A nation with two literary languages but one soul that speaks passionately through its writers - here is the guide to the modern literary scene covering circa 100 works that sum up the currents and corners of Welsh life from the 1920s to the present. This little book puts the lot at your fingertips.

Contributions by Ray Keenoy, Rhian Reynolds and Sioned Rowlands

Guide

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Ice

Barnie, John

John Barnie is a polymath, seemingly rather good at everything. Not only is he editor of the important Welsh cultural magazine Planet, he is also a poet, essayist (particularly on politics and the environment) and blues musician, and in his latest work he brings these various talents together for the first time. Ice is a novel in verse — but don’t let that put you off. Thankfully, it lacks those qualities we tend to associate with ‘traditional’ poetry: it is not flowery or pretentious; it is not difficult for the sake of it; it doesn’t rhyme. It is, instead, surprisingly readable and extremely effective, conveying both a sense of place and the hopes and fears of the main characters with a richness and economy impossible to achieve through conventional prose. And what is there here of Barnie’s blues-playing side? Far from this being the lamentations of a broke drifter whose wife leaves him and takes the ..READ MORE

A Bloody Good Friday

Barry, Desmond

1977. The Queen’s silver jubilee; skinheads; punk; high unemployment; civil and industrial unrest; the year of the four-month-long bread strike in south Wales. Storm clouds are gathering above Merthyr, a (soon to be former) mining town already in sharp decline. Against this backdrop, Davey Daunt, known in the pre-politically correct environment of the 1970s Welsh valleys as ‘Spazzy’ on account of a leg withered by polio, recounts the intertwined stories of a number of dodgy local characters as their paths cross, re-cross and finally badly entangle in the late hours of one fateful and extremely bloody Good Friday.

Macky, Davey’s best mate, released from prison just that morning, is out, along with fellow hard cases Morgan and Gerry, to paint the town red. Blood red. Bunyan, Davey’s childhood abuser, heads towards the high street curryhouse in a drunken stupor. In the ghetto that is the notorious Gurnos housing estate, Gripper, the leader of a gang of skinheads known as the Shop Boys, is arrested and his second-in-command, keen to prove his yobbish credentials, steps in with a rallying cry of anarchy and recreational violence. He leads the delinquent mob on a rampage down to the town, leavi..READ MORE

So Long, Hector Bebb

Berry, Ron

Ron Berry’s vivid, often brutal novel tells the story of a fictional British Champion boxer, Hector Bebb, whose life is unravelled by violence. A snapshot of 1960s Cymmer in south Wales (complete with dialects) where the people are hard-working, hard-drinking, and hard-fighting, the novel traces the effects of violence and savagery — that which is legitimised by war and that by the boxing ring, as well as that which is not tolerated at all in civilised society.

We join Hector in training for his comeback bout, following a year-long suspension for biting an opponent. His story is told through a variety of perspectives — as well as Hector’s voice, there are thirteen other narrators including his wife, his trainer, his manager and other amateur boxers, past and present. Woven into the story of his preparations therefore are memories of how Hector started to box, accounts of fights through the years, and an exploration of the relationships of those connected to Hector and the other members of the White Hart Boxing club.

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Glass Shot

Bush, Duncan

Glass Shot is the unalloyed and unrelieved portrait of a sociopath, a man who, while apparently conforming to social norms in his lifestyle and appearance, lacks the crucial inner behavioural regulator of empathy for others.

As Bush drags us into the mind of this self-centred and ignorant man whose



family ties and social pride have been severed by marriage breakdown — his wife, much to his disgust, has left him for a teacher, the better to indulge middle-class cottagey-décor and Volvo-driving aspirations — we begin to feel bullied by this angry and threatening pub-bore type. His chronic anxiety and existential misery fester in the bleak universe constituted by the tyre-fitters’ where he works, his porno consumption, sex fantasies, ideas of revenge and gambling activities. His fantasy life in fact folds in and out of his consci..READ MORE

Deadwater

Burke, Sean

Sean Burke’s striking debut novel is set in Cardiff’s notorious Butetown district in 1989, prior to the massive redevelopment which transformed that part of the Welsh capital. An urban thriller in the tradition of George Pelecanos and James Lee Burke, Deadwater begins with the gruesome murder of prostitute Christina Villers. Pharmacist and alcoholic Jack Farissey wakes the next morning, covered in blood and with no memory of the previous night. What follows is an odyssey into an anarchic world of pool halls, seedy pubs and rundown cafés, a blighted place of poverty, drug abuse, prostitution and gang violence.

Jack Farissey is complex, morally ambiguous and contradictory: at once negligent and protective, selfish and compassionate, he provides handouts of medicine to needy locals, recreationally consumes some of his stock himself ..READ MORE

The Land as Viewed from the Sea

Collins, Richard

The Land as Viewed from the Sea is Richard Collins’ remarkable debut novel. It is an unconventional love story that pushes the limits of language and form to capture the complexity of memory and loss. Its prologue sets the background for the whole novel, invoking an expanse of grey-green sea constantly in flux. The waves journey onwards with previously felt forces, present momentum and the promise of future encounters. From this seemingly limitless fluidity the narrative shifts to an interior landscape to focus on a man and a woman arguing.

This stylised opening sequence could not be more in contrast to the earthy reality of rural life with which the story begins. Two men work companionably in the fields, one after an absence of some years. The latter, John, the ostensible ‘author’, is invigorated by the effect the natural environment has upon his senses; his awareness of physical reality has been dulled by his residence in the city and some of the novel’s most vivid and lyrical passages stem from his renewed receptivity to nature.

..READ MORE

The Element of Water

Davies, Stevie

The twin narratives of The Element of Water take place in 1945 and 1958. Following Hitler’s suicide in the last days of World War Two in Europe, Admiral Dönitz is pronounced head of state, and establishes the headquarters of the shattered Reich at Ruhleben naval camp on Lake Plön. As the Allies approach, Dönitz’s remaining forces flee, throwing their medals and weapons into the lake’s dark waters. Thirteen years later, the building has become a British forces boarding school (which, we are told in a foreword, the author herself attended). Michael Quantz, a former Nazi intelligence officer based at Ruhleben during Dönitz’s time, and his adult son Wolfi are now music teachers at the British school. Both men are haunted — Wolfi by the death of his mother during an allied air raid, his father by the atrocities he witnessed during the war, particularly those perpetrated by his childhood friend Paul Dahl: ‘From a seraphic Lutheran chorister, Paul had ripened to the purest filth’. Wolfi, a shy,  awkward young man, struggles with the burgeoning contempt he and his peers have for the complicity of his fath..READ MORE

My People

Evans, Caradoc

Hailed as the father of ‘Anglo-Welsh’ literature, Caradoc Evans rose to notoriety with this controversial first collection, My People. First published in 1915, the fifteen stories are all set in the fictional village of Manteg and are also unified by recurring themes and characters. The stories depict a rural, Welsh-speaking and religiously Nonconformist community peopled by half-wits, social misfits, lecherous misogynists and oppressive Methodist ministers, all of whom share an obsessive and hollow materialism. Their motto is ‘keep your purse full and the strings tight, and nothing will fail you’.

Each story is set within the dominant institution of the place, Capel Sion (‘Zion Chapel’), ruled with self-interest and sham respectability by the chapel



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Grits

Griffiths, Niall

Grits was Liverpool-born Niall Griffiths’ first novel and establishes the fictional world in which all his novels to date — Sheepshagger, Kelly and Victor, Stump and Wreckage — have been located. When first published, this tale of 1990s drug culture and social decay in a Welsh seaside resort (Grif..READ MORE

The Colour of a Dog Running Away

Gwyn, Richard

1990s Barcelona, a surreal and postmodern landscape peopled by rooftop raiders, English teachers, artists and fire-eaters. A city that is both menacing and inspirational. The majority of the narrative takes place in the atmospheric Gothic quarter with its narrow alleyways, medieval churches, hidden squares and shady bars, the latter frequented with zealous regularity by the improbably named Rhys Morgan Aurelio Lucas and his displaced friends.

Lucas is a thirty-three-year old translator and aspiring musician whose story begins with his witnessing a mugging one May evening. The next day a mysterious postcard arrives leading him to the beautiful Barcelonesa, Nuria, with whom he begins an intensely passionate affair.

Nuria seems to provide Lucas with stability and meaning in a world of fleeting attachments and constant movement. But nothing is as it seems in this city where the ‘abiding attraction lies in its relentless powers of reinvention, a ruthless creativity that rubs off on people after the brief..READ MORE

The Tower

Hughes, Tristan

Place has been defined in one contemporary version as ‘space to which meaning has been ascribed’, and it is the meanings that we apply to land and space that Hughes considers in The Tower. The book is a collection of seven beautifully written and interwoven short stories that look at the same ‘small patch of land’ on Ynys Môn (the Isle of Anglesey). As well as exploring how this specific place influences — and indeed is influenced by — a cast of diverse characters,



Hughes also considers wider issues of place and the importance of the notions of ‘here’, ‘somewhere’ and ‘nowhere’. Some characters seem stranded on the
ynys, unsure of ho..READ MORE

Outside the House of Baal

Humphreys, Emyr

A Man’s Estate

Outside the House of Baal, a book from the mid-1960s, is considered one of the most canonical of modern Welsh novels. It tackles thorny problems of Welsh identity in the twentieth century and beyond, including the effects of the dissolution of the ‘niche civilisation’ of Welsh-speaking Nonconformism, seen for example in the dialogue between the book’s main protagonist, philosophically troubled preacher J.T. Miles, and his son Ronnie who is, tellingly, a sociologist rather than a man of the cloth.

To his father’s chagrin Ronnie speaks of a ‘dead-wood’ tradition while a new pub, the so-called (by J.T.) ‘House of Baal’ now abuts onto his garden. The preacher understands temperance as something firmly Welsh, in contradistinction to th..READ MORE

A Small Country

James, Siân

This is the story of a Welsh farming family in the process of dissolution, both sentimentally and socially, in the period just before World War One. While the setting is idyllic enough — ‘it was a still, silvery morning, doves murmuring from the huge chestnut trees outside the windows’ — this large house with its small staff of loyal retainers is struck with great unhappiness as the head of the family, Josi, runs off with a young(ish) female teacher he encounters by chance one day.

There are echoes of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (a work whose importance has been traduced by its notoriety) in the foregrounding of sexual passion in the lives of the main protagonists and it is set in a similar period.

There are echoes too in the figure of t..READ MORE

Gwalia in Khasia

Jenkins, Nigel

The Khasia tribe live in an isolated part of north-east India, a mountainous land of virgin forests in the foothold of the Jaintia hills in Meghalay. On the one hand they form a progressive society in which women are treated with reverence, on the other the society is rather less enlightened in its practice of ritual sacrifice. The rich landscape is revered by its people who live in harmony with nature. Language is central too, revealing its proximity to the environment in its onomatopoeic emphasis: ‘miaw’ for cat and ‘slap’ for the heavy tropical rains that fall there. Their culture carries a weight of ancestral mythology and maintains its ancient oral tradition and this in fact is central to this beautifully crafted account of a meeting of two peoples bound by history and ‘intervention’.

Combining both travelogue and historical account within a narrative structure, Gwalia in Khasia is the fascinating story of Wales’ only overseas Mission, all..READ MORE

The Island of Apples

Jones, Glyn

Glyn Jones, friend and contemporary of Dylan Thomas, was one of the most influential figures in the formative years of Welsh writing in English. The Island of Apples, perhaps his most important novel, is an elegy of youth and testament to a vanished community, the once vibrant industrial centre of Merthyr Tydfil. The fictional valley town of Ystrad functions as homage to the lively cultural and social milieu of the author’s boyhood. In common with most English-language writers in Wales during this period, Jones explores the relationship between the industrial south and the rural west of his family origins.

Dewi Davies is a scholarship boy whose life is changed forever when a mysterious youth is saved from drowning by his father. Karl, the ‘body’ in the river, becomes the focus of adolescent hero-worship for the young protagonist, dazzled to the point of obsession by the exotic and charismatic older boy of undisclosed Central European origin. Karl provi..READ MORE

Welsh Boys Too!

Jones, John Sam

In 1924 E.Prosser Rhys won the crown at the National Eisteddfod for his hugely controversial ode Atgof (‘Memory’) which dealt with the sexual awakening of a young gay man. It scandalised this invariably conservative institution and though John Sam Jones writes in English, his stories are set in the Welsh-language heartland formed by the same religious Nonconformity and cultural politics depicted by Rhys seventy years ago.

John Sam Jones’ prize-winning first collection was inspired by his own experiences as a gay youth in the traditionally Welsh-speaking rural hinterland of a small coastal town.



Jones is often preoccupied with the individual’s sense of belonging and the need to negotiate a plac..READ MORE

Mr Vogel

Jones, Lloyd

This novel in three distinct sections — the symbolism of which only becomes clear at the end — is itself, as the author describes the land of Wales, a bag of tricks. Once opened it fascinates with its rush of styles, characters, temporal shifts and mythical proportions. A book with a dark secret but ultimately hopeful in spirit, in it we make a breathtaking journey that begins with the discovery of a manuscript.

With a flourish, we are thrust into an anachronistic fairytale world set in and around the infamous Blue Angel pub with narration supplied by its quirky bartender. A motley crew of characters frequent the place, including explorers like George Borrow and Thomas Pennant. Humboldt’s parrot is also in residence and a Welsh Don Quixote drops by regularly. The narrative explodes outwards to eventually encapsulate Welsh history in a cleverly exploited world of make-believe, set in a handy time-warp that allows past and present to converge.

This is the ‘second home’ of Mr Vogel — a solitar..READ MORE

Soldiers and Innocents

Jones, Russell Celyn

During the mid-1980s, a soldier of an elite airborne regiment goes absent without leave from active service in Northern Ireland after witnessing the death of a woman in labour, and the subsequent suicide of her mother. The stillborn child, whose image concludes the novel’s prologue, is the catalyst that forces Captain Evan Price to question the morality of the army and the state that governs it. He can no longer accept the conditioning imposed by military training that strips men of their personal and communal responsibilities. It is this realisation that compels him to return to his roots and take greater responsibility as the father of a young son.

The novel follows the journey of a young man driven to comprehend his place in the world. The army denies him autonomy and presents itself as an all-encompassing family, a completely self-contained community. Evan comes to view these bonds as essentially malevolent, based on violence and subjugation without regard for the sanctity of life, ‘a system that generated evil as a way of sustaining itself’.

..READ MORE

Mr Schnitzel

Knight, Stephen

Winner of the Arts Council of Wales ‘Book of the Year Award’ in 2001, Mr Schnitzel evades categorisation: it’s a novel, a book of fables, a memoir, even a travelogue. Despite this ambiguous and sometimes fragmentary format, it has an impressive coherence and gravitas.

Night after night, while Stefan and his family are visiting his mother’s aunt in Austria, his father (the eponymous Mr Schnitzel — ‘an honorary title’ bestowed on account of his fondness for that particular dish) tells him fairytales about the Austrian Navy: ‘Stories for a five-year-old unsettled by sleeping in a strange bed in a strange country’. Among the characters Stefan is introduced to are Elfrieda the heartbroken pirate, bent on revenging her husband’s murder; compulsive potholer Thomas von Gammon and his doomed exploration of Europe’s subterranean canals; and Count Otto von Otto, First Admiral of the Austrian Fleet and ‘an excellent swimmer’, dispatched to sc..READ MORE

Two in a Boat: A Marital Voyage

Lewis, Gwyneth

Gwyneth Lewis is an acclaimed poet, one of the twenty listed in the 2004 New Generation Poets*. She is arguably Wales’ best bilingual poet, author of one of the biggest poems in the world**, the enormous symbol of Wales’ new cultural and political autonomy in Cardiff Bay’s docklands. Like all good poets she seeks out new territories of the mind exploring, like her astronaut cousin***, new worlds and means of navigation. Two in a Boat is Lewis’ lyrical prose account of a life-changing venture on a beautiful old ‘Nicholson 35’ yacht, the Jameelah.



Hooked on C.S. Forester’s ‘Hornblower’ books (historical novels about the British Royal Navy) an..READ MORE