Summer of ’76 by Isabel Ashdown

Sunshine crept into Cornwall today, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect: it coincided with the publication of Isabel Ashdown’s third novel, named for and set in the sunniest summer in living memory.

Luke had grown up on the Isle of Wight, and he had reached the lovely point in life when he had finished with school, when he had a place at college and would leave home in the autumn. First though, he had a summer of freedom in front of him.

It didn’t play out quite as he’d expected.

51vQRfvZ4rL__He had a job at the leisure centre, and so did the girl he had his eye on. She had a boyfriend, and he and Luke didn’t get on. They split up, but what happened next rather took Luke by surprise. That maybe she wasn’t the girl he’d thought she was.

Brash new neighbours rocked the boat at home.

And Luke thought that his best friend was doing too much for his father, spending time at home, helping out with his business. Was he foolish to put his own plans on hold, was it a convenient way to avoid his friend, and things he hadn’t want to deal with, or was there rather more to the situation than Luke realised?

But the biggest thing was a scandal that broke. Luke’s parents were involved and he hated it, but he also felt some responsibility. Not for the scandal, but for the gossip and some rather startling physical evidence.

Lives played out on the pages of Summer of ’76. Ordinary lives, lived through times and events that would be remembered as being significant. And that is something that Isabel Ashdown does very, very well.

Her writing feels so natural, and I was pulled right into the time and the place. Characters and relationships are simply and clearly drawn, and they were so easy to believe in. These people could have been living in my own seaside town, everything that happened could have happened here.

The scenes set in Luke’s family home were, I thought, the strongest. The understanding of the family dynamic, and the capturing of the fine nuances of family life were wonderful. I was particularly taken with Luke’s father. There was one particular moment when he made a lovely gesture, and I thought that he had done just as my own father would have.  Later in the book though, some of his actions infuriated me.

Lukes’s grandmother, on the other hand, was consistently brilliant.

There were times when the story moved slowly, but I never lost interest. There was a hint of the scandal to come at the start of the book, and of course that created a degree of suspense, but it was more than that. Once I had met these people, seen the families, seen the communities I was always going to hold on to see what they did, what would happen to them.

That summer, the oppressiveness of the heat, life in a small community, the point in a family’s history, so many details that rooted the story in the mid seventies, were caught absolutely perfectly.

The story unfolded beautifully. At times it was a little uneven, one or two things seemed a little improbable, but I didn’t find that too big a problem, because sometimes life happens that way. And this is one of those book that captures real lives, lived in a particular place and time, and makes them intriguing. There’s plenty to think about, lots of things that can be debated, and yet it never feels demanding.

Perfect reading for the long, hot summer that might just be on the way …

A Dog Blogs: I would like you to meet a very lovely author … and her border terrier …

Briar BeachHello Bookish People,

It’s me Briar!

You may have noticed that Jane has been writing about a lot of new books lately. Usually she writes about a mixture of old books and new books, and she is going to go on doing that, but because it is Independent Booksellers’ Week she thought it would be a good idea to focus on new books that your local independent bookseller is bound to be putting onto their shelf.

And to go with that, and author of one of those books has written a very nice piece for us. Jane thought it was a very good idea because she really liked her first two books, and she has just read her new book and she says that is very good too. And the other reason – and the reason I am here to introduce her – is because she lives with a border terrier dog like me!

Isabel Ashdown Books Group Shot, 2013, clear

Isabel Ashdown on why every writer should have a dog

Like many writers, I have a tendency towards the quiet life.  That’s not to say I’m unsociable – I have many special friends and a wonderful family – but I like to be alone.  When my husband has left for work in the mornings, and the children for school, it’s just me and Charlie-dog (like Briar, a fine border terrier) – and in the silence, the writing can begin.

I usually write all morning, pausing only to make coffee and carrying on until lunch time, and if I’m not careful I can keep at it right up until the children arrive home mid-afternoon.  But given time, the sedentary, solitary lifestyle can have a profoundly negative effect on me, and my writing – shutting me off for too long from the world I long to write.  So, to keep me sane, and healthy, and inspired, walking has become a core part of my working day, and living in the beautiful south coast county of West Sussex, I’m spoilt for places to wander.

I grew up by the sea, just a few miles from where I live today, and whilst I’ve travelled and worked elsewhere, I find I can’t stray far from the coast for too long.  When you’ve grown up with the air of salt and driftwood in your lungs, with the sound of waves against shingle in your ears, it becomes part of your inner world.  And so, naturally, my books have a strong coastal theme, the latest being set on the Isle of Wight during the infamous heatwave summer of 1976.

IA and Charlie at Tennyson Down, IoW, March 2013

My research has made me a frequent traveller to the island over the past couple of years, and of course Charlie has been my constant companion.  One summer we rented a coastguard cottage at the Needles, where each evening, I’d leave the family for an hour, to take the uphill walk towards Tennyson monument, to one of the many breathtaking high points on the island, looking out over the sea from all sides.  Here, I could separate myself entirely, and think about the emerging story – and by this I mean properly think and daydream, without the distractions of daily life.  I often find that it’s in the dreaming stage, when I’m walking, gazing, not trying to think, that the story is enticed to show itself in its truest form.  More often than not some vital development would come to me, and I’d jog back down to the cottage with Charlie bounding along at my side (his ears buffeted by the strong Solent winds), eager to capture my thoughts in my notebook before settling in for a cosy evening with the family.

I know I’d never take these solitary walks if I was completely alone, and I, and my writing, have much to thank Charlie for.  Now my 14-year-old daughter is waging a campaign for another dog (a mini dachshund, if she has her way), so if I eventually weaken, you never know – I might soon be spotted on the hills and beaches with a second canine friend dancing at my feet.

About Isabel

Isabel Ashdown is the author of three novels published by Myriad Editions: Glasshopper (London Evening Standard and Observer Best Books of the Year 2009) Hurry Up and Wait (Amazon Top Customer Reads 2011), Summer of ’76, and winner of the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition 2008.

In 2013, her essay on the subject of ‘voice’ will feature in Writing a First Novel, edited by Karen Stevens, in which novelists, agents and publishers discuss the joys and challenges of writing a first novel (Palgrave MacMillan).

Isabel writes from her West Sussex home which she shares with her husband, a carpenter, their two children, and a border terrier called Charlie.  Find out more about her at , chat to her on facebook and twitter, or subscribe to her newsletter here.

Isabel Ashdown Books Group Shot, 2013, clear

I do like the sound of The Isle of Wight. Maybe Jane will take me there one day.

Jane said I should tell you that you can read her thoughts about Glasshopper here and about Hurry Up and Wait here. And that she will tell you her thoughts about Summer of ’76 tomorrow.

So she will be back then. And I will be back again soon.


Briar xxx

A Walk Around The Fiction Shelves

Last time I was in the library I realised that I hadn’t posted about library books for quite some time. And I had an idea. Instead of writing about the books I brought home I would write about the books that caught my eye, for many different reasons, but got left behind…

I was disappointed to see Isabel Ashdown’s first two novels – Glasshopper and Hurry Up and Wait – on the shelves. Two wonderful books that really should be out on loan.

I do wish that my library had a system in place for displaying reader recommendations. At the moment I just rearrange books so that ones I think need a little push are more prominent, but I’ve signed up for a new friends of the library group, so hopefully I’ll get the chance to do a little more.

I noticed a lovely hardback copy of The Children’s Book by A S Byatt. I have a copy of my own and it looked rather intimidating but recently I picked up Ragnarok, Byatt’s contribution to the Canongate Myths series, and it reminded me just how good her writing is.

I counted three titles by Willa Cather in Virago Modern Classics editions – Lucy Gayheart in a traditional green cover and O Pioneers and My Antonia in more recent editions. I love Willa Cather’s writing but its a long time since I read any of her books.

All of her novels are on my shelves and I’m hoping to re-read at least one of two for the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge at Wildmoo Books

I spotted two books that I’d borrowed and then had to return unread, because other people had them on order and I didn’t want to read them in a rush. One day I’ll read them:

The Songwriter by Beatrice Colin and The Spider Truces by Tom Connolly

Please tell me I’m not the only person who has to do this?!

I caught sight of Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys, and wondered why I haven’t read it yet. I have a copy of my own, it’s very short, and it looks terribly readable. Silly really!

I paused to peruse an Everyman Classics edition of The Wings of The Dove by Henry James. It was mentioned as a possibility for Venice in February, and now that I’ve look at it again the idea of a re-read really appeals. But it may be a book too many. I’ll see how things are – and if it’s still on the shelf – when February comes.

I’m always drawn to The Wilding by Maria McCann. A lovely historical novel and the hardback edition has a beautiful cover.

My hand automatically went out to A Month in The Country by Jocelyn Playfair. Because it was a dove-grey Persephone edition and I always hope that one day the library will have one of the Persephones I don’t own.

It hasn’t happened yet, but I can dream.

I noticed two more Virago Modern Classics with striking new covers – A Glass of Blessings and Excellent Women by Barbara Pym.

I love and miss the traditional green Virago covers, but I have to admit that new editions of books by Barbara Pym, Molly Keane and Elizabeth Taylor do seem to be very popular in the library. And that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

I saw Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese. I have read so much praise for this book and I will read it one day.

I spotted of the three books in Anne Zouroudi’s Greek Detective series – The Messenger of Athens, The Doctor of Thessaly and The Lady of Sorrows. Books one, three and four. Trouble is I’m after book two – The Taint of Midas.

Why does that always happen when I want to read a series in order? I see the earlier books that I’ve read, I see the later books that I’m not ready for, but I never seem to see the book I want!

And, finally, I saw Thérèze Raquin by Émile Zola. I meant to re-read it for this year’s RIP Challenge, but I wanted to read more books than I had time for and this one fell by the wayside. maybe next year.

So many books to ponder, for so many reasons.

Does anybody else do this too?

Hurry Up and Wait by Isabel Ashdown

Hurry Up and Wait is the story of one year in one girl’s life. One pivotal year, absolutely perfectly realised.

In the mid eighties Sarah Ribbons was in her last year of school in a quiet seaside town. Her world was painted beautifully, rich with
so many details of music, fashion, gadgets, all of the things that matter when  you’re sixteen.

And it was easy to warm to Sarah. She was so empathic, so real from the start that I couldn’t help feeling involved and reacting emotionally to everything that happened to her.

She lived with her father, an academic who had become a parent late in life and who struggled with the responsibility for all that he loved her dearly. Even though she was all he had. Sarah’s mother had died soon after she was born, her father wouldn’t speak of her, and Sarah was reluctant to upset him by pressing for answers.

And Sarah had to deal with school-friends who were fickle at best and duplicitous at worst, with strange new emotions, with the behaviour of adolescent boys, with her father’s new lady-friend, with the trials of school and exams …

Every detail is captured perfectly, and every character was utterly believable, and I loved the way that Isabel Ashdown twisted her story, sometimes taking the obvious route and sometimes not.

I hoped that Sarah would forge ahead, but I had to watch her downfall instead.

I knew that it would come – in the opening chapter I met the adult Sarah, coming home for a school reunion after nearly twenty years away, and wondering if she was doing the right thing – but I still hoped that it wouldn’t.

The closing chapter, at the school reunion, tied things up beautifully. It was a  most satisfactory ending, but I was sorry that I had to part company with Sarah.

I had been utterly caught up in her world. Because the people, their relationships, their dialogues were so utterly real. Because I had been swept away to that seaside town in the eighties.

Lovely writing brought everything to life, and everything rang true. It made me believe, and it made me care.

Hurry Up and Wait is, quite simply, a gem.

Glasshopper by Isabel Ashdown

“I love November. I love the frosty grass that pokes up between the paving slabs, and the smoke that puffs out of your nostrils like dragon’s breath. I love the ready-made ice rink that freezes underneath the broken guttering in the school playground. And I love the salt ‘n’ vinegar heat inside a noisy pub, when everyone outside is walking about under hats and gloves with dripping red noses.”

That opening paragraph captures Glasshopper perfectly. A coastal town in early eighties seen through eyes of a thirteen year-old boy. A thirteen year-old boy who has seen the inside of rather too many pubs, because his mother is an alcoholic.

Jake’s father has left. He’s still around, he still loves his children, and he still loves his wife but he can’t cope with her drinking any more. And Jake’s elder brother has flown the nest, leaving him as the nearest thing to a responsible adult in the household. And he does feel responsible, maybe more responsible than he should, for his mother, and for his younger brother.

Jake manages. He has a Saturday job in the local newsagent, and the owner, Mr Horrocks is clearly concerned about the Jake’s situation and so tactfully offers support. Jake is saving up for a hi-fi. He has school, and lessons in classics which so catch his imagination. The only lessons that do. And he has weekly visits with his father.

It could be depressing, but it isn’t. Because it is so perfectly drawn, every detail and every character. Because Jake is young enough to still have a child’s acceptance and faith.

And because the story of one year in Jake’s life is set against the whole story of his mother’s life. That makes it impossible to cast Mary as a villain. She isn’t easy to like, but she is a very real woman , who hasn’t had the easiest life, who hasn’t made the wisest choices, and has fallen into alcoholism.

I couldn’t understand Mary, but I did believe in her, and I did feel for her. But I felt for her children more.

During a spell of clarity Mary contacted her sister, Rachel. They had been estranged for many years, and their reunion seemed to be a positive step. One woman widowed and one separated, they both had space in their lives to fill. Their children were of similar ages. A new extended family.

That created a positive momentum. Jake’s parents decided to give their relationship another chance. And to take a family holiday.

But it was all too much. Memories had been stirred, old secrets that had been buried for years came back into focus. And something snapped. A prologue had suggested an unhappy ending, but I had been so caught up in the story that I had forgotten, until the inevitable happened.

I was caught up because the people, their relationships, their dialogues were so utterly real.There were no heroes and no villains, just fallible human beings whose emotions really touched me.

Because times and places were so perfectly captured. I can’t think of one single false note.

Because the writing was so good, even managing the transition between two very different narrators, managing stories moving at different speeds and slowly merging quite expertly.

And, most of all, because I cared. Especially about Jake.


glasshopper / noun: 1 a person or thing that shifts position or character without warning. 2 a fleeting translucent object. 3 a person who balances precariously between sobriey and intoxication.