Suggestions for authors from Wales

St Davids Day 8 Cardiff 2015

St David’s Day parade, Cardiff City Center 2015

Since today is the patron saint’s day for Wales I thought I’d mark the occasion with some insights on authors who hail from my native land. The people I’ve chosen are all people who write in the medium of English rather than the Welsh language. Thats not out of disrespect to the language, but since many of my readers are from overseas, it wouldn’t be particularly helpful if I pointed you to Welsh language texts.

DylanThomasThe most famous son of all is of course Dylan Thomas. A bit of a hell raiser was our Dylan; a familiar figure in the bars in Swansea (the city of his birth) and Laugharne, the fishing village where he lived with his wife Caitlin. His poetry is defined by his ingenious use of words, imagery and sound patterns which sometimes makes the meaning hard to discover. My recommendation: don’t worry too much  about the messages behind the words. Just find a recording of Richard Burton reading Thomas’s poems or his play Under Milk Wood, and revel in the sounds.

After Dylan, the other writers from Wales don’t have anywhere near the same reputation beyond our borders.  Many of these names will, I suspect, be ones that you might vaguely have heard of but more likely will be a complete mystery.

Gwyn Thomas:  author and  Tv/radio broadcaster from Barry (near my current home) whose black comedies focused on life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. He’s all but disappeared from the public conscience except amongst the literary elite in Wales. His autobiographical work A Few Selected Exits shows his passage fro the poorest of families in Wales to Oxford and the BBC. I’ve posted a few reviews of his works here: Reading a Welsh legend and here The Alone to the Alone.

Raymond Williams: If you’ve ever studied the work of Charles Dickens there is a chance you will have encountered the name of Raymond Williams who was one of the foremost Marxist academics active in the 1960s and 1970s. He made his reputation with Culture and Society, published in 1958, which examined famous British writers such as Wordsworth and Orwell to argue that culture, as we know it, developed in response to the Industrial Revolution and the social and political changes it brought in its wake. His assessment of Dickens challenges Orwell’s contention that Dickens wasn’t a social reformer. Well worth reading is his work The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence which looks at the way historical and social changes affected the development of the novel through the works of eleven writers. He also wrote novels – perhaps the best known is Border Country which is set in the community Williams knew personally,  rural South Wales, close to the border with England,  There are lengthy flashbacks to the 1920s and 1930s, including the 1926 United Kingdom General Strike and the Great Depression in the United Kingdom.

Bernice Rubens was the only author from Wales to win the Booker prize. She was actually the first woman to win the prize with her novel The Elected Member.  It was one of the first books I read as part of my Booker Prize project – good in parts but not wonderful was my verdict at the time.

If those options seem a little heavy for you, the following authors may be more to your taste. 

Owen Sheers:  Although Sheers was born in Fiji, I’m classing him as a Welsh author because he spent his formative years here and has kept his close connection with the country not least because much of his work has a connection to Wales (including a role as the first writer in residence of the Welsh Rugby Union(. Sheers began writing poetry, publishing his first collection in 1999. He was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s 20 Next Generation Poets in 2004 but it wasn’t until his first novel Resistance was published in 2008 that he really came to the public’s attention.The novel imagines that the D-day landings have failed and Wales been occupied by the Nazis. it’s been translated into ten languages and was shortlisted for a Best Book Award.

Dannie Abse: a native of Cardiff in 1923, he trained as a doctor but began writing poetry and plays while working in a London hospital. His first novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve,  appeared in 1954, tracing the fortunes of a Jewish family in Wales against the backdrop of unemployment, the rise of Fascism and the Spanish Civil War. In 2002 his novel  The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas was long listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Ken Follett: author of highly-readable novels such as The Pillars of the Earth, Eye of the Needle and The Man from St Petersburg, was born in Cardiff (capital city of Wales). He worked as a reporter on the same local newspaper that once employed me, the South Wales Echo, though our paths never crossed.

Iris Gower:  a prolific writer of historical romances in the vein of Catherine Cookson. Gower set many of her works in her home city of Swansea and the adjacent coastal area of the Gower Peninsula from which she took her pen name. She was a prolific writer publishing one new novel (and sometimes two) almost every year between 1975 until her death in 2010. Her work doesn’t appeal to me but my mum loves her.

 

Dancing to the Devil’s tune

Evil comes in many forms.

In Satantango it coUnknownmes in the shape of Irimiás; a low level cog in a machine deemed essential by all totalitarian states — their secret network of police informers.  For the bunch of decrepit peasants who live on the edge of substance amid the ruins of a rain-drenched collective farm, news of his impending arrival is a cause for celebration. They await his arrival in the estate’s only bar, slugging back plum brandy and indulging in a few fumbling, ogling dances amid the buzzing horseflies and dense cobwebs. Their discomfort doesn’t matter for Irimiás is not dead (as they had believed), but is returning, a year after they last saw him in the collective, to save them from their mouldering lives of desperation. Or so they believe.

.. from tomorrow on, everything would be different … they’d really struck it lucky this time. without him [Irimiás] they’d just be stumbling about like the blind, without a clue, ranging on, fighting each other like condemned horses at the slaughterhouse. Irimiás was the only man capable of holding things that just fall apart.

If only they’d recognised that the ghostly sound of chapel bells some of them heard that morning, was a signal not of impending salvation but of danger.  It turns out that Irimiás and his travelling companion Petrina had once lived on the collective farm but, unknown to the other inhabitants, were informers of some kind on behalf of the Communist regime. Having become ideologically wayward— (the detail of their crime is only obliquely alluded to in the book) —they were sent to prison. Now released, they are ready to resume their role once more. Irimiás is not however returning to the farm with any desire to rekindle old friendships and to help his former workers but to fleece the villagers he despises and play them for his own ends.

He despises these peasants, knowing exactly how they will act and react.

They’ll be sitting in exactly the same place,on the same filthy stools stuffing themselves with the same filthy spuds, and paprika every night, having no idea what’s happened. They’ll be eying each other suspiciously, only breaking the silence to belch. … They are waiting, belly to the ground like cats at pig killing time, hoping for scraps. They are like servants that work at a castle where the master has shot himself: they hang around at an utter loss as to what to do…

If this summary of the plot sounds clear, its a lot more straightforward than   the actual experience of reading the book. Krasznahorkai’s translator George Szirtes calls his work a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type”, where sentences take you down “loops and dark alleyways – like wandering in and out of cellars”. László Krasznahorkai seems to delight in confounding his readers, often beginning his chapters with an event that he doesn’t explain or with some characters that he does not introduce.  In chapter two for example two unidentified men wait in a corridor of some bureaucratic organisation for an interview; about what and with whom is not revealed for nine pages. Only at the end do we discover that this is the point at which Irimiás and Petrina are re-absorbed into the intelligence operation and sent out with new instructions. It’s told in long continuous sentences sometimes running over several lines and in chapters that consist of a long paragraph without a line break. In a Henry James novel, that technique has the effect of slowing the reader down so that we appreciate every detail and nuance of meaning. But with Krasznahorkai it has the reverse effect, forcing us forward; somewhat perplexed at times but always engrossed.

Satantango is a compelling if astoundingly bleak novel; one where you take an inward breath at the the start and then can’t let it out again until the end. It’s one where there is a sense of impending doom and inevitability yet you can’t help hope that there will be mercy for these unfortunates. First published in Hungary in 1985, but not available in English until 2012,  it gives us a perspective about life in an oppressive modern state and the abject failure of an experiment in collectivisation. I’m not sure when it was written but it would certainly have been an incendiary novel to have been discovered writing during the height of European communism.

Satantango is published by Atlantic Books. It was long listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013.

Writers in their own words: C. S Lewis on books

c s lewisWriting of his early years C. Lewis reflected on the importance books played in his childhood.
“I am a product of … of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient state of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.” (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy 1965)
While we only had a fraction of  that number of volumes in my own home, books were a key part of my childhood too though mostly obtained by weekly visits to the local library. You could say I am a product of dusty shelves and wooden floors, of sunlit corners and dark secret recesses, of clunking radiators and tiny cardboard tickets.

Crime at the heart of the Tudor court

When you see the name of King Henry VIII, what’s the image that comes to your mind? One in which the monarch has the physique and appearance of a model (as portrayed by Jonathan Rhys in the TV series The Tudors)?

THE TUDORS

Or one of an athletic king with steely eyes as played by Damien Lewis in the BBC television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall?

images

Or the way that Henry himself wanted to be portrayed; A man of authority who, even when he’s not kitted out in full royal regalia exudes power. One of the most famous of contemporary portraits shows him directly facing the viewer, legs firmly planted apart and arms akimbo to emphasise his powerful physique. The message is clear: don’t even think of messing around with me. Henry 8 g

In C.J Sansom’s historical series featuring a ‘detective’ lawyer, Shardlake, the man of law has learned over the years to fear his encounters with the King and the powerful men who surround him. Lamentation,  the latest episode in the series sees Shardlake once again become embroiled in the kind of political intrigue that could easily cost him his head. This time it’s the King’s wife Katherine who needs his help when a book of spiritual reflections she has written is stolen from her bedroom. In the religious turmoil of the 1540s, this book could incite even further discord in the land if it is published.  Katherine’s own safety as risk. For the King;s own wife to write such a text without his knowledge could be considered as treason. Shardlake has a soft spot for the queen so accepts her plea to find the book before the King discovers what’s happened.

What ensues is a romp around London, from its leafy Inns of Court and the splendour of its royal palaces to the seedy streets of the poorer quarters as Shardlake tries to discover who is behind the theft and why. It brings him into personal danger with sword fights  and a spell in the dreaded dungeons of The Tower.  It’s all very entertaining if somewhat improbable on many occasions —although Shardlake suffers from his physical deformity and often refers to his aching back, the man still seems to have an extraordinary level of stamina, always dashing about on horse or foot for hours.

That’s really a minor point in a novel that otherwise exudes authenticity.  Sansom’s evocation of the period always feels authoritative and sure (he even provides extensive notes at the back of the book to substantiate his interpretation.) In Lamentation he plunges us into a time when the King’s health is a matter for concern though he and his courtiers go to great lengths to keep up a pretence in his public engagements that all is well. Shardlake however stumbles upon some scenes within the inner sanctum of the palace that show the extent to which this once powerful man has declined. In a quiet courtyard he sees the King propped up by two helpers shuffle along the path:

The man I saw now was the very wreck of a human being. His huge legs, made larger still by swathes of bandages, were splayed out like a gigantic child’s as he took each slow and painful step. Every movement sent his immense body wobbling  and juddering beneath his caftan. His face was great mess of fat, the little  mouth and tiny eyes almost hidden in its folds, the once beaky nose full and fleshy.

Later he sees Henry winched up to his stateroom, his immense body and folds of fat strapped into a wheelchair.

As shocked as Shardlake is, he knows well that to merely comment on the King’s health let alone reveal the truth, would be treasonable.

This is an age where lips must be kept shut if you fear for your life. One unguarded comment could lead to a charge of heresy. The tone is set within the first few pages of the novel where Shardlake is despatched, reluctantly to witness the burning alive of a heretic.

There was a smell of smoke around Smithfield now as well as the stink of the crowd and of something else, familiar from the kitchen: the smell of roasting meat. Against my will I looked again at the stakes. The flames had reached higher: the victims lower bodies were blackened, white bone showing through here and there. their upper parts red with blood as the flames licked at them.

Shardlake must navigate this atmosphere of fear and contend with the King’s circle of unscrupulous advisers to achieve his mission. By the end he yearns for a quieter life in which he becomes a lawyer in a provincial town far from the corruption of the capital and the machinations of the court. But Shardlake is ever a sucker for the ladies and how can he resist when he is offered a new role, as adviser to the Princess Elizabeth. And thus, very neatly, Sansom sets us up for another chapter in Shardlake’s life and – thankfully – a few more novels to look forward to reading.

 

 

Treasures of second hand shops

Who doesn’t enjoy that moment  in a second hand book shop when your eye alights on something special? Of course we’d all love it if we discovered a rare edition or even a first edition signed by the author. But there is also a thrill when you find the book that will complete your collection of a series or works by a particular author or you find an out of print book that has remained elusive for years.

Imagine if you had walked into a charity shop in Wales in the last couple of weeks and made the same discovery the volunteers did when they opened a bag from a donor. Inside was a 178-year-old Bible passed down through generations of the same family and inscribed with their names. Now the shop is trying to trace living relatives of the family so the heirloom can be restored to them.

I had a sUnknownpecial moment of my own last week when I found an original of the very first book published by Virago in their modern classics series. Frost in May  by Antonia White came out in 1978, signalling the start of a list dedicated to the rediscovery and celebration of women writers. Spotting this in a charity bookshop took me back to that year when I read the book as some light relief after the trauma of end of term exams. I loved the book, told everyone in my hall of residence they should read it but stupidly loaned it to someone who took it on holiday and lost it.  Thirty seven years later and my book and I have now been re-united (ok I know the chances that this is MY lost copy are extremely thin but indulge me in this conceit please).

Have you found any special treats or made any discoveries while browsing in second hand shops?

Time for a little sheep talk

Unknown-3Today (Feb 17) marks the first day of the Chinese new year and the start of the year of the sheep. According to the Chinese zodiac system people born in the year of sheep are polite, filial, clever, and kind-hearted. They prefer the quiet life and are apparently especially sensitive to art and beauty.

You’d think then that these artistic creatures would feature prominently in fiction.  But these poor creatures have definitely been short-changed by authors. There are plenty of novels featuring dogs and horses, but our woolly friends barely get a look in. The first two options here are the only ones I could think of personally, for the remainder I had to rely on Goodreads and LibraryThing.

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick

A  science fiction novel published in 1968, this doesn’t even feature real sheep apart from a brief mention at the beginning. In it’s post-apocalyptic setting, most types of animals are endangered or extinct due to extreme radiation poisoning from the war. Keeping and owning live animals is therefore a status symbol so many people turn towards cheaper synthetic, or electric, animals to keep up the pretense.

2. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

A bit of a stretch I know since the lambs are symbolic rather than actual. They feature in a brief episode when FBI trainee Clarice Starling is forced into revealing her troubled childhood on a sheep farm where she tries to prevent the lambs from slaughter.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, 
 A murder mystery  in which a flock of sheep take on the role of detectives when their much-loved shepherd is killed, pinned to the ground with a spade. Among their number are Othello, a “bad-boy” black ram; Mopple the Whale, a Merino who eats a lot and remembers everything; and Zora, a pensive black-faced ewe with a weakness for abysses. The Goodreads blurb calls it a ‘witty philosophical murder mystery” where the sheep’s discussions about the possible culprits turn into metaphysical speculations.  This could either be excruciatingly twee or deliciously funny. It seems to have built quite a following – the novel has been translated from the original German into 30 languages.
4. Sheep by Simon Maginn 
By contrast comes this  horror story set in a tumble down farmhouse in Wales where James and Adele son hope to find peace after the drowning of their daughter. When James unearths an odd collection of bones while working on the house, they begin to learn the nightmarish story of the tragic history of their home.
5. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s  third novel novel is apparently a blend of styles — part detective , part metaphysical speculation, part magical realism. Where do the sheep fit in you might wonder? They’re the subject of a photograph which catches the eye of a Japanese copywriter. He uses the picture to illustrate a newspaper, unknowingly becoming the subject of a hunt orchestrated by a Mr Big who wants to track down the source of the image before he dies.
So that’s it. Not exactly three bags full but there might just be something that suits the little maid who lives down your road.

Mantel plans to keep us waiting

Anyone who was left begging for more when they reached the end of Bring up the Bodies, is in for a lengthy wait before they’ll be able to feast on the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. In an interview for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) she revealed that she won’t finish writing the book until late in 2016 or even middle of 2017.

Apparently her involvement as consultant for the stage production of the Man Booker-prize winning Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have distracted her a little though she was able to use cast members as sounding boards for some of her plot ideas. When her work on the Broadway version comes to an end this summer she’ll be taking a holiday and then planning to get back to writing in earnest. it will take her between 18 months and a year to finish the book.

Until then we’ll have to be satisfied with the few crumbs of information she’s divulged. We now know the following about Part 3:

  • It’s called The Mirror and the Light
  • It features the short reign of Jane Seymour and the long awaited birth of a male heir.
  • We will experience King Henry’s  increasingly erratic behaviour.
  • The book marks the demise of Thomas Cromwell and his disgrace

Those titbits are all we’re going to get for some time it seems but they have whetted my appetite even more. I know what’s going on my Christmas wish list for 2016.

Read the full interview here http://blogs.abc.net.au/wa/2015/02/hilary-mantel-reveals-timing-of-her-next-book-and-whats-next-after-thomas-cromwell.html

Wolf Hall and

Book blogs minus the reviews?

During the clean up of my email in box (now down to a more manageable 250 unread emails) I came across an old post on the 101 books blog where Robert had commented that he doesn’t like reading book reviews on blog sites. “Book reviews are boring,” he declared, a simple statement which provoked a lively debate.  To be fair, he also said that he finds the act of writing them on his own site rather tedious and he would rather just write about other book related topics, facts about authors that you didn’t know for example.

People who left comments seemed to agree on a few things: writing a good review takes time and effort and you need to do more than just explain the plot if you want to engage people. A few people said they were not at all interested in other people’s reviews or that they only read those where the featured author was one in whom they were already interested. One big area of agreement seemed to be that blog sites which featured only reviews were a turn off.

I can certainly relate to the comment about how much effort it takes to write a review that might be worth other people reading. Hence why I am about 10 reviews behind right now – I keep procrastinating because I want to say something more than just whether I enjoyed the book.  There is an art to this reviewing business, especially if you want to do more than simply regurgitate the plot or repeat the publisher’s blurb. I look at pieces written by professional reviewers in some of the leading newspapers and sigh because they are light years ahead of my attempts. Despite sniffy comments from some quarters (Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously was one of the guilty ones here) some bloggers are equally as skilled in reviewing and even though I don’t particularly have an interest in the author or the genre, I enjoy seeing what they think or feel.

But just as a diet of ice-cream and cakes would get tedious after a day or so, I’m not enthused by reading review after review after review. I find that I can get through only so many straight review items in my feed reader before I’m longing for something different. I’ve tried mixing up my own posts to try and avoid equally boring my own readers – actually I find these non review posts much more fun to write. And I’ve been experimenting too with how I write the reviews – giving them a (hopefully) more interesting title than just the name of the book and the author. So far I’ve just done two reviews using that new approach – my ‘5 reasons to read The Miniaturist’ and ‘A question of identity: Marani’s New Finnish Grammar’. A small start but at least it’s a start.

What are your thoughts on reviews – do you try to mix them up on your own site with non-review posts? What do you think of sites that have very few reviews?

Here’s the original post on Robert’s blog if you are interested: http://101books.net/2014/06/27/5-things-your-mom-didnt-tell-you-about-book-blogging/

Getting the hang of making jewellery

stringingI’ve been dabbling with making my own jewellery for a few years with varying degrees of success. The first attempts at making earrings resulted in some very wonky looking danglers because I could not get the hang of making a loop that was the same size and in the same position on each side.

I had much better success with creating necklaces and in fact sold quite a few. the design wasn’t difficult and threading the beads onto the wire was easy though many times I lost hold of the one end and the whole lot ended up on the floor. We were forever coming across them nestling in the carpet fibres.

The really tricky part is finishing the threads neatly so the beads lie flat and there are no gaps between beads and clasp. I used many reference books to try and learn the right techniques – some seemed to skimp this part so they could quickly get on the creative element. But if you don’t know the basics, you could end up getting ultra frustrated when the end result looks nothing like your design.

So i was more than happy to see a book published that really focused on the basics like choosing the right beads and threading material,  explaining the different tools available and when to use what kind of  clasp and fastening. This is a good guide for beginners and would be especially helpful to refer to just before heading to the bead supply shop.

If only the authors had included photographs instead of line drawings for some of the instructions and then gone on to show some images of finished items it would have been even more helpful. Still it’s good value for money.

Thanks to the publishers Storey Publishing, LLC for providing me with a copy via NetGalley.

Winning times

The Booker Talk household has been in a state of suspended excitement for the last week. I hardly ever win things in competitions or prize drawers (I suppose the fact that I don’t actually enter many of them might have something to do with that). But on the same day just over a week ago I learned that I had won, not one but two prizes.

whitehunger_web_0_220_330First to arrive was a copy of White Hunger which is a debut novel by a Finnish author called Aki Ollikainen. It’s set in 19th century Finland and follows a young woman’s journey from Finland to St Petersburg in an attempt to save her young children from starvation.  This was a give away from theoxfordculturereview.com (a wonderful source of info if you have any plans to visit the city) and published by Peirene Press.  The book won the title of Best Finnish Debut Novel 2012 and Finnish Book Bloggers’ Best Book 2012 and is now available in English.  Have any of you read this?

Just a few days later came a mystery gift from the London Review of Books as a result of a reader survey I completed.  I’m now the owner of a canvas tote bag (much nicer than plastic carrier bags and cheaper too since we have to pay for those in Wales); a few items from their cafe and a nicely bound compendium of articles published in the LRB.

Two successes. Do you think I could make it a third??