Tag: Wales

Review – The Island of the Mighty

Posted July 8, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Island of the Mighty by Evangeline WaltonThe Island of the Mighty, Evangeline Walton

Originally reviewed 17th June, 2011

Island of the Mighty retells the last branch of the Mabinogion, the story of Gwydion, Arianrhod, Llew Llaw Gyffes, Blodeuwedd and Goronwy. It begins with a retelling of stealing the pigs belonging to Lord Pryderi. Gwydion uses this to provoke war, allowing his younger brother to rape the king’s footholder. This also leads to the death of Pryderi, which doesn’t endear Gwydion to the reader who has also read the retellings of the other three branches — and also to the disgracing of Arianrhod and the birth of Llew Llaw Gyffes.

The themes Evangeline Walton explored in the other books come to fruition here, as power passes more and more from women to men, even power over birth and the rearing of children. Arianrhod is not very sympathetically dealt with, I have to say: often Walton’s work suggests that the passing of women’s power is a bad thing, but Arianrhod is capricious and unkind, considered by characters and text unnatural — for the crime of not having wanted to bear a child! Blodeuwedd isn’t treated with much sympathy here, and the other women are barely characters.

It’s hard to sympathise with most of the characters here, particularly as they stir up war, steal, lie and trick each other. I still enjoyed it as a retelling and think Walton dealt well with the material, but I wish she’d been kinder to Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd, who were both unable to fit in the patriarchal society that wanted power over women’s bodies, and expected them to abide by two conflicting sets of rules.

Rating: 3/5

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted July 5, 2016 by Nicky in General / 6 Comments

This week’s theme is ‘Top Ten Underrated Books’ — books with less than 2,000 ratings on Goodreads. Some of these only have a handful of ratings, though some are more popular; I tried to pick a range, because if I just picked the most underrated books it’d all be Welsh fiction, and y’all probably wouldn’t be that interested. (But if you are, go forth and read Kate Roberts, Rhys Davies, Menna Gallie, Margiad Evans…)

  1. The Man Who Went into the West, Byron Rogers. A biography of R.S. Thomas, this was a lovely mix of fact and rather chatty character portrait: it makes R.S. Thomas come alive, as a man of contradictions and contrasts.
  2. The Hidden Landscape, Richard Fortey. Or any of Fortey’s books, really; something about his style made even geology fascinating to me, and I’m not actually that interested in geology. There’s a poetry to the landscape and the long shaping of it which Fortey sees and communicates very clearly.
  3. Cold Night Lullaby, Colin Mackay. Only read this collection of poetry if you want your heart to be ripped from your chest. It covers the poet’s experiences in Sarajevo as an aid worker, and inspired Karine Polwart’s song ‘Waterlily’. The video here includes Polwart’s introduction to Mackay’s life and work.
  4. Dead Man’s Embers, Mari Strachan. Painful in a different way, this book follows the recovery of a man returned to his Welsh village after the Great War. There’s a touch of magic realism, but the emotional heart of the story is very real.
  5. A Sorcerer’s Treason, Sarah Zettel. I haven’t read this in ages, and in fact need to reread it, but I remember it very fondly — and remember passing it round to various friends and relations, hence why my partner has a stack of this series tempting me to reread now…
  6. A Taste of Blood Wine, Freda Warrington. I really didn’t expect to fall so in love with a gothic vampire romance, but it’s so unapologetic about examining the effects of the vampires and the way they choose to live on the people around them that I fell for it all the same. I think fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books would probably be a good fit.
  7. Iron and Gold, Hilda Vaughan. A classic fairytale situation, in a Welsh setting; it humanises the fairytale, making the pain of it really hit you, while also examining human relationships and how they work.
  8. The Complete Brandstetter, Joseph Hansen. I’ve been amazed at how little I’ve ever heard about these books since my housemate wrote a dissertation on gay detectives in crime fiction. It deals with so many issues — AIDs, racial issues, homophobia, and beyond that into aging, relationships in general… and also delivers solid story after solid story.
  9. Exiled From Camelot, Cherith Baldry. I read this for my own dissertation, which probably accounts for how fond I am of it. It’s not perfect, but the bond between Arthur and Kay is painfully real (and something often neglected in other modern fiction). It’s also an interesting mixture of materials, with stuff straight from both the Welsh sources and the much later Continental tradition.
  10. The Fox’s Tower, and Other Tales, Yoon Ha Lee. I love microfiction, and this is one of the few collections I can think of which I would fairly whole-heartedly recommend. Yoon Ha Lee gets the art of the really short story.

I’ll be interested to see what other people have picked out this week — especially if you talk a bit about why. Link me!

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Review – Dead Man’s Embers

Posted February 21, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Dead Man's Embers by Mari StrachanDead Man’s Embers, Mari Strachan

Dead Man’s Embers is a mostly quiet story set in a small Welsh village just after the Great War, where everyone knows everyone, and you still might be more likely to go to someone who knows their herbs than to a doctor. It deals with the aftermath of war, in one thread, and of the development of understanding of not obviously physical illnesses and disabilities (featuring PTSD, dementia and what is presumably autism). It also deals with the tribulations of dealing with a family where you’re not always welcome, and of disillusionment with a loved figure from the past. There’s a touch of magic realism — can Rhiannon, Non, actually see people’s illnesses? Can the medium who speaks to her actually see something?

My answer would be yes, sort of, at least as far as Non goes. Her father calls her gift “diagnosis”, and I do believe that some people have that instinctive ability. I’ve only really had the experience once, looking at a man I admired and realising there was something wrong with his heart (and I couldn’t really say why: something about his face, the colour of his skin, the way he stood). He was dead within days, exactly as I had thought — but the doctor who saw him didn’t see what I saw, and sent him home. Some things do leave their marks, just like that, and that aspect of the story rang pretty true to me, no magic required.

The medium, well, I was less convinced, but strange things do happen and we don’t always know what to make of them, and that was more or less how it was handled here.

The love between Non and her family, the little points of conflict, all worked really well to support the mystery of what exactly happened to her husband Davey. It does get a little dramatic towards the end, with his realisations and confessions, but that works because of the solid support of Non’s fears and caring for him, and because his earlier traumatised state is well described. And there’s so many well-realised people — gossipy Maggie, steady Lizzie and Wil, capable and yet embittered Angela… People desperate for any kind of comfort, willing to believe anything, in the wake of a war which took so many away and changed Britain so much.

And it is so quietly, but so intrinsically, so very Welsh. Taken for granted is the fact that Welsh soldiers had to write home in English, which their families may not even have spoken. That notices of death came in English, and sometimes you’d have to go fetch an English speaker to read the news to you in Welsh. That Welsh speakers would’ve been forced to speak English, and punished if they did not. The “Welsh Not” is just a reality, not the horrible thing it seems to me.

Dead Man’s Embers is not my usual sort of book, but it cast a spell over me. I read it in an afternoon, unwilling to put it down.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Man Who Went Into the West

Posted February 20, 2015 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Man Who Went into the West by Byron RogersThe Man Who Went into the West, Byron Rogers
Review from June 8th, 2013

This was… honestly, a bizarre read. R.S. Thomas seems to have been a man of contradictions — funny, stern, hard, tender, quiet, garrulous. At one moment he’s refusing to answer questions about his poems and the next, this:

‘Anyway, they wanted this scene in which Thomas came out of his church and walked down the path. Everything was set up and he appeared in a full surplice. But whether he’d become fed up, I don’t know, for he suddenly raised his arms and started to run towards them, shouting, “I’m a bird, I’m a bird.” It’s not on film. Either the cameraman was too stunned or Thomas was running too fast.’

This is a chatty sort of biography, and not a strictly organised one. I don’t think Byron Rogers even tries to present some kind of unified view of Thomas. He makes it seem impossible, even. He made me laugh at Thomas and feel sorry for him, sometimes in the same moments, and he opened up his poetry to me that bit more in the ways he selected sections to quote.

I loved reading this, and I have a bizarre, amused love for R.S. Thomas. I don’t know whether it would have appalled or tickled the man to know that a little English-speaking Welsh twenty-three year old like me feels this way about him: it’s a tough call to make, it could go either way.

Rating: 5/5

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On being Welsh

Posted May 8, 2014 by Nicky in General / 9 Comments

I went looking for reviews of a book I picked up from the library yesterday, and boy, do I regret it. The book in question is The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley, and the problem was the protagonist’s name. See, the protagonist’s name is Welsh: Myfanwy Thomas. I don’t think you could get much more Welsh unless you had a guy called Evan Evans or something. Now, the author screwed up to begin with, because he decided he didn’t like the way ‘Myfanwy’ is actually pronounced. He wanted it to rhyme with ‘Tiffany’. So that’s what he has his character say, on the first page. That’s… actually annoying enough to me that I’m considering dropping the book without even opening it, but that’s not really the thing.

The thing was, going to look at reviews and finding a whole bunch where the reviewers are just so amused by this weird name. One of them said they constantly read it as ‘my fanny’. Some of them couldn’t spell it, even with it right there in front of them on the book or, even without the book, on the blurb on the very page they were reviewing on.

I remember as a kid asking my mum or dad why I didn’t have a Welsh name, since my mother’s all about being Welsh and proud. The answer I got was, “We thought other kids would make fun of you.” But there I was growing up with a strong Welsh identity in England, so although I’m assured by English people that this doesn’t happen, I was nonetheless bullied for that anyway. And the school sucked at dealing with it: a boy said ‘nigger’ to a friend in the playground, and the whole school got a half hour lecture about cultural sensitivity; I was bullied to tears, called Taffy and thief, on and on, and it was ignored. Inappropriate suggestions about me and sheep were also made, very graphically, from when I was eleven on up, but that wasn’t harassment of any kind.

I didn’t read a book by an author people recognised as Welsh until I was twenty-one (it was Margiad Evans’ Country Dance). In the introduction, Caitrin Collier wrote this:

I grew up in Wales in the 1950s and 60s, yet [Margiad Evans’] work was never mentioned at my school or local library. Whenever I asked the eternal question ‘What should I read next?’ I was directed towards Russian, English, American, German and French novelists. I discovered a few — a precious few — Welsh authors for myself, which only added weight to my teachers’s pronouncement that ‘people like you (translate as South Wales valley born) don’t write’.

That was my experience, too, though granted in England in the 90s and 00s. It mirrors stuff I’ve read about the experience of many more widely recognised minorities — people of colour, the queer community, women, people of non-dominant religions… Some of the discussions I’ve had about figuring out identity, about language — specifically, not speaking your ‘own’ language, or being encouraged not to — and fitting in all chimed with this issue for me.

I pointed out to a couple of these reviewers what kind of cultural issues they were trampling on. But nobody gives a shit, it’s ‘only’ Wales, it’s just a personal sob story about a name that isn’t even mine. (The fact that I don’t have a Welsh name because of exactly these issues doesn’t seem to mean anything.)

“Go and find your own place to tell these stories,” someone said to me, when I brought up that issue of identifying with those issues of other minority groups. “People will listen to you because you’re privileged, and they won’t listen to us. By talking about it here, you’re taking away the attention we need for our issues.”

I can understand why they wanted to keep the boundaries of their space clear, but I wonder why on earth they thought anyone would listen to me? I’m still looking for that mythical place where people will. Half the time, I find myself wondering if I’ve got anything interesting to say at all, but every now and then, someone else reaches back and says, yeah, I felt this too. So I’m not quite alone.

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Review – The Water-castle

Posted March 27, 2014 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Water-Castle by Brenda ChamberlainThe Water-castle, Brenda Chamberlain

There’s something strangely absorbing about The Water-castle. The relationship between Elizabeth and Klaus feels painfully real, which of course is because this is partially autobiographical. If it were a romance story, they’d have found some way to be together. As it is, it’s something real and painful, and unresolved.

Brenda Chamberlain’s writing is relatively simplistic, as if this really is a woman’s journal where she bears her thoughts without constructing them for an audience, which makes it work all the better. I’m glad in the finished version, she went with the ambiguous ending rather than the dramatic one: I’m not sure how the latter would have worked with this story; I don’t think it would have fit.

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Book prescription

Posted October 24, 2013 by Nicky in General / 0 Comments

I’ve been planning to be fairly up front about all aspects of my identity here — yes, I’m sure that means that if some potential employers found my blog, that might be a mark against me. But I want to be a whole person, and not compartmentalise stuff where I can’t see it myself half the time. Which, hey, potential employers? That takes bravery, and self-knowledge. Just sayin’.

I started with a new counsellor today. Now, despite all I said above, this blog isn’t about my mental health issues, I promise. What is relevant, though, is that my new counsellor wrote out a book prescription for me. That sounds like a really weird concept, but I promise you, it’s a real thing. You can get more information about the scheme in Wales here. Basically, though, it means that counsellors all over Wales have a pool of books that they can recommend to their clients about various different disorders and emotional problems, and those books are easy to access because each branch of each library has at least one copy.

I’ll review the book I was given here in time — it’s Panic Attacks, by Christine Ingham — but I just wanted to say a word or two about the process, to begin with. I don’t know how helpful this is going to be for me in particular, but I think it’s a valuable service that might help people access books that teach coping mechanisms and show them, most of all, that they’re not alone.

So what happened was that my counsellor wrote out the “prescription” for me. It’s a pretty simple form, just stating your name and address and a code for the book (not the title of it). You then go to a local library and present that. In my case, I had to present it a couple of times while they figured out where in the library I was meant to go! But it’s not so bad, and they didn’t make any comments about the fact that I had a book prescription, or when they found the book for me, what book had been chosen for me. When you get a book out on this scheme, the person prescribing it will suggest a length of time you can have the book. In the Cardiff area, at least, it goes on your library card as one of your total, and you can return it to any branch, but you can’t renew it yourself.

And that’s it. You go home with your prescribed book and… hopefully read it and get something out of it. I think it’s an interesting initiative: if I have any more to say on it, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, here are some of the books on the subject I’ve read in the past that are worth a look:

Loving What Is and I Need Your Love: Is that True? by Byron Katie
Introducing Mindfulness by Tessa Watt
(A Very Short Introduction to) Anxiety by Daniel Freeman

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