Now I’ve managed to close the lid on 2018 (see my wrap up post here), its time to turn my attention to 2019.
I’ve been wrestling with the question of whether to join some of the many challenges that are available. But on balance I decided that last year’s experiment with “Reading Naked” (by which I mean picking my next book randomly) was liberating so I plan to continue using that approach this year.
That doesn’t mean my year will be entirely without structure. But I’ll focus on projects rather than challenges. Challenges usually involve meeting a specific goal – reading a targeted number of books for example, or specified categories of books by a set date. I prefer the more open-ended nature of a project that I create for myself, where I get to decide on the scope and parameters. I want the flexibility to go wherever my mood takes me.
Here’s how the year ahead could pan out.
I’m going for simplicity; largely avoiding specific goals in favour of general directions. Most of these are continuations of existing projects and activities but – just to ring the changes – I’m going to start two new activities.
- Finish the Booker Prize project. This is the only specific goal I’m adopting this year. It should be a piece of cake since I have just two books and then I’m done. Although I have copies of the 2016 and 2018 books I’m not going to count them. If I manage to read them this year, they’ll be considered as bonus.
- Re-connect with the Classics Club project. I’m now 12 books away from the target of 50. But I keep finding new titles to add so this could be a movable feast.
- Travel the world: I stalled last year in my plan to read authors from a broader range of countries. In a year when the UK is supposed to say goodbye to the EU, it feels appropriate to make sure my reading tastes have an international dimension.
- Move through years of my life: I have a feeling that by reading more from my Classics Club list, I will be able to make progress on the Years of My Life project without having to make a special effort.
Booker Talk Team Expands
Booker Talk is approaching its 7th anniversary. I’m marking this milestone by expanding the team. Two new faces will be making an appearance on this site shortly, contributing reviews and articles on reading, authors and books.
Cerian Fishlock is currently studying for an MA in Publishing. She’s an Agatha Christie fan who’s desperate to find a modern author that can match the Queen of Crime . She loves novels with a psychological edge and “if that can be combined with defeating the patriarchy, even better.”
Edward Colley is a retired newspaper editor and graphic designer with an eclectic taste in books. He counts Thomas Hardy among his favourite authors. In between reading fiction he enjoys biographies and travel writing .
Connecting with Welsh authors/publishers
For the past year I’ve been trying to support and promote literature from my home country of Wales, through reviews and the odd feature article on this site. Now I’m going a step further by creating a new series where we get to know some of the authors based in Wales.
I’m calling this new series Cwtch Corner. The idea is to get into a conversation with an author about their favourite authors and books, how and where they get their inspiration and what readers can expect from their own novel/s. This is a spot where authors could pitch their work to potential readers.
Never seen that word Cwtch before? It’s a word used in the Welsh language to describe a physical place – a small cubbyhole for example or a small room in a pub. But it also denotes a form of affection, love and caring. Think of it like a cuddle or a hug. So authors taking part in Cwtch Corner are hopefully going to find the experience a bit like being wrapped in a warm embrace.
I’m reaching out to authors to participate at the moment but if you know someone you think might be interested just ask them to contact me via Twitter using @bookertalk. Please note however that I am not intending to feature self-published authors.
I’ve never visited Hull, a city on the Humber Estuary in Yorkshire, England, though I came close to doing so in the mid 1970s when I applied for a place on the University of Hull’s law degree programme and was invited for an open day. The prospect of a five hour car journey north in February was rather unappealing however so I came up with some excuse or other to wriggle out of the visit. Had I made it I would have found a bleak port city well past its prime, a city that the poet Philip Larkin described as “fish smelling” and “a dump”. It’s all changed significantly since that time – Hull in fact is the European City of Culture for 2017 but who could possibly have predicted that a few decades ago?
Larkin moved to Hull in 1955 as Librarian at the University of Hull (a post he held until his death). A month after his arrival he began slagging the place, moaning to a friend: “I’m settling down in Hull all right. Every day I sink a little further.” then later declaring: “What a hole, what witless, crapulous people. … I wish I could think of just one nice thing to tell you about Hull – oh yes, well, it’s very nice and flat for cycling.” There’s a wonderful documentary about Larkin and Hull available via You Tube if you want more background on his time in the city.
This is the city Jonathan Tulloch evokes superbly in his novel Larkinland. It’s a world of Teddy Boys, trolley buses, travelling salesmen, fish and chips and spartan rented rooms whose landladies expect strict adherence to fixed meal times and bath routines. Into this world steps Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) newly recruited as university librarian who finds digs in Miss Glendenning’s establishment in a room about the size of a police cell furnished with rickety chair, narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper. Not an inspiring creative bolthole in which Arthur can pursue his ambition of becoming a successful poet like his already-published friend. Yet it’s considered her best room and is especially liked by the landlady because it was once occupied by her favourite tenant, the insurance salesman Mr Bleaney who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. She’s more than ready to transfer her affections to Mr Merryweather, picturing for him the delights of an evening a deux listening to the radio.
Unfortunately for Merryweather he bears a physical resemblance to Bleaney who police suspect may be implicated in a spate of robberies around the city. Just when Merryweather thinks his life is taking a turn for the better via a budding romance with his fellow librarian Niamh O’Leary (another reference to Larkin’s life) and publication of some of his poems in a magazine, he gets caught up in the criminal underworld of Hull. Merryweather is a hapless creature, forever getting into misadventures even when he is trying his best to just be normal, a habit which gives rise to some farce-like episodes of missed trains and incoming tides. Like Larkin himself, Merryweather is a jazz fan and aspiring poet whose first impressions of Hull are not positive. Until he’d actually arrived to take up his new post he’d never heard of “this place beached on the mudflats at the end of the railway line.” Stepping out on his first evening he finds:
The stroll under the line of sycamores would even have verged on the pleasant if not for the piles of dog dirt one had to negotiate. The early Saturday evening queue at the trolleybus stop was long and gregarious. Working men’s club and bingo bound no doubt. Most of those waiting seemed to know each other. Was he the only one wearing a trilby? The other men ether sported the cloth cap of the locale or despite the drizzle went bareheaded. Severe short back and sides for the most part, but a whole group of starkly luxuriant quiffs: teddy boys.
His second expedition is little better:
Avoiding last night’s back lanes, the librarian soon found himself wandering through a forest of cranes, and inching over narrow, bouncing bridges, which arced disconcertingly over deep, froth-flecked canals. The smell of fish thickened. A sudden ship loomed over a terrace end like a beached whale, and then there was the river itself, a wide grey mile, and beyond that the indistinct infinity of the sea.
But just as Larkin himself came to appreciate Hull more fully (he commented once that it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things, … I rather like being on the edge of things.”), so Merryweather warms to the city. Returning by train from a strained weekend with a sort-of lover, he looks up from his book of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry to find:
… the world had become full of seagulls. The train was drawing alongside the river. Seagulls and the river’s levelling drift, the far bank’s unbeckoning netherland. The dreary liminal beauty tugged at Merryweather. He was back. Back home? Hardly that. Yet could one really be feeling some attachment to this Trades Union Venice on its kipper lagoon…?
At times hilarious, Larkinland is part mystery, part love story and partly a story about hope and desire. To all of this Tulloch adds a pitch-perfect realisation of the bleak mundanity of daily life – the very glumness about emotions, places, and relationships that were in fact the hallmark of Larkin’s poetry.
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
About the author: Jonathan Tulloch is the author of eight novels, including The SeasonTicket, Give Us This Day and Mr McCool. He is a winner of the Betty Trask Prize and The JB Priestley Award. He writes the Times Nature Notebook, and a nature column in The Tablet.
Why I read this book: This is part of my endeavour to showcase writers and publishers from my home country of Wales. I had just watched a BBC documentary about Larkin so was intrigued whether Larkinland would evoke the landscape in which Larkin had spent his prime years as a poet. Thanks go to Seren for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.
Yesterday I posted my review of Anglesey Blue, the first in a series of detective novels by the Welsh-born author Dylan H Jones. The novel is set on the island of Anglesey (known as Ynys Môn in the Welsh language) in North Wale. It’s a place very close to Dylan’s heart – it’s where he was born, where he spent many of his formative years and where many of his immediate family members still live. In his debut novel, he introduces his lead character Detective Inspector Tudor Manx who has returned to the island after a gap of some thirty years. In this Q&A Dylan shares his plans for future books in the series and how he used his local knowledge to depict his chosen setting.
Q. You’ve described Anglesey Blue as the first in a series of crime novels featuring DI Manx. Did you always envisage this as a series?
Most definitely. I compare it to people’s attitude to films and TV these days. Personally, I’m seeing a shift away from the two hour cinema spectacular towards these incredibly well written, deep and character-driven TV shows. I think people crave that character development you get from a series. That’s how I felt about Manx. His story is just beginning, he has some real demons he needs to face, some real issues he needs to deal with and he needs to do all of this while solving some pretty gruesome crimes.
I’m not sure how many books will be in the series, but I’m elbow deep into book two right now, which sees Manx confronting even more demons, wrestling with his own feelings of guilt and questioning the choices he made that landed him back on the island. One thing I will say, without it being a spoiler, is that I want the first four books to be set in different seasons. The first was set in Winter, the second will be set in Spring, the third and fourth in Summer and Autumn respectively. I’m plotting it out this way because I think the Island of Anglesey changes with each season: the vibe in the summer, where the island is thick with tourists, is very different to the bleakness of the winter months—perfect fodder for a crime fiction author.
Q. It’s common now in crime fiction for the detective/investigator to have a troubled past. Were you conscious when you were writing Anglesey Blue that you were treading familiar ground – how did you avoid the cliches?
Thank you for mentioning that I did avoid the cliches! It’s always a knife-edge balancing act between rolling out the expected cliches and finding a fresh approach to your writing, especially in crime fiction. I think readers expect and want some familiarity with how an investigation plays out; the police craftwork etc, but also they want a fresh angle on all that. With Manx’s past, I wanted it not just to be troubled, but traumatic. The disappearance of this sister, Miriam, thirty years ago is a guilt that he carries with him, but also he’s haunted by the events that took place in London that precipitated his move back to the island. Add these to the fact that he’s now living somewhere he swore never to return to, I think adds more light and shade to his backstory.
Q. The novel clearly reflects your personal knowledge not just of the geography and landscape of Anglesey but of local attitudes. Were you able to rely completely on personal knowledge or did you need to make some additional research visits?
Looking back, much of it was already there, it just needed mining. I do still visit, at least once a year. All my immediate family still live there, as do my cousins. Speaking with them, going out on the town with them and their friends and immersing myself back in the culture helps a lot- I get an idea of what some of the issues are, what matters to them and reflect that as best I can in a dramatic way. My parents are also petty active in the local community, so I get those downloads on a weekly basis!
Q. There’s a joke running through the novel about the difficulties (impossibilities!) of pronouncing certain place names and expressions in Welsh. Was that a way to broaden the appeal of the novel beyond a Welsh readership?
In a way, yes. But, I’m also presenting Anglesey through the eyes of Manx. He’s been away from the island for 30 years and his Welsh is as rusty as mine! The reader comes along for the ride, and if we can throw out a few good jokes here and there and still get over the fact that Welsh is a thriving, working language on the island, then I’d say I’ve done my job. Also, Anglesey is home to a whole community of English people who moved there for the beauty and tranquility, many of become passionate about learning Welsh, others don’t share that passion, it’s that mix that makes it interesting and of course a rich seam of comedy at times.
Q. People who know the island of Anglesey think of it as a place of stunning coastlines and moody interiors. You present a darker side however – showing it as a place a little the worse for wear and suffering from economic collapse. How have people in Anglesey reacted to that portrayal of their communities?
These are all very interesting observations, however, I don’t necessarily agree with you. I think Anglesey has a dual personality. There’s the tourist- friendly Anglesey with the rash of refurbished pubs, gourmet restaurants, Blue Flag beaches and the like, but there’s also the flip side to that, especially near the port of Holyhead where there are some real challenges of poverty and crime.
I’m in constant contact with some incredibly helpful officers in the North Wales Constabulary who not only help with me with the police procedural aspects, but also paint a dark picture of the very real crimes they’re challenged with.
At the end of the day, the last thing I wanted to do was present a glossy, travel brochure promotion for Anglesey- that would have been a worse injustice to the island. Every place has its dark side: that’s what intrigues me, not only about places but also people.
My readers from Anglesey have been incredibly supportive in their reviews. One or two readers have complained about the profanity, but again, it’s real life. Some of the characters I portray are criminals, petty or otherwise, and I have very little control of what comes out of their mouths.(Ok, maybe a little, but I’m not big on censorship unless it feels forced or doesn’t serve the story!)
|Want to know more about Welsh writers ?
Dylan Thomas may be Wales’ best-known literary export but he forms part of a long tradition of excellence in literature demonstrated by people from this Celtic nation. Some of these writers you may not have even realised are from Wales – people like Sarah Walters and Roald Dahl. Broaden your reading horizons by taking a look at some of the authors I’ve highlighted on my Literature from Wales page.
Dramatic cliffs that drop down to small bays. Sandy beaches unspoiled by over-development. A few ancient monuments and megalithic tombs left behind by early settlers and Druids. The island of Anglesey in North Wales sounds like an idyllic spot doesn’t it? One rather famous couple certainly thought so, making one of the island’s farmhouses their first home when they could have chosen to live in a castle (the family has a few of them going spare). Prince William and his bride Kate lived there for three years declaring when they left, that Anglesey had a special place in their hearts.
Detective Inspector Tudor Manx, the protagonist of Anglesey Blue by Dylan H Jones has a rather more complex attitude to his homeland. He remembers some of his youthful experiences with great affection, especially summer holidays spent at the seaside and the year he worked at the fairground. But that was also the year his younger sister disappeared. His relationship with his mother and other sister fell apart as a result. After which he couldn’t wait to get away.
Now, thirty years later, he’s back to take up a new role heading the island’s small, and rather inexperienced, team of detectives. He finds there is trouble in paradise. The island is suffering from falling property prices, the dwindling appeal of the traditional seaside holiday and an active drug scene. When a body is discovered bound to a boat as if crucified, then two more bodies are discovered in quick succession and a powerfully addictive new drug comes onto the scene, Manx comes under pressure to prove he’s the right man for the job. What follows is a solidly-plotted police procedural novel with plenty of opportunities for Manx to ignore all his boss’s instruction to avoid “maverick, Lone Ranger fuckery” as he tries to keep one step ahead of a drug baron and his henchmen.
Anglesey Blue is the first outing for this DI in what is planned to be a series located on the island. Given this is such a crowded market in literature, the challenge is to bring something fresh to the table. Two things hold the key to success. One is the character of Manx himself who has to be more than a sum of cliched attributes. The other is the setting which has to feel like a place inhabited by real people rather than just a stage for crime. I’d say Dylan Jones has succeeded on both fronts.
He gives Manx a few quirks – like the fact he drives a completely impractical seven-litre Mark 3 Jensen, smokes cigars rather than cigarettes and has a very limited wardrobe.
Manx’s choice of wardrobe had always been uncomplicated and predictable, a limit colour palette of white Oxford shirt, a slim, black necktie left loose at the collar, black straight-legged jeans, a black sports leather jacket (either work, linen or leather, depending on the weather) and back, chisel-toe Blundstone books which he purchased off the internet directly from the factory in Tasmania.
Dylan Jones makes Manx a man of action, someone who often puts his own life at risk, but also a tenacious, methodical guy who continuously revisits his case notes, searching for anything he might have missed. Not for Manx is the kind of light bulb moment beloved of the scriptwriters of television detective series; but the “mundane reality of police work. The day-to-day grind, exhausting every avenue and cul-de-sac” kind of detective work. In part this attention to detail could be connected to the fact he’d left his last job with the Met in London under something of a cloud; the nature of which is never fully disclosed.
This is not the only unresolved mystery in Anglesey Blue; we also never get to know exactly what happened to Manx’s sister. The sense of mystery which remains by the end of the novel is one of the attractions of this novel for me; I don’t want everything tied up with a ribbon. It also cleverly leaves the door open for future episodes.
Of course Anglesey Blue isn’t solely about Manx. He’s supported by an array of colourful characters from the bright rookie policewoman Delyth Morris to the hostile Detective Sergeant Maldwyn Nader, a man prone to sudden outbreaks of extreme violence and the forensic scientist Ashton Bevan who loves dropping hints he knows all of Manx’s secrets. All of these have the potential to blossom as the series develops.
As for the setting, it’s enticingly atmospheric. Mists roll in across the Irish sea, obscuring the small inlets and islands and robbing the landscape of form and colour but then the sun breaks through, enticing holidaymakers to the beaches and the coastal resorts in search of “sand between the toes pleasure and dirty postcard innuendos.” Descriptions of the main settlements and Manx’s encounters with some of the sceptical inhabitants provide a lot of the local colour which is then supplemented by a few in-jokes about the difficulties of the Welsh language. They give a fresh feel to this novel, making it an entertaining read with the promise of more to come.
About the book: Anglesey Blue by Dylan H Jones was published by Bloodhound Books in March 2017. My copy was provided by the author and publisher in return for an honest review.
About the author : Dylan is a native of Anglesey. Though he now lives in Oakland, California, he regularly visits Anglesey where most of his immediate family live. He has worked as a media executive and copywriter at various TV networks and advertising agencies both in London and San Francisco. Currently, he is owner and Creative Director of Jones Digital Media, a video content agency. More information is available on his website and in a Q&A with Dylan Jones on this blog site in which he talks about the choice of Anglesey as a setting and his plans for the series.
Why I read this book: I’ve been cautious in accepting books for review this year but who could resist an approach from one of my fellow countrymen. Reading this gives me yet another opportunity to boost visibility of some of the great writers we have in Wales. Anglesey Blue is one of the books on my 20booksofsummer list.
The last few decades have seen such a boom of interest in genealogy that, according to ABC News, it’s now the second most popular hobby in the United States. I suspect the majority of new enthusiasts start out in the hope they’ll discover they’re descended from nobility or ‘someone famous’ or failing that, that their research will uncover some scandal in the past. But if there’s one lesson we can take from A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore it’s that some aspects of the past are best left untouched; leaving the dead “to their silent sleep.”
This is a novel which begins with a young woman who stumbles upon the farmhouse once inhabited by her grandparents. It’s in ruins; the roof has fallen in and cobwebs ‘thick as rope with dust’ lie amongst the rotten woodwork but Sarah is drawn inexorably to the property. On impulse she buys the farmhouse at Cwmderwen, imagining how it can be transformed into a weekend retreat for her and her soon-to-be husband. She knows little about her Nan (Gwen), and her husband John Owen yet seeing the farmhouse deep in the countryside of Pembrokeshire, Wales awakens her interest. How did John die? Why and how did the family lose their ownership of this land? Why didn’t her mother ever talk about her childhood there? Sarah’s attempts to find the answers are frustrated by the silences of her family members, the authorities and the handful of people still living near Cwmderwen who knew her grandparents. She begins to suspect her family were the victims of an outrageous act that it’s now her duty to avenge. What she discovers however is darker than she could ever imagine.
Sarah’s pursuit of the past provides the narrative framework for A Time for Silence. For the answers to her question we have to look to a different narrator – Sarah’s grandmother Gwen. We first meet her on the day of her marriage in 1933 as she leaves behind her beloved father and sister and makes her way by cart to her new home. It’s a solid building shadowed by trees, more gloomy than she imagined, and with no luxuries or signs of comfort. But she believes she can fix that easily with fresh curtains, embroidered fire screen, bright china on the heavy old dresser, a piano even with which she could accompany her husband who was renowned for his fine voice. As the novel progresses we witness how these dreams are destroyed at the hands of a proud, puritanical husband. Gwen is resilient and learns how to accommodate his demands but she and her children, live in fear that one wrong word will bring his wrath down on their heads.
It’s Gwen’s story that resonated most with me. I found Sarah, the modern day woman, a bit irritating. She’s a woman going through a crisis, still mourning the loss of her close friend in an accident for which Sarah feels responsible. She’s given up her ambitions to be a singer and is now beset with a future mother in law who wants to control every aspect of her upcoming wedding. With so much stress we can forgive some of her strange behaviours (like buying a derelict cottage on a whim) but some of her reactions struck me as bordering on the drama queen. Contrast her with Gwen who so dreads asking for money to clothe her children she makes do by unravelling old sweaters and knitting them into mittens and socks. She’s an isolated figure, her sister not being welcome in the cottage and any visitor from the nearby estate farm treated with suspicion by her husband. In Gwen, Thorne Moore has created a figure who reaches out across the decades and grabs our sympathy with her quiet determination to take whatever is thrown at her for the sake of her children. Her character transforms the novel.
The Book: A Time For Silence is the debut novel by Thorne Moore. It was published in 2012 by Honno Press, an independent publishers that specialises in work by women writers.
The Author: Thorne Moore is originally from the Luton area, near London. She has a long connection with Wales dating from her time as a history student at the University of Wales in Abertystwyth. She now lives in a Victorian farmhouse in Pembrokeshire in west Wales where she divides her time between writing and her craft business. Thorne will be featured in the ‘Put a Book on the Map’ series at Cleopatra’s book blog in April 2017.
Why I read this book: I’m trying to read more work by authors from my home country of Wales. I therefore couldnt resist when three independent Welsh publishers had a pop up bookshop in Cardiff in December 2016. A Time for Silence was one of the titles recommended by the team from Honno. Since it was such a good recommendation I’ve now gone on to buy Thorne’s second novel Motherlove. Check out the Authors from Wales page on this blog for more information on literature from Wales.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday meme asks us to think ahead to Dec 25 and what books we would recommend for friends, relatives etc. What a great opportunity to promote books by Welsh authors some of whom you will be familiar with but others will be unknown quantities.
- Let’s start with one of the biggest names and the one you will certainly have heard of – Dylan Thomas. You may have read his poetry or seen a version of Under Milk Wood but my recommendation given the season is to try get the rather delightful A Child’s Christmas in Wales
- One name even bigger than Thomas is Roald Dahl who was born in Cardiff – this year saw a big splash because its his centenary year. I have a fondness for my first Dahl book – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
- Ken Follett was born in Cardiff, Wales and lived there until he was 10 years old. Of his many novels Pillars of the Earth stands out for being the longest (its a trilogy covering five families from war through to the 1980s.). Rather more manageable is The Man from St Petersburg which is set in 1914 as the world prepares for war. This was the first Follett book I read and I can recall being entranced by it….
- Sarah Waters: Yes this leading author of Tipping the Velvet is from Wales. All her novels fall into the highly readable category. I made the mistake of buying The Paying Guests (my review is here) as a Christmas gift to my mum last year. I was reading it myself and thought it was pretty good – that was before I got to the rather detailed lesbian love scenes. I’m not sure if she ever read it but she has put it in a bag of books to go to the charity shop.
- Cynan Jones won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction with The Dig, (a novel about a badger baiter, and a grieving farmer). His latest novel Cove which came out this month is rather different – the Guardian described it as “a minimal, occasionally mysterious, man-versus-the-elements fable.”
- Jan Morris, a historian, author and travel writer (though she hates that last description). Read The Matter of Wales for an education into contemporary issues in the country written by someone who loves the country. Her style is lyrical and beautiful. There is a good review of this in the Guardian
- Gwyn Thomas. An erudite writer with an acerbic wit who became one of the leading voices at the BBC. Read The Alone to the Alone
- Alexander Cordell was a prolific novelist in the 1950s and 60s – he write around 30 novels including Rape of the Fair Country, Hosts of Rebecca and Song of the Earth. A good choice for anyone who wants to understand some of the industrial heritage of the country.
- Turning to more contemporary authors we have Carys Davies a writer whom I’m discovered through her success in the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. I seldom read short stories but her winning collection The Redemption of Galen Pike was superb
Coming right up to date we have Carol Lovekin whose novel Ghost Bird was published just this month. I’ve not yet read it but it comes recommended by Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame) who called it “Charming, quirky, magical“.It was also the Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month in April this year. I;’m hoping someone might buy this for me this December…..
A few people have asked me for a ‘View from…” guest post about literature from my native land of Wales. I’ve been searching for a book loving Welsh blogger for a year now and haven’t had much success. So I thought I would mark our national day – March 1 – by giving my own insights. Not sure how it will work to answer my own questions but I’ll give it a go.
Let’s meet Booker Talk
My real name is Karen. I was born in South Wales and apart from a few years where I went off to university in England, I’ve lived here all my life. Despite several attempts I have never mastered my native language. It’s a tough language to pronounce – many words don’t seem to include a vowel and then there are the dastardly ‘ll’ and “dd” combinations which always trip up people from outside the country. I started my blog on books and literature in February 2012, intending it to be a way of tracking my reading of novels from the Booker Prize list. It’s just grown from there as I got more involved with other bloggers who got me interested in literature from around the world.
Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Wales?
I would love to be able to highlight some titles that are unique to Wales but sadly that’s not possible. We seem to be reading pretty much what the rest of the world is reading. In the local branch of Waterstones last week for example there was a buzz around the table promoting all the Elena Ferrante books and at the ‘Buy one, get one half price” tables which had many of the latest paperback titles. The one area where you’ll find a big difference in our buying habits is in non fiction – more specifically in sport. Rugby isn’t just a sport here; it’s almost an obsession with each outing of the national team treated with almost religious fervour. Hence just about anything that features rugby will get attention. Stick a photo of a hulking guy in a red shirt on the cover and the money will roll in.
Q. Who are some of the big Welsh authors?
They don’t come much bigger than Dylan Thomas. He’s a legend in Wales. I wonder if that’s as much to do with his bad boy image and early death as his poetry. The latter is sublime though not always easy to understand. If you already know his play for voices Under Milk Wood try some of his prose work – A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a classic but the lesser known Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog is well worth reading if you want an idea of what influenced Thomas in his formative years. It’s a collection of autobiographical short prose stories set in his home city of Swansea which reveal snatches of his life from childhood to his first job as a newspaper reporter.
Other big names are Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame and Ken Follett, author of a clutch of crime and historical best sellers like The Pillars of the Earth. More modern era writers include Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith) and Cynan Jones who won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction last year with The Dig, (a novel notable for its lack of punctuation).
Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?
The challenge is there are so many names I could suggest. A number of these authors were notable in their day but have since disappeared from view for reasons I find hard to fathom. Let’s start with Jack Jones who was a novelist and playwright from the 1930s/1940s. His style probably feels a bit old fashioned now but if you want a sense of what life was like in Wales during the decades when it provided the coal that fuelled much of the world, take a look at his first novel Rhondda Roundabout (there’s that “dd” to get your tongue around) which later became a play. The novel chronicles the hardship of people from the valleys of South Wales against the back set against the backdrop of the aftermath of the General Strike and the Great Depression.
A name I strongly recommend is John Cowper Powys who has been likened to Thomas Hardy because of the role the landscape plays in his novels. Four of them from the 1930s: Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance (the most known of this group); Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle are often referred to as his Wessex novels. They’re set in Somerset and Dorset but draw a lot upon Welsh myths.
Coming more up to date you’ll find someone I’ve written about on this blog a few times: Gwyn Thomas. He deals with some of the same themes as Jack Jones but in a more biting style. The Alone to the Alone is a perfect demonstration of how he uses comic hyperbole to make a political point. Even more current is Carys Davies who won the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize with her collection of short stories, The Redemption of Galen Pike. It’s a virtuoso performance that I loved when I read it last year despite the fact I’m not a great fan of the short story format.
Wales is a small country and the percentage of the population using the Welsh language is tiny (4% was the last figure I saw). It’s also not a language that you find used outside the country with the exception of a community in Patagonia. Which means there is a limited market for Welsh language books and not many publishers despite the valiant efforts of indigenous authors. I can’t even recall a book translated into English in recent years that has garnered much attention.
Since today is the patron saint’s day for Wales I thought I’d mark the occasion with some insights on authors who hail from my native land. The people I’ve chosen are all people who write in the medium of English rather than the Welsh language. Thats not out of disrespect to the language, but since many of my readers are from overseas, it wouldn’t be particularly helpful if I pointed you to Welsh language texts.
The most famous son of all is of course Dylan Thomas. A bit of a hell raiser was our Dylan; a familiar figure in the bars in Swansea (the city of his birth) and Laugharne, the fishing village where he lived with his wife Caitlin. His poetry is defined by his ingenious use of words, imagery and sound patterns which sometimes makes the meaning hard to discover. My recommendation: don’t worry too much about the messages behind the words. Just find a recording of Richard Burton reading Thomas’s poems or his play Under Milk Wood, and revel in the sounds.
After Dylan, the other writers from Wales don’t have anywhere near the same reputation beyond our borders. Many of these names will, I suspect, be ones that you might vaguely have heard of but more likely will be a complete mystery.
Gwyn Thomas: author and Tv/radio broadcaster from Barry (near my current home) whose black comedies focused on life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. He’s all but disappeared from the public conscience except amongst the literary elite in Wales. His autobiographical work A Few Selected Exits shows his passage fro the poorest of families in Wales to Oxford and the BBC. I’ve posted a few reviews of his works here: Reading a Welsh legend and here The Alone to the Alone.
Raymond Williams: If you’ve ever studied the work of Charles Dickens there is a chance you will have encountered the name of Raymond Williams who was one of the foremost Marxist academics active in the 1960s and 1970s. He made his reputation with Culture and Society, published in 1958, which examined famous British writers such as Wordsworth and Orwell to argue that culture, as we know it, developed in response to the Industrial Revolution and the social and political changes it brought in its wake. His assessment of Dickens challenges Orwell’s contention that Dickens wasn’t a social reformer. Well worth reading is his work The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence which looks at the way historical and social changes affected the development of the novel through the works of eleven writers. He also wrote novels – perhaps the best known is Border Country which is set in the community Williams knew personally, rural South Wales, close to the border with England, There are lengthy flashbacks to the 1920s and 1930s, including the 1926 United Kingdom General Strike and the Great Depression in the United Kingdom.
Bernice Rubens was the only author from Wales to win the Booker prize. She was actually the first woman to win the prize with her novel The Elected Member. It was one of the first books I read as part of my Booker Prize project – good in parts but not wonderful was my verdict at the time.
If those options seem a little heavy for you, the following authors may be more to your taste.
Owen Sheers: Although Sheers was born in Fiji, I’m classing him as a Welsh author because he spent his formative years here and has kept his close connection with the country not least because much of his work has a connection to Wales (including a role as the first writer in residence of the Welsh Rugby Union(. Sheers began writing poetry, publishing his first collection in 1999. He was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s 20 Next Generation Poets in 2004 but it wasn’t until his first novel Resistance was published in 2008 that he really came to the public’s attention.The novel imagines that the D-day landings have failed and Wales been occupied by the Nazis. it’s been translated into ten languages and was shortlisted for a Best Book Award.
Dannie Abse: a native of Cardiff in 1923, he trained as a doctor but began writing poetry and plays while working in a London hospital. His first novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, appeared in 1954, tracing the fortunes of a Jewish family in Wales against the backdrop of unemployment, the rise of Fascism and the Spanish Civil War. In 2002 his novel The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas was long listed for the Man Booker Prize.
Ken Follett: author of highly-readable novels such as The Pillars of the Earth, Eye of the Needle and The Man from St Petersburg, was born in Cardiff (capital city of Wales). He worked as a reporter on the same local newspaper that once employed me, the South Wales Echo, though our paths never crossed.
Iris Gower: a prolific writer of historical romances in the vein of Catherine Cookson. Gower set many of her works in her home city of Swansea and the adjacent coastal area of the Gower Peninsula from which she took her pen name. She was a prolific writer publishing one new novel (and sometimes two) almost every year between 1975 until her death in 2010. Her work doesn’t appeal to me but my mum loves her.