Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee by Megan Boyle. Review by Richard Owain Roberts

i want to fall backwards into a pit of bioluminescent pokemon

Even for those of us who have never imagined falling backwards into a pit of bioluminescent Pokemon, Megan Boyle’s debut collection, Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee, is relentlessly authentic in its portrayal of boredom, loneliness and introspection.

Although released as a poetry collection, it would be better described as a poetic collection of thoughts, essays and stories.

Thoughts: ‘unpublished tweets’

argued for an hour on the telephone. now looking at pictures of carbs

Essays: ‘everyone i’ve had sex with’

noah: we met in college. he was in acting school and had a fairy tattoo. one time we smoked weed under some train tracks and started rubbing each other’s heads. he liked paul simon. sex was kind of routine but okay. mechanical kisser. we didn’t use condoms. happened a few times.

Stories: ‘my family on thanksgiving and most holidays’

someone will inevitably tell a story which climaxes with them crying a little. my dad, if he cries, will say ‘oh dear, why am i doing this’ and i will feel equally endeared and embarrassed. most of his stories are interesting but he repeats a lot of them and acts defensive if someone reminds him. there is a running joke about my mom feeling ‘oddly moved’ by things. my mom seems to frequently feel ‘oddly moved’ by small encounters with people or books or newspaper articles. when she reaches the point of a story where she cries, she will say ‘oh here i am, ‘oddly moved’ again’ and laugh. she is a volunteer at the aquarium and tells detailed stories about fish. they are kind of boring stories

Self-consciousness is also something that Boyle/the narrator is familiar with: ‘5.07.10’:

my philosophy professor asked if we ever looked in the mirror until

our faces started to look strange and alien and we dissociated from


i was excited he asked that and i nodded my head

he said ‘oh, you do that, megan?’ and a lot of people looked at me

i said ‘i do that’

he kept talking and people kept looking at me’

Critics of confessional/autobiographical writing would no doubt view examples such as this as solipsistic even. However, Boyle’s sparse, calm, description does mean that the reader is able to view the event retrospectively and with detachment (in much the way that Boyle/the narrator is doing herself).

Though much of the collection is introspective and downbeat, when Boyle chooses to looks outwards, she provides the reader with some very funny moments.

From ‘3.07.08’

richard gere is kissing diane lane again, like spinning her around

i am unsure of this move’s plot but it feels like someone has cancer

From ‘2.18.09’

most people love sushi

most men seeking women in baltimore on craigslist say they like

hiking, sushi, and movies

most women seeking men in baltimore on craigslist like posting

photos of vaginas

The book closes with ‘lies i have told’, which reads as an amalgamation of everything touched upon by Boyle in the collection. It makes for engaging, funny, and thoughtful reading. My particular favourite:

‘we go to my uncle’s for hanukkah’

i don’t have an uncle

Megan Boyle’s writing already has a strong online presence/following, but this collection demonstrates that she has strong crossover potential and deserves to be read by as wide an audience as possible.

Richard Owain Roberts lives in Cardiff. He has two stories in Parthian's recent anthology, Nu2: Memorable Firsts

The next editor's blog is on Dorothy Edwards, aesthete or ‘socialist Welsh spy’?

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Monday, 30 January 2012

Brave New World that Has Such Objects In It

My relationship with physical stuff was never easy. That I was a clumsy child whose most memorable wreckage was the school projector, may have jaded my attitude. The shopping mania of the boom years didn’t help, nor does living with a hoarder whose speciality is DIY kit that mainly remains unused. So the trend towards upcycled clothes and those aspects of austerity that make us waste less in our personal lives, are home truths for me.

But as sentient beings we aren’t all comfy in our brave new virtual world. Letting go of things can be hard, and since nostalgia and sentimentality are bound up with anxiety, the runaway success of books celebrating objects, such as A History of the World in 100 Objects and last year’s Costa biography winner, The Hare with Amber Eyes, is no surprise. A new paperback edition of a 2007 title adds to the pile: Evocative Objects, Things We Think With, in which editor Sherry Turkle allocates to trinkets the role of ‘companions to our emotional lives’.

Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes is no lazy fetishist of his ancestor Charles Ephrussi’s collection of Japanese ‘netsuke’ carvings as he traces its displacement, alongside his family, across the world. How could he be, when Charles was one of two historical model’s for Proust’s Swann, and Proust the pastry-chef of the madeleine, that ‘evocative object’ par excellence? De Waal knows full well that the unfashionable scale and source of his family’s wealth (Jewish bankers) are unlikely to elicit reader sympathy as to its loss, and yet his telling does so. Equally civilised is his patience with the opposite urge (to erase), such as his grandmother’s burning letters: ‘Why keep things, archive your intimacies? Why not let thirty years of shared conversation go spiralling in ash?’

A potter, like de Waal, Turner prizewinner Grayson Perry has the obsessive hallmarks of a collector. Traumatised at age four by emotional shutdown following his father’s departure, Perry’s feelings steered into fantasy and fetish, especially around female outfits. Considering this, it is incredible that emotional articulacy characterises the first person voice of his engaging biography, Grayson Perry, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl.

Grayson states, ‘getting attention is a large part of making art’, and his work is indeed a serious exploration of this apparently flippant comment. His exhibition, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, has extended its showing to 26 February at the British Museum. Although his own installations are showcased, Grayson’s main role is as curator to others who failed to gain or who shunned attention. Grayson is doubly brave. He runs counter to celebrity culture by fêting anonymous craftwork. And he does it in a frock.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 28 January 2012.

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Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Klezmer revival in Wales by David Thorpe

Several Welsh bands are experimenting with the Eastern European Klezmer tradition and finding intriguing parallels. Klezmer is a strong part of a musical tradition that originates with the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe. It is lively dance music, infectious and laden with emotion - both happy and bittersweet but ultimately lifting the spirit. Like traditional Welsh music, it has been largely passed on from generation to generation by example rather than written down. Several Welsh bands are now experimenting with playing Klezmer and, in one notable case, hybridising the style with Welsh music.

Cardiff's Klezmer Kollectiv is an eight-piece who play all around the Cardiff area. They employ the traditional instruments of clarinet, accordion, bass and guitar, but also add cello, sax, trombone and cajon (a box containing a snare for percussion) to give a full, romping sound.

Similarly the Llanidloes-based Klezmonauts, while gigging less often, are educating audiences in this infectious dance style.

Machynlleth-based former Ember member Rebecca Sullivan is also experimenting with Klezmer at the monthly Ceinws acoustic sessions.

South Wales duo Fiddlebox, however, are unique in trying to meld that tradition with the Welsh one, and in so doing to redefine the boundaries of Welsh traditional music. Fiddlebox claim to have invented a new musical style, which they call 'Klezreig' - a synthesis of Cymreig and Klezmer that is proving highly popular with audiences everywhere. The duo are fiddle-player Helen Adam and George Whitfield on accordion. They have just recorded their second important album, On The East Wind, which was launched late last year at a special concert at Burnett's Hill Chapel, Martletwy, Pembrokeshire.

Nowhere is the Klezreig style better exemplified than by a Klezmer version of the traditional song 'Machynlleth' which, by being played in a Klezmer scale, immediately gains emotional poignancy. This version arose from an improvisation at a party in Machynlleth, between Helen and Tony Corden, the guitarist and organiser of the politics and music festival El Sueno Existe.

I interviewed them at George's house in Narberth, Pembrokeshire, and wanted to know first of all about the story behind the title.

Helen began her answer by referring to one of the album's key tracks, The Girl From The East. This song takes as its starting point an English folk song, 'The Girl I Left Behind Me'. I wrote three variations on it... the first is written in the Klezmer style.

George has a more poetic attitude to the identity of ‘The Girl From The East. She's got her eyes on her own country in Eastern Europe, but is dancing in these green hills of Wales! he smiles. The girl from the east is actually Helen!

Helen Adam is one quarter Lithuanian Jewish, and a quarter German, on her mother's side, a part of her heritage of which she is increasingly aware. So you could say she arrived in Wales on the east wind. A recent visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin led her to reconnect to her Jewish heritage.

My grandmother emigrated to Germany and converted to Buddhism to marry a German Buddhist writer, she says. Then she left him and came with my mother to England and became a Catholic. But she ended her life in a convent in North Wales! The Klezmer track Hora Dorothea on our first album called, simply, Fiddlebox, is about her.

If you didn't know Fiddlebox was a duo, at times you'd think there were four of them, especially since both members sing. This is in many ways also due to George Whitfield's ability to make his custom-made accordion, which is vital to the unique Fiddlebox style, sound like two instruments at once. George had his accordion specially constructed by a top craftsman, Claudio Beltrami, in Stradella, Italy. It employs a unique bass switching system, designed to his specification, with an electric midi on board (that he doesn't use for the purely acoustic Fiddlebox), three rows of bass buttons that permit more complex bass lines and four sets of hand made reeds. Together these produce a big sound with chunky chords, that is usually only achieved with larger concert accordions. The bellows have a short delay time enabling a punchy reverb effect, which George uses eerily to open his song ‘Simply Fly’.

Helen and George are both immigrants to Wales, where they met, but they have made it their home. Helen is fluent in Welsh and has represented Wales at the International Celtic Congress. Fiddlebox are a regular at events at the National Botanic Gardens and the Royal Welsh Show.

‘So, the girl from the east" is happy to be here, but remembers her country, says Helen. She feels an interloper, but that's how I present the Welsh material we play because I don't think I can pretend to be Welsh. We are trying to channel Welsh music through the prism of our own identities.

George nods. We are doing what no one else is doing. I think it's a shame that Welsh culture has a lack of extension outside Wales, unlike Irish culture which extends all over world. One of the reasons for this is that there is a perception that Welsh music is just scales and arpeggios and we are trying to say it's not true.

Helen attributes this to the point at which Welsh music was written down. In fact, its historical development up to date seems to have gone through two phases. Firstly, before the advent of Methodism, Welsh music was highly social, just like Klezmer, and centred around community celebrations, both seasonal and familial. It was jolly and upbeat.

In the eighteenth century, however, Methodist ministers frowned on such profane practices and the music became more sombre, or overtly religious. There are stories of musicians' harps being stowed away and falling into disuse.

Secondly, there is a feeling amongst some historians of music, such as Phyllis Kinney, author of Welsh Traditional Music, that the scale in which Welsh music was originally played was the Dorian scale, which contains notes similar to those used in seventh and minor chords.

However, when it came to be written down, by collectors such as D. Emlyn Evans and Llewelyn Alaw, there was a tendency to regularise it to fit with accepted musical theory. For example, seven-bar phrases might become eight-bar, and Dorian might become minor. This is how it is now played. A further change is that originally tunes were closely associated with the lyrics, and thus followed the stresses and cadences of the Welsh language. Often, the original words were lost, and this has contributed to a further regularisation of the tunes. Therefore, in the past, it is likely that Welsh music would have had more emotional depth or breadth than it does now, perhaps something like the blues and gospel music.

Fiddlebox's Helen Adam offers her own angle on this: For me, Welsh music must be robust enough to stand its own ground against others, and not have too much preciousness about it, she says.

The implication is that we need to keep an open mind about how to present this material. A culture is not static, but rather changes in reaction to the times. Just as it has been forced to evolve in the past, as Wales opens up to welcome visitors from abroad, this is bound to influence its culture and its music.

But Fiddlebox's new album is not entirely Klezreig. George Whitfield cites his influences as rock, country, blues and folk, while Helen also is classically trained and practises contemporary composition. Between them they offer the full emotional range and some very catchy tunes, from George's upbeat Simply Fly to an update of the gruelling traditional English song Pills of White Mercury which is about syphilis in the eighteenth century.

George observes, On the whole album, nothing was recorded that wasn't played live first, and much of it was played live for 6 months beforehand to make sure we had it down.

Fiddlebox were insistent that they wanted no special effects like echo or distortion. It would all sound exactly as it would at a live gig. The album was recorded in an old Welsh chapel by producer David Unlimbo. The chapel also contained nesting swallows, and the mikes picked up their chirruping songs. Listen closely to the album and you can hear them, deliberately left in.

The swallows are gone now, blown on the east wind far away for the winter. Perhaps they are like the girl from the east, and dream of their homeland. Except Fiddlebox's girl has made Wales her home, and Welsh music is all the more enriched for it.

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Gwen's next blog: more on Grayson Perry, The Hare with the Amber Eyes and the renaissance of the object

Monday, 23 January 2012

Handbag etiquette and A.N. Wilson roots for Wales!

Among DT grand-daughter Hannah Ellis’ plans to revive the Dylan Thomas Society (WM, 14/1/12) is an interactive version of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. For my mother, it was decade-spanning stocking fodder, with its ‘shawling snow’ and ‘polar cats’. Happy days, and yet too much pudding chokes the dog, as the Welsh idiom goes. Two recent titles from London publishers prove that DT’s shadow continues to dampen our new fiction pages.

The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie won the Telegraph’s Novel in a Year award and an accolade (his first for Wales?) from A.N. Wilson. The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals is Wendy Jones’ fiction debut. That she previously wrote the biography of the transvestite potter, Grayson Perry, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, is attractive, as is the deluxe hardback edition of her novel. But my ideal of fictional small-town life is closer to Psychoville than Llareggub, so I was deflated to read Jones on blog.booktopia.com.au: ‘I listen to [Under Milk Wood] most days’. And both Thoughts and Happenings… and The Coward’s Tale were rendered limp at first glance by their tableaux of eccentrics defined by honorifics and occupation. Reviewers: prove me wrong!

Mid-decade Manhattan is the place to escape Welsh clichés, even though Dylan died in 1953 at NY’s Chelsea hotel. My Santa wish-list for a Mad Men Series 5 DVD was foiled by legal wrangles keeping the masterpiece off-air (from forbidden BskyB) all last year and up to March. Since one of Don Draper’s bed mates, according to the Times, was ‘not another woman but The Best of Everything, [a] 1958 novel by Rona Jaffe’, I gave that a go instead. The career girl genre never shook my Martini, although I enjoyed the holiday R4 broadcast on Helen Gurly Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1962), revealing it as another of the genre’s pioneers as well as being a model for Mad Men. So Jaffe’s novel being dubbed as a precursor to Sex in the City should have been a warning. It is baggy, and while its matching handbag etiquette is educational, as is its portrayal of pre-Pill sex anxiety, there is nothing here of sexual mores (and indeed fashion mags) that Sylvia Plath didn’t put pithier in The Bell Jar only five years later: ‘Bile green. They were promising it for fall, only Hilda, as usual, was half a year ahead of time. Bile green with black, bile green with white, bile green with nile green, its kissing cousin…. Fashion blurbs, silver and full of nothing, sent up their fishy bubbles.’

Postscript: A.N. Wilson on Resistance. Gets the film, still doesn’t get the language. We know we're fascinating but give us a rest, dear.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column, published on Saturday 21 January 2012

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Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Echo Chamber, Chapter Cardiff, 27-28 Jan

At some point in your life you may have found yourself wondering what might happen if four international avant-garde theatre actors and producers came together to create a piece of performance art exploring the peculiarities and mysteries of the human condition. If so, then the Llanarth Group’s newest production, The Echo Chamber might satisfy your curiosity. Weaving together music, text and sound, the group’s latest offering claims to explore the relationship between our physical bodies and that immeasurable ‘something else’ that has been the domain of philosophers for centuries.

But if the Llanarth Group’s reputation is anything to go by, this will not be merely idle musing. Following on the heels of Told by the Wind, a production whose success saw it tour between Chicago, Poland, Berlin and Portugal, The Echo Chamber places two men in separate rooms and incites them to ‘dance the other’s absence’, as Chicago Time Out put it. The piece is a labyrinth, reverberating with the echoes of memory, in which inner landscapes sound and resound.

This is all very well,’ you may say, ‘but what does that mean?’ I don’t know, but if any production team can pull off such a feat, it is the one behind The Echo Chamber. This quadrumvirate of introspection is made up of playwright Kate O’Reilly, whose Ted Hughes Award-winning piece Persians was recently staged on an army base in the Brecon Beacons, and Phillip Zarrilli, internationally renowned director, actor, actor-trainer, and author (and founder of the Llanarth Group), as well as director and artist Peader Kirk of European avant-garde production company Mkultra and actor Ian Morgan, in his first performance in Wales since returning from seven years working in Poland. If the clear wealth of this team’s experience at the cutting edge of performance art doesn’t convinced you of the calibre of the performance, then perhaps a glance at the glowing reviews will. The Guardian described it as ‘hypnotic…a haunting, painterly beauty…[with] the astringent purity of a haiku poem…[an] intense meditation in movement’, while British Theatre Guide calls it ‘easily the most hypnotic piece of theatre I have experienced.’ The Echo Chamber premieres in Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre on 27-28 January and plays again on 2-4 February.

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Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Etchings for Primo Levi by Jane Joseph. Exhibition review by Paul Griffiths

Etchings for Primo Levi by Jane Joseph

Review by Paul Griffiths of an exhibition at the Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno

Gallery 4: 19th January - 11th March 2012; opening event: Saturday 28th January, 2pm

Jane Joseph is a painter, draftsman and printmaker whose reputation, since the late 1970s, has been based on her integrated approach to both her subject matter—notably, the post-industrial Thames bank of West London—and her methods of working, in which her drawings and prints, in particular, create a strong and distinctive perception of reality.

In 1999 and 2001, Joseph was commissioned by the Folio Society to produce etchings to accompany their special editions of works by Primo Levi, If This is a Man (published 2000) and The Truce (2002). The two suites of etchings now exist in two modes; as images that relate to specific texts in each book, and as sets of the original prints to be exhibited.

Both sets of prints have been shown together once before, in 2004, at the School of Art Gallery, Aberystwyth. The Mostyn's present exhibition, timed to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January, is another opportunity to view all these prints together. On the 28th, January Jane Joseph will be in conversation in the gallery with Emma Hill, Director of the Eagle Gallery, London, with whom she has had a long term working relationship. This show also coincides and interacts with the exhibition in gallery 3, Anselm Keifer: Artist Rooms.

The key to understanding these prints is the intimate relationship between the Folio Society, as publishers of Primo Levi's books, Joseph's role as illustrator, and the book's actual texts. The Folio Society asked her to choose the specific texts that would be illustrated, and left her to decide what form the images would take, creating a situation in which she had considerable creative freedom. Joseph has remarked that she was fired by Levi's writing, by 'his prose so full of the most wonderful analogies', and feels strongly that his writing 'doesn't need embellishment of any kind' and that 'in a way it should not be illustrated'. Joseph's fundamental achievement is that her approach to the selection of texts, and to the production of images to accompany them, amounts to a complex act of literary as well as artistic interpretation, resulting in the creation of diverse, ambiguous and allusive relationships between Primo Levi's books and her etchings.

With one exception, an image of a tap, none of the images directly represents scenes or incidents from the books. Most images can be understood as observation-based landscapes, located in familiar urban, rural or post-industrial situations, or as still lives that have a life of their own. In each book, only one or two images stand apart from such matter-of-factness. For example, in If This is a Man, a nocturnal scene of shipwreck, a tonally sombre aquatint, is dramatically illuminated by a shaft of moonlight penetrating the clouds. Such singularly theatrical images operate as a localised 'rupture' of the fabric of Jane's dominant way of working. The actual subjects of most images place us, the readers, simultaneously within and outside the contexts of the books; in the latter situation, bringing us closer to 'home', away from the reality of the Nazi Lager, but not necessarily comfortably so. The rupture of the shipwreck underscores our discomfited state. Yet it is in keeping with the complexity of these prints that the same image might also release us into the world of narrative, of fiction even, offering us some kind of relief and rescue.

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Monday, 16 January 2012

Julia Forster talks to Horatio Clare about The Prince's Pen

In December, The Insider made a day-trip to the Hay-on-Wye Winter Weekend festival.

Speaking to us exclusively before appearing on stage about his first work of fiction, The Prince’s Pen, the erudite Horatio Clare told us what inspired him to write a novella narrated from the point of view of the androgynous Clip, a freedom fighter in Clare’s terrifying, dystopian world.

In the original Mabinogion myth on which this novella is based, Llud, King of Britain seeks the wise counsel of his youngest brother, Llevelys, in trying to rid his kingdom of three plagues which have been cast over it. Clare fast-forwards this myth to a post-apocalyptic Wales, resource-rich in precious water, bordering infighting England which has become an archipelago of islands besieged by climate change.

The re-telling stays true to the nub of the original. In Clare’s hands, it also benefits from a political twist and inherits what readers of Clare’s previous memoirs will recognise as the echoes of the author’s life history.

Take our narrator, Clip: an archetypal outsider. Clare explains he feels some affiliation with outsiders, being English (with, he says, a ‘posh accent’ to boot) and yet having been schooled in Wales fifteen miles as the crow flies from the cosy Blue Boar pub in which we meet.

Without spoiling the third section of the book, you also can’t help but feel that the setting in this part is also indebted to the isolated sheep farm so high in altitude I imagine ears would pop approaching it, where Horatio lived in his infancy.

One of Clare’s talents that shine through in this novella is his prowess at dialogue; he’s able to exploit his obvious relish of the Welsh cadence, a lilt which imbues all that Ludo says.

Clare attributes some of this skill to having cut his teeth at Radio Four as a young producer. It was at the BBC, Clare explains, that he learnt to think in terms of sound: there, he mastered the art of eavesdropping. And this is where Clare felt the freedom in writing this commission most keenly. For, after all, what is retelling a myth but an eavesdropping on the oral stories of old and redressing them to make them relevant for the present day?

Although Horatio’s heart is Wales, his home is in Verona, Italy and he has just spent two months on a container ship researching his next book, mucking in and sharing dinner with Danish sailors, surprisingly quiet, Horatio remembers, in the saloon. It will be fascinating to see how he interprets the tensions between silence and noise of life at sea in his next offering.

A version of this was published in the Western Mail Insider column, Saturday 14 January 2012. Julia Forster is an online and print contributor to New Welsh Review

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Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Tair Rheol Anrhefn by Daniel Davies. Review by Dafydd Saer

Tair Rheol Anrhefn (The Three Rules of Anarchy) is Daniel Davies’s fifth book and is the winner of the 2011 Daniel Owen Memorial Prize, one of the chief literary awards presented at the National Eisteddfod.

Immediately this book was Not My Friend. The general state of mild irritability in which I constantly live was heightened considerably when I observed with disappointment that the author had opted to use dashes instead of quotation marks. Why, when countless millions of writers and readers manage famously with quotation marks? In the absence of any mark signifying the closure of a quotation, how many times, during the reading of this book, did I find myself in the middle of a speech that did not make sense, only to realise that I had left the speech, and was in the middle of narrative again? How annoying.

However, I forged ahead and soon found I couldn’t put it down. It’s a thrillingly fantastical tale of intrigue and industrial espionage set against the slightly unlikely backdrop of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path – with some cryptic clues for those who enjoy that sort of thing; personally I was carried along on the crest of the action.

Dr Paul Price and Professor Mansel Edwards have developed the next generation of LCD televison technology – not in Tokyo or Silicone Valley as one might expect, but in the dusty halls of Aberystwyth University. The Welsh boffins’ research is a threat to the vested business interests of several international parties, wherein lies the subterferge and intrigue of a convoluted plot to acquire and suppress their research. Their lives are in dire peril!

As the tale unfolds from this anus-clenching premise, most of the action occurs during a Pembrokeshire walking holiday undertaken by anti-hero Paul. He encounters various characters who turn out not to be all they seem, and becomes embroiled in twists and turns which involve eccentric walkers and sundry members of the police and the secret service. Throw in the occasional murder for good measure, season with plenty of romantic conflict and tension, and you can be sure that the reader’s hand is constantly reaching for the next page.

The tongue-in-cheek delivery is established quite firmly in the first couple of chapters when a surprise birthday party for Paul degenerates into a hilariously unpleasant full-scale family feud, unwittingly set off by an inebriated Paul. He manages to upset not only his own dysfuncional relatives, but also his partner Llinos’s, with repercussions that haunt him for the rest of the tale.

So. A contemporary tale with hints of James Bond action – though I can’t see an entire 007 movie being shot entirely on location in Pembrokeshire (not even with a few scenes shot in Pembroke Dock). I mean, youth hostels, anoraks and walking boots can only precipitate a very limited amount of excitement – unless you’re blessed with Daniel Davies’s imagination and story-telling skills. Take the novel with the pinch of salt with which it is offered, and enjoy!

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick. Review by Anite Rowe

This latest Young Adult novel from Marcus Sedgwick has a most unusual plot construction, and is a departure from his previous works where the narrative follows a more conventional curve. Also the fantasy element is slighter. There is a stronger sense of realism and mystery combined with an atmosphere of timeless myth and atavistic superstition, which gradually draws the reader in.

The book is divided into seven parts plus an epilogue, each part taking place in a different period on the same fictional island, The Blessed Island, set somewhere in the far north, in the land of the 'Midnight Sun', where the language is English but appears to have developed, like island customs, from old Norse and Icelandic traditions. Apart from this and the setting, the only fantasy elements here are the climate - the summers are so warm that wheat and fruit grow plentifully – and a magic flower called the Little Blessed Dragon Orchid which grows profusely all over the Western half of the island, but not the Eastern. Tea brewed from this flower has all kinds of amazing properties, some beneficial, others sinister. There is also a supernatural element in that the protagonist has seven lives, each corresponding with one part of the book. Other characters also reappear in each section, under slightly different names.

Part one is set in the future, June 2073. While the other six sections are flashbacks, they do not appear in chronological order. Part two takes place in the present day, in July 2011, then the other parts regress in time while the months go forward: August 1944, September 1902, October 1848, and the tenth century. The seventh and final part is set in 'Time Unknown'. The epilogue returns the reader to the end of the first section, in June 2073. In each month the moon has a different name, from Flower Moon in the first part, to Blood Moon in the seventh part, when a lunar eclipse turns it red.

The tale that weaves through the whole is a love story, in which the two lovers meet and part again and again. But underlying this is the sinister theme of blood sacrifice, in which I find subtle echoes of D.H. Lawrence's long short story, ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’, and of the 1973 cult film, The Wickerman. The author tells us in the acknowledgements that this theme was partly inspired by a painting in a museum in Stocholm called Midvinterblot, Swedish for midwinter sacrifice. A similar painting by a fictitious painter, one of the protagonist's seven different selves, is described in Part Four. Sedgwick is a past master at evoking sinister undercurrents that flow beneath apparently tranquil and harmonious beauty, and he has excelled himself here.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Lobbying for Libraries, guest blog by Paul Cooper

Last month I interviewed poet and author Matthew Francis for New Welsh Review about his upcoming short story collection, Singing a Man to Death. He told me how he attempts to recreate ‘the chaotic pluralism of modern culture’ in his work, and about his early flirtations with surrealist literature (‘the idea of it liberating, the practice usually disappointing’). His collection weaves together a truly staggering breadth of settings and influences. Did you know, for instance, that the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was a mythical tiny sheep once thought to grow from the stem of a plant? No, neither did I. Like Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels, Francis’ background as a poet (he was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s ’20 Best Modern Poets’ in 2004) has given him a prose style that is at once spare and energetic, and an impressive eye for detail makes his new collection an enchanting read.

As the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics fills the Royal Court of Justice with a strange mix of comedians, authors, actors, and the victims of unspeakable tragedy, anyone following the news this week would be forgiven for overlooking another investigation taking place in the halls of government, one that could have even broader ramifications for the cultural life of the nation. A cross-party select committee has been summoned to investigate the forest fire of closures currently set to ravage libraries across England and Wales. The situation on this side of the toll booth looks particularly dire. Libraries in some of North Wales’ worst areas for literacy and employment face closure, as do many in Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and Bridgend, and all this despite book-borrowing in Wales enjoying an increase of 5.4% last year. Before you start entertaining notions of going door to door collecting signatures, or setting up tents and placards outside your local library, be aware that there is a simpler solution. The select committee, chaired by conservative MP John Whittingdale, is calling for members of the public to send in their thoughts about what they would consider to be ‘a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st Century’ and are asking for perspectives on ‘the impact library closures have on local communities’. If you think you have a thing or two to say on the subject, email your testimony as an attachment to cmsev@parliament.uk by 12 January, with ‘Library Closures’ as subject. Guidelines for submitting evidence to a select committee can be found at http://bit.ly/1g2o3v. Have fond memories of your own local library? Believe they should be reformed into Open University-style hubs of learning and betterment? Think that cutting libraries in recession is like cutting hospitals in a plague? Let the committee members know!

A version of this was published in the Western Mail on Saturday 7 January 2012

Paul Cooper is an online contributor and intern for New Welsh Review

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