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Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
It’s time to welcome Rhiannon Lewis to Cwtch Corner. Her debut novel about a Welshman who plays a pivotal role in the Chilean civil war of 1891, was recommended by the Walter Scott Prize Academy in March 2018. They called it a novel with ” …a spark of adventure, with credible characters and a sure touch with the setting of an important Chilean port in the late 1800s.A cracker!”
Q. Hi Rhiannon, Chile is a long way from your home in Wales. What inspired you to write My Beautiful Imperial??
“In my spare time, I had been researching the history of my great uncle and his involvement in the Chilean civil war of 1891. Each new discovery drew me further and further into the story. The truth was so much more incredible than anything I could have concocted myself, and I realised, eventually, that I had an incredible story on my hands. It demanded to be told, and I really was the only person who could tell it.
The civil war in Chile had been a major event at the time, with Britain and America supporting opposing sides in the conflict. Chile’s new president, Balmaceda, was intent on investing Chile’s wealth in the country’s own infrastructure, but British investors were worried about the threat to their own incomes. When the entire navy rebelled in an audacious coup, Britain covertly supplied the rebels with guns and ammunition to support them against Balmaceda.
Left with an army of 40,000 troops but no ships with which to transport them along Chile’s coastline, Balmaceda turned his sights to the merchant ships. A Chilean company had just taken delivery of a brand new mailboat, theImperial. The ship was commandeered and the chief officer, David Jefferson Davies (Davy), was promoted to captain. With over 40 enemy ships hunting for the Imperial along the Pacific coastline, Davy’s captaincy made headlines in the UK with whole pages being devoted to events in popular magazines such as The Graphic.
For me, the appeal of the story was that it had everything I would look for in a novel: broad horizons, a new perspective on history, strong characters, adventure, love, loss and a real sense of place. I wanted to write a novel that would immerse the reader in another world. When the Walter Scott Prize Academy reader responded to the story by saying that they felt ‘bereft’ when they finished the book, it was exactly the response I had hoped for.“
Q. You said on your website that “twenty years of research” went into your novel. How did you decide the time was right to stop researching and start writing?
“I reached a stage when I was waking up at 4am with whole passages of dialogue and action mapped out in my head. The characters had moved on from being well researched but dusty historical figures to being living, breathing people who were virtually bullying themselves into existence. When the writing really flowed, it felt as if all I was doing was describing something that had already taken place in my head. I rarely sat at my desk wondering what would happen next. I often struggled with finding the best way to describe things well, but I never felt unsure of what I was trying to describe..”
Q. Do you have a favourite place to write?
“Without doubt, my favourite place to write in the whole world is the British Library. I’ve had a reader’s ticket for many years. I think it’s an amazing building and I love being surrounded by so many people who are researching and learning new things. It’s a fabulously egalitarian place where you get to cross paths with people of all races, backgrounds and beliefs. Every time I work there, I am struck by what an enormous tragedy it is for the UK that so many libraries are under threat, or being turned into dreadful things called hubs. It’s a depressing thought that learning for its own sake is so undervalued in our society, and that our towns and cities are providing so few places for people to work and learn in a serene and quiet environment. Every town and city should have the equivalent of a British Library.
Having said all that, I am not always writing at a desk. Some of my best stories have come about as I am doing other things. Sometimes, doing something very mundane like ironing or cleaning the kitchen can provide the mental space to work out a storyline or piece of dialogue. One tiny piece of advice I would give a new writer is not to sit at their desk if they are stuck with a piece of writing. I would say, get up, get out, do something else instead. Very often, miraculously, a scene will come together when you’re least expecting it. I’ve ‘written’ some of my best stories as I’m walking to the British Library.”
Q. Is there a book of which you’d say:” I wish I’d written that? “
“There are so many! Here I’m going to cheat a little by saying the entire series of books written by Patrick O’Brian, the most famous being Master & Commander. I started reading the first novel in the series, and didn’t stop until I’d finished the last, twenty books later. I was completely hooked.
The novels are set largely in the Napoleonic era, but it would be a mistake to discount them as dry naval historical novels. Writing in 2013, the author, Nicola Griffith, wrote, ‘In these books, every reader who loves fiction both intellectually and viscerally will find something to treasure – and every writer something to envy.’ She added, ‘This is Jane Austen on a ship of war, with the humanity, joy and pathos of Shakespeare.’ I completely agree.”
Q. Which 5 books have influenced you the most?
“The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. I cried when I finished reading this book at the age of 11. The world that Tolkien had created for me as a young reader felt so real, and in many ways, so much better than the world that existed around me at the time. Even though Tolkien’s world was full of terrifying adversaries, goodness and kindness triumphed in the end. I really did feel bereft when I finished reading it. Anyone who thinks Tolkien’s books are just about elves and dwarves is completely missing the point.
The Mabinogion. As a proud Welsh speaker, and someone who is named after one of the heroines of these magnificent tales, I would have to include these stories. All Welsh school children will be familiar with the adventures of Pwyll and Rhiannon, Branwen and Blodeuwedd. Full of myth and magic, the stories are much more than that. They are also part of a Welsh writer’s DNA.
The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank. We had a wonderful book club at school where we were able to buy paperbacks at a discounted price. I wonder if such schemes still exist? The Diary of a Young Girl is such an important book, now more than ever, and a book that every school child should be encouraged to read. Anne Frank still speaks to us, warning us about the perils of how a normal world can so easily turn bad when good people turn a blind eye.
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy. Having said that I enjoy uplifting books, I had to include this novel. It is fantastically dark and relentlessly depressing in many ways, but an utterly compelling read.
The Rattle Bag, edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. Sometimes, only poetry will do. I’ve had my copy of this poetry collection since it was first published in 1982. It is one of those books that I keep by my bed, often dip in to, and would save from a house fire if I could.”
Q. Do you have a favourite author?
“It’s impossible to pick a single author. My choice would be different, depending on my mood and what I am reading at the time. At the moment I’m reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I thought it would be a difficult read – it’s certainly a challenge to handle because it’s such an enormous book! But it’s a gripping read, and I am reminded, not for the first time, that there’s a reason why some writers have stood the test of time.”
Rhiannon Lewis was raised on a small farm near the West Wales coast but now divides her time between London and a home in Abergavenny, South Wales. After university she worked as a teacher and lecturer before going on to roles in public relations, marketing and communications. She now concentrates on her writing full time. Find her on her website or at Twitter via @rhiannonlewis1.
Her novel My Beautiful Imperial was published in December 2017 by Victorina Press. @VictorinaPress
Drive to the far west of Wales and you’ll eventually get to the Teifi valley, officially designated as an area of “Outstanding Natural Beauty”.
In the nineteenth century, this place of rolling hills, sparkling streams and grazing sheep was anything but idyllic.
The middle of the century saw a period of rural unrest as tenant farmers – often dressed as women and with blackened faces – rose up in protest over rising rents for farmland at a time of falling prices for sheep and cattle.
They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’, taking for inspiration a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them.’
The Rebecca rioters vented their anger against toll gates which they viewed as the manifestation of high taxes. They also enacted retribution against members of the community felt to have transgressed its expected standards of behaviour, using the tradition of the Ceffyl Pren (“wooden horse”) in which offenders would be paraded around their neighbourhood tied to a wooden frame.
The time of the Rebecca Riots provides a background for None so Blind, the first of the Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries, a historical mystery series by Aiis Hawkins.
It begins with an unnamed narrator who is a secret witness to an event, the consequences of which will not become apparent until seven years later when a set of bones are uncovered beneath a fallen tree.
Harry Probert-Lloyd, son of the local squire and county magistrate, believes they are the remains of a servant girl he loved and was forced to abandon. When an inquest delivers a verdict of accidental death, he determines to seek out the truth for himself. His quest brings him into conflict not only with his father but with people who were once Rebecca rioters.
Harry’s training as a lawyer helps him penetrate half truths and lies. He has one significant problem however: his sight is failing and he is slowly going blind. He enlists the services of a law clerk, John Davies, to be his “eyes”.
We’ve become accustomed in recent years to fictional ‘detective’ figures whose characters are flawed in some regard. Harry’s blindness is considerably more than a mere literary trick to give him more ‘character’. It changes how people react to him and how he has to conduct his investigation, making him far more acutely aware of nuances and gaps in what people tell him.
… I had not appreciated just how much of what we say is dictated by what we observe; a look of embarrassment causing a change of topic, a flush of enthusiasm and a bright eye egging one on … confusion prompting a clearer explanation…
It also becomes central to Harry’s relationship with John Davies. They begin as employer and hired servant but evolve into friends whose mutual desire for justice and the truth enable them to cross the divide between their respective status in society. As they warmed to each other (despite some misunderstandings at times) I found myself equally warming towards this pair.
The plot is well constructed and the feelings of guilt experienced by Probert-Jones that he didn’t do more to help his former girlfriend, give the novel some emotional depth. But the real strengths of None so Blind lie in its historical context of the Rebecca Riots. I knew of the riots through history lessons in school. They were always portrayed as a kind of working class hero campaigners, the poor man willing to stand up and say “no more” .
It was fascinating to learn through None so Blind that the rioters became a force feared by the very people they had set out to aid. As Harry’s father explains, farmers took to hiding in their crops to avoid being dragooned by the rioters into joining their cause. Whatever genuine grievance compelled the rioters to take up their weapons, was lost as the protest gained momentum. Even Harry recognises that:
… once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately, with results that are usually far from quaint.
None so Blind has a lot to say about justice, responsibility and the treatment of the poor. It does so in a way that was entertaining and engaging. The dynamics between Harry and John work well and the use of an unidentified narrator adds a further level of mystery to a tale which contains many secrets. The historical background was also well managed – Alis Hawkins avoids the mistake (unforgivable in my eyes) of many a writer who, having done their research, feel compelled to include it within the text. Instead we get an introductory note about law and order, and the roles of police and coroners in nineteenth century west Wales, plus a lengthy explanation about the Rebecca Riots.
This weaving of history and fiction reminded me of two other series I’ve enjoyed in the past: the highly successful series by C. J Sansom set in Tudor England that features the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake and the series by Bernard Knight about a coroner in King Richard’s reign. Maybe the Harry Probert-Lloyd series will become another of my favourite series.
About the Author
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.
Her first novel, Testament, was published in 2008 by Macmillan and was translated into several languages. It has recently been acquired for reissue, along with her medieval trilogy of psychological thrillers, by Sapere Books and will appear, with the first two in the trilogy, later in 2019.
About the Book
None So Blind, published in 2017, is the first in a series featuring Harry Probert-Lloyd. The second episode entitled In Two Minds is due out in May from The Dome Press.
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
It’s time to welcome Thorne Moore to Cwtch Corner. I read Thorne’s debut novel A Time for Silence a few years ago. She’s gone on to publish five more books, including a collection of short stories. As she joined me in Cwtch Corner the subject naturally turned to her latest novel…..
Q. Thorne, imagine you’re in a lift with some potential readers. You have less than a minute to persuade them to read your latest book. What’s your pitch?
“Knowing me, I’d probably still be lost for words when the lift stopped, but assuming I do manage to talk fast…I’d say that Covenant is a prequel to my first novel, A Time For Silence, but it also stands alone. 1883, Thomas Owen is convinced God has given him the tiny farm of Cwmderwen and he impresses this belief on his children, but only his daughter Leah has the strength to hang onto it, until she realises that the price has always been too high. It’s about faith, family, possession – and women.”
Q. On your website you say that “Settings, especially houses, are a major inspiration for me”. What is it that attracts you to this kind of setting?
“Unless we’re really insensitive or unobservant, the places where we live do become a part of us, influencing how we see things, whether we want to stay put or flee. And place remains when we are gone, retaining the mark of when we were there, for good or ill.
Houses, particularly, retain something of everyone who’s lived in them, and everything that’s happened there, even if it’s hidden under seven layers of wallpaper. Houses that belonged to notorious murderers often get knocked down because somehow the murder is still there, haunting the community.
Though I write about crime, especially murder, I am primarily interested in all that led up to the deed, and the consequences long after. Houses embody that expanse of time. They have witnessed it all and they don’t forget.”
Q. How much of your own experience makes an appearance in your work?
“A lot, of course, but seldom in an overt and straightforward manner. I weave in bits and pieces. I have studied and taught genealogy and I milk that quite often (and I make good use of a host of family names).
The nearest to autobiographical I get is in The Unravelling, where, with a bit of tweaking and shuffling, I have used the estate where I grew up and my memories of childhood there in the 60s. But none of the people and events are real, just the games and childish worries and playground politics.”
Q. Which authors have you changed your mind about over the years?
“In my teens I was fanatical about Tolkien, especially The Lord of the Rings. I do still admire his mastery of perfect fantasy – which is perfect rather than pure because it’s grounded, interwoven with the everyday normality of our lives; dragons and elves mixed up with the need for pocket handkerchiefs and a good mushroom fry-up. But I don’t read him any more.
I began to find it all a bit distasteful, as I did with C.S Lewis’s Narnia books. Poor Susan, denied heaven because she grew up.
Q. Your home is on fire… Which book will you choose to save?
“This is one of those impossible questions. Seriously, I’d be far too busy calling 999, screaming at everyone to get out, helping my very elderly mother to safety, rescuing the cats, grabbing my laptop, disconnecting the gas tanks, to think about books. But supposing all that was done and I still had time, am I allowed to say my Kindle, or is that cheating? Other than that, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’d need something spiritually enchanting while I watched my home burn to the ground.”
Q. You lived much of your life outside of Wales. Has that ‘outsider’ experience shaped how you write about Wales?
I grew up in Luton but my mother was Welsh, which gave me a sense of exile from the start. Once I moved to Wales, the reverse happened. I became English in exile in Wales. I am perverse!
But I am deeply aware of differences. Not the difference between my home town of Luton and my mother’s, Cardiff, because a town is a town is a town. But I am very conscious of the contrast between the suburban home counties – with fast raucous towns where today is all that matters and a countryside that’s a playground for the cities and a home for the well-heeled – and the very ancient, very slow, very isolated, semi-wild woods and hills and valleys of West Wales, where even the language is different, and the past is ever-present. The countryside is littered with the human touch of millennia, from prehistoric hut circles to abandoned cottages and derelict mansions. I find it very easy to write a sense of mystery and history into my books set here.
Thorne Moore is originally from the Luton area, about 30 miles from London. She has a long connection with Wales dating from her time as a history student at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth. She now lives in a Victorian farmhouse in Pembrokeshire in west Wales where she divides her time between writing and her craft business. Thorne is a member of the Crime Writers Association and Crime Cymru, and is co-organiser of the Narberth Book Fair. She is published by Honno Press.
First came Tartan Noir – a gritty form of crime fiction said to be particular to Scotland and Scottish writers but which borrows from American crime writes of the second half the twentieth century. Then Nordic Noir was born, taking us into bleak landscapes, dark moods and moral complexity with authors like Henning Mankell, Steig Larsson and Arnaldur Indriðason. There’s even Irish Noir which covers a broad range of crime writing by Irish authors, from historical crime fiction set in Belfast to modern procedurals engaging with first world problems and psychological thrillers.
Even if you subscribe to the view held by a number of authors and critics that these terms are meaningless and little more than marketing gimmicks, the reality is that they sell books. And in doing so they’ve helped raise the profile of many authors.
But so far there’s no sign of Welsh noir. In fact about Welsh crime writing in general there’s been hardly a peep.
And yet there’s a growing number of crime fiction authors based in Wales or who choose to set their work in the country.
Why haven’t you heard of them?
Partly I suspect because many of these authors have associations with small, independent publishers who don’t have as much sway with the purchasing teams in large bookstore chains. Nor do they have the kinds of budgets necessary for national ( UK-wide) promotion. Even trying to get attention within Wales is tough when the so called national newspaper of Wales The Western Mail, pays scant attention to arts coverage and still less to book reviews.
But there is a group of writers resolved to change how Welsh crime fiction and non fiction is perceived.
Crime Cymru was formed in 2017 to promote Welsh crime fiction with a mission to challenge the perceived belief that that ‘nobody who wants to be read sets their books in Wales’.
Crime Cymru started with just three members: Alis Hawkins, Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson. But it’s grown to become a consortium of more than 25 authors. Some were born in Wales. Others have chosen to settle here. Some members live in the UK or further afield in North America but chose to set their work in Wales. What unites them is their feeling that Welsh crime fiction has a unique dimension that deserves more attention.
“We believe that Wales is under sold: by publishers, by booksellers, even by authors and readers,” said Alis. “And we’re determined to change that. Crime Cymru authors are proud to set our fiction in Wales. We don’t feel the need to move our characters to London, or to make up fictitious cities to police.”
In support of their objective of promoting Wales and Welsh crime writing, Crime Cymru members have carried their message direct to readers via appearances at a number of literary festivals and a Coffee and Crime Weekend partnership with the county library service in the capital city of Cardiff. They’ve even taken the battle across the border, to Bloody Scotland – Scotland’s premier crime fiction festival.
Future plans include the establishment of a crime writing competition in line with another of the group’s other objectives – to help nurture new writing talent.
“You could argue that until now we’ve been our own worst enemies: falling into a trap of assuming that anything coming from Wales is somehow less noteworthy than the output from England or Scotland,” said Alis. “It’s time we changed this attitude. We’re determined that Crime Cymru will play a real and tangible part, alongside higher education and cultural bodies, in raising the profile of Welsh writing in general and crime fiction in particular. “
Alis herself is suiting her actions to Crime Cymru’s words this May. To celebrate National Crime Reading Month and to publicise both Crime Cymru and the publication of the second in her Teifi Valley Coroner series, Alis – supported by local Crime Cymru members – will be visiting every independent bookshop in Wales – 32 at the last count.
The Crime Cymru authors cover a wide variety of styles and interests. They range from Cathy Ace whose Cait Morgan Mysteries feature a globetrotting sleuth who is a professor of criminal psychology to Philip Gwynne Jones who writes thrillers from his home in Venice. I’ve read a few of the group’s members although I wasn’t aware that Crime Cymru’s existence at the time.
My reviews are via these links:
Thorne Moore: A Time for Silence
Following shortly will be my review of None So Blind, the first book in Alis Hawkins’ series featuring a coroner in nineteenth century Wales.
Learn more about Crime Cymru and its authors via their website http://crime.cymru. You can also follow on Twitter @CRIMECYMRU
Emma Kavanagh’s training as a psychologist is very much in evidence in her most recently published novel: To Catch a Killer.
This is a taut thriller which features Detective Sergeant Alice Parr, newly returned to duty after a traumatic incident in which she almost lost her life in when her apartment caught fire. Seven months later she still bears the scars both physically and emotionally. The scars on her face she can try and hide with concealer. The emotional turmoil is not so easy to disguise though she makes a good attempt in front of her colleagues on the murder squad.
Her latest case threatens to tip her over the edge.
She is the first officer on the scene when an attractive woman found in a local park with her throat cut and multiple stab wounds. Alice holds her hands, trying to comfort the woman until emergency medical aid arrives. The woman can barely speak but Alice thinks she hears her utter one word: wolf.
The search begins to identify this victim and her killer. They have few clues. No-one saw the attack although it happened in daylight and the killer must have been covered in blood. Why hasn’t anyone report her missing? Why did she have children’s toys in her pocket? They have more questions than answers the more the dig into the attack. Every time the police think they are closing in on the potential killer, he is one step ahead.
For Alice, the hunt for the killer is more than just another case. It’s personal. The killer is taunting her, sending her direct messages in which he reveals he knows a lot about her. She needs to find him before there are other deaths. Her boss and some of her colleagues, particularly her closest friend Poppy, are afraid she is taking this case too personally and allowing her judgement to be affected. But Alice cannot stop now.
When I started reading To Catch a Killer I did wonder how effective Alice’s personal problems would be as a device. But the more I got into the book the more reassured I became that this wasn’t just a trick. Emma Kavanagh has years of experience working with police and the armed services as a psychologist. She knows how people react in extreme situations – and how traumatic incidents impact them long after the incident itself is over. So there was an authenticity when she writes about Alice’s inability to sleep and her guilt that she is letting the victim down if she gives up her quest to find the killer.
To Catch a Killer proved to be a novel that kept me guessing. Unusually I did manage to identify the killer before the end but that wasn’t an issue because Emma Kavanagh avoids the temptation to wrap everything up neatly. Instead she leaves us with a cliff hanger that could well lead into a sequel…
About the author
Emma Kavanagh was born in Wales and trained as a psychologist. As a psychology consultant, she has provided consultation and training services for the police force military personnel and NATO. Her first novel Falling was published in 2014 since when she has published six further titles including To Catch a Killer. She currently lives in Wales.
Hear an extract from To Catch a Killer by clicking on this link
My thanks go to Orion Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of this book
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
To kick off this new series, I’m joined by Alys Einion, the author of two books: Inshallah and the follow up, Ash. I had the pleasure of reading Ash earlier this year (my review is here) and then met up with Alys at an open reading event in Cardiff.
“Hi again Karen, thanks for talking to me. Books are one of my most favourite subjects to talk about.”
Q: Let’s begin by asking you to imagine you’ve just met some readers in a lift. You have only a few floors to persuade them to read your latest book, Ash. What’s your pitch?
“I’d say Ash is about the relentless toil of motherhood and the need for intimacy meet and clash with the first stirrings of womanhood and identity, as two tales of life and what it does to us coalesce in a journey of becoming.”
Q: What inspired you to write Inshallah and Ash?
“Oh, now you’re challenging me!
“Inshallah was born out of a conversation with an acquaintance, a friend really, though we’re not in touch any more. It was a conversation about someone who did something similar to what Amanda does – and it started a huge train of thought, mainly about faith, belief, and fatalism or submission.
“My first idea was to call it The Submission because a key feature is that Amanda (the protagonist) finds faith and decides that everything is happening to her because it is meant to happen, a
nd that she should submit to a higher power. Which then means she is meant to do what is in front of her – marry Muhammed because she is pregnant. In Arabic, the word or phrase Inshallah, means something like Submission to God or God Willing, so I was inspired by this idea.
“I was fascinated by the idea of faith, absolute faith, and also really keen to explore the experiences of a woman marrying, moving to an alien culture, and learning to fit in, including having to learn a new language.
“It required a lot of research. But some of it was based on my own experiences, as I did something similar when I was young – though I only went from South Wales to North Wales! I guess I understood the idea of feeling like a path was laid out for me, and I believed (and still do) in a higher power that was putting opportunities in front of me.
“Amanda’s choices are extreme, but the beauty of her story lies in her ability to survive, to endure. I also really wanted to write something that explores sexual violence. That was a tough choice, and not popular, and not easy to do. But violence and control in relationships is remarkably common. And I wanted to draw a distinction between the community of women, and the faith, that Amanda grew into, and the one single horrible man who threatened to destroy her life. I know many women who have escaped from terrible, abusive relationships and I wanted their stories to be partly present, I suppose. We have our own hero’s journey, one that is uniquely female.
“Ash followed on from that. I hadn’t intended to write a sequel, but reader responses and a discussion with my editor started a seed of thought, particularly about telling Ash’s story (Amanda’s daughter).
“A lot was inspired by my experiences as a mother, and also watching others’ experiences particularly as single parents, addressing adversity and keeping going. I was particularly struck by the people I saw around me – mothers, children, the occasional father – and all the ways in which they interacted. I am not really inspired by typical story arcs, and running two narratives on two different timelines was a bit of a challenge. But I wanted to tell Amanda’s ongoing story, and to not romanticise it, and to get up close and personal with the experience of girls becoming women. Ash is more controversial than Inshallah, but it came from the same source – uncompromising depiction of what womanhood can be like in our modern world.
“When I am writing, there’s something like a flash of sudden light, a realisation as the story takes root – a bit like conception, I suppose. There may be ideas, germs of ideas, vague thoughts and feelings, but something sparks the story to life and suddenly it takes on a life of its own. I was reading a news article about radicalisation as preparation for a teaching session – and boom! There it was.”
Q. What books would you say have shaped you most as a reader and as an author?
“Wow, that’s a big question, but luckily it’s something that I think about quite a lot.
“I read The Hobbit when I was seven, and it caught my imagination in a significant way. My mother was a big Tolkien fan. So when I was eleven years old, I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time. It was a challenge but I fell in love.
“I read that book every year, at least once. I always find something new and beautiful in it. And I cry, every time I read it, when Sam picks up Frodo and carries him up Mount Doom. It is the epitome of love.
“That book made me think about what constitutes a good story. I realised that I wanted to be moved by what I was reading, to connect in some way beyond simply enjoying a story. The use of language, in some places, is so profound, but you also learn that it is a bit of an anti-story. Lots of people criticise it, especially fellow feminists, but I find it moving and very inspiring, and it has some of my favourite quotes in it, almost like a philosophy for life.”
I was also powerfully affected by a book I got from the library when I was around 12 or 13. My mother was the branch librarian in our village, so I spent quite a lot of time in the library as a child and teenager, and read a wide variety of things.
“Requiem for a Princess by Ruth M Arthur – probably what would now be classed as YA fiction – was a favourite; so magical and so evocative. It was one of the first books other than Lord of the Rings that made me cry. In it, the main character has been ill, and is sent to Cornwall to convalesce, and during this time experiences vivid dreams of a ghostly Italian princess and a tragic love story.
“It’s a short book, but beautifully written, and I read it again and again. It was eventually returned to the library, but the story stayed with me, and about 20 years ago I logged on to a book finding site and put in a request to search for it. It took nine years, but a copy of the book surfaced and I bought it – and it’s a library edition, just like the one I first read. It’s hard to describe this, but so many books stay with me, like really old friends – and that is one of them.
“A few other books I’ll mention:
- Anne McCaffrey’s books: I have everything she ever wrote, and even wrote to her in my 20s for advice as a writer.
- Roxane Gay, whose book Difficult Women is mind-blowing
- Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most significant influences on my writing. I read it in my late teens, and again, I have re-read it several times.
- Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe. It’s about writing. It’s a novel, but really cleverly explores writing and structure etc.
- Stephen King’s On Writing is brilliant.
Q. Where do you like to write? Do you have a favourite place or chair?
“I have a lovely antique teachers’ desk in my living room, which is where I like to write when I am at home. It has a big, broad surface which suits my habit of covering it with papers and books. I like to write longhand, on yellow, lined paper, with a fountain pen. Then I type up and edit onto a laptop. The desk sits in the bay window. I love to write in windows, to be able to look out as I let my thoughts wander.
Most of Inshallah and Ash were written in cafes, including one just around the corner from me. It’s full of different characters and the staff are great. I find it easier to write in places like that, though I often get the urge in all kinds of places. Pubs, trains, anywhere really. I really like to people watch as well. It’s really fascinating and interesting. But there has to be plenty of tea available.
“Sometimes, I take my camper van down to the beach nearby, usually Oxwich, and park up and then spend the day writing. It’s almost perfect, and that works when I want to feel close to the wild and to get away from housework and emails and my day job. That can help me be more disciplined, as I don’t get distracted by mundane things.
Q. Do you tend to give up on books or are you someone who feels they need to finish everything?
“Hmm well that has changed over time.
“I used to be really stubborn and finish everything – even War and Peace! If I got past the first 10 pages, I was committed. What might turn me off at the beginning would be bad writing, or simply a style that I could not get on with. Some books I would read even if I didn’t like the style, because I wanted to have read them (eg some Dickens can be quite dense but I stuck with it, and don’t get me started on Chaucer).
“Some books have surprised me over the years. I found Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda much harder to read than Jane Austen, but I persevered because of the subject matter. But I read a lot of lighter fiction in between the more literary fiction, as it provides lovely light relief and is a great foil for my academic work. I am not a literary snob by any means. I will persevere with some books in order to broaden my horizons. If I find an author I like, I will basically buy everything they have ever written.
“Nowadays, I am incredibly busy all the time, and although I read constantly, it has to be fitted in around everything else. So I have to really be into the book to commit to it. Time is precious – I will put a book down if I can’t get on with it, but more often than not I will come back to it weeks, months or even years later and try it again. Sometimes I will finish it on the second go, sometimes not.
“I might buy books based on recommendations from other people, often online purchases which are handy when I am really busy. But nothing beats going to the library, or to a bookshop, and touching and opening books and trying out a few pages to see if this is something I should read. And I read fellow Honno author books, partly because they are really good books by women, partly out of solidarity – which has proved a real blessing as I have discovered new nuggets of story that shine well beyond the point when I shut the book at the end. I do try to make a point of reading books published by independent presses because I think good writing is good writing.
“I think, though, overall, when you know just what goes into a book – how much work it takes to produce that story, it makes you more inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt, and keep going. Usually it’s worth it. Some books are an acquired taste, like Marmite or olives. Still, if it’s sprouts, it’s sprouts, and then it’s a no from me.”
Q. Before you go, since this is meant to be a series about Welsh writers, I have to ask whether you think there is a characteristic spirit, theme or preoccupation in fiction from Wales; something that makes it uniquely Welsh?
“Ah, now that’s another good question.
“I think that people from Wales, perhaps even without knowing it, and particularly writers, are affected by our cultural heritage. I grew up with not a very good opinion of Welsh cultural heritage, mainly because my education and teachers was focused on England and English texts and English arts and culture. It was only as I grew older that I realised that the richness of Wales lay in its history and its literature and art and its working class bones, as it were. I learned to be fiercely proud of being Welsh.
“I think people who have lived in Wales develop a strong sense of hiraedd, and it infects our writing. I know that when I write, this country is the context of many of my thoughts. I think there is a character in this land, which we all share, of endurance and strength and beauty found in unexpected places.
“But I also think that this land holds anger and bitterness, the grief and loss of heritage, language, culture and prosperity, and the echoes of our subordination and occupation.
“Mostly I think that Welsh culture, and in particular, Welsh writing, incorporates a realistic appreciation of life, struggle, triumph, and community. And I think it is the romantic wild soul of the Welsh, and of this land, that mixes with that anger, and affects us all. “
Alys Einion has been a nurse and a midwife but now works as Associate Professor of Midwifery and Women’s Health at Swansea University in Wales. She gained a PhD in 2012, studying the intersection between women’s life writing, fiction and representations of sexual violence, which led to the publication of her first novel Inshallah. She also has aPhD in Creative Writing. She is published by Honno Press. She can be contacted via Twitter @AlysEinion.
Emma Kavanagh comes from South Wales – the one in the UK, not the upstart “New” South Wales which is on the other side of the world. She is a former police and military psychologist who provides training to police and branches of the armed forces across the UK and Europe. Given her background it’s not surprising that To Catch A Killer is a psychological crime thriller. It features a woman police sergeant newly back in post after a fire at her home from which she was lucky to emerge alive, although with facial disfiguration. Now she is on the trail of the killer of an attractive, well-dressed woman found with her throat slashed in a London park.
This is a very fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns and a central figure who is struggling to deal with the trauma of the fire. I hadn’t come across Emma Kavanagh’s work previously but on the evidence of just this novel, she is a name to watch for the future.
I’m also dipping into The Clever Guts Diet by Dr Michael Mosely (fascinating once you get over the yucky bits) and Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by J Mark G Williams. I’ve tried about half a dozen books on mindfulness in recent months and this one is the best so far. Very clear, very practical, with a commendable absence of hippy drippy stuff.
What did you recently finish reading? Trick by Domenico Starnone
This is a short but very compelling story of an elderly illustrator asked to look after his rather precocious four-year-old grandson for a few days.
Don’t imagine however this is a warm, family bonding kind of story. The relationship between these two people is one based on a battle for control. Grand-dad needs physical and mental space in which to work and complete his latest commission with a publisher is breathing down his neck. The boy just wants to play. In their tussle, the old man begins to question his abilities as an artist.
What do you think you’ll read next?
Always a tough question. This month it’s even more challenging because I’m preparing for an extended holiday which involves multiple long flights. I’m not keen to use up my luggage allowance with hefty books so am planning to take a maximum of 4 paperbacks that I’ll be happy to discard mid trip. I should add that I’ve also been making sure I have plenty of e-books available….
I need variety. Maybe one crime novel, maybe one ‘classic’ although some of those on my owned-but-unread shelves are rather bulky. I have six days to make up my mind. Based on previous experience the selections are going to change multiple times before the case is zipped for the last time.
How do you decide what books to take with you on a trip? Any recommendations for a strategy to help me make decisions.
Anorexia, domestic abuse, female subjugation, religious extremism: Ash by Alys Einion contains an abundance of issues but they don’t get in the way of what is essentially a story about relationships.
Ash is the follow up to her debut novel Inshallah which traced the fateful decision of a woman to swap her native Wales for her husband’s home in Saudi Arabia. When her life is threatened and no-one believes her claims about her husband Muhammed’s abusive behaviour, Amanda flees the country with her children.
Ash finds her back in the UK, struggling to bring up the children, moving from one squalid home to another, always fearful that Muhammed will find them. The boys eventually find their own way to survive in a country and a way of life that feels alien. But Ash (Aisha) the only daughter, finds it impossible to adjust. Impossible to fit in. Impossible to relate to her mother.
Ash is a moving portrait of a troubled teenage girl and her alienation from her mother. It’s told in the voices of these two women whose experiences have given them a bleak outlook on life.
“Everything is fake, in the end,” says Ash.
All the people who say they love you, they don’t mean it. Those women, the ones my mother shacked up with, they said they loved her, they said they’d be there, and they’re gone. It’s a lie, all of it.
Amanda deals with these frequent disappointments in her life, the times when people let her down by losing herself in her painting. Ash takes a different approach, starving herself and exercising fanatically to lose weight and avoid cruel jibes at school.
The gulf between these two women is the strongest aspect of the novel. Initially I found it hard to believe that Amanda would be so engrossed in her painting she wouldn’t notice her daughter’s unhappiness. Forget to shop for groceries yes. Forget to eat, certainly. But fail to see her daughter isn’t eating and has no friends? Not really. As we learned more of Amanda’s background however, her often eccentric behaviour became easier to accept: art is her refuge, a way of forgetting the pain of the past.
Many of the chapters deal with these past events. They help provide the necessary context for the main characters’ current state of mind and explain the tension between mother and daughter. This means there is a certain degree of ‘telling’ in this novel but that wasn’t any barrier to my enjoyment of the book. I found the rewinds to Amanda’s life in Saudi Arabia and her first months back in the UK also helped fill in the background that I was lacking because I hadn’t read Inshallah. Every chapter is labelled with a colour which often reflects a key mood though this wasn’t always successful and many times I failed to see the significance of the selected colour.
Where the book worked better was in showing the pain and confusion experienced by the teenage Ash. Her response to the psychological warfare waged against her by her class mates — the willowy, slim hipped girls who call her fat — is to reduce her food intake to almost nothing. Control over her body gives her strength.
They all hate me, they despise me, but they can’t beat me because I am better than them, I can do this now and no-one can stop me. No one is stronger than I am …
If I eat this, they win, and that mens they’re right about it all, that I’m just a fat nothing.
Though Ash is a highly intelligent girl, her predicament makes her vulnerable to exploitation. I won’t go into details of that aspect of the plot because it would spoil the book for other readers, but it gives the novel a highly topical dimension and provides a cliff hanger ending. I suspect that means Alys Einion has a follow up novel in the offing.
There were times I thought the book was a little repetitive but the thrust of the narrative and the depth of the characterisation kept my interest throughout.
About this book: Ash was published in 2018 by Honno Press, independent women’s press in the UK.
About the author: Alys Einion has had a varied career. She has been a nurse and a midwife but now works as Associate Professor of Midwifery and Women’s Health at Swansea University in Wales. She gained a PhD in 2012, studying the intersection between women’s life writing, fiction and representations of sexual violence, which led to the publication of her first novel Inshallah. She also has aPhD in Creative Writing
Why I read this book: I’ve been making a conscious effort in the last couple of years to read more books from authors and publishers based in Wales. I couldn’t resist this one when I saw it on the Honno website. Aly
Kate Hamer’s debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat is a psychologically tense novel that calls to mind that darkly disturbing fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood.
In Hamer’s novel a young girl disobeys her mother and wanders off during a day out at a story-telling festival. As the fog rises over the fields and the festival goers begin to hurry home, they pay scant attention to the lone child dressed in a bright red coat. No-one sees Carmel leave the site and get into a car with a man who claims to be the grandfather she has never met.
While keeping her captive in his remote and tumble-down hide-out, he plans his next move. He believes she is special, a girl with a gift for healing. A girl whose powers can make him rich.
Told in the alternating perspectives of the missing daughter and her grieving mother Beth, The Girl in the Red Coat is a novel keeps you hooked.
From Beth we learn that she’d long had a premonition that one day she would lose Carmel. Now it’s just the two of them (her husband Paul left her for a younger woman) she becomes ever more obsessed about keeping a close eye on her daughter. Her need to be protective is resented by her daughter. Carmel loves her mum but just wishes she would give her more freedom.
Beth is right to be afraid. Her daughter is an unusual child, highly imaginative, and intelligent beyond her years but also dreamer, prone to lose all sense of time and of her self while playing in the woods.
Was it just me who saw those absences? When she stood rooted to the spot and her eyes became strange and stony — then as soon as they came, they went. Fugues I began to name them.
Carmel’s sections of the narrative work carry the weight of the narrative since it’s through her we slowly come to understand her abductor’s plans and the girl’s struggle to retain her identity. There’s a race-against-time element to this novel
Child narrators are always tricky to pull off. They can either sound too childish or too mature for their supposed age. Hamer compounds the difficulties by imbuing her child with elevated powers of observation and communication. A few times the narrative comes across as a little unrealistic but the power of the story is so great that such thoughts last only a second.
Both daughter and mother make frequent reference to the fairytale nature of what’s happened to them. Beth wishes she’d kept her daughter “shut away in a fortress or a tower. Locked with a golden key that I would swallow.” Spotting her shadow on the wall beside her captor’s, Carmel muses: “We both look like the paper puppets … and I wonder what story we’d be telling if we were.” She steels herself by thinking: “Sometimes, it’s easier to think of things as stories … If I made these things into stories I could float away from them, and look at them sideways, or like they were happening inside a snow globe.”
Obviously this book has a strong race-against-time element to it. Will Carmel be found? Will mother and daughter ever be reunited in true fairy-tale tradition? Hamer handles the tension and suspense well and if that were all this book had, it would a perfectly enjoyable yarn.
But it’s her depiction of the complicated relationship between mother and daughter that made this novel considerably more appealing for me. Though their relationship had often in the past been tense, in their forced separation they discover the depth of their need for each other. When they see each other again, theirs will be a very different relationship resolves Carmel.
All that I can think is that I wish I was at home with Mum and everything was back to normal. That this wasn’t worth a stupid story about a fairy who has to earn her wings. Or even meeting the real writer. Where are fairies and writers when you need them? If I was with Mum, and everything was OK, I wouldn’t try to get away from her again. I’d stay close to her all the time. I wouldn’t even try looking over the wall at home, not ever.
As time passes and her confidence in her ability to survive diminishes, she still clings to the hope that one day she will be reunited with her mum.
Sometimes I wonder if when I’m dead I’m destined to be looking still. Turned into an owl and flying over the fields at night, swooping over crouching hedges and dark lanes. The smoke from chimneys billowing and swaying from the movement of my wings as I pass through. Or will I sit with her, high up in the beech tree, playing games? Spying on the people who live in our house and watching their comings and goings. Maybe we’ll call out to them and make them jump.
Is there a fairy-tale happy ending for Carmel and Beth? You;ll just have to read the book yourself because on that question, my lips are sealed.
About the book: The Girl in the Red Coat is the debut novel by Kate Hamer. It garnered a lot of positive comment when it was published by Faber and Faber in 2015. Hamer was a finalist in both the Costa Book Award for First Novel and the Dagger Award and the novel was selected as the Wales Book of the Year.
About the author: Kate Hamer comes from Pembrokeshire in Wales. She received a New Writer’s Bursary from Literature Wales to help her finish her novel, She currently lives with her husband in Cardiff. Her second novel The Doll Funeral was published in 2017.
Why I read this book: It was selected by one of the book clubs to which I belong but they postponed the date for the discussion and I couldn’t get to that rescheduled meeting. So the book went back on the shelf and I forgot about it until the end of last month when I was hunting around for some books to take with me on holiday.
If ever I needed reminding that I have led a (mercifully) sheltered life, I just have to pick up a crime novel. Some of the scenarios dreamed up by the authors working in this genre are not only out of my realm of experience, they don’t even figure in my knowledge bank.
Until I read Doll Face, the second title in Dylan H Jones’ Tudor Manx series, I was blissfully unaware for example that there is a certain section of the population that likes to step into rubberised full body suits whenever they feel like adopting a new persona.
Living Dolls … A subculture of men who like to dress like dolls. They wear body suits, masks, anything that makes them more feminine.
I have to believe that Jones has done his homework and not only do such people walk this planet there are businesses that supply their needs. What a way to make a living!
The habit provides the title of Doll Face, and is responsible for some thoroughly creepy moments.
I read the first novel in this series — Anglesey Blue — last year and enjoyed it as you can see from my review . I wasn’t the only one. It was long listed for the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker Prize’ 2017 and occupied the #1 Best Seller spot in Welsh Crime for a time. Not bad for a debut novel.
I wondered at the time how this series would progress. It’s hard enough to write one successful novel but coming up with an equally good second in a series is tough. In an interview I did with Dylan Jones he said his plan was to set each book in a different season with his central character, Detective Inspector Tudor Manx, wrestling with his decision to return to his native island of Anglesey in Wales.
Though Doll Face takes place in Spring, a season associated with hope and growth, it feels a darker novel to me than the winterly Anglesey Blue. It’s set three months after the first novel with Manx’s detective skills called upon when a body of a young woman is found horribly mutilated. Then gruesome video footage comes to light showing details of how she was murdered.
Suspicion falls on her nasty ex husband and on her employer, the millionaire tech-entrepreneur Kimble McLain. McLain is such a big cheese and philanthropist that the high-ups in the police force want Manx to go cautiously. But of course this is a guy who doesn’t understand the word ‘no’. Besides, when another similarly mutilated body is discovered, it quickly becomes clear that there could be a serial killer on the island. The investigation takes Manx into the world of religious fanaticism and child abuse.
Some of the threads from the earlier novel make a return in Doll Face. There’s the disappearance of his sister many years earlier which continues to haunt Manx. There was a cliff-hanger at the end of Anglesey Blue which I thought would have been picked up in this second novel but we didn’t get much further forward on that plot line. But there was a significant development about the hitherto hinted-at reasons why Manx left his previous job with the London Metropolitan serious crime division under a dark cloud of suspicion.
The inspector’s strained relationship with the forensic scientist Ashton Bevan is also shaping up nicely while we got to know more about the two key members of the team: policewoman Delyth Morris and Falklands’ War veteran Detective Sergeant Maldwyn Nader, who is suffering from PTSD. I’m warming to them both as well as to the cigar smoking, sports car driving inspector. Maybe by book four one of the women on the island will have persuaded Manx that it’s time his fashion sense came into the twenty-first century.
An entertaining read with plenty of twists and dangling threads to keep you reading. It can be read as a stand-alone novel though it you want to get under the skin of Anglesey, it would be worth reading Anglesey Blue also.
About the Book: Doll Face by Dylan H Jones is published in March 2018 by Bloodhound Books.
About the Author: Dylan H Jones is a native of Anglesey so he knows a thing or two about the island, its landscape, language and people. He has worked in television and the creative industry, as a producer at the Welsh TV Channel, S4C before becoming creative director at Channel 4, London. In 1999, Dylan moved to California where he worked a copywriter in LA, writing movie trailers and TV ads.
Why I read this book: It’s a great opportunity to showcase the writing from my native country of Wales. Thanks to Dylan Jones and to Bloodhound Books for providing me with an advance copy of Doll Face in return for a fair review.