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message 1: by Ceri (new)

Ceri | 18 comments Mod
Feel free to contribute reviews here.

message 2: by Ceri (new)

Ceri | 18 comments Mod
Sea Holly

Porthcawl is a traditional British seaside resort on the South Wales coast about half way between Cardiff and Swansea. It has an esplanade with a row of hotels encamped along the seafront, a funfair called Coney Island and one of the largest caravan and camping parks in Europe. There are several beaches including Rest Bay and Trecco Bay both of which have been awarded the coveted Blue Flag status for adherence to water quality standards. Altogether an interesting and lively place and a perfect setting for a novel which explores the related themes of transience and permanence.

Life is seasonal in Porthcawl, or at least it is for the migrant workers who come to work at the funfair and for the human flotsam and jetsam that live on its margins. Robert Minhinnick has assembled a lively cast of marginal characters many of whom assume the role of narrator as the story unfolds. There is "The Fish" whose diminutive size, withered arm and love of alcohol have condemned him to work collecting fares for a ride aptly named "The Kingdom of The Damned". He spends the last night of the season sitting on a pedestal in "The Kingdom" drinking absinthe and toasting "absinthe friends". There is Donal, ex Special Boat Service, a veteran of the "troubles" in Northern Ireland. A man infected with wanderlust and a love of the sea. He has returned to Porthcawl after a failed Spanish business venture. His bar in Spain was called "El Zorro". Named after a freak wave that would snatch people off the beach and wash them out to sea. At one point he reflects ruefully whilst swimming off the 'Caib':-

"And yeah, that wave, El Zorro, that people warned their children about? Well I was the one it swallowed, wasn't I? I was the one it snatched off the beach. Funny really. You might even call it ironic.How that bastard wiped me out."

Many other colorful characters stalk these pages including Lol ,the geography teacher who sees a vision and goes native, camping in the dunes for years and communing with nature. There is also Hal the local Napoleon who owns much of the fair and many other things besides including a beer mat signed by Richard Burton, his hero, which is amongst his prized possessions.

It falls to the lot of these characters to narrate the tale of John Vine, a fifty year old English teacher who has left his job and family behind to live in a caravan on the Caib and pursue a new 'career' as a bingo caller at the fair. This crisis in his affairs was precipitated by an involvement with a young female student who subsequently disappeared.

The action takes place over a seven day period and during the course of the week we are offered many fascinating insights into the characters of both John Vine and the many narrators. Of course the disappearance of John Vine's former pupil, Rachel is central to the plot but we are also presented with a vivid portrait and masterful evocation of life on the 'Caib'. Indeed so much so that the novel was nominated for the 2008 Ondaatje Prize, a literary award that is given for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry which powerfully evokes the "spirit of a place".

This is a novel for anyone with an appreciation of the transience of mans life and works and of the futility of resistance to time and tide. It is Robert Minhinnick's first novel and hopefully the first of many.

First rate....highly recommended! A bigraphy of Robert Minhinnick can be found here.

Reproduced from Americymru book reviews.

message 3: by Ceri (new)

Ceri | 18 comments Mod

This novel is set in an alternative universe. One in which the Nazis succeed in conquering Russia and invading Britain after the failure of the D-Day landings in 1944. Such literary contrivances can seem very intrusive in a work of 'mainstream' literature but to Owen Sheers' credit the conceit is rendered with a masterful touch and seems almost essential in order to intensify the focus of the books' main theme. In the depths of a freezing winter in a remote corner of the Black Mountains in South Wales two people consider whether it is possible to 'cheat' history; leave the past behind and assert their shared humanity in the midst of bloody conflict.

This is no pastoral idyll, nor is it history writ large in the manner of Raymond Williams' - "People of The Black Mountains", but the landscape and its history do figure prominently in the narrative. At one point during her childhood, Sarah, the heroine of this tale meets David Jones, the Welsh poet and artist who stayed with Eric Gill at Capel-y-Ffin in the 1920's. Her meetings with him are recounted thus:-
"And that was when the poet began to tell Sarah his stories, recasting the land and hills she'd known all her life as the backdrop for his Celtic myths, for tales of saints and soldiers, of kings and bards. His stories worked upon the valleys around them like his paintings. he spoke of places she knew or that she'd hard of before, St Peter's well, The Abbey, The Cat's Back, St Davids Cell, but the lens of his stories made them all new again. Some of the stories she'd even heard before, but never like this, never growing from the very hills of her birthplace."

Sheers here hints at the perhaps unique relationship which the Welsh people have with their landscape. The hills of Wales are indeed magnificent but they pale into insignificance, at least in topographical terms, when compared with the European Alps or the North American Cascades. Their special gravity and power lies in the fact that every nook and cranny, every fold and crevice, is invested with some human significance. The sum of history and legend which the landscape reveals is almost an externalization of Welsh identity itself. As R.S. Thomas puts it:-

"You cannot live in the present, At least not in Wales,"

Sarah, however, is bound to the valley she lives in by far more tangible ties. There is the instinct for survival which impels her to observe the cycle of the rural calendar and her loyalty to her husband, who goes missing early on in the book when he is called upon to participate in the resistance to the German occupation.

By contrast, Albrecht, the German officer sent into the Olchon valley on a secret mission, is suffering from a severe case of 'hiraeth', or longing, both for his home and for his past destroyed by war. Unfortunately, he has no home to go back to. It was destroyed by Allied bombing. His war-weariness manifests itself in a desire to prolong his mission and in the uneasy truce which he and his men establish with the valleys' inhabitants.

The precarious situation which develops can only prove temporary. The climactic moments of the novel are reached as both characters have to decide how they will react when the cataclysmic events in the outside world threaten to come crashing in on them.

The distant rumbles of war are heard from beyond the Olchon throughout the book. Owen Sheers handles these interruptions skilfully. His references to these events are subtle and sparing... just sufficient to preserve the tension of the main theme. The preparation and training of the the Auxiliary Units of the British Resistance Organization are also woven into the fabric of the narrative; as is their ultimate fate.

The book ends with both protagonists facing a stark choice which is really no choice at all. In order to survive they must turn their backs on everything they have known and attempt to find personal salvation in a future that is as uncertain as it is dangerous. Do they succeed? I leave it to you to discover how this final act of 'resistance' plays out .

Reproduced from Americymru book reviews.

message 4: by Ceri (new)

Ceri | 18 comments Mod
My First Colouring Book

Read our interview with Lloyd Jones HERE.

Speaking as a hard-core short story fanatic, I can honestly say that Lloyd Jones' "My First Colouring Book" has been the high point of my literary year so far. It's great to see a Welsh author who has so far mastered this genre as to be worthy of mention alongside Carver, Cheever, Maupassant, Mansfield and, dare one even suggest it, Chekhov himself.

Lloyd Jones is fond of referring to his writing as "scribblings". In this collection he has elected to "scribble" in a dazzling variety of colors, all of which are intensely evocative.

There are many fine things in this anthology. There is "Blood," which warns of the potentially cataclysmic dangers of "exotic blood transfusions". There is "Post Office Red," which asserts the critical importance of preserving a sense of mystery and wonder. The closing sentence of this story reveals the "moral" of the tale with the same blinding clarity achieved by Mansfield in "The Doll's House". In "Black," an intellectual atheist meets a lady friend at a lake near the oldest church in Wales. It is close to the festive season and they are invited to join the Christmas service. The protagonist spends his time in the church indulging sexual fantasies about old girlfriends and the female occupant of the burial plot in the pew beneath his feet. On the drive back home they pass a dark and sinister stranger on the road and he has perhaps the closest thing to a religious experience that he will ever know. "Wine" is a heart-warming "feelgood" tale about a devout christian who performs a charitable act in order to fill a gap in the "O" section of his address book. It contains elements of high farce and compares favorably with the best of O Henry.

Also not to be missed are the four short essays at the end of the book which describe walks in North, South, East and West Wales. As a South-Walian and a keen hill-walker back in the day, I deeply appreciated his account of a sojourn in the Black Mountains and his visits to Cwmyoy and Partrishow churches. Both are magical places and evoked masterfully.

Lest anything I have so far said gives the impression that this is a light-hearted collection, please allow me to observe that these stories contain some of the most profound and poignant meditations on life, love and death in 21st century literature. In a recent interview with Americymru, Lloyd Jones was asked about his future literary plans. He replied, "Maybe some more short stories?". We sincerely hope so.

In short, this book is a treat for short-story fans, lovers of literature and lovers of Wales. If you fall into all three categories, then it is simply a "must read". If you are buying a gift for Christmas, either as a gift to yourself or for someone else, you couldn't do better than "My First Colouring Book."

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