Category Archives: Welsh authors

Pigeon by Alys Conran

E28AFC27-B0FC-48C6-AB12-195A55AD1DFDMany authors can go through their entire career without a single award or literary prize to their name which makes the recent success of Welsh author Alys Conran even more extraordinary. At the 2017 Literature Wales Book of the Year Awards earlier this month she swept the board with three prizes for her debut novel Pigeon. It’s a remarkable achievement considering she was in competition with Cynan Jones, an author of international standing, whose critically acclaimed fifth novel Cove was also shortlisted.

Pigeon was selected unanimously for the overall Book of the Year title because it lingered in their minds long after the judges had finished reading it said judging panel chairman Tyler Keevil. As a coming of age story littered with domestic violence, broken homes and mental illness it certainly has an emotional pull. Conran takes us on a journey through the memories of two children, Iola Williams and her closest (indeed her only) friend Pigeon, who live in a Welsh town surrounded by slate quarries. In the opening scene the pair chase an ice cream van and then debate at length their choice of flavour. It lulls us into thinking this is a tale filled with idyllic days of innocent fun but it doesn’t take long to find this is a novel that debunks all those myths about childhood.

Both children live in broken homes. Iola’s dad has disappeared, her mother and her beloved Nain (grandmother) are dead, leaving the girl in the care of her hippy elder sister. Pigeon, a sallow-faced skinny boy with shoulders as ‘delicate as egg shells’ lives in the garden shed of the crooked house he shared with his seamstress mother until he was ousted from his bedroom when stepfather Adrian and his daughter moved in. Pigeon is regularly beaten by this man (Pigeon refers to him only as as Him or H) and has to watch his mother lose all her spirit and independence through Adrian’s bullying.

To channel his energy and anger he plays truant from school, disrupts Sunday School meetings and makes up adventures and stories about bad people. Iola doesn’t fully believe in Pigeon’s fantasy world but she still goes along with his five-stage plan to prove Gwyn, the ice cream seller, is up to no good and may even be a murderer. The plan goes disastrously wrong; the first of two calamities that results in a forced separation of the friends and threatens to sever their relationship. As they emerge from childhood into early adulthood they have a chance to start afresh but only if one of them can lay to rest their feelings of guilt from the past.

The path to redemption for Pigeon comes through his encounters with Elfyn, a father figure under whose guiding hand Pigeon learns to build dry stone walls and rediscover a willingness to speak his native language. Throughout his life Pigeon has been fascinated by words, collecting them and savouring their novelty ‘with their strange textures: clay, metal, soap textures, and the strange tastes of the words as he says them into the cold air.’ Sent to a young offenders institution in England he has no choice but to learn English though this means he has to suppress part of his self.

But slowly Pigeon learnt that English was a weapon, and could be a shield. You needed it in pristine condition, and you needed the tricks of it, so you could defend yourself. Your own language was a part of your body, like a shoulder or a thigh, and when you were hurt there was no defence. When the kids argued in Welsh at home on the hill it was a bare knuckled fight. But English. With English what you had to do was build armour, and stand there behind your shield to shoot people down. Pigeon buried his own language deep.

Words and language are significant in more than one sense with Pigeon. This is the first novel to be simultaneously published in both English and Welsh. The text also blends both languages: the children’s Welsh dialogue is often rendered directly, without translation. Though this could be daunting for some readers, particularly when confronted by words that appear to have no vowels, it doesn’t spoil the experience of reading the novel because as this example shows, the context makes the meaning understandable.

‘Sut mae?’ says Gwyn shakily.

The sniffing quietens.

‘Be ydach chi’n ei wneud yma?’ His Welsh even more formal than usual. Asking the question, there’s a sinking feeling that he doesn’t want to know why they’re here after all.

Although Pigeon is the eponymous hero he doesn’t get to tell his own story. The narrative voice belongs principally to Iola , an intelligent and observant girl who relates their escapades and her own sense of loneliness with unflinching honesty. What we learn about Pigeon comes from Iola or a third person narrator, an approach that perfectly reflects the parallel Conran draws between this boy and the bird whose name he shares. Pigeons – as anyone who has read Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island will know – are generally considered unintelligent and dull but Conran has her narrator remind us, they’re also capable of heroic feats, carrying messages long distance in times of war. As the boy Pigeon grows into manhood he too finds the courage to take control of his life.

Pigeon is a memorable novel with characters that tug at the heartstrings. It has a few flaws – the backstory of Gwyn’s Italian mother Mrs Gelataio (you can join me in groaning over that name) and her determination to find her son a wife for example  – jarred  with its over reliance on the comedy of her Anglo-Italian lingo and Conran overdid the theme of story-telling. But it’s still a very strong first novel and I’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on what she does next.

She does have another novel in the pipeline but she was keeping the details close to her chest when I caught up with her after the awards ceremony. All she would say is that it’s about a friendship and is set in a British seaside resort. “Not in Wales,” she emphasises. But after a few seconds, adds: “ That could change.”  No date is set yet for to completion and she won’t be drawn on that so we just have to hope it doesn’t take as long as the seven years of gestation with Pigeon. She doesn’t write with a plan in mind, preferring to let the work grow organically. Pigeon grew from a single image of children chasing the ice cream van.

“Working on the novel was a long journey but it taught me a lot about how to be an author,.” she reflected. She new she wanted it to be a hybrid book, not a pure coming -of-age tale, and one that was very much a book from Wales that blended English and Welsh languages. It was her publisher’s idea however to produce simultaneous translated versions. As a fluent Welsh speaker Alys Conran could have done the translation  herself but chose not to do. “I couldn’t have done a translation so effectively it would have even writing another book and I really didn’t want to write a second Pigeon.”

Invariably the question arises about the lack of prominence of writers from Wales on the world stage. “Look at the other writers in the shortlist for these awards, Cynan Jones and Jo Mazelis do have an international following” counters Alys. She does accept that there are challenges in getting the same level of attention for fiction from Wales as that enjoyed by Ireland and Scotland. “I’ve heard people make negative comments about books set in Wales, that they don’t have enough scope. But that seems very unfair – Steinbeck and Faulkner set their work firmly in one location yet we don’t hear comments about lack of scope so why should this apply to Wales?”

While her Welsh identity is important to Alys Conran, equally critical is that she doesn’t view it as a constraint. “Identity shouldn’t be a straight jacket and authors shouldn’t view it as if it stops them writing about broader issues.  I prefer to see it as a privileged point of view through which we can look at the world.”

Footnotes

About the book: Pigeon is published by Ceredigion-based publishers, Parthian.

About the author: Alys Conran was born in North Wales, studied literature at Edinburgh and then completed an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester. She is currently a lecturer in. Relative writing at the University of Wales in Bangor. Her fiction, poetry, and translations have been placed in several competitions, including The Bristol Short Story Prize and The Manchester Fiction Prize. At the 2017 Literature Wales Awards she topped the public vote for the Wales Arts Review People’s Choice Award and then went on to pick up the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award and the overall Book of the Year award for her debut novel Pigeon.

Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin [book review]

SnowSistersCarol Lovekin definitely can’t be accused of taking an easy path for her second novel Snow Sisters. It’s a cross-over between Gothic tale and family drama that juggles three narrative viewpoints and three separate timelines.  The result could easily have been a mess but instead it’s a multi-layered narrative about the enduring nature of the past and the resilience of sisterly love.

Snow Sisters takes place at Gull House, an imposing Victorian-style house in Wales complete with a fairy-tale tower and hiding places.  Storms and winds from the nearby sea-shore batter its stone walls and screeching gulls circle overhead but its inhabitants are protected behind iron gates, shrubs and a garden wall of gnarled branches of wisteria hanging in ropes.  It’s a house “redolent with the murmurs of people from other lives.” This was once the home of the Pryce family. Now it lies empty, abandoned when its last occupants; the sisters Meredith and Verity and their artist mother Allegra; were forced to move to London. Twenty years later Allegra makes a return visit to the house; a trip that rekindles memories of the past and the time when Meredith found a dusty sewing box in a disused attic. It proves to be a Pandora’s box, for in opening the box, Meredith unlocks the ghost of Angharad, a girl on the cusp of womanhood who has a horrific secret she must reveal before she can be at rest. The teenage girls, but most particularly Meredith, become the conduit for Angharad to tell her story but as it unfolds this voice from the past threatens to destroy the bond between the sisters.

The ghost aspect of Snow Sisters didn’t interest me greatly — I thought it leaned a little too much to the obvious  — but the depiction of the fraught relationships between the two girls and their mother was impressive. Allegra is a splendidly drawn character; a tempestuous woman who drifts about in beads and floating frocks leaving her daughters to feed, clothe and generally fend for themselves.  She comes across as a monstrous figure at times; one minute lavishing attention on her daughters , the next being cruel and dismissive. Meredith, the youngest, is her favourite; the daughter who can do no wrong but from whom in return she seeks adoration. Towards Verity she is hostile, particularly when the girl challenges her smoking and drinking habits and her affair with a much younger man. Allegra’s desire for happiness is what eventually drives the trio from the house despite her daughters’ objections. Yet Allegra is a mass of contradictions; narcissistic certainly but also vulnerable and pitiable in her constant pursuit of love.

With such a distant mother it is no surprise that the girls turn to each other for support. They squabble as all sisters do but there is a bond between them so strong that Verity believes “I know the shape of her heart. She’s under my skin, threaded into my heartbeat, her shadow is stitched to my edges.”  United against Allegra, they are also of one mind in their love for their home Gull House and the garden planted with varieties of blue flowers by their beloved grandmother.

The depiction of Gull House is one of the triumphs of Snow Sisters. It, more than the ghostly manifestations, gives the novel its atmosphere and its sense of the past breaking through. This is a house Meredith believes has a heart.  Though overgrown and a little forlorn by the time Verity makes her return trip, its allure is evident:

The elegant door, its blue-salt-worn to grey, still takes my breath away.

It’s a thing of beauty, this door, and even with the paint peeling, the shape of it remains insanely lovely. It sits in the stone facade of the house like a picture… At the top, set into the ornately curved frame, is a small window adorned with stained glass flowers. The curve continues out to the side and in it more small sections of glinting glass like jewels.

Every time I came across a description of the house and its gardens I wanted to immediately jump in my car and drive there, hoping against hope there would be a For Sale sign in its grounds and Angharad’s ghost will have been given notice to quit.

Footnotes

About the book: Snow Sisters is the second novel by Carol Lovekin. It was published by Honno in September 2017. In October it was chosen by the Welsh Books Council as their  Book of the Month. I received a copy from the publishers in return for an honest review.

About the author: Carol Lovekin was born in Warwickshire, England but has lived in Wales since 1979. The legends and landscape of wales inform her writing as she explains in this post about Snow Sisters for Book Trail.  Her first novel, Ghostbird, was released in 2016 . You can follow Carol’s blog here.

Why I read this book: I first heard of Carol Lovekin about a year ago when I went to a pop up bookshop in Cardiff in search of books by Wales-based authors and met some of the wonderful team at Honno. I do have a copy of Ghostbird which I meant to read this summer but somehow went off track. I thought I would make up for that omission by reading her latest novel.

November 2017 Snapshot

This time last year I was nervously awaiting my first radiotherapy session, with all the dire warnings of the side effects ringing in my ears. Fortunately apart from tiredness brought on by having to do the trek to the hospital every day and hang around until the staff judged I’d drunk enough liquid, I suffered no ill effects. Twelve months on, with four rounds of surgery and a broken arm bone dealt with,  I’m back in the gym and have started up a little walking group in my village. We had 80 people show interest initially but they’ve gradually fallen by the wayside as the weather has become more fickle and it gets darker earlier every week. We have a core group now that is determined to keep going even if some days we will have to wear head torches….

Even more exciting is that we have a holiday booked. First one in two years. Hooray. So in about 10 days I’ll be heading for South Africa in search of some much needed sunshine, relaxation, good food and of course the odd glass of wine. I’ve already started fretting about what books I’ll take — honestly this is far more stressful than deciding what clothes/shoes etc I should pack. I’m not alone it seems — Tom who blogs at Hogglestock.com solved his problem by counting the number of pages in each book on his list of possibles, weighing them and then using some formula to work out what would give him the best return. Now that’s dedication! I can’t be doing with that amount of effort myself. I’m planning on taking just three ‘real’ books, all of which I would be happy to leave behind when I’m done. I’ll have my e reader as well and I may even find my way to a local bookshop or two in search of some African authors.

But that’s all in the future. This post is meant to capture what I was reading/watching/ about to read when the page of the calendar turned to November 1, 2017.

Reading now

how late it wasRight after finishing my 44th Booker Prize winner —Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (reviewed here)    — I picked up another Booker winner that has greatly divided opinion over the years. How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman won the prize in 1994. It’s told in a stream of consciousness style using what can be called ‘fruity’ Glaswegian language. The high expletive count and the strong working voice and vocabulary meant it was given a less than rapturous reception when it was published.  One columnist accused Kelman of “literary vandalism” and little more than the transcript of a rambling, drunk. It does ramble admittedly but it’s not surprising since the protagonist is an ex-con by the name of Sammy who wakes in an alleyway one Sunday morning to find he is wearing another man’s shoes. He tries to piece together the details of a two-day drinking binge. After getting into a  scrap with some plain clothes police officers and taken into custody he recovers to find he is completely blind. That’s as far as I’ve got – not the most cheery of subjects is it? It’s not difficult to read. In fact I was surprised to find how few pages it took before I was able to latch on to the rhythm and flow of Sammy’s voice.

snow sistersThis is a novel best read in small chunks it seems so as a contrast I’ve been reading Carole Lovekin’s recently published Snow Sisters. It will be the first of her books that I’ve read and I chose it as part of my interest in promoting authors and publishers from Wales. I don’t go a bundle on ghostly fiction so the plot device of a voice from the past that begins to haunt two sisters in their home in Wales doesn’t interest me that  as much as the relationship between the sisters and with their distracted artist mother. The publishers Honno have chosen a stunning image for the cover by the way.

 

 

Thinking of reading next…

I have some other books by Welsh authors that I was hoping to read before November 11th when the Wales Book of the Year prize is announced. Unfortunately the plan went awry because I got distracted by the #1968club project recently for which I read Chocky by John Wyndham (see the review here) and Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs. So it’s unlikely I’ll read all three shortlisted fiction titles. I’ll probably start with Cove by Cynan Jones who is the best known name to make it to the shortlist. It’s his fifth novel.

The state of my personal library

One 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.  A splurge last month has done a bit of damage but not too bad since  the trend is still downward overall — I’m now at 288. I just have to watch out for the sale in the library that begins tomorrow.

Watching

One of the plus sides of autumn is that the broadcasters always come out with their new productions and series. Sadly the Great British Bake Off has now finished for another year. Maybe it’s just as well because watching it leaves me feeling very inadequate when I compare the contestants’ creations to my own feeble efforts. Talking of inadequacy, have any of you been watching the latest run of The Apprentice? The quality of contestants has been going downhill steadily for a few years now but I think they’ve reached rock bottom with this lot. They’re absolutely useless and I wouldn’t let them near a market stall let alone a business.

Recently I watched Gunpowder which was an account of the true-life plot by disaffected Catholics in the seventeenth century to bring down the King that we Brits mark every November 5 with fireworks and bonfires. It’s quite a brutal, no holds barred treatment. The first thirty minutes brought us that most gruesome form of execution where the guilty party ( a young priest) was hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered (chopped into four pieces). Before that we saw a less common form of death, called Peine forte et dure (translated as “hard and forceful punishment”), where the accused is subjected to heavy weights placed on their chest, effectively crushing them to death. The sofa cushions came in handy more than once I confess. Sadly the main issue with the series wasn’t the level of violence (though thats been a source of much criticism) but the fact that the conspirators began to look more like catwalk models with judicious splodges of mud for effect, than desperados. Roll on the next series of Netflix’s superb The Queen, for historical accuracy and superb acting.

And that is it for this month. My next post in this series will be coming to you from the sunny climes of Cape Town. Until then, happy reading everyone.

Oh dear Oh dear….

After months of restraint the floodgates of book acquisition opened wide this week: five purchases, a review copy and two library books.

The library books are in aid of the #1968Club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings which starts on Monday, October 30. If you’re not familiar with the club, you can find an explanation here.  Despite having more than 200 unread books on my shelves I didn’t have even one that was published in 1968. A quick trip the library and problem solved however. I’m reading Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs which was the third of her novels to feature Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in the role of amateur detectives. I’ve also taken the unusual (for me) path of reading a work of science fiction. Chocky is a short novel by John Wyndham whose novels I loved when I was much younger. This one features a 12 year old boy who suddenly begins holding conversations with an invisible companion. It turns out not to be a benign imaginary friend but  an alien consciousness sent from its home planet to locate other planets that can be colonised.

New-purchases-2017Now that my broken arm has mended to the point where I can drive again, I’ve been re-acquainted with retail outlets which of course includes bookshops. I haven’t been in one for about 3 months so must have been feeling rather deprived because when I did cross the threshold of a little independent bookseller last week, I was so dazzled I could easily have walked away with half the shop.  They had a wonderful display of the books shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award, an accolade which is given annually to works of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction in Welsh and English. The winners will be announced on November 11 and I’ll be going to the event so I thought I should be at least familiar with the three shortlisted fiction titles.

  • Pigeon by Alys Conran: A coming of age novel that turns into something of a murder mystery. Set in North Wales it undercuts ideas of the countryside as a childhood idyll
  • Cove by Cynan Jones: Jones’ fifth novel opens with a kayaker struck by lightening during a sudden storm. Injured and adrift, his memory is shattered. He has to rely on his instincts to get back to shore.
  • Ritual, 1969 by Jo Mazelis: A short-story collection that has a dark, gothic atmosphere

 

I also got tempted by two other novels: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa , an author I’ve not come across before. This is a novel about a family who flee Nazi-occupied Germany  only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion. I also picked up Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale. 

Continuing on the theme of fiction by writers in Wales, the wonderful team at Honno Press have sent me Snow Sisters, the latest novel by Carol Lovekin. Two sisters discover a dusty sewing box in the attic of their secluded home on the edge of the sea. Once opened the box sets free the ghost of a Victorian child who is desperate to tell her secret.

If I’m not careful all the good work I’ve put in during the year to reduce my collection of unread books will be wiped out. So I just need to believe that there are no new books being published in the next few months. That’s true isn’t it?

The View from Here: Literature from Wales

viewfromhereToday in The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we get to visit my home country of Wales with the help of Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, Wales. 

Honno was established in 1986 to publish the best in Welsh women’s writing. Today it publishes novels, autobiographies, memoir and short story anthologies in English as well as classics in both Welsh and English. Over the years Honno and its titles have been awarded many awards. Registered as a community co-operative, any profits made by the company is invested in the publishing programme.  Caroline has worked in general trade publishing for over thirty years and has edited a number of award winning and bestselling authors. When not working she likes to walk in the woods, make her own clothes, grow her own food and clear up after her housemates (all seven of whom have four legs).

Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from Wales? 

A good starting point would be  www.gwales.com. You can browse fiction by review or the different categories. You have to dig a little deeper but the site also lists Welsh publishers, so it is worth browsing through them individually to see the broad range of titles published in Wales.

Q. In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: “Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?”  They ended up with a shortlist of 23 novels (listed here). What do you think of this list – are there any surprises? Any names missing for you?

I’m not sure I agree with such a label — it would be different for every reader… I’d want to know which categories the books were being judged against before opting for one over another. Also, I haven’t read them all, so how could I judge? And out of the 23 only half a dozen were by women—  is this because male authors are better or because they are traditionally more likely to be published? I’m sure there are many many great novels by women that aren’t on the list.

Q. Are there any particular trends or themes that you find often in novels by writers from Wales?

Reinterpretations of traditional Welsh mythology, the history of Welsh emigration, and the transition from rural to industrial ways of life are themes that often crop up, both amongst the classic novels we publish and the contemporary submissions we get.

Q. Apart from Dylan Thomas, few authors from Wales seem to have made a big impact on the world stage. Why isn’t literature from Wales as well known as say Irish literature or Scottish fiction?

I wish I knew! Wales’s writers have certainly been recognised — R.S. Thomas was nominated for a Nobel Prize for instance. A degree of lingering mistrust between England and Wales could be partly to blame — however, Ireland does much better than either Wales or Scotland pro rata for population size and they too have a troubled history. Maybe hitherto they’ve had bigger characters/personalities who’ve been known for behaviour outside of their writing – Dylan Thomas is perhaps the only Welsh writer who fits into this category…

Q. How important are prizes like the Wales Book of the Year award or the Dylan Thomas prize in giving more attention to Welsh authors?

They have proved to be useful in terms of wider recognition from publishing industry in rest of UK and the world, for rights sales in particular –which improves the lot of the author who may then get an offer from bigger international publisher although less good for Welsh publisher who takes risk on an author but can’t afford to retain them on their list once they’re successful.

Q.In an article in The Bookseller magazine in 2016, a number of Welsh publishers commented on how it was getting harder to persuade mainstream media to review books and to get booksellers to stock their titles which come from Wales even if they are not necessarily about Wales   Is that something that you’re concerned about?

It definitely has been an issue for us, partly down to mainstream media paying less attention to smaller presses generally, partly that smaller presses just don’t have the budget to effectively promote their books with review copies, pre-pub events and networking and partly down to being unable to network effectively with London-based media when you are in Aberystwyth! I don’t know that being from Wales or about Wales is necessarily the issue here — it’s more that space for any book related material is increasingly limited particularly in the print media/newspapers so inevitably they are going to focus on the big names. Also lead times are getting longer, which works against publishers whose lead times are shorter, which is true of some independent presses like Honno… Contrarily space online for books is growing incrementally but is yet to be seen as creditable or reliable in the same way as the established broadsheets.

HonnoQ. When Honno was created, the intention was to increase the opportunity for Welsh women in publishing and to bring Welsh women’s literature to a wider public. Is that still a key focus for you – have you seen any changes in attitude from readers over the years? 

Absolutely it’s still a key focus! What we’d like to do is to widen our demographic to younger women in Wales and beyond —  a lot of our initial interest was from women who are now getting older and making sure that their descendants know about Honno and recognise its importance is vital. There are many more demands on young women’s time and attention than was true in the early eighties—  hence our interest in media other than print as a way of engaging younger readers.

Q Do you have a personal favourite among the authors from Wales?

Of the Welsh Women’s Classics we publish, My Mother’s House by Lily Tobias is one I particularly enjoyed. Obviously it is too difficult to choose a favourite contemporary author from among the Honno stable (without also risking the others’ wrath!) but outside of that Cynan Jones is a favourite — now receiving wide recognition but no longer published in Wales (hence my point earlier about the downside of prizes).

Intrigued? Want to know more?

  • You can find more infomation about Honno, their catalogue and authors at their website www.honno.co.uk  or via Facebook (facebook.com/honnopress)  and via Twitter @honno.  
  • To learn more about literature from Wales visit the dedicated Literature from Wales page on this blog to discover reviews of authors from Wales and lists of suggested books to read.
  • You might also want to take a look at a View from Wales post I wrote in 2016

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. 

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