man (short stories) by Elizabeth Taylor
7. Monday or Tuesday by Virginia Woolf
8. The Great Fortune – by Olivia Manning
9. Flush – by Virginia Woolf
10. The Shutter of Snow – by Emily Holmes Coleman


2016-05-24_17.48.52 (1)

11 The World my wilderness – by Rose Macaulay
12 So Long see you tomorrow – by William Maxwell
13 Stay up with me – (short stories) by Tom Barbash
14 The way of all Flesh – by Samuel Butler
15 The Godwits Fly – by Robin Hyde
16 Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson
17 Salem Chapel – Mrs Oliphant
18 The Hog’s Back mystery – by Freeman Wills Crofts
19 Miss Hargreaves – by Frank Baker
20 Troy Chimneys – by Margaret Kennedy



21 Different Class – by Joanne Harris
22 Reader I married him (short stories) ed by Tracy Chevalier
23 Love – by Elizabeth von Arnim
24 Telling the bees – by Peggy Hesketh
25 A Quiet Life – by Beryl Bainbridge
26 A Weekend with Claude – by Beryl Bainbridge
27 Who was changed and who was dead – by Barbara Comyns
28 Princes in the land – by Joanna Cannan
29 Challenge by Vita Sackville West
30 The Land of spices – Kate O’ Brien

Phew – well after typing out all those I better succeed now.
I have tried to pick a real variety of things, old books, new books, classics, short stories and biography. I have had to consider reading challenges, like #Woolfalong, Beryl Bainbridge week and All Virago All August – I hope I have them all covered.

Happy summer reading to you all – would love to know which of those books I definitely shouldn’t be missing out.


This ‘new’ green VMC seems to one of a number of POD VMCs with covers reminiscent of those lovely old original greens. It seems – from a recent discussion on the Librarything Virago group – that a few selected titles have been available for a while. They have a heavier more robust feel to them than the old original greens but for me are greatly to be preferred to some of the modern VMCs with their silly, frothy cover art.

Willa Cather is firmly established as one of my favourite authors, I have been slowly eking out her books, and although I did only read My Mortal Enemy recently I felt suddenly compelled to read this one now. Lucy Gayheart was Cather’s penultimate novel, and in it she returns to themes explored in some of her best loved novels, O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. There is an exquisite bittersweet elegiac quality to this novel which makes it unforgettable.

The story takes place in 1901/1902, with an extraordinarily beautiful epilogue taking place twenty-five years later. The novel opens with a retrospective remembrance of Lucy Gayheart, and the reader senses immediately that there will be sadness at the very heart of this story.

“In Haverford on the Platte the townspeople still talk of Lucy Gayheart. They do not talk of her a great deal, to be sure; life goes on and we live in the present. But when they do mention her name it is with a gentle glow in the face or the voice, a confidential glance which says: ‘Yes, you too, remember?’ They still see her as a slight figure always in motion; dancing or skating, or walking swiftly with intense direction, like a bird flying home.”

As she did with The Song of the Lark, here Cather considers the incompatibility of those wanting to dedicate themselves to the arts (in this case music) and the confining nature of small town Nebraskan life. At eighteen Lucy leaves her small town for Chicago to study music. As the novel opens Lucy is home in Haverford for the Christmas holidays, the young people of Haverford enjoy the traditional skating parties on the stretch of ice by Duck Island and Lucy is courted by the most eligible bachelor in town. Harry Gordon is determined to have a wife who other men will envy – and has chosen Lucy despite her family’s relative poverty. Lucy’s father gives music lessons from the room behind his watch repairer’s shop, while Lucy was effectively brought up by her sister Pauline.

“Yesterday’s rain had left a bitter, spring like smell in the air; the vehemence that beat against her in the street and hummed above her had something a little wistful in it tonight, like a plaintive hand-organ tune. All the lovely things in the shop windows, the furs and jewels, roses and orchids, seemed to belong to her as she passed them. Not to have wrapped up and sent home, certainly; where would she put them? But they were hers to live among.”

The holidays over – Lucy is back in the city – living independently in her room above a German bakery. Lucy has been studying music under the tutelage of Professor Auerbach who introduces her to his friend Clement Sebastien a renowned baritone singer. Sebastien is married (seemingly estranged from his wife,) middle aged and looking for an accompanist for his practise sessions – his regular accompanist will continue to play for his concerts. Lucy finds herself immediately deeply affected by Sebastien – his voice and the manner of expressing the songs he sings, his kindness and tenderness towards her can have only one result. At Sebastien’s studio Lucy meets Sebastien’s valet Giuseppe of who she becomes very fond of and James Mockford – the regular accompanist who she feels strangely uneasy about. Embarrassed by having her feelings for Sebastien exposed Lucy is relieved and grateful for his kindness and understanding, and although it becomes obvious that he returns her feelings Sebastien won’t take the next step – old enough to be her father he fears her feelings are not real.

While Sebastien is away on tour, Harry pays a visit to Chicago, and he and Lucy visit museums and see several concerts. Harry’s thoughts turn to the future, the one he imagines he will have with Lucy – Lucy tells him quite cruelly that she loves someone else, and further, in a hastily spoken lie – taunts him with the how far their relationship has gone. Broken, Harry returns to Haverford and makes a hasty impulsive, sensible marriage with the kind of woman he had always wanted to not spend his life with. In Chicago Sebastien returns for a few days before he Giuseppe and Mockford head off for a European tour. All Lucy can do is work at her music and wait for his return. However, fate is destined to be unkind to Lucy – but I shall say no more – for here is where part one of three ends and there is a hundred pages to go.

“It was a gift of nature, he supposed, to go wildly happy over trifling things – over nothing! It wasn’t given to him – he wouldn’t have chosen it; but he liked catching it from Lucy for a moment, feeling it flash by his ear. When they stood watching the sun break through, or waiting for the birds to rise, that expectancy beside him made all his nerves tingle, as if his shooting-clothes, and the hard case of the muscle he lived in, were being sprayed by a wild spring shower. His own body grew marvellously free and light, and there was a snapping sparkle in his blood that made him set his teeth.”

That last hundred pages is what turned a solid four star read into a five star read – I can’t adequately express the beauty and poignancy of the writing that Cather produces here. She explores her themes of love, loss and failure eloquently and with perfect understanding.

The sense of place – particularly in Haverford where the novel begins and ends – is extraordinarily strong – something Cather always does well – here she leaves her readers with images that will live long in the mind.

willa cather


With thanks to Sarah Vincent for the review copy.

Not long ago Kaggsy reviewed The Testament of Vida Tremayne and I immediately liked the sound of it, so I was delighted later when the author contacted me offering me a review copy.

Set amongst the countryside of the Welsh borders The Testament of Vida Tremayne takes the age old story of mothers and daughters – which I always find so powerful – adding a psychological element. There is a wonderfully strong sense of place – which is always important to me as a reader and three fascinating women at the heart of the story.

“It’s the moment of arrival she’s been dreading the most. She’s often cursed the three-mile-long track to the house; cursed it for its jay-walking pheasants and canyon-deep cracks which flood in winter, but this afternoon it hasn’t seemed nearly long enough. Just the thought of pulling up outside the empty house made her feel sick. But here it is. End of the road. She’s reached her destination.”

Vida Tremayne is an author, she once won a big prize for the one novel of hers which remains in print, but her creativity has been blocked for some time, the only thing Vida has been able to write is her journals. Now, abandoned by her husband for a new life in France, Vida is trapped inside her own mind – confined to a hospital bed. Whatever it was that brought Vida to this frightening decline is a mystery.

Dory – Vida’s estranged daughter has been forced to take time away from her life in London, to be at her mother’s bedside, and to sort out the mess of her remote cottage, deep in the countryside that Dory dislikes so much. Vida and Dory have never been close; Dory resents having to take a break from her high end estate agency clients. The cut and thrust of business almost all she thinks about. Dory doesn’t read her mother’s work – she read that one famous book and finding a character in it who she believed to be a portrait of herself, came to resent her mother’s work. Novels and all forms of storytelling are recurring themes in this novel – with references to Vida’s stories, her novels and journal writing along with the work of Elizabeth Taylor (one of my favourites of course) and Mary Webb. Dory is someone who doesn’t read fiction, but her mother is a woman whose compulsion to tell stories led her to distance herself from her daughter at times.

Vida and Dory’s stories are told in two clearly distinct voices, we meet Dory as she tries to make sense of what has happened to her mother, while still carrying the resentment she first learned as a teenager. Dory, saddened by a recent break up, is being pulled into different directions – she knows her duty is to her mother – and yet she is itching to get back to her demanding clients. Dory is a strong minded woman, determined to succeed she hides her loneliness in a hectic schedule and Twitter followers. Vida’s story – the story of previous few months and what led her to completely breaking down – is told through her journals. Through these we see Vida’s isolation, her frustration with her inability to write and a new friendship with a devoted fan.

“Such twilights we’ve had these past few days! Through my study window the sky is all daubed in gold and smoky pinks and violets the colour of the whinberries we gathered up on the hill t morning. I’ve snuck in here to catch up with this diary while Rhiannon makes us a tart from our hoard. Funny how I say this as if it’s perfectly normal to have a friend in the kitchen making a pie, yet I still have to pinch myself to prove it’s real. Yes, a friend. She’s turned out to be such good company my fan.”

Once installed at her mother’s dilapidated old cottage Dory is surprised to find that she is not alone after all. Vida’s new friend Rhiannon Townsend is already staying. Rhiannon is a long standing fan of Vida’s who came – she explains to Dory – to help Vida unlock her creativity and start writing again. Rhiannon talks about chakra and ‘the muse.’ Dory finds sitting by the bedside of her catatonic mother difficult for more than a very short period of time, Rhiannon is apparently quite happy to spend the entire day there – Dory is at a loss to know what she does there.

“She squint against the rain. Does she see or imagine a great muzzle lifted to the sky, scenting the air? For one horrible moment she has the crazy idea that it’s turned its head towards the garden, that it’s her scent, her sweat, her blood beating in her veins that the thing is sifting, assessing. But even as the thought strikes her it’s on the move again, slinking away towards the trees.”

pumaThere are reports locally – which have even made it into the newspaper, that a puma is on the loose in the myth laden Welsh countryside. Brendan Riley who had been doing some odd jobs at the cottage – mentions seeing Vida writing her journals in great secret – and appears to not much care for Rhiannnon. It is only after Dory finds these journals that she begins to understand what happened to her mother.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, compulsively readable – I found it hard to set it aside at night and always looked forward to getting back to it. That is always a sign of a very good read.



This is the fourth Helen Ashton novel that I have read, and I have to start by explaining that my feelings about Parson Austen’s Daughter are a little mixed. Firstly, those other Helen Ashton novels concerned houses, architecture and the life of a hospital, all of which Ashton does appear to have been particularly good at writing about. Parson Austen’s Daughter is a fictional account of the life of Jane Austen – although much of the focus of the novel is on the lives of her siblings. Ashton does manage to inject some lovely architectural details into the stories of the places the Austen family live. She sets her novel firmly within the historical context of the times, and so we experience the French Terror and long Napoleonic wars though the eyes of her characters. I think one of the slight problems with this novel is that we already think we know Jane Austen – only our knowledge is from biographies and letters, so somehow even though Ashton is a very good writer – the Jane who emerges from this novel is just a little too flat. Still I don’t want to rubbish the book, it may not be her best novel, it is very readable and engaging, well written and compelling.

“When Cassandra Austen was an old woman, she would sit and remember Steventon. Whether by her own fireside at Chawton Cottage, or in the library of her nephew’s fine house at Godmersham in Kent, or in the sunny window at Portsdown Lodge, visiting her brother the Admiral, she would fold her hands on the lap of her black satin gown under her cashmere shawl, close eyes, nod her head a little and let her mind run back into the past.”

steventonThe novel takes us from the year of Jane’s birth in 1775 to her death in 1817. Jane and Cassandra are portrayed as close, quite devoted sisters, who stay pretty close to home after their brothers leave for school or the navy. Visits to family members are made frequently – but the lives of the two sisters are busy enough at Steventon, their father a much respected Parson, treated like a squire by the locals. In time Jane’s elder brother comes into the curacy at his father’s second church, and in time steps into his shoes at Steventon.

One of the fun aspects of this novel for readers who know their Jane Austen novels well is to find – in the characters of Jane’s family – the traits and likenesses of the characters she later wrote about. We see for example in the character of James’s second wife a woman at times reminiscent of Mrs John Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. Another sister in law Eliza was such a colourful character that she must have provided Jane with plenty of inspiration. One brother is taken into the home of rich relatives, his future assured, while another – Frank Austen – goes off to sea at a very tender seeming age. So those wars which sometimes seem conspicuous by their absence in Jane’s novels obviously loomed very large in her life and that of her family.

Jane is known by her family and friends for being sharp, a good storyteller, but as she starts her writing a little more seriously, only Cassandra and one or two others know about her ‘scribbling’. Using the small amounts of spare time she has to write to the best of her ability, Jane often shares her stories with her sister and later with her adored niece Fanny. Time and again Jane would have to lay aside her writing, often for long periods, but she finished eventually reading them aloud to her delighted father. It took a long time for her books to start appearing, and despite their enormous popularity Jane remained shy of her writing and all the fuss they produced.

Ashton does do a very good job at portraying the terrible heartbreaks suffered both Cassandra and Jane – they both knew what it was to be disappointed in love, to grieve for men they had hoped to find happiness with. Here Jane is shown to have eventually become a little cynical about romance, and the realities of a woman’s lot. No one could really blame her, aside from her own and Cassandra’s heartbreak she watched sister in laws die in child birth, while she and Cassandra had to endure teasing from middle aged matrons about their own dashed hopes of marriage and motherhood. However, we also see how absolutely devoted to her family Jane was, how her nieces and nephews grew up to love and feel true pride in their beloved Aunt Jane.

Over their lifetimes Jane and Cassandra lived in lots of houses, they stayed with relatives and of course spent some years in Bath. Steventon, Bath, holidays in Sidmouth Ashton does a good job at bringing these places to life.

“They remained in Sidmouth for two weeks, until Mr Austen was fit to travel. It was a pretty innocent fishing village, struggling to turn itself into a watering place, with one or two bathing-machines and a circulating library.”

I can’t help but wonder why Helen Ashton chose to write about the Austen family – a fascination I presume – but perhaps other subjects suited her slightly better. I enjoyed meeting the other members of the Austen family who perhaps don’t feature so prominently in the biographies of Jane Austen’s life. Actually Ashton squeezes a lot of fascinating stories about this family into her novel – some stories I already knew from biographies, and others I either had forgotten or didn’t know. I still think Helen Ashton is a very good writer, and I shall continue to seek out these old books by her.



Over the past few weeks, it really does seem as if it’s been raining books. Not something I’m especially worried about as I rather think I have given up trying to control it. To be clear these books haven’t all been acquired this week but over a period of about six weeks.


I bought Grace Paley’s Collected Short stories online on a whim, I have a lot of story collections waiting to be read already and although I know nothing about Grace Paley something about them really appeals.

The second hand bookshops I visited on holiday provided me with two more Beryl Bainbridge According to Queenie and The Birthday Boy, No Signposts to the Sea by Vita Sackville West, The Great Fortune , the first volume of The Balkan trilogy which I want to re-read, and Two serious ladies by Jane Bowles of which I have heard very good things.

More books bought at various times before and after I came home included Victoria- Four Thirty  an ancient looking tome,which was reviewed so enthusiastically by Thomas at Hogglestock. I couldn’t help but be tempted by Joanne Harris’ new novel Different Class, having read several great reviews. Another blogger alerted me to A Marriage of true Minds about Leonard and Virginia Woolf which does look excellent. A few days ago I bought Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen whose wring I love so much and Zofloya my book group read for July.

I finally got around to buying Iza’s Ballad which I have wanted to read for ages. Lovely Karen of Kaggsy’s bookish ramblings sent me a copy of The Canterville Ghost, and another collection of short stories He Runs the Moon, came to me from publishers Holland Park Press, and an anthology of Summer writing looks wonderful.


If all that wasn’t enough it was my birthday on Friday. The picture at the top of the post shows birthday flowers and  the first three of my gorgeous birthday books: Reader I married him, a collection of stories inspired by Jane Eyre, and two Persephone books Princes in the Land and The Godwits Fly.

A friend gave me Telling the Bees by Peggy Hesketh. Other friends gave me book tokens which I went out and spent immediately. I so enjoyed my mooch around Waterstone’s. I bought: Here be Dragons by Stella Gibbons, Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth Von Arnim and Fingers in the Spartkle Jar (title of the year?) by Chris Packham.

I would promise to not buy any more books for a while but I am off to Hay Festival in two weeks, so…


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,408 other followers