Category Archives: Writing Wales

Wales Book Prize entangled in sales row

This week saw the announcement of the winners of the Wales Book prize. It should have been an occasion to celebrate the finest work by authors from Wales writing in the Welsh or English language, but instead the event has been tainted by a dispute over sales figures for the winning books.

Neilsen – a company specialising in market research and measurement – disclosed that half of the books on the shortlist had sold less than 100 copies. According to Nielsen:

  • The overall winner, Diary of the Last Man by the poet Robert Minhinnick, had sales figures of just over 200
  • All that is Wales (a collection of essays byM Wynn Thomas) which won the English language creative non-fiction award, sold 34 copies up to June this year

The English language fiction award winner, Crystal Jean’s  Switches Are My Kryptonite achieved sales of 49 copies.

Wales-based publishers have been quick to dispute the figures, complaining that Neilsen failed to take account of sales from small independent bookshops and book fairs. They’ve also criticised BBC Wales for placing too much weight on Neilsen’s assessment.

Are the publishers correct and we are reading too much into this data?

Maybe not. Poetry collections tend to see lower sales than fictional works but realistically even when the additional sales are taken into account for the fictional works, there is little evidence that these books are attracting readers in any significant number. The best-selling title on the shortlist reached just 4,000 sales. Still very modest.

It’s hard not to sympathise with the authors and their publishers who are now feeling bruised by this debacle. All the locally based publishers are modest sized businesses with equally modest marketing budgets so they pick their authors carefully and nurture them well, often focusing on a niche. But it’s a struggle for them to get  the attention of mainstream media for these books. As Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, said in an interview with me last year, the Welsh book scene doesn’t have anywhere near the presence and visibility enjoyed by authors from Scotland or Ireland.  

Even more worrying, the book sellers in Wales don’t seem to be throwing anywhere near enough weight behind local authors. Last week I was in a Waterstones book store in Cardiff (the capital city of Wales). This is the only dedicated book shop in the centre of the city. Did they have any display promoting the Wales Book of the Year? None that I could see (unless maybe it was buried in the deepest recesses of the shop somewhere between the sections on how to care for your pet dragon and macrame for idiots). If a store like this doesn’t promote indigenous writing, why should we expect sellers in England or Scotland to do so?

The owner of Octavo’s bookshop, an independent seller in Cardiff, said in response to Neilsen’s figures that more needed to be done to bring books like these to the attention of the reading public. She suggested reading groups, extracts in magazines etc. All good ideas but, I don’t see that it’s nearly enough. Unless the big boys get behind these publishers and authors and give them shelf space, they’ll face many years on the fringe.

 

 

 

Library of Wales celebrates the country’s authors

It’s taken more than a decade but a government-backed initiative to celebrate the English-language literary heritage of Wales is on the cusp of a significant milestone.  Since the Library of Wales project got underway in 2006, 49 titles have been published, many of them books that had been forgotten or were out of print. The 50th is due to hit the bookshops in a few months.

The Library of Wales series is a selection of English-language classics from Wales, ranging from novels to short stories, biographies and poetry. It’s funded by the Welsh Assembly Government through the Welsh Books Council as a way of sustaining the country’s heritage. When the project was announced in 2006 the intention was to o “…include the best of Welsh writing in English, as well as to showcase what has been unjustly neglected. ” 

Have they succeeded?

Raymond Williams

Professor Raymond Williams

It would be hard to challenge the inclusion of Raymond Williams in the list of books selected by the series editor Professor Dai Smith.  Williams, who came from Monmouthshire, was one of the leading literary academics in the UK in the 1970s and 80s. His writings on politics, culture, the mass media and literature were influential in the developing field of Marxist criticism of literature. He has two titles in the Library of Wales series: his novel Border Country was actually the first book to be published in the  Library of Wales series. Published in the 1960s it had been out of print for several years. I was expecting The Country and The City,  in which he used alternating chapters on literature and social history to consider perceptions of rural and urban life, to be included. But instead we another novel, The Volunteers. Personally I would have opted for another of his academic works instead of the latter.

No surprises either to find the Rhondda author and broadcaster Gwyn Thomas included, also with three titles. I’ve read only one of these The Alone to the Alone and though I enjoyed it, I wonder if it’s too much a novel of its time and will not resonate as well in modern-day Wales.

Equally unsurprising to see the big guns Alun Lewis, Glyn Jones, Emyr Humphreys and Jack Jones amongst the selected authors.

A few choices did cause some raised eyebrows in the Booker household however.  Carwyn by Alun Richards is a biography of one of the big names from the golden era of Welsh Rugby. I can’t help wondering if this is on the list because of the popularity of the subject rather than because it’s the best biography written by a Welsh author. I’m also lukewarm about the choice of autobiographical novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse. I would have expected his inclusion to be more for his poetry than his prose. 

The question of how decisions were made what to include came up in a discussion panel at the Hay Festival about the Library of Wales initiative. Unfortunately Dai Smith was ill so couldn’t attend to answer a challenge from an audience member so it was left to Phil George, Chairman of the Arts Council, to defend the selection. He didn’t convince the questioner that this wasn’t “The Dai Smith Library of Wales” rather than a generally acceptable selection of the best from Welsh writers.

But the Library of Wales is to continue. The series publishers, Parthian Books, will be issuing the 5oth title in September, with a new book from Stevie Davies who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001 with The Element of Water.  It’s likely to find favour with one of the other Hay panelists, lecturer Tomos Owen, who wants to see more contemporary authors selected.

Here are all the 50 books in the series. Click on the title to read the description and order the book direct from Parthian.

  1. A Kingdom, James Hanley
  2. A Rope of Vines, Brenda Chamberlain
  3. A Time to Laugh, Rhys Davies
  4. All Things Betray Thee, Gwyn Thomas
  5. The Alone to the Alone, Gwyn Thomas
  6. Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, Dannie Abse
  7. The Battle to the Weak, Hilda Vaughan
  8. Black Parade, Jack Jones
  9. Border CountryRaymond Williams
  10. Carwyn, Alun Richards
  11. The Caves of AlienationStuart Evans
  12. Congratulate the Devil, Howell Davies
  13. Country Dance, Margiad Evans
  14. Cwmardy, Lewis Jones
  15. Dai Country, Alun Richards
  16. Dat’s Love and Other StoriesLeonora Brito
  17. The Dark Philosophers, Gwyn Thomas
  18. Farewell Innocence, William Glynne-Jones
  19. Flame and Slag, Ron Berry
  20. Goodbye, Twentieth Century, Dannie Abse
  21. The Great God Pan, Arthur Machen
  22. The Heyday in the BloodGeraint Goodwin
  23. The Hill of DreamsArthur Machen
  24. Home to an Empty House, Alun Richards
  25. I Sent a Letter to My Love, Bernice Rubens
  26. In the Green Tree, Alun Lewis
  27. Jampot Smith, Jeremy Brooks
  28. Make Room for the Jester, Stead Jones
  29. Old Soldier Sahib, Frank Richards
  30. Old Soldiers Never Die, Frank Richards
  31. Poetry 1900–2000, Meic Stephens (ed.)
  32. Rhapsody, Dorothy Edwards
  33. Ride the White Stallion, William Glynne-Jones
  34. So Long, Hector Bebb, Ron Berry
  35. Anthology of Sport, Gareth Williams (ed.)
  36. The Library of Wales Short Story Anthology Volume I, Dai Smith
  37. The Library of Wales Short Story Anthology Volume II, Dai Smith
  38. Turf or Stone, Margiad Evans
  39. The Valley, The City, The Village, Glyn Jones
  40. Voices of the Children, George Ewart Evans
  41. The Volunteers, Raymond Williams
  42. The Water-castle, Brenda Chamberlain
  43. We LiveLewis Jones
  44. The Withered Root, Rhys Davies
  45. A Man’s Estate, Emyr Humphreys
  46. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp W. H. Davies
  47. Young Emma, W.H. Davies
  48. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl by Rachel Tresize
  49. Selected Stories, Rhys Davies

 

An Update: July 3, 2018

After I published this post, Richard Davies, the mastermind at Parthian, graciously pointed out that I had miscounted. I thought there were already 50 books published and the 51st would come out in September. But I inadvertently added a Raymond Williams text that isn’t really part of the Library of Wales series. I’ve now corrected my post.

 

Doll Face by Dylan H Jones #WritingWales

Dylan H. Jones - Doll Face_cover_high res

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.

Footnotes

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. 

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: 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.

 

Books to mark Wales’ special day

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus i chi!

daffodils in snow

March 1 is St David’s Day in Wales —St David being our patron saint — so usually a day for celebration of all things Welsh. The celebrations will be very muted this year however with schools closed and concerts cancelled because of Storm Emma, so I thought I would mark the occasion by highlighting some new books from authors and publishers based in Wales.

 

One Woman Walks WalesOne Woman Walks Wales. Ursula Martin is a remarkable account of a courageous woman. After a cancer diagnosis and then Ursula Martin was too weak to  walk more than a few steps. But she is a determined woman so she set a goal  to walk the four miles to her nearest post box every day. Her progress was so slow drivers would stop to offer her a lift. She persevered.

Her next goal was even more ambitious: to walk the 200 miles to her follow up appointment with the medical team. Coming out of the meeting, she headed back home on foot. And then just kept walking…..

In 17 months, she walked the length and breadth of Wales, across its beaches, up and down the coastal paths, through mountains, farms and urban sprawl.

One Woman Walks Wales is publsihed by Honno. If you order direct from their site they will make a donation of £1 to the Target Ovarian Cancer charity.

Also coming soon from Honno is Albi by Hilary Shepherd which is set in Spain in 1930s. The Civil War turns everything upside down for nine-year-old Albi and his family. They are under siege from outside and held captive by secrets within the home. Albi must sometimes close his ears and his eyes if he is to survive.

The Glass AisleSeren Books have a strong poetry collection, the newest addition to which is The Glass Aisle by Paul Henry. It features twenty eight poems including an elergy  to displaced workhouse residents, set on a stretch of canal in the Brecon Beacons National Park. A performance version of  The Glass Aisle, featuring songs co-written with fellow musician and songwriter Brian Briggs, (‘Stornoway’), is currently touring festivals.  More details can be found on the Seren website.

I mentioned another of their recent publications May by Naomi Krüger in my recent Bookends post. It’s a novel written from the perspective of a woman with dementia who is trying to piece together the fragments of her memory. Definitely one I am going to be buying.

Hummingbird.pngWelsh publisher, Parthian, is offering Hummingbird by Tristan Hughes, a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wales. Born in  Ontario, he spent his childhood on th Welsh island of Ynys Mon. Hummingbird, his fourth novel takes him back to Canada, to a remote location where fifteen-year-old Zachary Tayler lives a lonely and isolated life with his father. One summer the enigmatic Eva Spiller arrives in search of the remains of her parents and together they embark on a strange and disconcerting journey of discovery. This novel won the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award for 2018. More details are on the Parthian website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bookends #1 February 2018

It’s been a long time since I last did one of my Bookend posts. Not sure why I stopped doing them. Maybe I was travelling and didn’t get the time to write them for a few weekends and just got out of the habit. Or maybe I just ran out of steam.

But Simon’s weekend miscellany posts at Stuck in a Book have given me the motivation to give Bookends another go. In its original incarnation, Bookends was a round up of miscellaneous bookish news. I’m going to streamline this a bit and in future each post will consist of just three things that have caught my attention, aroused my curiosity; stimulated my interest

  • a book
  • a blog post and
  • an article

Book: May by Naomi Krüger

May

Here in Wales we will be celebrating our patron saint’s day (St David) next week. So it seems very appropriate to highlight a new title from Seren, one of the independent publishers in Wales. May is the debut novel of Naomi Krüger, creative co-director of the North West Literary Salon and a lecturer in creative writing. It caught my attention because it’s written from the perspective of a woman with dementia who is trying to piece together the fragments of her memory. I’m currently reading and loving Three Things About Elsie  by Joanna Cannon which is also about an elderly woman and her past. I also enjoyed Emma Healey’s debut novel Elizabeth is Missing, which had an octogenarian narrator. Maybe Naomi Krüger’s novel will complete my hat trick? May is published by Seren on March 12. Details are on their website here https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/may

To whet your appetite, here is the blurb:

The door to the past has been locked to May but fragments of memories still remain: a boy running on the green, his fiery hair, a letter without a stamp, a secret she promised not to tell. She can’t piece together the past or even make sense of the present, but she revisits what she knows again and again. The boy, the letter, the secret. She can’t grasp what they mean, but maybe the people she’s loved and lost can uncover the mystery of the red-headed boy and his connection to May.

Blog post: Anticipating the Man Booker International Prize List

The longlist for the Man Booker International Prize will be announced on March 12. Tony Messenger has put together his own wishlist; titles that he thinks will be on the judges’ list; or should be. Do you agree with his predictions?

Article: In Praise of Negative Book Reviews

In the journal The Baffler, author and columnist Rafia Zakaria argues the case for more  negative book reviews. “The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery”, she claims, consisting of “vapid and overblown praise”.  She doesn’t give any examples unfortunately or cite the offending publications but I can’t say I’ve noticed a preponderance of “forced and foppish praise” in the newspaper review sections I read. Have you?

 

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.

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.

 

Between the lines: Jonathan Tulloch on Larkinland

TullochLast week I posted my review of Larkinland a 2017 novel by Jonathan Tulloch which evokes the atmosphere of Hull as discovered by the poet Phillip Larkin. In this Q&A Jonathan reveals the inspiration for his book and what he really thinks of the city.

 

Q. What was the inspiration for writing Larkinland? 

Over the past few years, I’ve been called increasingly to Hull. Not able to drive a motor car, I have the privilege of travelling to the city by train. It’s one of Europe’s finest journeys, with distant cathedral-like towers of power stations giving way to fields and flat lands, and then the great river up which the Vikings sailed. Add to this a copy of Larkin’s poetry with which I always travel to Hull, and you’ll see how I came to fall in love with both poet and place. The train is always the best place to really get to know Larkin. Just imagine he’s sitting with you. Of course, he’d be trying not to let you catch his eye.

LarkinlandQ. The novel is described as a mix of mystery and romance yet there is also a strong thread of humour. Did you set out with this blend in mind or did it evolve during the writing process? 

Life is all of those things; they invited themselves!

Q. What was more important to you when writing Larkinland – the plot, the character or the setting? 

Everything, in equal measure. What people don’t understand is that without Hull, Larkin becomes not much more than a skilled miniaturist. Hull is his muse.

Q. What was the most difficult aspect of the book to write? 

It’s the easiest book I’ve ever written.

Q. The book is described as “A fictionalisation of Philip Larkin’s poetic world” How much of your central character  is fiction? 

Hard to say. A lot of the character is his poetic persona, I don’t know much of his biog details so very little of it is strictly autobiographical.

Q. Fictional works created around real people always seem to generate questions about ethics. Given that your central character bears such a strong resemblance to Philip Larkin, were you conscious of the risk of misrepresenting someone once called the nation’s favourite poet? 

I think his shoulders are broad enough to carry more than my little capuchin monkey.

Q. Did you suffer any pangs of conscience about portraying Hull in a negative light just as it is celebrating its reincarnation as a capital of culture? 

In my writing I have always loved places on the edge. In fact these are the only places I like. Gateshead, Middlesbrough, Hull, Zimbabwe. So hopefully my love for Hull will come out. What might seem like an unflattering light may well be the opposite.

Q. How do you view Hull personally – liminal beauty or beached mudflats?

I love it. After all, it’s a place with two rugby league teams. I concur with Larkin’s poetry, in which the place becomes a kind of many towered Byzantium.

Q. You conjure up a vivid portrayal of the boarding house run by Miss Glendenning and her rituals. Did this come from personal experience of such establishments in your younger days?

I had friends living in horrible bedsits, and I lived in my fair share of communal houses, but never a lodgings like this. 

Q. Do you have a favourite passage in the book that you’d like to share? 

Something like, ‘a dog followed him home, until a thrown stone persuaded it bloody well not to.’ I must emphasise that the stone did not hit the dog.

Q. What books are currently on your bedside table?

I am reading the poetry of Ann Ahkmatova. We were on holiday in Lindisfarne last week and we all wrote a poem in a different style. I have since been taken over by Anna Ahkmatova. I came up with the following lines:

heavy as a thrown brick

I carry Anna Ahkmatova

to read by the shore in the hare’s-foot clover.

Of course, after lines like that, the Russian poet would have come up with a devastating image.

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.

 

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