Emma Schofield introduces the next category in our list of 100 Page Turners of Wales, Wales Arts Review‘s exploration of the riches of fiction from Wales.
If ever there was a time to escape into a world of adventure, this is surely it. As we continue with our 100 Page Turners from Wales we delve into the Adventure category and an opportunity to experience new stories, or perhaps relive childhood favourites. Nina Bawden’s 1973 children’s novel Carrie’s War was a popular choice among our judging panel, following the lives of two siblings from London who find themselves evacuated to a Welsh village during World War II, as was Roald Dahl’s tale of a boy and a gigantic, enchanted peach in James and the Giant Peach. Both books were written for children, both feature very different kinds of adventure and yet, both retain the ability to tug at their readers’ heartstrings. Although explored very differently, there is sadness and loss in both novels, tellingly presented through children’s eyes. These are stories which are not just about new experiences, strange places and unfamiliar people; there is a complexity and history to the central characters which allows us to see, in glimpses, the challenges which they have faced in their lives so far.
This same balance between reality, imagination and experience can be seen in several of the titles on our list. Owen Sheers’ alternative World War II history Resistance imagines a successful German invasion of Britain, with complex ramifications for characters located in a valley near Abergavenny. Similarly, Eloise Williams invites us into a dark ghost story for her 2018 novel Seaglass, while also gradually revealing the story of protagonist Lark who is struggling to cope with difficult family circumstances and her mother’s ill health. Even when these stories venture into alternative worlds, such as the magical fantasy kingdom which provides the backdrop for Diana Wynne Jones’ enchanting story Howl’s Moving Castle, the characters must still make choices with significant consequences to overcome their individual circumstances.
Whichever world they take us to, real, historical or fantasy, there is so much more to these ten books than just escapism and the physical adventures we encounter; they take us right to the heart of the lives, and struggles, faced by the characters. Whether written for adults or children, they are stories which have a habit of calling you back, again and again.
(100 Page Turners artwork created by Lilly Dosanjh)
100 Page Turners: Adventure
Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden (1973)
Synopsis: Nina Bawden is an english novelist and childrens writer who grew up as a evacuee in World War Two in Adedare. Carrie’s War tells the story of Carrie and her bother who are evacuated from London to Wales during the Second World War and sent to live with the very strict Mr Evans. But in trying to heal the breach between Mr Evans and his sister, Carrie does the worst thing she ever did in her life.
A poignant and realistic picture of what the second world war was like for a child . . . Carrie’s War captures the true reality of war for a child, and it doesn’t sentimentalise war.’ Shirley Hughes, Guardian
‘A very touching, utterly convincing book about three wartime evacuees billeted to Wales. It’s very much a children’s story, with a mystery to be solved, but Nina Bawden is very subtle with her characterisation – even hateful Mr Evans with his cruel bullying is seen as sadly pathetic too. Carrie and her little brother Nick are a delight, but my favourite character is their friend Albert Sandwich. He might sport steel spectacles and have a few spots on his chin, but he’s one of the most charming boys in all children’s fiction.’ Jacqueline Wilson
‘Delicately done, full of accurate and unsentimental understanding.’ Sunday Telegraph
‘Perhaps the best of Nina Bawden’s excellent novels.’ Sunday Times
Cove, Cynan Jones (2016)
Synopsis: Cynan Jones was born in Aberaeron and his novel Cove won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2017. Cove tells the story of a man, out at sea and in a sudden storm struck by lightening. When he wakes, injured and adrift on a kayak, his memory of who he is and how he came to be there is all but shattered. Now he must pit himself against the pain and rely on his instincts to get back to shore, and to the woman he dimly senses waiting for his return
‘This is writing that forces you to pay close attention… A powerful story about one man pitted against the elements, with echoes of Hemingway… but original in its underlying poignancy; the story telling is stripped to its bare essentials.’ The Times
‘Arresting… Jones is a highly accomplished writer in whose hands such elemental raw materials turn strange and fugitive… Though his novels often turn on sudden shocks, the real power of his prose lies in its slow accumulation of energy around dimly apprehended points of tension… Part of what’s impressive about the book is that it holds its own. One might expect some level of its allusiveness, an acknowledgement of literature’s other lost sailors. But Jones’s writing has a cool independence, aloof from others’ words.’ Guardian
‘Jones strips the story down to its elemental core and much of it reads like a prose poem. His vivid descriptions allow us to feel the man’s physical discomfort and flagging spirit… Cove is about the dangerous, unknowable rhythms of the sea… about devastation […] love, loss, memory and the will to live… A haunting meditation on trauma and human fragility.’ Financial Times
Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, Horatio Clare (2015)
Synopsis: Horatio Clare is a critically-acclaimed author and journalist raised in South Wales. Aubrey is a rumbunctious boy who tries to run before he can walk and has crashed two cars before he’s old enough to drive one. But when Aubrey’s father, Jim, falls under an horrendous spell, Aubrey is determined to break it. Everyone says his task is impossible but with the help of the animals of Rushing Wood and a touch of magic, Aubrey will never give up and never surrender – even if he must fight the unkillable spirit of despair itself – the Terrible Yoot!
‘Horatio Clare writes about animals as well as T.H.White.’ Branford Boase Judges
‘Horatio Clare has the voice of a great storytellyer. A joy, a sheer joy.’ Michael Morpurgo
‘A treasure … rambunctious spirit, massive heart, and a poet’s eye. It’s also really funny.’ Frank Cottrell Boyce
‘A jewel not to be missed.’ Nicolette Jones, The Sunday Times.
Seaglass, Eloise Williams (2018)
Synopsis: Eloise Willaims lives in Pembrokeshire and was the recipient of the inaugural Children’s Laureeate Wales 2019-2021. Seaglass is a chilling contemporary ghost story with a determined 13-year-old heroine defending her family and learning to handle her emotions. Lark struggles when her family and their friends go on holiday in a lonely caravan site on the Welsh coast for the autumn half term. Her mother is ill, her little sister has stopped speaking and she has fallen out with her best friend. Is a girl in a green dress following her in the fog? Or is her sister playing tricks on her? When a local woman tells her the girl comes to take sisters, Lark finds herself the only one who can save her family.
‘What a book. Powerful and thought-provoking, with family and friendship at its core and so much to say about the importance of words and compassion. Truly exceptional.’ Amy Wilson
A deliciously atmospheric ghost story set on the salty windswept Welsh coast.’ Fiona Noble, The Bookseller
‘A fascinating mystery wrapping a sensitive portrayal of adolescence as Lark is tumbled and changed by the storms and calms of growing up like the seaglass of the title.’ Celia Rees
Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Eynne Jones (1986)
Synopsis: Diana Wynne Jones was born in London but evacuated to Wales during the War. Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of young Sophie Hatter from the land of Ingary catches the unwelcome attention of the Witch of the Waste and is put under a spell . Deciding she has nothing more to lose, Sophie makes her way to the moving castle that hovers on the hills above her town, Market Chipping. But the castle belongs to the dreaded Wizard Howl, whose appetite, they say, is satisfied only by the souls of young girls…There Sophie meets Michael, Howl’s apprentice, and Calcifer the fire demon, with whom she agrees a pact. Her entanglements with Calcifer, Howl and Michael and her quest to break her curse come alive with Diana Wynne Jones’s unique combination of magic, humour and imagination.
‘The best children’s writer of the last forty years.’ Neil Gaiman
‘Wit and humor glint from the pages.’ The Horn Book
‘A witty, rollicking fantasy.’ ALA Booklist
‘Jones has outdone herself in this frolicking, warmhearted fantasy. Thoroughly enjoyable — a wonderful blend of humor, magic, and romance.’ Publishers Weekly
James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl (1961)
Synopsis: Roald Dahl was one of the UK’s most prolific children’s writers, with his imaginative world frequently brought to life by lively illustrations. Here, a young orphan boy escapes a difficult life with his evil aunts and enters a gigantic, magical peach. Once inside, he has an unbelievable and surreal cross-world adventure with seven magically-altered garden bugs he meets on his journey. In recent years the book has also been made into a film and a musical.
‘A true genius . . . Roald Dahl is my hero.’ David Walliams
‘Dahl has the ability to motivate and empower young readers.’ Jed Bennett, Penguin
Resistance, Owen Sheers (2007)
Synopsis: Owen Sheers is the two time winner of Wales Book of the Year and a Professor in Creatvity at Swansea University. Resistance is set in 1944 after the fall of Russia and the failed D-Day landings. A young farmer’s wife Sarah Lewis wakes to find her husband has disappeared, along with all of the men from her remote Welsh village. A German patrol arrives in the valley, the purpose of their mission a mystery. Sarah begins a faltering acquaintance with the patrol’s commanding officer, Albrecht, and it is to her that he reveals the purpose of his mission – to claim an extraordinary medieval art treasure that lies hidden in the valley. But as the pressure of the war beyond presses in on this isolated community, this fragile state of harmony is increasingly threatened.
‘Magical. . . . Sheers emerges as a gifted storyteller who can meld the literal and figurative to stunning—and tragic—effect.’ Newsday
‘What if the D-Day landings had failed and a successful German invasion of Britain had followed? Owen Sheers takes real contingency plans for this alternative outcome to the Second World War as the premise for his first novel, Resistance, and creates around his imagined history a credible and moving story of loyalty and quiet courage. An impressive debut and confirms Sheers as a writer whose talent encompasses a variety of literary forms.’ The Independent
‘Owen Sheers’s powerful first novel dances brilliantly with the possibilities of an alternative outcome to the Second World War. Resistance is less a thriller than a hymn to poetry. Embedded in the history and landscape of this border area, poetry seeps into our awareness as a fragile but persistent site of resistance to the forces of darkness.’ The Telegraph
The Meat Tree, Gwyneth Lewis (2010)
Synopsis: Gwyneth Lewis was appointed Wales first National Poet for 2005-06. The Meat Tree is a retelling of the Mabinogion fourth branch, including the story of Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers. A dangerous tale of desire, DNA, incest and flowers plays out within the wreckage of an ancient spaceship in The Meat Tree; an absorbing retelling of one of the best know Welsh myths from prize-winning writer and poet, Gwyneth Lewis. An elderly investigator and his female apprentice hope to extract the fate of the ship’s crew from its antiquated virtual reality game system, but their empirical approach falters as the story tangles with their own imagination.
‘Gwyneth Lewis’s gripping and intelligent exploration of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, Blodeuwedd’s tale, does not disappoint.’ Times Literary Supplement
‘Gwyneth Lewis… provides a satisfyingly bizarre context for a narrative about an unfaithful woman made of flowers who turns into an owl, while Lewis’s inspector observes events from a hilariously jobs-worth perspective: ‘I’m an experienced enough traveller to know that you lose all dignity on a space trip. But that’s usually to do with toilet matters, not being banished to a forest with your student, turned into an animal and forced to reproduce.’ Alfred Hickling, Guardian
West, Carys Davies (2019)
Synopsis: Carys Davies was born in Wales and grew up in the Midlands. West tells the story of Cy Bellman, American settler and widowed father of Bess, reads in the newspaper that huge ancient bones have been discovered in a Kentucky swamp, he leaves his small Pennsylvania farm and young daughter to find out if the rumours are true: that the giant monsters are still alive, and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River.
‘One of the most haunting and beautifully crafted novels I have read in a long time… Davies has produced something quite wonderful in West. This is a gently seductive book, one that entrances right to its cleverly conceived end.’ The Sunday Times (UK)
‘A multi-faceted gem of a book, West taps the spirit of the great quest novels of Twain, Melville, Cervantes, but with a gentle feminist twist and a fraction of the page count.’ Toronto Star
‘Short, incredible, violent, uplifting and empowering – how Davies manages to create such an enduring story in 150 pages is a mystery, but she nails it.’ Stylist
‘Slender, stark, and utterly mesmerizing.’ The Mail on Sunday (UK)
The Grey King, Susan Cooper (1975)
Synopsis:Susan Cooper grew up in Aberdyfi in Wales. The Grey King tells the story of Will who following a series illness is sent to stay with his uncle in the wild, bleak mountains of Tywyd. He is troubled by vague memories until he meets the mysterious Bran – and suddenly Will knows the task that lies ahead. With Bran’s help, Will set outs to find the golden harp and awaken the six sleepers who must join the final battle between the Dark and the Light. But Will is about to encounter his most terrifying opponent yet: the Grey King.
‘Susan Cooper is one of the few contemporary writers who has the vivid imagination, the narrative powers, and the moral vision that permit her to create the kind of sweeping conflict between good and evil that lies at the heart of all great fantasy. Tolkien had it. So did C.S. Lewis. And Cooperwrites in the same tradition.’ Psychology Today