Category Archives: Welsh authors
If you enjoy taut, high octane thrillers with good characterisation, Wicked Game by Matt Johnson is the perfect fit.
Johnson takes us into the covert world of national security and intelligence services through the figure of Robert Finlay. He’s an ex SAS operative who thought he had left those days behind him, his past cloaked with the secrecy of a role in the Royalty Protection Service. Even his wife doesn’t know about his involvement in surveillance of IRA suspects or hostage negotiations.
But his first day in a new job, as a police inspector in one of the London suburbs, is marked by a wave of attacks on police officers in the capital. Finlay learns there is a real and present danger that his cover has been blown and he could be the next target. What he doesn’t know is the identity of the assassin/s. He made enemies during his time in Northern Ireland. Could this be an IRA revenge attack for his activities in Northern Ireland. Or is there a connection to his previous involvement in ending a siege at the Iranian embassy?
Finlay’s quest to find the answers and kill the assassin/s before they get to him, makes Wicked Game a tremendous page turner.
It has a complex plot and, since this is the murky world of intelligence and counter intelligence, more than one character we’re not sure we can trust.
Finlay is a well crafted character. He’s intelligent,; thinks fast on his feet and is a good marksman. But he’s also vulnerable; caught between his love for his wife and young child and his desire to hunt down his attackers.
What lifts Wicked Game far above many other thrillers, is its strong sense of authenticity. The book is packed with fascinating details about surveillance techniques. Who knew for example that during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the army officers’s cars were regularly repainted so they wouldn’t get tracked by IRA shooters.
This is a world that Matt Johnson writes about with authority. And that’s because this was his world for 25 years. He was a soldier and then a serving officer with the Metropolitan Police, a witness to acts of terrorism and attrocity.
In 1999 he was officially diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and discharged from the police so that he could receive treatment. He turned to writing at the encouragement of his counsellor.
Wicked Game was the result. The book was a word of mouth success when it was self published in 2012. Matt was then spotted by Orenda Books who published it under their imprint in 2015 and have also published his next two titles. Deadly Game and End Game, both featuring Robert Finlay.
I’m keen to read these next two books in the series. But first I have to catch up on all the sleep I missed because I kept reading Wicked Game way into the early hours.
Although I’m not a big fan of thrillers, this was a gripping read. I am however left with a puzzle. This is a novel that has garnered praise from many quarters – my copy of the book has testimonials and praise from some highly respected authors like David Young (author of Stasi Child) and Peter James (Chief Inspector Roy Grace series). With that kind of commendation i’m baffled why Matt Johnson hasn’t received a lot more attention.
A Song of Thyme and Willow reminded me a little of A S Byatt’s Booker-prize winning novel Possession.
Byatt’s plot is based on a pair of young scholars who stumble upon a secret love affair between two fictional Victorian poets. The narrative alternates between the present day and the Victorian era, using ‘original’ material in the form of letters, journals, and poems.
There’s an artistic mystery at the heart of Carol Strachan’s novel too though this time the focus is on the world of the stage rather than the page.
Two musicians, both trying to cope with a crisis in their career, combine forces to solve the mystery of a leading opera singer who disappeared decades earlier.
Steven Bennett’s career as a bassoon player came to an abrupt end when he was mugged as he made his way home from a concert. Singer Alice Wade began suffering serious vocal problems in the midst of yet another failed relationship. She fears she may never sing again.
Interposed with their narratives is that of the missing opera star Isabel Grey. She was once a regular at Covent Garden and much in demand on the international opera circuit. But she began struggling in a new production and when the reviews came out, they were less than flattering. One night she simply disappeared.
The plot works reasonably well although I thought Steven Bennett wasn’t all that essential to the narrative. In fact he disappeared for much of the central part of the book. I suspect he was there just to provide some romance interest. It did mean the book could end on a note of hope and optimism but I didn’t especially need that element – the revelation about Isabel Grey was strong enough the carry the book on its own.
The most convincing aspect of this novel however is the insight it gives into the world of operatic singers. It’s a world Carole Strachan knows intimately having worked at the prestigious Welsh College of Music and Drama for ten years. And it shows through the vocal strain experienced by Isabel Grey as she is called upon to undertake technically challenging roles in quick succession. The connection between the singer’s voice and their state of mind also comes through strongly.
As a specialist tells Alice:
Unlike an orchestral player, a singers instrument can’t be packed away when they’re done performing – real care has to be taken to keep it in peak performance and that demands emotional well-being as well as physical health,
At times I thought the novel overdid the information. I would have been happy with shorter libretto extracts but then I’m not an opera aficionado so I didn’t appreciate the context as much as a true fan would. This didn’t mar the overall enjoyment of the book however and I’ve gained some new insights and greater appreciation of a singer’s world.
A Song of Thyme and Willow by Carole Strachan: Endnotes
A Song of Thyme and Willow was published by Cinnamon Press in 2019.
Carole Strachan was born in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. She is now Executive Director of a contemporary opera company. Her first published novel The Truth in Masquerade is also situated in the operatic world,
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy…”
Mari opened her eyes. Down on her knees, she saw shapes forming in the dark. There came that fluttering sound again. At the little window, day was close; the wind’s thin breath a cloud on the glass. A flutter, like fingers leafing through pages. She got up to look. Against the cold glass, a butterfly beat a muted prayer for escape. Her pupils got darker, helping her penetrate the grey. When she was a little girl they’d say butterflies were just leaves reincarnated. She’d mulled it over then, her mood lifted on a fancy of fortunes befalling a girl in a world where one small leaf can bloom all colours, sprout wings, up sticks and up up away into the sunset. She shivered.
The noise had awoken Nanw, who stretched out lazily. Mari went over and chattered to her softly to keep her calm. The sea was breathing in the distance, dark against the growing light, and seagulls were being flung across the air like litter. The butterfly nagged gently like an old flame. Should she let it outside, it was sure to die, weak and failing as it already was from a winter in the cottage. But it was desperate to be let go. Nanw sat up, enchanted by the ragged wings. Mari caught it at the corner of the glass, cupping her hands around it as though she were receiving communion. She nudged open the sash with her elbow, the wings pulsing weakly on her palm. She stretched her arms out and a gust snatched the insect away across the garden. Now you could hear the ringing of wind in the rigging of boats below. Fear crept through her. She banged the window shut and drew the loose folds of her nightie around her. She gazed into the gloom, the butterfly’s powder a gold dust on her fingertips.
“Amen,” she whispered.
Nanw was mimicking her by leaning against her cage’s grid, arms clutched round her body. The weak light glowed silver in Mari’s hair, and ruby across the dark face of the monkey.
The chill had crept up Mari’s spine so she fetched a cardigan and hooked it over her shoulders. She let the cat into the bedroom to keep Nanw company while she had her breakfast.
The cottage was nestled on a remote road above the sea, surrounded by crooked trees. Opposite the low doorway, across the road, was an old stile marking the way down to the beach. The three small rooms were filled with clutter. Mari’s treasures choked the narrow kitchen passage, and vintage clothes hung along each wall. Papers were piled all anyhow, while the thick walls were so badly affected by damp that she had to keep a fire going in the bedroom. She went barefoot along the lino to the kitchen and lowered an egg on a spoon into a saucepan of water. She dried the spoon on her nightie, thrusting it into some cranny of an old wireless needing technical TLC after Nanw broke the aerial in a fit of temper. Mari listened to the radio’s far-off voices as she made herself a cup of tea. She left the teabag steaming on the sink.
She waited for the egg to rap out in Morse code that it was ready, and she sat down to eat at that early hour. Mari finished her egg, leaving the shell rocking on the table.
In the bedroom she put on two pairs of socks, and pushed her petticoat into the top of her trousers. Tying her money bag around her waist, she hid it under rolls of jumper. She threw some nuts over to Nanw who set to cracking them, eager for the next one even before she’d had the first. Years ago, the monkey would have gone with her mistress: she had been good for business. But times had changed; one nip and a customer would play hell. Mari crouched to say goodbye, stroking her little black hands, while Nanw tried to filch the bracelets chiming around Mari’s wrists. The cat half-woke and whipped her tail in envy.
“Stay here now, sweetie; the cat’ll keep you company.”
Mari stood up, letting go of the hands which curled back around the bars. Nanw turned her big eyes on her. Mari shut the door and went into the front room. She rummaged among the teddies in the toy chest and found a deep leather box. She held it tight against her breast like a child and carried it out carefully to the car, locking the door behind her.
Squalls stifled the sound of the engine starting up. The clock’s staccato said quarter to five. Dry leaves and rubbish were being blown about the garden. From her cell, Nanw saw the car depart, and she glanced out into the garden at a small colourful leaf clutching at blades of grass. The cat began to purr.
The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis, translation from Welsh by Gwen Davies. Published September 2019 by Honno. This extract is published with the permission of the author and publisher. My review of the novel is here.
In her second novel, Dignity, Alys Conran delivers a touching tale of three women separated by generations, history and culture. Yet they are united in their spirited assertion of their right to independence and their search for the meaning of ‘home’.
Through the first person narratives of these women, Dignity takes us from a modern English seaside resort that has seen better days to pre-war India under British control. As the narrative progresses it asks questions about the nature of home and the impact of colonialism on the individual.
Pride and Dignity in Old Age
First we encounter Magda who lives alone in a seaside town that is well past its best. Confined to a wheelchair in a sprawling, disintegrating Victorian house, her only visitors are care workers. Magda resents their presence as she fiercely tries to maintain her dignity in the face of declining health and advancing years.
Every care worker despatched to help her feed and wash, experiences the brunt of her bad temper and sharp tongue. Shusheela, a part time student and daughter of Bengali immigrants, is the only care assistant who finds a way to penetrate Magda’s stubborn exterior. She recognises that Magda uses rudeness as a shield and that “underneath it all, she’s desperately sad.”
Shusheela has problems of her own. Still grieving after her mother’s death, she is trying to support her widowed father and her ex-army boyfriend, Ewan, who is is suffering from PTSD. And then she discovers she is pregnant.
The discovery becomes the catalyst for an unlikely – and sometimes fraught – relationship between these two women. Magda’s practical, no nonsense attitude proves to be exactly the support Susheela needs. She recognises that this girl is not like the legion of other care workers – this one has dignity.
The girl’s Bengali heritage unlocks Magda’s memories of her childhood in colonial India and the terrible secrets surrounding her mother Evelyn.
It’s Evelyn’s story that most captured my interest. She arrives in India as the young wife of an engineer ( a man she barely knows), apprehensive about how to create a new home up to the standard of that left behind in Britain.
Upholding The Raj Tradition
Even before her ship docks she is marked out as different from the other British wives. She has brought no romantic novels with her nor does she share their love of gossip. Dignity shows how adjusting to her new life and the expectations of a Raj wife, prove challenging. She dislikes the way servants are treated and the parochial attitudes of the other wives.
She tries desperately to maintain her independence, to forge her own way of dealing with India. But gradually Evelyn changes; worn down by the expectations of respectability and the pressure to conform. The schoolteacher who arrives in India as warmhearted and independent in spirit becomes as cold as her husband and cannot even relate to her daughter.
… I become toughened like old meat into a kind of sergeant major, and, when I look at myself in the glass, I become, day by day, more like the hard-faced Englishwomen who have surrounded me since I arrived, my brow creased by resentment…
Dignity is a touching story that shows the damage of the colonial experience. You feel for Evelyn in her confusion on first arriving in India and in the criticism she faces because of her relationships with the servants.
It’s evident that this is a story that cannot end happily for her.
But Evelyn is not the only victim. For Magda having been raised surrounded by servants and privileges is suddenly despatched back to England. A country that is not Home, but a foreign land. One in which she will be alone.
Dignity is a novel I enjoyed right from the first pages. The characters could easily have been stereotypes but Alys Conran has made each woman distinctly human and grounded in reality.
As the story wends it way through the lives of these three women it raises questions about the effect of the Colonial experience and also the meaning of “Home”.
Views of Home
Evelyn thinks about “Home” all the time she is India. It’s what all the wives do, eagerly scrutinising the outfits of any new arrival so they can copy the latest fashion. But Evelyn that all their memories are idealised the longer they are out of England. Home for her is
sitting in my mother’s kitchen, shelling peas, with light flowing in through her net curtains and the sound of children playing outside…
But she knows this is an England that cannot exist. That home is fading just as much as she is, that “the very guts of me are being worked on by this India ….and I am slowly less and less of what I was.”
Her daughter’s view of home is significantly less idealised. Though there is a doormat at her house which bears the word “Home’ this is a building which she views more like a fortress. A house that “has to hold out against the changing world outside.”
This is a touching, thoughtful novel, showing characters who are vulnerable and uncertain how to deal with the issues that life has thrown at them.
I had enjoyed Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. But I had wondered whether she would be as effective when she broke out of her Welsh milieu. The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Dignity by Alys Conran: Fast Facts
Dignity was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Publishing, in April 2019. My copy was provided free by the publishers in return for an honest review.
Alys Conran was born in North Wales. She is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wales in Bangor. In 2017 she won the Book of the Year prize in the Literature Wales Awards for her debut novel Pigeon.
The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, edited by Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton
The statistics alone make the new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking:
- 825 pages (including a bibliography 63 pages long);
- 34 contributors by leading academics from Wales, England, North America, Canada and Australia and
- essays spanning 15 centuries of Welsh literature.
This is the first truly comprehensive guide to the literary traditions and heritage of Wales. The last attempt at such a book was in 1955 but it focussed exclusively on people writing in the medium of the Welsh language. It also went only as far as the end of the 19th century.
The editors of the new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature took a more holistic view; seeing English/Welsh bilingualism as the ‘norm’ and the two languages existing in harmony not conflict.
They argue that much of contemporary Welsh literature is the product of that bilingual culture. Dylan Thomas – the author best known within and without of Wales – is a product of that culture, they assert. His exposure to both languages from his childhood years, made him the poet that people love. “The languages are not in opposition to each other,: said Geraint Evans, “one could not exist without the other.”
From battlefields to industrial sites
The two editors eschew a chronological approach in favour of a thematic series of essays that show how Welsh literature was – and continues to be – influenced by significant political and cultural changes.
Some essays examine the tradition of poetry and prose writing that begins in post-Roman times, with poetry like Y Gododdin, supposedly an eye witness account of men slaughtered in battle. Other chapters look at the Welsh love of myth and legend, reflected in the tales of The Mabinogion, and the birth of the Eisteddfod as a celebration of music, poetry and prose in the Welsh language. A key chapter considers how the discovery of rich coal seams in South Wales, which transformed a previously agricultural country into a powerhouse of industry, influenced authors like Gwyn Thomas.
Coming up to the present day, much of the later section of the book considers the impact that devolution and self-governance in 1999 had on the attitudes and pre-occupations of contemporary writers.
What the essays show is that many of the earlier authors writing in Wales shared a love of the land and the country But today’s authors see themselves more in the context of the city, not the countryside.
Welsh literature on the world stage
Is there a need for a book of this nature?
The two authors – as you’d expect – are in no doubt. “We felt there was a huge gap,” said Professor Helen Fulton.
People know about The Mabinogion and Dylan Thomas but generally there is a lack of knowledge about what is one of the oldest continual literary traditions in Europe. We want our guide to show how Welsh literature is a rich and genuinely international literature.
She has a point. Ask a room of even well-read people to name a Welsh author and there’s a high likelihood they won’t get further than Dylan Thomas. They’re highly unlikely to name some of the authors and titles I’ve listed on my page 86 novels from Wales. As talented as these authors are, they’re not in the same league as their Irish or Scottish authors, a fact highlighted by one of the audience members at a launch event in Swansea. There is no Welsh equivalent of Colm Toibin, or Oscar Wilde, or James Joyce, he pointed out.
The signs are however promising that interest in Welsh literature is increasing. The Cambridge Guide to Welsh Literature has sold well in the United States where it fits well with study programmes on comparative literature. There is active discussion also within Wales about changing the schools curriculum to ensure it contains some texts from Wales.
Perhaps this is the case of the right book at the right time?
The Cambridge Guide to Welsh Literature: Quick Facts
The guide is published by Cambridge University Press as a companion publication in their long-established series which includes guides to literature in English, children’s literature, Shakespeare and women’s writing. The Guide to Welsh Literature was published in June 2019.
Professor Helen Fulton trained as a Celticist at the University of Oxford and has since specialised in medieval Welsh literature and its connections with other Celtic literatures and with the literatures of medieval England. She is currently Chair of Medieval Literature at the University of Bristol’s Department of English
Geraint Evans is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at Swansea University. His research interests include literary modernism, Welsh writing in English and the history of the book in Britain.
After months of self- restraint the wheels are in danger of coming off my book wagon.
I’m now on the cusp of a freefall…
The last two months saw a splurge of book purchases and acquisitions, sending my TBR count to its highest level for three years.
It’s giving me a nudge that it’s time to do a cull of the bookshelves (more on that shortly).
But for now let me tell you about the 19 titles that have made it through the BookerTalk doors. They’re a mix of:
- birthday gifts
- advance copies from publishers
- passed on by other bloggers
- new titles from Welsh authors
- hard-to-ignore bargains at book sales
Mythos by Stephen Fry: I’ve been complaining for years about my shaky knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology. There are plenty of books around on the topic of course though lots of them are rather heavy going. Fry is an appetiser in a sense, an entertaining way to begin getting acquainted with all those gods and goddesses. This could come in very useful when I’m reading Circe by Madelaine Miller which is the book club choice this month.
Two more titles to add to my collection of books by Émile Zola”
Le rêve (The Dream) is the sixteenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series. It’s about a poor embroideress who falls in love with the son of a wealthy aristocratic family. This being Zola, it doesn’t of course end happily ever after.
La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (The Sin of Abbe Mouret) is the fifth novel in the series. It’s anticlerical in tone and scope, focussing on the experiences of an obsessively devout priest sent to a remote Provençal backwater village whose inhabitants don’t share his enthusiasm for the church.
Review copies from publishers
I’ve been very restrained in accepting review copies and even more restrained with NetGalley. But these were titles I couldn’t resist:
The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis (that’s the one you can see in the photo with September 2019 written on the spine. It’s being published by Honno in that month. Caryl is a former winner of the Wales Book of the Year and her new novel sounds different. It’s about a woman who acquires trinkets by clearing houses after the occupiers have died. In her tiny coastal cottage she surrounds herself with photographs and letters of these complete strangers.
The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg. This is a fantasy novel for children which comes out in July. Published by Macmillan Children’s Books, it’s about a fantasy theme park here the rule is “happily ever after.” This isn’t my usual kind of book but I’ve decided its time to get out of my comfort zone periodically and I’m intrigued by the description that this story is told through court testimonies and interrogation records
The Fast Spell Breather by Julie Pike. Another fantasy novel for children. The main character is a girl who uses magic to protect her village. All works fine until the day she slips up. Published by Oxford University Press.
From other bloggers
The Innocent Wife and One More Lie by Amy Lloyd: I won both of these thrillers in a giveaway hosted by Kath who blogs at NutPress.
The Innocent Wife is Amy Lloyd’s debut novel, She won the Daily Mail Bestseller Competition with it in 2016. One More Lie is her second novel.
Kath’s enthusiastic reviews are here and here.
Are You the F**king Doctor by Dr Liam Farrell. This was passed on by Susan who blogs at Booksaremycwtches
She thought it would be a good companion read to This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay which I’ve just finished reading. Kay was a senior house doctor in an NHS hospital where he specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology. Farrell’s book which is subtitled: Stories from the Bleeding Edge of Medicine, reflects on his work as a general practitioner. So both people are the front line of care but working in different circumstances. Susan’s review is here.
New Titles from Welsh Authors
West by Carys Davies. I read Carys’ short story collection The Redemption of Galen Pike in 2015 and though I’m not generally a fan of short stories, this books was superb. West is her first venture into novels and it’s been described as ‘stunning.’
In Two Minds by Alis Hawkins. This is the second in the Harry Prober-Lloyd series of historical crime novels set in Wales. I read the first, None So Blind, earlier this year and was so engrossed in the tale of a man suffering a degenerative eye condition who becomes a coroner, that I was glad I didn’t have to wait long before the follow up was published.
Human, Being by Gareth Davies. This has been described as the male version of Bridget Jones’ Diary. That comparison would normally have me racing out of the bookshop door faster than Usain Bolt. But having heard Gareth read some extracts at the launch, I don’t think the description really does justice to this tale of a middle aged comedian who’s been abandoned by his wife and has lost his comic mo-jo.
A Song of Thyme and Willow by Carole Strachan . Published by Cinnamon Press, this is the mysterious disappearance of a successful opera singer. Two musicians facing life-changing crises of their own, decide to look for her. Although the mystery is a key aspect of the novel, this is very much a novel about character.
Riverflow by Alison Layland. This was published in the last two weeks. It’s Alison’s second novel and takes the theme of a community protest about the impact of fracking. Alison is the latest guest in my Cwtch Corner series.
Hard-to-ignore bargains at book sales
Who can resist a bargain? Not me for sure.
Perhaps it wasn’t the best of ideas to volunteer to help at a book sale at a National Trust property? Though I picked out plenty of books for visitors to my staff, there were also more than a few that caught my eye. I think I was remarkably restrained in buying just two.
Actually it was just one purchase initially but then I had to call into the property on day two of the sale, and saw two other books I had to have…..
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler . I read loads of her books in the past but haven’t done so for quite a few years now. This book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015 but lost out to A History of Seven Killings (one of the books I failed to finish this year).
A Rising Man by Abir Mukerjee. If I was being disingenuous I wouldn’t count this book since I already have an e-version. But it was only 50p and I find it much easier to read in paper format. It’s the first in a series about a British policeman seconded to Calcutta.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper. A friend has been raving about Harper’s novels and promised to pass on her copy of the first The Dry. But I’m still waiting…. In the meantime this was at the book sale. I know many other bloggers have recommended Harper, so maybe one of them can tell me whether to hold off from reading Force of Nature until I’ve read the two previous novels from this Australian author???