Monday, 26 September 2011

It's Raining Fish, Halleluja! And Other Magical Songs

Fflur Dafydd writes in the current issue of New Welsh Review about the genesis of her second English novel, The White Trail, published on 18 October. An update of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, this latest addition to Seren’s New Stories from the Mabinogion series is a triumph. A feminist interpretation, its theme is the need for independence from loved ones, even though the failure of her story’s catalyst to cherish her own husband and unborn baby ends in tragedy. ‘The white trail’ of the title is Dafydd’s translation of ‘Olwen’, a girl in whose wake white flowers spring. The original symbolism of this motif is transformed from that of passive female allure a trail of petals into a bank of stubborn plants that won’t be picked. Take two heavily-pregnant female foils: Goleuddydd (feisty fireball, capricious) and Olwen (more your traditional docile model), add a third, calm, competent (past post-partum!) Gwelw, and we have a tableau of female types which sends up the Medieval stories’ questing for the perfect wife.

This Malcom Pryce-alike mash-up of detective story with magic and mayhem is a winning combo. The nascent political subplot is curtailed by the novella format so that we start to learn of Health Ministry mess-ups but soon cut back to frenzied action involving pigsty births, abductions, rape and suicide. The White Trail sees a return to Fflur’s parody of the crime thriller which she first explored in the Daniel Owen prize-winning Y Llyfrgell. But since this author is so clearly interested in public affairs, a broader satire of Assembly doings is sure to follow.

There’s more magic in the magazine’s winter issue, now in production. Transvestite magician Chiqui is the inspiration of Christien Gholson’s debut A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind and the novel’s design features on our cover as well as in Reviews. Si├ón Melangell warns that the plot isn’t easy to follow. But I found Gholson’s distinctive mix of eighties’ industrial smalltown Belgian life and folktale less puzzling than intriguing, once I went with the flow. Why had the dance troupe ‘got naked at the Vatican’ and who is waxing Biblical about bells, crows, and fish rained down from the heavens? With its chapter sections dedicated to roles (The Seer, The Player etc), this novel reminded me of the fiction of Jenny Erpenbeck, the subject of Patricia Duncker’s essay in the current magazine. Patricia gently accuses Michel Faber (author of The Crimson Petal and the White) of exaggerating Erpenbeck’s originality. We need character and plot in fiction more than Modernist archetypes and mystery, she suggests. I would counter that we need all four at different times, depending on our fancy. After all, as proves, you can never have too much magic.

A version of this was first published in the Western Mail on Saturday 24 September in Gwen's Insider books column.

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Next week's blog: New Critics Day and Seren at Thirty

Sunday, 18 September 2011

What authors can learn from musicians in the digital age

One blessing of the recession is that the Co-op won’t start draping tinsel round its Back to School alcove just as soon as those daps sell out. At New Welsh Review, however, September is the new December, since I’ve just edited all twenty-two pieces for the winter issue.

Among these is Rhian Jones’ Leader on musicians, authors and the digital world, in which she acknowledges publishers’ ‘palpable lack of the stricken siege mentality which defined the music industry’s reaction to downloading’ and applauds their ‘surprising shrewdness in [their] appropriation of digital’s potential as well as uncharacteristic speed for an industry which… usually has a turning circle like the Titanic’. One such sponsor-based publishing enterprise is Unbound, modelled on the trendier industry’s PledgeMusic, which promotes interaction between reader and author as well as a Social Network-inspired democracy. It works by posting book proposals online: those ideas (hopefully protected from plagiarism) which do not receive enough individual financial pledges will not see the light of day, and its first title will be by former Monty Python star Terry Jones. Basically a slick update of the eighteenth-century subscriber-book concept, it is interesting nevertheless, especially considering that journals such as Granta have moved in the opposite direction in the hope that by reinventing and distributing their product as a book, they will enhance their primary subscriber-based income.

Rhian, who blogs at, continues in her NWR piece, As the expectation of profit from music is now firmly weighted towards auxiliary activities like touring, merchandise, or sponsorship deals, so the literary establishment might similarly moderate attitudes to profit and fame from producing books per se.’

The reduced scales and margins in Wales are such that ‘fame’ and even ‘profit’ remain fanciful notions for our authors. And yet those who do embrace ‘added-value’ activities, such as touring shops, bookfairs, festivals and schools, are unquestionably more attractive to cash-strapped publishers. Such image-enhancing opportunities, of course, are also offered by literary magazines in the form of extracts, creative work and opinion pieces, as well as the more obvious short-term benefit of reviewing an author’s book.

Ceri Wyn Jones and Fflur Dafydd are two examples of authors who have no qualms about popularising literature through music, schools, festivals and public commissions. The former’s poetry collection Dauwynebog was a Book of the Year nomination; he is a radio and national eisteddfod regular for the crowd-pulling Welsh poetry slams, was Welsh-language Children’s Laureate during 2003-04 and runs children’s and teachers’ workshops nationwide. Singer-songwriter Fflur Dafydd writes in NWR’s current issue about her second English novel (or rather first novella for all you nitpickers), which gives a feminist spin to the Culhwch and Olwen Mabinogion story, as well as satirising the traditional stories' obsession with questing for the perfect wife. The White Trail is published by Seren on 18 October. I was in conversation with both authors together with Caryl Lewis (who heroically attended despite having had her baby daughter eight weeks ago!) in the opening Welsh-language session for PENfro Book Festival this weekend at Rhosygilwen, Cardigan, in front of a packed audience of young adults, teachers and other readers and fans of the authors. Topics covered included writing from your milltir sgwar; the literature teacher as mentor (Ceri sounded far too strict as Fflur's Welsh teacher, even if he was instrumental in her continuing to write in Welsh as well as English); whether Wales' competitive and eisteddfodic traditions benefit literature; set texts, the curriculum and the writer's public role; literature for children, and whether certain jobs (press editor in Ceri's case; creative writing lecturer in Fflur's, and dramatising her collection Plu for TV in Caryl's case) can help or hinder creative work.

NWR also had a stall the following day at the PENfro bookfair: the venue was beautiful, the whole event fantastically organised and great fun. Hopefully next year there'll be more Welsh and a few bigger names on the main day.

Goes to show that Literature Wales can afford to be a bit more generous in support of festivals rather than sticking to their usual policy of covering the bare minimum. Maybe they should push the boat out even further in future and attempt to secure key book festivals and fairs in a more strategic manner across Wales as well as offering realistic support to publishers organising events after a title's launch honeymoon period. Or, dare I say it, the new LW Head, when in post, might sacrifice a few pounds of their advertised salary of £50-£70,000 (£70,000 is nearly £20,000 higher than an Assembly member's pay) and put them towards more generous direct support for writers, together with the proper renumeration of those panel members who decide how to spend the grants for writers' schemes.

A version of this was published in Gwen's Western Mail Insider books column, Saturday 17 September 2011

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Next week's blog: preview of Fflur Dafydd's The White Trail (published 18 October) and review of Christien Gholson's A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Academic novelists are international wall breakers

Unfortunately Caernarfon-based Patrick McGuinness’ Bucharest-set novel The Last Hundred Days didn't make the cut at last week’s Man Booker Prize shortlisting. But congratulations all the same to him and Seren, the first publisher from Wales to make the nomination stage. Seren was in good company among nine indies on the longlist, sparking debate in the mainstream book trade. Were independent publishers better placed to source literary novels while bigger houses played safe with more commercial titles? Were this year’s judges immune to Literary London’s usual prejudice against independent and small publishers (evidenced by the slog it is for a company like Seren even to get broadsheet reviews)? The presence among the Booker judges of author Susan Hill, who runs small press Long Barn Books, may have tipped the balance for the likes of Seren and Ross-shire’s Sandstone Press. While that of former MI5 DG Stella Rimington may have done so for McGuinness’ debut novel, with its themes of state security and corruption during the Ceausescu era’s dying days over Christmas 1989.

The Last Hundred Days pulls off a challenging feat: to make a phlegmatic first person narrator engaging. In an in-depth author piece in spring’s NWR, McGuinness describes his approach to the novel: to pull themes of disengagement from his poetry, apply them to a world-changing political event and focus on the figure of the ‘passive witness’. Such literary aims may be ignored by general readers in holiday mode as we soar with events into the stratosphere of the thriller. Happily we are accompanied by blackmarketeer/bon viveur/bon-mot-minter Leo and the novel’s moral and emotional heart, hospital doctor Ottilia, who struggles to hold onto her ideals while rocked in a sea of neglect, deprivation, grief and betrayal by those closest to her. More fool those of us expecting tame expat fare from a novel set in an English department by an Oxford University lecturer author.

Stevie Davies is another academic with broad horizons. Into Suez (now out in paperback), set during the postwar Suez crisis, was the holiday read I hoped not to spoil by reviewing. A surprise absentee from the Book of the Year shortlist, like The Last Hundred Days it is an early slow burner whose strengths lie in its purely foreign sections, and whose plot and pace go turbo during its second third. As with McGuinness, Davies is interested in the concept of ideological engagement, although racial prejudice, rather than political compromise, is her characters’ cultural norm. Davies’ perception of women trying and failing to understand each other across generations is acute, while her exploration of how a small girl deals with the emerging independence and ‘otherness’ of her mother is heart-rending. These writers give the lie to academia’s hoary ‘ivory tower’ cliche.

A version of this first appeared in Gwen's Insider book column, Western Mail, Saturday 10 September 2011

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Friday, 9 September 2011

Love Child by Herbert Williams, Review by Whytney Pugh

There has never been a more apt time than now to read Herbert Williams’ most recent novel Love Child. With our own media overflowing with stories of the dubious tactics of newspaper staff, the reader will discover that little except the technology available to reporters has changed in the world of the press in the last half a century.

Some readers may be alienated in the initial chapters by the attention paid to the inner workings of a major newspaper. However, the novel gathers momentum into an emotional investigation, though surprisingly not of the man and woman bound by the love child of the title. In fact, the reader begins to wonder if they will even meet for a second time within the pages of the book. Instead, they and their current spouses move through the wraths of their past, seeming content to witness a widening gulf between themselves and those closest to them.

The novel follows reporter Steve as he is assigned, fifteen years on, to the small town of his youth where he regresses, subjecting his wife and child to the tweaking of emotional threads that had lain as a tangled but static knot across a generation. We are permitted unrestricted access into the characters’ streams of consciousness and are able to empathise with how most of them begin to suspend both their sense of judgement and that of reality, and see how many have simply come to accept the frustrations of aging in a small town while others are plagued by unrealised possibilities.

Primarily, however, the novel highlights the miscommunication and friction that arise between partners at any stage of life. Williams has the ability to conjure in the reader both the anxiety of being excluded from the inner (and many outer) aspects of a spouse’s life as well as the delicately contained excitement and reckless abandon of illicit behaviour.

In the final chapters, illusions are shattered, conspiracies are overturned, and the labels many had accepted for themselves made redundant. A surprising resolution is provided by a case of mistaken identity as hysteria matures into an unlikely friendship. Love Child is a truthful examination of the conscious choices made by a generation approaching forty as they reassess those ideals and aspirations that they had thought as youths to be intrinsic to their identity.

Whytney Pugh was a runner-up in this year's Terry Hetherington Award.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Coming of Age for All Ages

My son turned fourteen last month. Despite nights lost to computer games, he does still read. Christopher Paolini published Eragon aged 19. Inheritance, the final in his tetralogy, has been pre-ordered for November (bit late but worth the wait). Birth of a Killer, Irish writer Darren Shan’s first for The Saga of Larten Crepsley, will be ready in September, while Robert Muchamore’s latest in the Cherub series, People’s Republic, was another August birth. Dragons, vampires and boy agents aplently, and yes, these books are series brands. But teenage boys have much else to distract them, mostly in digital formats. And when do we need fantasy most, if not during those years of terrifying metamorphosis?

Another new Young Adult title is Hayley Long’s Lottie Biggs in (NOT) Tragic. As Hayley’s editor on her adult Kilburn Hoodoo (2006), I knew that this teacher with a touch of list-itis and a bad case of pun-orrhea would write for children. (Not) Tragic rounds off Whitchurch oddbod Lottie’s chicklit trilogy, introduces Winnie the Chinchilla and makes philosophy palatable to the GCSE generation. In the next issue of NWR, Hayley explains why kids prefer their favourite authors in multiples, ‘Teenagers like to collect things’, as well as why writing to ‘formula’ will not ever, never be a cinch.

One distinction between teenage fiction and ‘coming of age’ novels is the age of their target readerships. Another is that the moth morphs before our very eyes in the former, while it is recalled in the latter. NWR’s current issue sees ‘coming of age’ play out across the artforms. Young film-maker Tyler Keevil muses on the sound track in films such as Juno, Harold and Maude, and Persepolis. We have a preview pick from Gawain Barnard’s teenage photo portraits, Maybe We’ll be Soldiers, at Ffotogallery’s Pontcanna venue The Dairy (8-24 September). And Liz Jones reviews Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, comparing book and film. Particularly interesting is her criticism (in a positive piece) of the director for transplanting the setting from the original’s apathetic Nineties to an incongruously apolitical Eighties.

Joe Dunthorne spoke at Edinburgh this summer about his second novel, Wild Abandon, out early in August. The author has stuck with teenage voices. Kate and Albert respectively look to the suburbs and apocalypse to escape the collapse of their parents’ marriage and the Welsh commune that is their home. Elements of this may sound familiar but why strain for strange when you have warmth, insight and humour at your fingertips? Not for nothing was Submarine nominated for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic literature. Look out for NWR’s review of Wild Abandon. And in case you were wondering how to turn boys onto books? Unplug the Wifi.

A version of this was first published in Gwen's Western Mail Insider books column on Saturday 27 August 2011.

NWR gets new writers noticed, and gets published writers new readers. Support writers bysubscribing!

Watch this space... upcoming editor blog, 'Academic Novelists are International Wallbreakers' reviewing Into Suez and Booker nomination The Last Hundred Days

Friday, 2 September 2011

Goodness Gracious Me: Wake up to Wales, Radio Four!

Following his recent Daily Mail piece slamming Bred of Heaven, reviewer Roger Lewis is a dead cert for the Tacsi gong, a Kingsley Amis-sponsored prize for Welsh baiter of the year, previously held by AA Gill. He’s also in the running for the special Kapoor category for self-loathing (presented by Goodness Gracious Me’s Kulvinder Ghir). Raised in Bedwas, Lewis blames the country for a gamut of emotional dysfunctions including ‘hyper-restlessness [and] insane ambition’, even dipping his pen into blood with the racist term ‘appalling and moribund monkey language’.

I hesitate, therefore, to pat a shoulder already weighted with chips. And yet, apart from this slur and the ineradicable image Lewis creates of himself as a man en route to Outta Here trailing skid-marked personals across Cardiff’s departure lounge, his review is basically sound. As I discovered listening to Radio Four’s Book of the Week adaptation (8-12 August).

Independent publisher Profile deserves credit at least for securing this primetime media slot of Jasper Rees’ book, subtitled One Man’s Quest to Reclaim his Welsh Roots. But, give us a break, Radio Four! BBC radio executives continually pitch original writing (fiction and nonfiction) by authors who have a tad more than Rees’ Welsh grandfather to ground them here (and I’m not talking ethnicity or linguistics). Yet here is R4 giving voice to this superficial, stereotypical and outdated vision of Wales via Ben Miles’ mangled vowels (yes we have plenty, Roger)! It is packed (‘like Welshcakes with raisins’, Rees would gush) with ‘bustling’, bosomy mamgus, ‘regal’ swans, plates which ‘groan’ with food and a twee ‘Welsh kind of merriment.’ Annoyingly, Roger Lewis’ assessment that Rees is ‘an author in search of a gimmick’ is spot on.

BBC Wales’ executive producer for radio drama, Kate McAll, told me once that Welsh authors’ ‘bleak’ outlook was often the obstacle to their being adapted on the network as drama, short story readings or serials. But I would rather eat arsenic-laced bara brith than hear another word of Rees’ poorly written jolly to a spectacle of choirs, coracles, coalmines, mountains, rugby fields and (strangely, considering our nonconformist tradition) Caldey Island monks. And wash it down with the bitter Glengettie tea of Niall Griffiths, Caryl Lewis, Cynan Jones or Richard Collins’ fiction. However, we could use more homegrown creative nonfiction set in Wales (building on Seren’s excellent ‘Real’ series). Perhaps Rees’ travesty will inspire memoir writers such as Richard Gwyn and Griffiths, whose most recent works were mainly set respectively in Europe and Australia, to look closer to home for their material. Unlike Roger Lewis, most of us shrugged off the slate chips a few decades ago. We can turn our heads without obstruction. So let’s stop looking over our shoulders.

A version of this was first published in the Western Mail, Gwen's Insider books column, on Saturday 20 August 2011

NWR gets new writers noticed, and gets published writers new readers. Support writers bysubscribing!

Watch this space... upcoming editor blog, 'Coming of Age for all ages', teenage fiction recommendations