It’s that time of year again! With Christmas nearing and 2023 drawing to a close, we take a look back at some of the best art and cultural offerings to come out of Wales this year. Today, we’re naming our favourite Welsh non-fiction of 2023.
From the inequalities the birdwatching community poses, to King Charles’ relationship with Wales, to one poet’s stance on climate change- this year’s Welsh non-fiction selection has been anything but boring. Without further ado, here are our top picks of the year!
Birdsplaining: A Natural History by Jasmine Donahaye
Birdsplaining is the latest venture from New Welsh Writing Awards 2021 winner, Jasmine Donahaye. This exploration of women’s experience of nature, and the constraints placed upon it, takes in Wales, Scotland and California on its quest to offer a new way to engage with the natural world.
Letters from Wales: Memories and Encounters in Literature and Life by Sam Adams
Back in 1996, the poet Sam Adams began penning a regular column in the poetry journal PN Review, entitled ‘Letters from Wales’. Drawing on decades of experience as a writer at the heart of Welsh literary life, Adams has treated readers of PN Review to short, intimate commentaries on the cultural sector in Wales as it has evolved around him. Now, for the first time, Adams’s letters have been brought together in a single volume.
Chase of the Wild Goose by Mary Gordon
Mary Gordon (1861-1941) was a doctor, prison inspector (the first British female prison inspector in 1908), prison reformer, suffragette and author who wrote extensively on improving women’s lives. Having fallen out of publication, this newly reprinted edition of the part-novel part-biography of the Ladies of Llagollen will surely reinstate the legacy Gordon is so deserved of.
Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris by Alicia Forster
Taking London and Paris as the palettes from which to colour John’s story, Forster’s new illustrated biography of Gwen John is a careful accumulative portrait of the artist as a young lady. Forster has weaved in her latest book a detailed, passionate tale of the years John spent studying at the Slade and her subsequent life in France.
Off the Track by Dai Smith
Off the Track follows Dai Smith from a childhood amid derelict collieries to old age, taking 400 pages to retell the life of the Welsh academic, historian and literary stalwart – a long, eventful life and an oh-so-lucky one, in comparison with forebears.
Tsunami Days by John Barnie
Tsunami Days is a new collection of essays by John Barnie, which delves into poetry, culture, politics and the threat of ecological disaster. Comprising of 68 pieces over 218 pages written between 2020 and 2022 – his afterword names them “observations” – this is an honest and poignant collection from a stalwart of Welsh writing.
Sarn Helen by Tom Bullough
Mike Parker’s All the Wide Border takes that author up the marches, from Monmouthshire to Chester, weaving from one side of the border to the other contemplating questions of national identity that reach far back into myth, legend, and the shadow-casting of the Roman occupation.
All the Wide Border by Mike Parker
Tom Bullough (himself a border-man) walks from the Neath valley the length of the Roman way known as Sarn Helen, named after the fair princess of the Mabinogion who got all mixed up with King Macsen and that lot in the myths and legends committed to paper in the thirteenth century. Get your copy here
Charles: The King and Wales by Huw Thomas
In Charles: The King and Wales, Huw Thomas has drawn together interviews, memories and fact to produce a history of the relationship between the soon-to-be King and Wales. It’s a book which takes its time and really delves into the pivotal moments in Charles’ connection with Wales, and we glimpse at a man who has, over the decades, forged both a more formal support to Wales and a more personal warmth for it.
My Hand is the Voice of the Sea by David Moore
My Hand is the Voice of the Sea is the long-overdue biography of West-Wales artist, Ray Howard-Jones. Having encountered Howard-Jones in 1983, Moore has finally found the time to research and write about her work – a challenging venture, but ultimately, hugely worthwhile, for maintaining the historical narrative of art from Wales and adding to the foundations for its future.
The Folklore of Wales: Ghosts by Delyth Badder and Mark Norman
With original Welsh texts, many translated into English for the first time, Delyth Badder and Mark Norman present a wide panorama of stories and first-hand accounts in The Folklore of Wales: Ghosts that will be new to even the most seasoned folklore reader. Ranging from the distant past right up to the present day, this collection shines a spotlight on the unique qualities of folkloric ghost beliefs in Wales.
Enchanted Wales: Myth and Magic in Storytelling by Miranda Aldhouse-Green
The magical world of Welsh mythology deserves to be better known outside its homeland, with its cast of heroes and tricksters, animals that can talk and change shape, and magicians and witches who can bring disaster or triumph to the people in their paths. Enchanted Wales is an invitation to voyage through the key stories of Welsh mythic literature, exploring not just their medieval texts but also their ancient roots, which can be glimpsed in sculptures, carvings and other artefacts from at least a thousand years earlier.