Category Archives: Welsh authors

I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers #Waleswrites

Saw A ManThere is one phrase guaranteed to make me decide not to buy a novel. Publishers love it and must believe it works as way to hook in readers because it appears time and time again in back cover blurbs. I know it must be hard to come up with a different form of words for every book when there are so many being published but I am tired of seeing  “Their lives were changed forever…” (or a variation along those lines). So what was I doing reading a novel which begins:

The event that changed all of their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June, just minutes after Michael Turner – thinking the Nelsons’ house was empty – stepped through their back door.

The short answer was that I ordered I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers from the library without paying much attention to the front cover where this sentence appears or looking inside the book  so I didn’t realise this was how it would begin. The longer answer is that Owen Sheers is a poet, playwright and author from Wales and I like to do my bit to support literature from my native land. He’s won multiple awards including Welsh Book of the Year 2005 for The Dust Diaries, his first prose work (it’s a non-fictional narrative set in Zimbabwe). I feel guilty that I’ve read only one of his novels to date.

At first I was engrossed by I Saw A Man which sees Michael Turner, a best-selling author move from rural Wales to a very dull apartment in London.  Michael is “reticent with grief” for his wife, Caroline, a television journalist killed in a drone strike while making a documentary about Pakistani jihadists. Michael slowly begins to heal under the influence of his next door neighbours: Josh Nelson, a Lehman Brothers banker, his wife Caroline and their two young daughters. Soon he is sharing family meals and helping the children with their homework, But one day, Michael finds the door to the Nelson house unlocked and the house deserted. Puzzled and fearful about what he might find he ventures inside.

Sheers skillfully notches up the tension of Michael’s inch by inch progress through the house, using flashbacks into Michael’s life to delay the moment of revelation about the catastrophic events. We’re also taken thousands of miles away to the Nevada desert where,  deep in a covert military base, a United States Army major launches a drone that kills Caroline. It’s not until the book is over the half way mark that we get to discover what has happened to the Nelson family. The rest of the book deals essentially with the fall out from that revelation and the web of secrecy and guilt in which Michael becomes complicit.

There was much to enjoy and admire in I Saw A Man.  The suspense of the first half meant I was continually scrolling through all the possibilities about the nature of the catastrophe that was foreshadowed on page one. Afar reading the section about American attacks against terrorists, I began speculating the Nelsons were undercover agents or even members of a terrorist network.  Later on, there were hints of a more ethereal explanation for the Nelsons’ disappearance, at several points for example Michael thinks he sees the ghost of his wife.

He did not believe in ghosts. In all the months since her death never once had he thought Caroline was still with him. Her absence had been the most certain thing he’d ever known.   But she had been. Just now. He’d felt her with absolute experience. And he still could. It was fading, the resonance cooling but it was there, as if he was slowly waking backwards from a fire, retreating into a cold night.

Sheers is clearly a talented writer. His prose moves easily and authoritatively from the minutiae of daily domestic life in an upmarket London suburb on the edge of Hampstead Heath to the tension of an international anti-terrorist attack. Imagery abounds here: American SUVs are driven by small women whose “painted nails clutch the steering wheels like the feet of caged birds”. Daniel, the pilot  whose missile killed Caroline watches a thermal imaging screen hover over a body killed by his drone, noting “the puddle of human heat grow, like the slow bubble of a lava lamp … From orange to yellow, to green, until leaking from his limbs to his core, his body cooled to blue, eventually melting into the colour of the ground, the dust.”

The novel’s real strengths, however, lies in its study of guilt and the lies we tell ourselves about where our responsibility begins and ends.. Daniel, the pilot, is deeply traumatised by the effect of his missions. Though he consols himself that they have helped save thousands of American lives, he constantly replays the moments when his target hones in on innocent victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He resolves to track down Caroline’s husband and tell him what happened.

Not because he should, but because he had to. Because he knew it was the only way he would ever be able to go on. He was tired of being unseen. Of being dislocated from his action. … He wanted to own his life and he knew that meant owning all of it.

Daniel’s desire for openness contrasts with the responses of the two other principal males in the novel, Michael and Josh.  Michael’s survival depends on his ability to dissemble – ironic given that he made his name as a writer of a book about the hidden world of two drug dealers in New York.  Josh too has a secret which makes him partly responsible for what happened on that summer day. It’s a secret he would prefer neither police nor wife ever discover.

This was very much a novel very much of two halves. Once we learned the nature of the catastrophe the tension petered out substantially and the remainder of the novel was  largely concerned with whether the lies created in the aftermath of that afternoon in June would be unravelled and if so, by whom. Sheers once again keeps us guessing while charting Michael’s inner turmoil but the  final resolution still felt rather rushed.  The book asks some searching questions about modern day warfare – there is one passage where Daniel reflects on how the rise of unmanned aerial pilots meant the next generation would go into missions without any experiene of real on-the-ground combat, guiding missiles remotely with joysticks modelled on those used in Sony Playstations.

Without knowing it under the eyes of their parents and siblings, America would train her future pilots in bedrooms and living rooms across the country. They would fight a sif the world was a free-fire zone, cocooned within the hum of servers and computers…

A future where people can launch and guide missions to kill as if they were playing a virtual reality game. Now I find that a chilling prospect.

Footnotes

About the Book: I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers was published in 2015 by Faber and Faber. It is his fourth novel. My copy was borrowed from my local library.

About the Author: Owen Sheers was born in  Fiji in 1974 though brought up and educated in South Wales. His first collection of poetry, The Blue Book, was published by Seren in 2000 and shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year and the Forward Prize for ‘Best First Collection’. His debut prose work, The Dust Diaries, was published by Faber in 2004.  In 2012 Owen became the first poet to work with a rugby team when he became Artist in Residence for the Welsh Rugby Union. He is currently Professor in Creativity at Swansea University.

Why I read this Book: This is part of my endeavour to read more fiction by authors from my native country of Wales. Reviews and other posts about writers and literature from Wales can be found on the Literature from Wales page.

 

September 2017 Snapshot

September snapshotProgress of a kind has been made on the health front. Two weeks after surgery to repair all the breaks in my upper humerus I can now take the arm out of the sling. I’m still pretty much confined to doing daily activities single-handed but at least I can now begin physiotherapy. It’s going to be slow progress I fear because I have little range of movement at the moment. Imagine a penguin walking and you have the image of how much I can move the damaged arm. Four weeks from now I hope I can at least drive.

Apart from trying to coax my damaged wing back into health, what else was I up to on September 1, 2017?

 Reading now

kelly gangI’m currently reading another Booker Prize winner – True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.  This is book number 43 from the list of 50 titles in my Booker Prize project. It’s a fictionalised autobiography of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly,  a historical figure about whom I know very little.  Carey imagines Kelly writing a journal to the daughter he would never meet, in which he traces his life as the offspring of a poor family of Irish origin and how his many encounters with the law. The style is distinctively vernacular with little punctuation or grammar, emulating the pattern found in the Jerilderie Letter, a letter dictated by Kelly to one of his gang members in 1879.  I thought that might make it hard to read but not a bit of it. This is a book so mesmerizing that after a few pages you cease to be concerned with the mode of telling and just get swept along with the story.

I’d hoped to finish this before #20booksofsummer2017 comes to an end (September 3) but I don’t think I’ll make it.  Not to worry, I will still have read 11 by then which is one better than 2016.

Reflecting on the state of my personal library

We Don't Know What We're DoingOne of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books.  I’m now down to 274. I was remarkably restrained with purchases in August -just one bought. A collection of short stories by Thomas Morris called We Don’t Know What We’re Doing.  I don’t tend to read many short story collection but this one caught my eye because Morris happens to have been born in the town of Caerphilly ( about 5 miles from where I grew up ) and all 10 stories in this book are based in the town.  It won the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award within the Wales Book of the Year award in 2016. So I get to ride a little wave of nostalgia and support a local author at the same time.

Thinking of reading next…

I think I’m going to avoid making too many plans for September. It was fun to do the #20booksofsummer reading but I feel more like reading as the mood takes me for the next few weeks. I know there will be a Booker Prize winner in the mix – I will have just six remaining to read once I’ve finished with Mr Ned Kelly and his exploits but whether it’s How Late It Was, How Late or Vernon God Little or even A Brief History of Seven Killings I tackle next I will decide on the day. I might read Owen Shears’ I Saw a Man which I collected from the library today. I’ve read only one of his novels until now (Resistance) and wasn’t all that enamoured with it but this one has had very strong reviews. Oh and did I mention he is Welsh? Another good reason to get to know him better.

Watching: Now The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK has come to an end I am somewhat bereft. I have no interest in Game of Thrones (sorry to the millions of its fans), was bored by Poldark and cannot get the Channel 4 catchup service to let me watch The Good Fight, the spin off to The Good Wife. I’m hoping that the end of summer means there could be a few good series coming soon. Until then I’m relying on some old favourites like Inspector Morse (I’ve seen them so many times I can practically recite the lines but still find myself confused by a few of the plots.)

And that is it for this month. I hope by this time next month the arm will be back in operation again. Until then, happy reading everyone.

Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch [bookreview]

I’ve never visited Hull, a city on the Humber Estuary in Yorkshire, England, though I came close to doing so in the mid 1970s when I applied for a place on the University of Hull’s law degree programme and was invited for an open day. The prospect of a five hour car journey north in February was rather unappealing however so I came up with some excuse or other to wriggle out of the visit. Had I made it I would have found a bleak port city well past its prime, a city that the poet Philip Larkin described as “fish smelling” and “a dump”. It’s all changed significantly since that time – Hull in fact is the European City of Culture for 2017 but who could possibly have predicted that a few decades ago?

Larkin moved to Hull in 1955 as Librarian at the University of Hull (a post he held until his death).  A month after his arrival he began slagging the place, moaning to a friend: “I’m settling down in Hull all right. Every day I sink a little further.” then later declaring: “What a hole, what witless, crapulous people. … I wish I could think of just one nice thing to tell you about Hull – oh yes, well, it’s very nice and flat for cycling.” There’s a wonderful documentary about Larkin and Hull available via You Tube if you want more background on his time in the city.

Larkinland

This is the city Jonathan Tulloch evokes superbly in his novel Larkinland. It’s a world of Teddy Boys, trolley buses, travelling salesmen, fish and chips and spartan rented rooms whose landladies expect strict adherence to fixed meal times and bath routines. Into this world steps Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) newly recruited as university librarian who finds digs in Miss Glendenning’s establishment in a room about the size of a police cell furnished with rickety chair, narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper. Not an inspiring creative bolthole in which Arthur can pursue his ambition of becoming a successful poet like his already-published friend. Yet it’s considered  her best room and is especially liked by the landlady because it was once occupied by her favourite tenant, the insurance salesman Mr Bleaney who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. She’s more than ready to transfer her affections to Mr Merryweather, picturing for him the delights of an evening a deux listening to the radio.

Unfortunately for Merryweather he bears a physical resemblance to Bleaney who police suspect may be implicated in a spate of robberies around the city. Just when Merryweather thinks his life is taking a turn for the better via a budding romance with his fellow librarian Niamh O’Leary (another reference to Larkin’s life) and publication of some of his poems in a magazine, he gets caught up in the criminal underworld of Hull. Merryweather is a hapless creature, forever getting into misadventures even when he is trying his best to just be normal, a habit which gives rise to some farce-like episodes of missed trains and incoming tides. Like Larkin himself, Merryweather is a jazz fan and aspiring poet whose first impressions of Hull are not positive. Until he’d actually arrived to take up his new post he’d never heard of “this place beached on the mudflats at the end of the railway line.” Stepping out on his first evening he finds:

 

The stroll under the line of sycamores would even have verged on the pleasant if not for the piles of dog dirt one had to negotiate. The early Saturday evening queue at the trolleybus stop was long and gregarious. Working men’s club and bingo bound no doubt. Most of those waiting seemed to know each other. Was he the only one wearing a trilby? The other men ether sported the cloth cap of the locale or despite the drizzle went bareheaded. Severe short back and sides for the most part, but a whole group of starkly luxuriant quiffs: teddy boys.

His second expedition is little better:

Avoiding last night’s back lanes, the librarian soon found himself wandering through a forest of cranes, and inching over narrow, bouncing bridges, which arced disconcertingly over deep, froth-flecked canals. The smell of fish thickened. A sudden ship loomed over a terrace end like a beached whale, and then there was the river itself, a wide grey mile, and beyond that the indistinct infinity of the sea.

But just as Larkin himself came to appreciate Hull more fully (he commented once that it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things, … I rather like being on the edge of things.”), so Merryweather warms to the city. Returning by train from a strained weekend with a sort-of lover, he looks up from his book of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry to find:

… the world had become full of seagulls. The train was drawing alongside the river. Seagulls and the river’s levelling drift, the far bank’s unbeckoning netherland. The dreary liminal beauty tugged at Merryweather. He was back. Back home? Hardly  that. Yet could one really be feeling some attachment to this Trades Union Venice on its kipper lagoon…?

At times hilarious, Larkinland is part mystery, part love story and partly a story about hope and desire. To all of this Tulloch adds a pitch-perfect realisation of the bleak mundanity of daily life – the very glumness about emotions, places, and relationships that were in fact the hallmark of Larkin’s poetry.

Footnotes

About the book: Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch was published in July 2017 by Seren, an independent literary publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales

Tulloch

About the author: Jonathan Tulloch is the author of eight novels, including The SeasonTicket, Give Us This Day and Mr McCool. He is a winner of the Betty Trask Prize and The JB Priestley Award. He writes the Times Nature Notebook, and a nature column in The Tablet.

Why I read this book: This is part of my endeavour to showcase writers and publishers from my home country of Wales. I had just watched a BBC documentary about Larkin so was intrigued whether Larkinland would evoke the landscape in which Larkin had spent his prime years as a poet. Thanks go to Seren for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Writing Wales: Dylan H Jones on Anglesey Blue

Dylan JonesYesterday I posted my review of Anglesey Blue, the first in a series of detective novels by the Welsh-born author Dylan H Jones. The novel is set on the island of Anglesey (known as Ynys Môn in the Welsh language) in North Wale. It’s a place very close to Dylan’s heart – it’s where he was born, where he spent many of his formative years and where many of his immediate family members still live. In his debut novel, he introduces his lead character Detective Inspector Tudor Manx who has returned to the island after a gap of some thirty years. In this Q&A Dylan shares his plans for future books in the series and how he used his local knowledge to depict his chosen setting.

Q. You’ve described Anglesey Blue as the first in a series of crime novels featuring DI Manx. Did you always envisage this as a series?

Most definitely. I compare it to people’s attitude to films and TV these days. Personally, I’m seeing a shift away from the two hour cinema spectacular towards these incredibly well written, deep and character-driven TV shows. I  think people crave that character development you get from a series. That’s how I felt about Manx. His story is just beginning, he has some real demons he needs to face, some real issues he needs to deal with and he needs to do all of this while solving some pretty gruesome crimes.

I’m not sure how many books will be in the series, but I’m elbow deep into book two right now, which sees Manx confronting even more demons, wrestling with his own feelings of guilt and questioning the choices he made that landed him back on the island. One thing I will say, without it being a spoiler, is that I want the first four books to be set in different seasons. The first was set in Winter, the second will be set in Spring, the third and fourth in Summer and Autumn respectively. I’m plotting it out this way because I think the Island of Anglesey changes with each season: the vibe in the summer, where the island is thick with tourists, is very different to the bleakness of the winter months—perfect fodder for a crime fiction author.

Q.  It’s common now in crime fiction for the detective/investigator to have a troubled past. Were you conscious when you were writing Anglesey Blue that you were treading familiar ground – how did you avoid the cliches?

 Thank you for mentioning that I did avoid the cliches! It’s always a knife-edge balancing act between rolling out the expected cliches and finding a fresh approach to your writing, especially in crime fiction. I think readers expect and want some familiarity with how an investigation plays out; the police craftwork etc, but also they want a fresh angle on all that. With Manx’s past, I wanted it not just to be troubled, but traumatic. The disappearance of this sister, Miriam, thirty years ago is a guilt that he carries with him, but also he’s haunted by the events that took place in London that precipitated his move back to the island. Add these to the fact that he’s now living somewhere he swore never to return to, I think adds more light and shade to his backstory.

Q. The novel clearly reflects your personal knowledge not just of the geography and landscape of Anglesey but of local attitudes. Were you able to rely completely on personal knowledge or did you need to make some additional research visits? 

 Looking back, much of it was already there, it just needed mining. I do still visit, at least once a year. All my immediate family still live there, as do my cousins. Speaking with them, going out on the town with them and their friends and immersing myself back in the culture helps a lot- I get an idea of what some of the issues are, what matters to them and reflect that as best I can in a dramatic way.  My parents are also petty active in the local community, so I get those downloads on a weekly basis! 

Q. There’s a joke running through the novel about the difficulties (impossibilities!) of pronouncing certain place names and expressions in Welsh. Was that a way to broaden the appeal of the novel beyond a Welsh readership?

 In a way, yes. But, I’m also presenting Anglesey through the eyes of Manx. He’s been away from the island for 30 years and his Welsh is as rusty as mine! The reader comes along for the ride, and if we can throw out a few good jokes here and there and still get over the fact that Welsh is a thriving, working language on the island, then I’d say I’ve done my job. Also, Anglesey is home to a whole community of English people who moved there for the beauty and tranquility, many of become passionate about learning Welsh, others don’t share that passion, it’s that mix that makes it interesting and of course a rich seam of comedy at times.

 Q.  People who know the island of Anglesey think of it as a place of stunning coastlines and moody interiors. You present a darker side however – showing it as a place a little the worse for wear and suffering from economic collapse. How have people in Anglesey reacted to that portrayal of their communities? 

These are all very interesting observations, however, I don’t necessarily agree with you. I think Anglesey has a dual personality. There’s the tourist- friendly Anglesey with the rash of refurbished pubs, gourmet restaurants, Blue Flag beaches and the like, but there’s also the flip side to that, especially near the port of Holyhead where there are some real challenges of poverty and crime. 

 I’m in constant contact with some incredibly helpful officers in the North Wales Constabulary who not only help with me with the police procedural aspects, but also paint a dark picture of the very real crimes they’re  challenged with.

At the end of the day, the last thing I wanted to do was present a glossy, travel brochure promotion for Anglesey- that would have been a worse injustice to the island. Every place has its dark side: that’s what intrigues me, not only about places but also people.

 My readers from Anglesey have been incredibly supportive in their reviews. One or two readers have complained about the profanity, but again, it’s real life. Some of the characters I portray are criminals, petty or otherwise, and I have very little control of what comes out of their mouths.(Ok, maybe a little, but I’m not big on censorship unless it feels forced or doesn’t serve the story!) 

Want to know more about Welsh writers ?Writing-wales

Dylan Thomas may be Wales’ best-known literary export but he forms part of a long tradition of excellence in literature demonstrated by people from this Celtic nation. Some of these writers you may not have even realised are from Wales – people like Sarah Walters and Roald Dahl. Broaden your reading horizons by taking a look at some of the authors I’ve highlighted on my Literature from Wales page.

Anglesey Blue by Dylan H Jones #Writing Wales

Dramatic cliffs that drop down to small bays. Sandy beaches unspoiled by over-development. A few ancient monuments and megalithic tombs left behind by early settlers and Druids. The island of Anglesey in North Wales sounds like an idyllic spot doesn’t it? One rather famous couple certainly thought so, making one of the island’s farmhouses their first home when they could have chosen to live in a castle (the family has a few of them going spare). Prince William and his bride Kate lived there for three years declaring when they left, that Anglesey had a special place in their hearts.

Detective Inspector Tudor Manx, the protagonist of Anglesey Blue by Dylan H Jones has a rather more complex attitude to his homeland.  He remembers some of his youthful experiences with great affection, especially summer holidays spent at the seaside and the year he worked at the fairground. But that was also the year his younger sister disappeared. His relationship with his mother and other sister fell apart as a result. After which he couldn’t wait to get away.

Now, thirty years later, he’s back to take up a new role heading the island’s small, and rather inexperienced, team of detectives. He finds there is trouble in paradise. The island is suffering from falling property prices, the dwindling appeal of the traditional seaside holiday and an active drug scene. When a body is discovered bound to a boat as if crucified, then two more bodies are discovered in quick succession and a powerfully addictive new drug comes onto the scene, Manx comes under pressure to prove he’s the right man for the job. What follows is a solidly-plotted police procedural novel with plenty of opportunities for Manx to ignore all his boss’s instruction to avoid “maverick, Lone Ranger fuckery” as he tries to keep one step ahead of a drug baron and his henchmen. 

Anglesey Blue is the first outing for this DI in what is planned to be a series located on the island. Given this is such a crowded market in literature, the challenge is to bring something fresh to the table. Two things hold the key to success. One is the character of Manx himself who has to be more than a sum of cliched attributes. The other is the setting which has to feel like a place inhabited by real people rather than just a stage for crime.  I’d say Dylan Jones has succeeded on both fronts.

He gives Manx a few quirks – like the fact he drives a completely impractical seven-litre Mark 3 Jensen, smokes cigars rather than cigarettes and has a very limited wardrobe.

Manx’s choice of wardrobe had always been uncomplicated and predictable, a limit colour palette of white Oxford shirt, a slim, black necktie left loose at the collar, black straight-legged jeans, a black sports leather jacket (either work, linen or leather, depending on the weather) and back, chisel-toe Blundstone books which he purchased off the internet directly from the factory in Tasmania.

Dylan Jones makes Manx a man of action, someone who often puts his own life at risk, but also a tenacious, methodical guy who continuously revisits his case notes, searching for anything he might have missed.  Not for Manx is the kind of light bulb moment beloved of the scriptwriters of television detective series; but the  “mundane reality of police work. The day-to-day grind, exhausting every avenue and cul-de-sac” kind of detective work. In part this attention to detail could be connected to the fact he’d left his last job with the Met in London under something of a cloud; the nature of  which is never fully disclosed.

This is not the only unresolved mystery in Anglesey Blue; we also never get to know exactly what happened to Manx’s sister. The sense of mystery which remains by the end of the novel is one of the attractions of this novel for me; I don’t want everything tied up with a ribbon. It also cleverly leaves the door open for future episodes.

Of course Anglesey Blue isn’t solely about Manx.  He’s supported by an array of colourful characters from the bright rookie policewoman Delyth Morris to the hostile Detective Sergeant Maldwyn Nader, a man prone to sudden outbreaks of extreme violence and the forensic scientist Ashton Bevan who loves dropping hints he knows all of Manx’s secrets. All of these have the potential to blossom as the series develops. 

As for the setting, it’s enticingly atmospheric.  Mists roll in across the Irish sea, obscuring the small inlets and islands and robbing the landscape of form and colour but then the sun breaks through, enticing holidaymakers to the beaches and the coastal resorts in search of “sand between the toes pleasure and dirty postcard innuendos.” Descriptions of the main settlements and Manx’s encounters with some of the sceptical inhabitants provide a lot of the local colour which is then supplemented by a few in-jokes about the difficulties of the Welsh language. They give a fresh feel to this novel, making it an entertaining read with the promise of more to come.  

Footnotes

About the book: Anglesey Blue by Dylan H Jones was published by Bloodhound Books in March 2017. My copy was provided by the author and publisher in return for an honest review.

About the author : Dylan is a native of Anglesey. Though he now lives in Oakland, California, he regularly visits Anglesey where most of his immediate family live.  He has worked as a media executive and copywriter at various TV networks and advertising agencies both in London and San Francisco. Currently, he is owner and Creative Director of Jones Digital Media, a video content agency.  More information is available on his website  and in a Q&A with Dylan Jones on this blog site in which he talks about the choice of Anglesey as a setting and his plans for the series.

Why I read this book: I’ve been cautious in accepting books for review this year but who could resist an approach from one of my fellow countrymen. Reading this gives me yet another opportunity to boost visibility of some of the great writers we have in Wales. Anglesey Blue is one of the books on my 20booksofsummer list. 

The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths #WritingWales

primrosepathThe Primrose Path is an atmospheric thriller based on the premise that no matter how fast or far you run, you can never escape the past.

At the age of 19, Sarah D’Villez was abducted during a visit to some riding stables and held prisoner for days. She managed to escape though her attacker’s wife was murdered in the course of her flight. For years, Sarah re-lived the anguish of her ordeal and the media attention it generated. The trauma alienated her from her friends and mother and ultimately caused the breakdown of her marriage and separation from her child.  Now in her 30s she learns that John Blundell, her abductor, is about to be released from prison. She has to escape before he, or the press, catch up with her. So she dyes her hair, changes her name to Rachel and moves to a converted barn in rural Wales to start a new life,  telling no-one not even her mother about her whereabouts.

Even in such an isolated location she doesn’t feel completely safe. It’s not only the fear that someone might discover her secret. One of her nearest neighbours is Idris, a creepy, filthy truck driver who keeps turning up on her doorstep un-announced. Rachel is sure Idris is spying on her and is stealing her underwear. She’s afraid of what this brutish man could do to a woman living alone.

Rebecca Griffiths packs a lot into this book with several plot lines that appear unconnected but which gradually converge as the story progresses. We get Rachel’s flight to Wales and the tension created by her mother’s decision to hire a private investigator to track down her daughter. Added to that there is a mystery about the barn in which Rachel now lives. It once belonged to Idris’ family but no-one knows what happened to his young sister who just disappeared one day on a trip to the seaside. And for good measure, there is a serial killer on the loose who is preying on young women.

The story is told from the point of view of several characters, Rachel of course is one of the key narrators but we also hear from her mother Jennifer and from Dai, a widower who has reason to loathe Idris. In between we get some chilling first-person chapters narrated by the unnamed, unidentified serial killer who watches for their next victim.

Rebecca Griffiths certainly has a talent for creating some obnoxious characters. Rachel’s mother is a really masterful portrait of an acerbic, cold woman whose armour is pierced when she makes a shocking discovery in her husband’s study. And then there is Idris, a socially isolated, dysfunctional man who doesn’t know the meaning of the term personal hygiene. So repugnant is he that everyone in the community finds it easy to believe he is capable of anything.

Overall, The Primrose Path is a cleverly-plotted novel. I’ve seen several comments from reviewers that it’s overly slow to get going but that wasn’t my reaction. We needed time to get to know the multiple characters and their relationships to each other. Once Rachel is firmly established in Wales the pace picks up  as we learn more about her former life. There are plenty of surprising twists and moments which challenge your assumptions. The clues to the denouement were there all along but I didn’t spot them so the ending was a surprise.  I won’t spoil this for other readers other than to say that its worth keeping in mind as you read The Primrose Path that this is a novel in which virtually everyone has a secret…

I did have a couple of issues with the book. One is that it felt repetitive at times –  we kept getting told for example that Idris’ home is a tip while Rachel’s new home is remote. I know Griffiths wanted to emphasise her vulnerability but I didn’t feel I needed to be hit over the head with that fact quite so much. The biggest issue however was the resolution of the serial killer sub-plot. Griffiths leads her readers down several garden paths about the identity of the killer and, to my delight, completely wrong-footed me ( I hate thrillers where the culprit is too evident.). However her solution felt too much of a cop-out because the culprit was barely present as a character in the novel so we never really understood their motivation for killing women they considered ‘slags’.

Overall however The Primrose Path is a well-structured tale that shows some deft handling of multiple plot lines and levels of tension.  It’s clear why this debut novel by Rebecca Griffiths has earned her many accolades in the UK with predictions that she is on the track to a highly successful career. She’s someone I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for in the future.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths was published by Sphere in 2016. The title is a phrase taken from Hamlet and has come to mean a course of action that seems easy and appropriate but can actually end in calamity.

About the author : Rebecca Griffiths grew up in rural mid-Wales.  She returned to live there after a successful business career in London, Dublin and Scotland. The Primrose Path is her debut novel.

Why I bought this book: I came across this while mooching around the bookshop last year and was drawn to the fact this was by an author from my homeland.

 

A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore #Writing Wales

A Time for Silence - Thorne MooreThe last few decades have seen such a boom of interest in genealogy that, according to ABC News, it’s now the second most popular hobby in the United States. I suspect the majority of new enthusiasts start out in the hope they’ll discover they’re descended from nobility or ‘someone famous’ or failing that, that their research will uncover some scandal in the past. But if there’s one lesson we can take from A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore it’s that some aspects of the past are best left untouched; leaving the dead “to their silent sleep.”

This is a novel which begins with a young woman who stumbles upon  the farmhouse once inhabited by her grandparents. It’s in ruins; the roof has fallen in and cobwebs ‘thick as rope with dust’ lie amongst the rotten woodwork but Sarah is drawn inexorably to the property. On impulse she buys the farmhouse at Cwmderwen, imagining how it can be transformed into a weekend retreat for her and her soon-to-be husband. She knows little about her Nan (Gwen), and her husband John Owen yet seeing the farmhouse deep in the countryside of Pembrokeshire, Wales awakens her interest. How did John die? Why and how did the family lose their ownership of this land? Why didn’t her mother ever talk about her childhood there? Sarah’s attempts to find the answers are frustrated by the silences of her family members, the authorities and the handful of people still living near Cwmderwen who knew her grandparents.  She begins to suspect her family were the victims of an outrageous act that it’s now her duty to avenge. What she discovers however is darker than she could ever imagine.

Sarah’s  pursuit  of the past provides the narrative framework for A Time for Silence. For the answers to her question we have to look to a different narrator – Sarah’s grandmother Gwen. We first meet her on the day of her marriage in 1933 as she leaves behind her beloved father and sister and makes her way by cart to her new home. It’s a solid building shadowed by trees, more gloomy than she imagined, and with no luxuries or signs of comfort. But she believes she can fix that easily with fresh curtains, embroidered fire screen, bright china on the heavy old dresser, a piano even with which she could accompany her husband who was renowned for his fine voice. As the novel progresses we witness how these dreams are destroyed at the hands of a proud, puritanical husband. Gwen is resilient and learns how to accommodate his demands but she and her children, live in fear that one wrong word will bring his wrath down on their heads.

It’s Gwen’s story that resonated most with me. I found Sarah, the modern day woman, a bit irritating. She’s a woman going through a crisis, still mourning the loss of her close friend in an accident for which Sarah feels responsible. She’s given up her ambitions to be a singer and is now beset with a future mother in law who wants to control every aspect of her upcoming wedding. With so much stress we can forgive some of her strange behaviours (like buying a derelict cottage on a whim) but some of her reactions struck me as bordering on the drama queen. Contrast her with Gwen who so dreads asking for money to clothe her children she makes do by unravelling old sweaters and knitting them into mittens and socks. She’s an isolated figure, her sister not being welcome in the cottage and any visitor from the nearby estate farm treated with suspicion by her husband. In Gwen, Thorne Moore has created a figure who reaches out across the decades and grabs our sympathy with her quiet determination to take whatever is thrown at her for the sake of her children. Her character transforms the novel.

Footnotes

The Book: A Time For Silence is the debut novel by Thorne Moore. It was published in 2012 by Honno Press, an independent publishers that specialises in work by women writers.

The Author: Thorne Moore is originally from the Luton area, near London. She has a long connection with Wales dating from her time as a history student at the University of Wales in Abertystwyth. She now lives in a Victorian farmhouse in Pembrokeshire in west Wales where she divides her time between writing and her craft business. Thorne will be featured in the ‘Put a Book on the Map’ series at Cleopatra’s book blog in April 2017.

Why I read this book: I’m trying to read more work by authors from my home country of Wales. I therefore couldnt resist when three independent Welsh publishers had a pop up bookshop in Cardiff in December 2016. A Time for Silence was one of the titles recommended by the team from Honno. Since it was such a good recommendation I’ve now gone on to buy Thorne’s second novel Motherlove. Check out the Authors from Wales page on this blog for more information on literature from Wales.

 

 

The Greatest Novels from Wales? #WritingWales

great-welsh-novelsToday, March 1, marks St David’s Day in Wales, the date when people of Welsh origin celebrate the life of our patron saint, St David, and Welsh culture in general. Today you can expect to see many people walking around with a daffodil or leek (both national emblems) pinned to their clothes. Schools often mark the event with an assembly during which the children sing traditional Welsh songs though the custom of wearing the traditional costume seems largely to be dying out.

I thought I would mark the occasion by taking a look at a question which is doing the rounds among the literary circle here.  In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?. Not an easy question to answer – probably as difficult as defining The Great American Novel. But they’ve persisted, asking contributors for their recommendations and publishing articles on what are considered to be the finest literary works in the history of wales. 

Below is the list of nominations – the links point to an essay on the Wales Arts Review. Of these titles the most famous name is that of Roald Dahl though probably Fantastic Mr Fox wouldn’t be considered his most outstanding work. I’ve read just two of these novels: On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin which I thought was stunning and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis which I read as part of my Booker Prize project and enjoyed in part.  I’ve heard of some of the other writers even if I’ve not experienced their works personally – people like Diana Wynne Jones, Emyr Humphries and Lewis Jones. But others are complete mysteries. I’ll explore some of these as part of my plan to read more literature from my home country – you can see some of what I’ve read to date over on my Authors from Wales page. 

Greatest Welsh Novel Contenders

  1. The Valley, The City, The Village by Glyn Jones
  2. Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse
  3. The Withered Root by Rhys Davies
  4. On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
  5. Cwmardy & We Live by Lewis Jones
  6. Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
  7. Gold by Dan Rhodes
  8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  9. The Genre of Silence by Duncan Bush
  10. The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
  11. So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry
  12. The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
  13. Downriver by Iain Sinclair
  14. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
  15. The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi
  16. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl by Rachel Trezise
  17. Awakening by Stevie Davies
  18. Un Nos Ola Leuad by Caradog Prichard   (translates as One Moonlit Night)
  19. Shifts by Christopher Meredith
  20. Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl
  21. Submarine by Joe Dunthorne
  22. A Toy Epic by Emyr Humphreys
  23. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The winner, chosen by a panel of literary experts and authors and a public poll, was Un Nos Ola Leuad (One Moonlit Night) by Caradog Prichard – the only Welsh language novel to be nominated. Published in 1961, One Moonlit Night is the story of a young man’s education and growth to adult hood in the slate mining area of north west Wales – Caradog Prichard’s home territory. Announcing the result of the poll, one of the panel members compared the novel to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its use of magical realism.

Further resources

Announcement of The Greatest Welsh Novel

Description of One Moonlit Night by Publishers Weekly

Authors from Wales page on booker.com

Wales Arts Review

 

 

 

 

 

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones [book review] #WritingWales

off_to_philadelphiaIt’s unlikely the name of Joseph Parry will mean much to anyone who is not from Wales. But if you’ve ever experienced a performance by a Welsh male voice choir you’ll certainly have heard his music.  Although he died more than 100 years ago,  versions of his composition ‘Myfanwy’ have been recorded in recent years by Cerys Matthews and the opera singer Bryn Terfel. Parry’s music is also said to have influenced Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the national anthem of South Africa.

Not bad for a man born into poverty who left school at the age of nine to work in the local coal mines and iron works. From those humble beginnings he rose to become the first person from Wales to achieve a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge University and become the first Welshman to compose an opera – Blodwen, was the first opera in the Welsh language.

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones is a fictionalised biography of Joseph Parry from his early beginnings in the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. In the 1840s when Joseph was a young boy, this was the largest industrial town anywhere in the world according to Jack Jones. The discovery of large iron ore deposits encouraged wealthy investors to build iron works employing thousands of people but industrialisation brought overcrowding, poor sanitation, water shortages and disease.

Some of you who had visited the place during one of our dry summers will remember the stink of the place … and no doubt wondered how we could go on living there, You get used to anything can’t you? It was the cholera we were most afraid of for that did not give us any chance to get used to it. It cut us down and few of us were lucky to get up again.

This was the life the Parry family escaped in 1854 when they emigrated to Pennsylvania (hence the book title), settling in the town of Danville which had a large Welsh community. Though Joseph had regularly sung in chapel choirs back home, he had no formal musical training until the age of 17. From then he began making rapid progress, travelling throughout the United States to give concerts, winning awards back home in Wales at the National Eisteddfod and gaining funding to enable him to study full time in Cambridge.

The portrait Jack Jones conveys in Off to Philadelphia in the Morning  is of a man with huge resources of creative energy, always buzzing with ideas for new compositions and projects, but whose work was often not received with the level of acclaim he anticipated. Late in his life he came to question his decision to return to his native land, thinking that if he had stayed in America he would have been better appreciated. Frustrated by the lukewarm response in Wales to some of his later composition, his wife agitated for a move from South Wales to London where she believed his talents would be better recognised.

joseph-parry-memorial-jpg

Joseph Parry’s memorial in Penarth, Wales

But their finances were so precarious they couldn’t gather enough money to set up home in the capital. Nevertheless Parry drove himself on despite failing health, the premature death of two sons and lack of money.  But in death his contribution to the musical life of Wales was recognised with a huge funeral attended by at 7,000 people from all parts of the UK and a memorial close to his final home.

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning is an odd book. Jack Jones never claimed it was anything other than a work of fiction yet it contains a significant amount of factual information from the size of the population of Merthyr Tydfil to the fortunes of the landowners who exploit it and the chapels that try to provide hope for the inhabitants. If it’s not pure fiction neither is it a straight biography. It has an unnamed narrator who is clearly a working man from Merthyr Tydfil and one who knew Joseph Parry well enough to be invited to his concerts and his home. This narrator wants to be seen as a historian not just of Parry’s life but of the changes that happen to the town of Merthyr Tydfil as it goes from prosperity to decline. We get frequent digressions to relate the lives of a number of other inhabitants – some of which are interesting but which do tend to make this an over-long book and take attention away from the main subject of Joseph Parry himself. Consequently I found myself skimming quite a number of pages….

 

But there is one question that remains unanswered in Jack Jones’ book – who was Myfanwy? There is a girl by that name who is a childhood friend of Parry in the book, a girl who looks after her blind, drunkard father until one of the iron magnets spots her musical talent and pays for her to be taken care of and given lessons. In the book she becomes a world famous opera singer who meets up with Parry when they are both well established in their field. Legend has it that Parry wrote ‘Myfanwy’ in her honour (there is no mention of this in the book) though in reality he wrote only the music for the ballad and the lyrics came from another source. So now I’m left wondering how much of this book can be relied upon as an accurate account of his life and how much is myth?

Footnotes

The Book: Off to Philadelphia in the Morning was published in 1947. My copy, which I picked up from Bookbarn International dates from 1978. A TV series based on the book was broadcast by the BBC in 1978.

The Author: Jack Jones was – like Joseph Parry – born in Merthyr Tydfil. He went to work in the coal mines at the age of 12. During the depression years of the 1920s he became involved in politics and became a trade union leader. He began writing newspaper articles as  a freelancer before progressing to novels.

Why I read this: the name of Joseph Parry is one that I’ve heard ever since I was a child but although I’ve seen his birthplace in Merthyr Tydfil and I live close to his last home, I knew nothing about him.

If you want to hear Parry’s music have a listen to this rendition of Myfanwy by the Morriston Orpheus Choir from Swansea.

10 Welsh authors for the festive season #WritingWales

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday meme asks us to think ahead to Dec 25 and what books we would recommend for friends, relatives etc. What a great opportunity to promote books by Welsh authors some of whom you will be familiar with but others will be unknown quantities.

  1. Let’s start with one of the biggest names and the one you will certainly have heard of – Dylan Thomas. You may have read his poetry or seen a version of Under Milk Wood but my recommendation given the season is to try get the rather delightful  A Child’s Christmas in Wales
  2. One name even bigger than Thomas is Roald Dahl who was born in Cardiff – this year saw a big splash because its his centenary year.  I have a fondness for my first Dahl book – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  3. Ken Follett was born in Cardiff, Wales and lived there until he was 10 years old. Of his many novels Pillars of the Earth stands out for being the longest (its a trilogy covering five families from war through to the 1980s.). Rather more manageable is The Man from St Petersburg which is set in 1914 as the world prepares for war. This was the first Follett book I read and I can recall being entranced by it….
  4. Sarah Waters: Yes this leading author of Tipping the Velvet is from Wales. All her novels fall into the highly readable category. I made the mistake of buying The Paying Guests (my review is here) as a Christmas gift to my mum last year. I was reading it myself and thought it was pretty good – that was before I got to the rather detailed lesbian love scenes. I’m not sure if she ever read it but she has put it in a bag of books to go to the charity shop.
  5. Cynan Jones  won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction with The Dig, (a novel about a badger baiter, and a grieving farmer). His latest novel Cove which came out this month is rather different – the Guardian described it as “a minimal, occasionally mysterious, man-versus-the-elements fable.”
  6. Jan Morris, a  historian, author and travel writer (though she hates that last description). Read The Matter of Wales for an education into contemporary issues in the country written by someone who loves the country. Her style is lyrical and beautiful. There is a good review of this in the Guardian
  7. Gwyn Thomas. An erudite writer with an acerbic wit who became one of the leading voices at the BBC. Read The Alone to the Alone
  8. Alexander Cordell  was a prolific novelist in the 1950s and 60s – he write around 30 novels including Rape of the Fair CountryHosts of Rebecca and Song of the Earth. A good choice for anyone who wants to understand some of the industrial heritage of the country.
  9. Turning to more contemporary authors we have Carys Davies  a writer whom I’m discovered through her success in the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. I seldom read short stories but her winning collection  The Redemption of Galen Pike was superb
  10. Coming right up to date we have Carol Lovekin whose novel Ghost Bird was published just this month. I’ve not yet read it but it comes recommended by Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame) who called it “Charming, quirky, magical“.It was also the Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month in April this year. I;’m hoping someone might buy this for me this December…..

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