In the latest instalment of our 100 Page Turners from Wales series, Emma Schofield introduces a selection of titles with the theme of ‘Family and Friends’.
The next category in our list of 100 Page Turners from Wales cuts straight to the heart of how we see ourselves, intersecting with notions of identity, place and home. There’s no doubt that the category of Family and Friends is a broad one, but our judging panel put forward a list of titles which explore the significance of our ties to others and how those relationships change and develop throughout the course of our lives. Indeed, complex relationships and questions of identity are overarching themes in each of the books nominated by our judging panel, even within their different styles and genres. Tyler Keevil’s 2018 novel No Good Brother introduces us to two brothers who are forced to confront their family history as they find themselves on the run across America in his tense thriller, while Catherine Fisher turns to snowy mid-Wales for the backdrop to her enchanting children’s story, The Clockwork Crow, which features an orphan who begins to uncover secrets about her family, and identity, from her new home in a Victorian mansion.
Amongst the lost friendships and difficult family ties which exist in many of the titles on this list, we also see a number of the characters grappling with a return to their childhood home. In Second Chance Sian James explores placeable bonds as her protagonist returns to the village in which she grew up in order to attend her mother’s funeral. Meanwhile Erica Woof’s little-known 2002 novel Mud Puppy follows London-based artist Daryl as she returns to Newport and struggles to reconnect with her hometown, reconciling her life as an artist in London and her sexuality with her attempts to rebuild her relationships with her father and a handful of estranged school friends. What becomes clear in both novels is that, however painful, the shadows of past difficulties must, eventually, be confronted.
This process of reconciliation with family and history also resonates throughout Francesca Rhydderch’s poignant tale in The Rice Paper Diaries as four carefully interwoven stories come together to depict the life of Elsa, a young woman who finds herself isolated and homesick in 1940s Hong Kong. Angharad Price takes us to a very different setting for The Life of Rebecca Jones, nominated here in the form of Lloyd Jones’ translation, as the novel introduces us to Rebecca, a woman coming to terms with the arrival of modernity on her family’s rural homestead in Maesglasau. In Rebecca’s case, these cultural and technological changes force her to reflect on her family’s history and their place within the rural landscape they have inhabited for so long.
Not all of the characters depicted in the books in this category achieve resolution as they unpick family and friendship ties but, for many, there is a sense of peace to be found in recognising who they are and how their own identities are shaped by their connection to the people around them. These are books which may nudge us to consider the formative relationships within our own lives, but above all, they are powerful, often emotional stories which make for compelling reading.
Family and Friends
The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher (2018)
Synopsis: Catherine Fisher is a Welsh poet and children’s novelist who writes in English. She has also worked as a school and university teacher. She lives in the city of Newport, Wales. The Clockwork Crow is a mysterious gothic Christmas tale set in a frost-bound Victorian country mansion. When orphaned Seren Rees is given a mysterious package by a strange and frightened man on her way to her new home, she reluctantly takes it with her. But what is in the parcel? Who are the Family who must not be spoken of, and can the Crow help Seren find Tom, before the owner of the parcel finds her? The Clockwork Crow is a gripping Christmas tale of families and belonging set in snowy Wales from a master storyteller.
‘Children of ten and older will find themselves pleasurably lost in this enchanting, candlelit delight.’ Philip Womack, Literary Review
‘Full of deep fairytale resonance, Fisher s writing stands out in the mind s eye like blood drops on snow.’ Imogen Russell Williams, The Guardian
‘Catherine Fisher, a ‘writer of rare talent’, has produced a sparkling, snow-wrapped, ice-capped marvel. Beautifully and skillfully crafted, inspired by folklore and featuring a cast of endearing characters. Totally magical and such a great read. Got to be one of THE books of 2018.’ Family Book Worms
No Good Brother by Tyler Keevil (2018)
Synopsis: Tyler Keevil grew up in Vancouver and in his mid-twenties moved to Wales. No Good Brother tells the story of Tim Harding who has spent the fishing season in Canada working as a deckhand, making an honest living. When his hot-headed younger brother tracks him down at the shipyards in Vancouver, Tim senses trouble. Jake is a drifter, a dreamer, an ex-con, and now he needs help in repaying a debt to the notorious Delaney gang. So begins an epic, unpredictable odyssey across land and sea as the brothers journey down to the Delaney’s ranch in the U.S., chased by customs officials, freak storms and the gnawing feeling that their luck is about to run out. But while they may be able to outrun the law, there’s no escaping the ghosts of their tragic family past and neither is prepared for who and what awaits them at the other end…
‘A great, gripping story, ferociously well-written, with characters that live and breathe’ Stef Penney, bestselling author of Under a Pole Star
‘I was blown away. Beautiful writing…stunning.’ Miriam Toews author of All My Puny Sorrows
‘Vividly told…compelling.’ Carys Bray, author of A Song For Issy Bradley
Danny Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (1975)
Synopsis: The son of Norwegian parents, Roald Dahl was born in Wales in 1916 and educated at Repton. Danny lives in a gipsy caravan with his father, the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.
All the land around them belongs to Mr Victor Hazell, a rich snob with a great glistening beery face and tiny piggy eyes. Nobody likes him, not one-little bit. So one day, Danny and his father concoct a daring plot that will give the old blue-faced baboon Victor Hazell the greatest shock of his life – so long as they don’t get caught…
‘A true genius . . . Roald Dahl is my hero’ David Walliams
‘It feels as if the book almost turns the pages for you’ The Guardian
The Rice Paper Diaries by Francesca Rhydderch (2013)
Synopsis: The Rice Paper Diaries was Francesca Rhydderch’s début novel and became winner of Wales Book of the Year, English Language Fiction award in 2014. Rhydderch has been shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award 2014 and is currently an Associate Professor in English Literature and Creative Writing at Swansea University. The novel is a story of war, told from the margins. Four interweaving accounts relate the intimate havoc wrought by military conflict on individual lives. As the novel opens, it is spring 1940, and newly wed Elsa Jones is finding her way in Hong Kong s ex-pat society, trying to reconcile her new life with the past and traditions she grew up with in Wales.
‘The Rice Paper Diaries is a stylish debut. Rhydderch writes beautifully, each sentence elegantly honed.’ Suzy Ceulan Hughes, New Welsh Review
The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan (2007)
Synopsis: Gwenni Morgan is not like any other girl in this small Welsh town. Inquisitive, bookish and full of spirit, she can fly in her sleep and loves playing detective. So when a neighbour mysteriously vanishes, and no one seems to be asking the right questions, Gwenni decides to conduct her own investigation.
Mari Strachan (born 1945 in Harlech, Wales) is a Welsh novelist and librarian. Her unforgettable novel was one of the most acclaimed and successful debuts of 2009. It is a heart-breaking and hugely enjoyable story.
‘The Earth Hums in B Flat is a richly evocative, warm but unsentimental tale of a child detective struggling to piece together clues about the lives around her… extremely compelling. I loved this novel.’ Catherine O’Flynn, author of What Was Lost
‘I loved this debut, which manages to give a young girl’s narrative an authentically quirky aspect, without ever resorting to cutesiness or cosiness . . . Strachan eschews whimsy for reality in a beautifully written story about growing up.’ Lesley McDowell Independent on Sunday
‘Strachan’s prose is pitch perfect. A gorgeous debut.’ Eithne Farry, Marie Claire
I Sent a Letter to My Love by Bernice Rubens (1975)
Synopsis: Bernice Rubens depicts the loneliness and desperation felt by Amy Evans, a Porthcawl woman in her fifties who has dedicated the majority of her life to caring for her disabled brother Stan. Seized with the desire to give romance one final chance, Amy submits an advert, under alias, to a local Lonely Hearts column, only to discover that her one respondent is her brother Stan who unwittingly initiates correspondence with her. Desperate to protect her brother from the crushing sense of loneliness she feels in her own life, Amy creates a fake persona and continues to write letters to Stan under the alias of Blodwen Pugh. The novel veers between comedy and sadness as the exchange continues, ultimately culminating in heartbreak for Amy when Stan begins a real-life relationship with her best friend, Gwyneth.
‘Perfect mastered skill… gentle and pungent style… compassion and humour to modulate her often steely-eyed observation.’ The Sunday Times
‘From the first page to the last, this powerful and moving piece of writing sustains the readers’ attention with a gripping plot, well-drawn characterisation and a surprising climax.’ Darts
‘Intensely dramatic…extraordinarily funny…an exceptionally original and disturbing achievement.’ Daily Telegraph
Mud Puppy by Erica Woof (2002)
Synopsis: Erica Wooff is 33 and originally from Newport. This novel follows two Welsh women, Daryl who has left but come home again, and Ani who is desperate to get away and does so in her fantasies. Through their discovery of a large American salamander (the mud puppy), the two women find out how far they are prepared to go to realize their dreams.
‘Erica Wooff’s debut novel brilliantly juxtaposes the normal and the surreal.’ Gwales
The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price, translated by Lloyd Jones (2002)
Synopsis: Angharad Price was born near Caernarfon. A novelist, critic and translator, she has taught at Swansea University and at Cardiff University, and is now lecturer in Welsh at Bangor University.
The Life of Rebecca Jones is set in the early years of the last century, where Rebecca is born into a rural community in the Maesglasau valley in Wales; her family have been working the land for a thousand years, but the changes brought about by modernity threaten the survival of her language, and her family’s way of life.Rebecca’s reflections on the century are delivered with haunting dignity and a simple intimacy, while her evocation of the changing seasons and a life that is so in tune with its surroundings is rich and poignant. The Life of Rebecca Jones has all the makings of a classic, fixing on a vanishing period of rural history, and the novel’s final, unexpected revelation remains unforgettable and utterly moving.
‘The most fascinating and wonderful book.’ Jan Morris
‘A restrained, lyrical tour de force.’ Owen Sheers
The Independent |The Life of Rebecca Jones: A Novel, By Angharad Price, trans. Lloyd
Wales Arts Review | #GWN Revisited: The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
Editor’s Choice: The Life of Rebecca Jones, Angharad Price
Second Chance by Sian James (2000)
Synopsis: Sian James was brought up and educated in West Wales. Second Chance tells the story of actress Kate Rivers, who having returned home for her mothers funeral is overwhelmed by her past and forced to take stock of her life. Both in her central characters and the land in which they live, James’ novel reveals a spirit which, despite bleakness and tragedies, cannot be broken.
‘A superb ear for dialogue and a marksman eye for revealing detail.’ Sunday Times
‘Siân James writes fluently and with lively humour.’ The Times
The Claude Glass by Tom Bullough (2007)
Synopsis: Tom Bullough grew up on a hill farm in Radnorshire, Wales. The Claude Glass is set in the Welsh Borders in 1980, The Claude Glass charts an unlikely friendship between two neighbours: Robin, the seven year old son of English hippie sheep farmers, and Andrew, a child so neglected by his impoverished parents that he is left almost mute, seeking solace among the farm dogs.
‘This is a novel of compelling complexity of thought and feeling, sustained by the authenticity of its rich detail.’ The Independent
‘Written with a poet’s sensibility and eye for telling detail, this novel about the difficulties of comprehending otherness has a lyrical intensity. The Claude Glass, discovered by the boys, is a convex mirror that distorts one’s perception of the landscape – a perfect metaphor for this exquisitely written slice of rural “dirty realism”.’ Mail on Sunday
‘Immensely powerful and evocative – this portrayal of life in rural Wales through the eyes of children is convincing and magical.’ Victoria Hislop