In our Books: 2023 writers’ recommendations, Wales Arts Review brings you the hottest recommendations from a year in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, chosen by some of Wales’s top writers and commentators.
The best book I’ve read this year is Lucy Jones’ brilliant Matrescence. It’s got everything I love in non-fiction – experimentation, gutsy poetic writing, gritty, deep dives into big areas of knowledge, while being written in a vivid, page-turning, accessible style. Its subject is one that many would think is incredibly everyday – how a woman changes from the early stages of pregnancy through childbirth and the first five years of parenthood – but it’s not. This book is as firmly political as it is wildly personal.
Through all her research and deep reading, Lucy shows how radically women mutate physically, psychologically and neurologically, and how little the world around them pay attention. She smashes myths about how nature cares for its own and how ‘natural’ being a mother really is, without ever wagging her finger, and she writes with real warmth, curiosity and love. Few books in my adult life have made me want to rant, beam and punch the air like this one. (I have also learned how my brain has grown and retained grey matter in the last decade, and that my body retained matter from the foetus who is now playing FIFA in the next room. It’s mind-bending stuff.)
My favourite Welsh books make odd bedfellows and show what my reading life is like: Mike Parker’s All The Wide Border (I live in view of the last ridge of the Black Mountains, so I gobbled this up), The Last Firefox by Lee Newbery (a magical book for children which I had to beg my son to read to him, so I didn’t miss any) and Alex Wharton’s Doughnuts, Thieves and Chimpanzees (the latest book by our new Children’s Laureate for Wales, whose poems crackle with wide-eyed childlike delight). All show off great, characterful voices – and can handily fit into a stocking.
I loved the contemporary energy of Nerys Williams’s Republic. Nostalgic, fierce, political, it marks her out as a writer working at the very frontiers of what is possible in poetry (and prose poetry – but I don’t want to get mixed up in those debates of definitions). There’s a great playlist that goes along with it too. In fiction, I wasn’t quite expecting to be so won over by Thomas Morris’s latest collection of short stories, Open Up. He expands on the preoccupations – and geographical boundaries – of his multi-award-winning debut, but there is a still a Welsh heart beating under the book. What I loved most was the suggestion of magic realism in the stories which seems to have added a further layer to a writer emboldened by the very idea of risk-taking. It’s heartening that writing this ecstatic is getting so much support in publishing.
In non-fiction, there have been some real humdingers this year, but I cannot look beyond Alicia Foster’s Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris. I interviewed Foster on my radio show, and I could have talked to her for hours. It’s a shimmering biography – the sort that takes as read that an artist is their work, and so Foster’s considerable skills as an art critic and historian really come to the fore. I feel like I not only know Gwen John much better for having read it, but I definitely understand her work better.
Outside of Welsh writing, Samantha Harvey’s new novel, Orbital, could be her best yet. It’s tempting to tag it “Virginia Woolf in space” but I wouldn’t want to make light of what Harvey has done here with a cheap marketing line. As with all of her books, it is sensual and poetic and concerned with the granular experiences of the individual, but Harvey always gets in deep to the environment – previous novels have included a medieval murder mystery, and an exquisite, epistolic mediation on betrayal through the prism of Leonard Cohen. Harvey follows her own curiosity when choosing her next subject for her fiction, but she is always, thankfully, herself.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, non-fiction writer, and the presenter of the BBC Radio Wales Arts Show.
Among new books I read in 2023 were two on Welsh artists – Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris by Alicia Foster and David Moore’s long-anticipated Ray Howard-Jones: My Hand is the Voice of the Sea. But my new book of the year was an unexpected transatlantic arrival. The Mysteries is the first new work in 28 years from the genius of Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson, known for Salinger-like privacy. Made in collaboration with the artist John Kascht, it combines few words with other-worldly images apparently generated through a combination of drawing, model-making and photography that is mysterious in itself. It is a dark meditation on humanity’s compulsion to master nature.
My other top-rated reads of 2023 were catch-ups. Thomas Dilworth’s David Jones in the Great War is a deeply researched and compelling narrative of the experiences that forged In Parenthesis. John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh brilliantly revealed biography through literature and literature through biography and sent me back to films that horrified me as a confused teenager. Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light finally dissected the peeling away of Cromwell’s power; Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers was breathtakingly unlike anything I’ve read. My most extended catch-up reading was Running for the Hills by Horatio Clare. I was a hundred pages in when it came out in 2005 and a visiting poet took my copy home with her to North Carolina. In 2023, I re-bought it and started again. As before, I was captivated by Clare’s honest and loving memoir of his chaotic childhood of middle-class poverty in the Black Mountains. It has deservedly become a classic in the time that I’ve been reading it.
Carly Holmes’ sensational second novel, Crow Face, Doll Face, is a dark, mesmerising tale about motherhood, family, and the self, beautifully shaped around internal and external worlds which are simultaneously sinister, chaotic, loving and loveless.
At the heart of the novel are parents Annie and Peter, and their four children Julian, Elsa, Kitty and Leila. From the opening lines of chapter one, we’re hit hard by a sense of change and loss, of unorthodoxy and difference. ‘I used to have three daughters and a son,’ Annie tells us. ‘We used to be average, as families went.’
It is through Annie’s first-person narrative that the story unfolds. ‘I knew that shackled life wasn’t going to be for me,’ she says, determined not to live the life of her parents, or her community. Following her marriage to Peter, however, her dream of being an air hostess, childless and travelling the world at forty quickly dissipates.
Annie settles for domesticity. But when the children after whom the novel is named – Crow Face (Leila) and Doll Face (Kitty) – give a very special, magical performance at a family picnic and Annie and Peter’s marriage breaks down, Annie decides to move away and start afresh. En route to her new life, she engages in an unimaginable unmotherly act while simultaneously cocooning her Crow Face and her Doll Face.
There is so much to love about this utterly gripping novel permeated with strangeness and disquiet. For me, this is the very best of Guillermo del Toro’s storytelling in literary form: the world created by Holmes captivates and unsettles, from the poignancy of Annie’s distressed reflections to the gorgeous descriptions of settings where nothing ever is quite as it seems – the family picnic, Julian’s birthday tea, the maze and game of hide and seek.
Crow Face, Doll Face will hold onto your heart long after you’ve finished reading.
Elaine Canning (ed.), Maggie O’Farrell, Contemporary Critical Perspectives (Bloomsbury), is out January 2024. And Carly Holmes will be discussing Crow Face, Doll Face with Elaine on 1st February 2024 in Swansea. Free tickets available here.
Edwin R. Stevens
Dennis Cooper’s blog is a gift. If you’re familiar with his work or not, please check it out. His end of year list (the one true list, sorry Santa) is something I look forward to every year. Mattie, my partner always comes through and buys me a few books I had my eye on for Christmas. 2020 was a ripe year. Alone by Thomas Moore was amongst the goods. I had previously read a novella of his in an anthology a few years back and enjoyed it, sought out other work, but Alone’s beauty flawed me. Thomas Moore’s books are islands. Slabs of delicately placed text sit steadfast in the middle of each page, vulnerable, overflowing with emotion, rarely straying onto the next leaf, perfect in their place. Your Dreams, like 2022’s Forever was my most eagerly anticipated release of the year, and seems to share the same shagged thread that runs through his earlier work: fantasy and desire, substance abuse, cruising, the impotence of language, isolation, not waving but drowning, not drowning but waving, “is the mind a free space or not?”. In Your Dreams, the narrator drifts through his and the characters fantasies, and the fall outs of desire, like a nappy in a river, spinning around the answers, unable to find purchase in the confusion, later turning the camera back on himself to maybe (I could be wrong) further demonstrate the hypocrisy in censorship. What I envy and love most about Thomas’s stuff, and other people who can do this, is the ability to say so much with so little, to be able to create impactful, perfectly sewn pieces that carry so much weight. It’s heavy stuff, and not for the faint of heart, like all good things.
Edwin R. Stevens’ new album, God on All Fours is available now.
My Literary Highlight of 2023 is Crow Face, Doll Face by Carly Holmes (Honno). From the very first line of this exquisitely rendered story a promise is made to the reader that something deeply unsettling is about to be revealed, and every time I glance at it, I am hooked over again: ‘I used to have three daughters and a son…’ Something terrible has happened, we can be sure, yet the story never descends into drama but rather maintains a perfectly balanced mix of domestic mundanity and possible supernatural threat, with each small moment of family life made momentous and meaningful through precise and evocative prose and keen attention to detail. It’s impossible not to be captivated by characters this rich and authentically flawed yet utterly loveable.
The narrator, a mother of four who slowly gives up the shared dream of travelling when he partner reveals it was all just a fantasy, provides a raw account of how hopes can be pinned on the wrong person, and domestic life and motherhood can eclipse the self. And yet this is mother who loves deeply, and is wounded by every mistake she, and her family, make, possibly beyond repair. When two of the children perform an impossible trick, the balance of power is skewed further, and we are shown, through an uncanny lens, the terrible harms we can inflict on one another no matter how hard we love and try to do the right thing.
This novel draws you into a liminal space where the child characters are both magical and mundane, compassionate and cruel, where the intimacy of the narrator’s voice unsettles you with its confessional honesty, and every small incident has myriad repercussions. A feat of literary skills that weaves a tale of taboos and impossible choices, mesmerising and intelligent in equal measure.
Philippa Holloway is author of The Half-life of Snails (Parthian Books, 2022)
My book of the year is Toby Driver’s The Hillforts of Iron Age Wales (Logaston Press). Where are thesethings? The clue is in the name. A fort on a hill. If you live in Wales you’ll have been brought up within walkingdistance of an example and, like me, thought that these were places to which our distant ancestors retreated when attacked by other tribes or maybe the invading Romans. Toby Driver’s brilliant and lavishly illustrated guide shows that they were a whole lot more. Not only do there turn out to be considerably more examples of these landworks lying in fields, on hills, and at coast edges across the country but in their original existence they looked very different from how they do now. Their concentric multivallate ditches were far deeper and topped by wooden palisade; their ramparts were faced with stone walling often in glowing white sandstone.
They had castellated gateways and narrow antenna access paths and then, rendering their magnificently defended gateways pointless, they had unguarded back doors open to the wide world.
With his unbridled enthusiasm Driver takes us right round Wales investigating, rediscovering and widening our understanding of hundreds from a total of at least three thousand examples. These structures, along with a few beads, torcs, spear heads and busted shields found among them, are pretty much all we have left of the Real Wales. I found our archaeologist author’s uncovering of the sheer extent of these pre-Roman remains thrilling.
The production is excellent too. Where we need a photo, an illustration, a map or a diagram we get one, often with the author shown standing in a ditch, for scale. Logaston Press have given me my book of the Year.
Peter Finch’s latest book, Walking the Valleys is out now with Seren.
I wish everyone would read White/Other by Fran Lock (the87 press) and Romeo and Julie by Gary Owen (Methuen). The institution where I teach, Cardiff University, takes the stage in Owen’s play as a symbol of the daylight robbery that is colonialism: the physics taught at Cardiff, the play tells us, is the same physics as taught at Cambridge, and yet somehow – not. As Dylan Evans-Jones writes, Wales currently receives only £134m for research and innovation from the UK Government, or 1.8% of the UK total. No wonder the brilliant Julie, the central character in Owen’s play and the only source of promise and hope for its other characters, is asked to tear herself away from everyone she loves for a chance at Cambridge, where she will be shunned for attending Bro Edern, instead of a so-called “good school” (of which, we are told, there are half a dozen on this island.) The Guardian described Romeo and Julie as a ‘sweet spin on Shakespeare’ but never mentioned the play’s searing portrayal of everything that is stolen every day from Wales: human labour, health, brain-power, security, self-esteem.
The poet Fran Lock’s White/Other, meanwhile, describes itself as “a shapeshifting work of feral lyric riff combining poetry, polemic, and coruscating rant to grapple with the complexities of living and mourning as a working-class ‘other’ within neoliberal culture.” And grapple it does, with more honesty and fire than any text I have ever encountered before. I wish someone would hand a copy to Owen’s Julie, and a copy to her beloved Romeo, and a copy to their baby daughter Niamh, who – as Lock makes clear – will inherit the trauma of poverty, which recurs, which does not merely create “the conditions in which traumatic events occur”, but is trauma itself: “i thought it would go on forever,” writes Lock, “and it did.”
Birdsplaining by Jasmine Donahaye is made up of fourteen eye-opening essays. I have read it twice and feel I have still not grasped it in full. It was written only twenty miles from my own home; it reads like a despatch from another continent.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, on current trends, will be in the Cabinet by January 2025. It is awing that the Member for Torfaen can fit in a 500-page-plus reassessment of Labour’s third Prime Minister in addition to being on the shadow front bench. Harold Wilson is filled with detail and reminders that the facts of today were the political battles of yesterday. Wilson was told that to implement the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report, the decriminalisation of homosexual love, would cost six million votes. The reform divided the country north and south. A more socially liberal south was not averse, Labour’s heartland opposed it, with hostility strongest in Scotland. Nonetheless, via back-bencher Leo Abse, it happened.
My third choice, surprisingly, is Hansard, the record of Parliament for two and a half centuries. Two debates jump off the screen with vitality and passion. On 18th January, the House of Commons debated Arts Council England’s deference to government. Kevin Brennan, MP for Cardiff West, spoke ringingly against ministerial interference: “That is not what the arm’s length principle is about, so Arts Council England should get its act back together.”
The second debate took place Monday 19th June and lasted five hours. Its heading is “Privilege: Conduct of Right Hon. Boris Johnson”. The Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd was the third Parliamentarian to speak: “Seven years ago…the former Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip pledged to restore parliamentary sovereignty. Last week he utterly defiled that, in what the Committee described as “an attack on our democratic institutions. The Committee of Privileges found him to have lied over and over again.”
An hour and a half into the debate Sir Chris Bryant echoed Liz Saville-Roberts:
“Boris Johnson lied. He said the guidance was followed completely. It wasn’t. He said that the rules and guidance were followed at all times. They weren’t…He said he had repeated assurances. He didn’t. He misrepresented the facts as he knew them… There is visceral anger. I hear it often from those who think that some people did not abide by the rules and that those were the people who wrote the rules.”
It makes for thrilling reading.
Adam Somerset’s book, Between the Boundaries is out now with Parthian.
The book I’d like to recommend is Abigail Parry’s I Think We’re Alone Now. I first heard Abigail Parry perform her work at this year’s Penarth Literary Festival Poetry Showcase and was caught by her vivid voice and the intelligence of her rhythm and clarity. She can shock you and skin you with her wit, yet her poems feel strangely merciful, cleverly observant, and filled with references to everything from Rilke and Shakespeare to Richie Cordell and Radiohead. I was delighted to learn that her second collection was on the way.
I Think We’re Alone Now has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, the UK’s most prestigious poetry award, and was published by Bloodaxe Books in November. Parry has said that, at its outset, this book was supposed to be about intimacy and ended up running on failures. She felt she dodged the difficult question and gave the readers instead only handfuls of solitary, aching voices. And yet, this is a book that pulled me close. Maybe the true intimacy explored here is the reading experience itself. In Parry’s honest poems, we can feel a crafted closeness to the many characters whose stories we glimpse and, in their familiarity, perhaps, we also feel a sense of connection.
The book closes with Sparks, an acknowledgement list of sorts that seeks to collect the many borrowed lines and phrases that first ignited these poems. Here, too, is the poet’s intimate voice as she shares her own experiences of reading another’s words and how in them, she found something private and bright.
Katie Munnik’s second novel, The Aerialists, was a Waterstones Welsh Book of the Month earlier this year. You can find her at www.katiemunnik.com
The summer-autumn exhibition of pictures by David Jones ‘Rhythmau’r Bryniau/Hill-Rhythms’ at y Gaer – Brecon’s library/museum/gallery – was a major event. I visited it many times, and Jones’s sometimes knotty, in several senses fraught, and evasive images reward such contemplation. The curator Peter Wakelin’s accompanying short book, Hill-rhythms: David Jones + Capel-y-ffin, (Brecknock Art Trust/Grey Mare Press) is lucid, beautifully illustrated and immaculately produced. The best tenner you’ll spend on a visual art book this year. Though Jones is a troubling figure whom I can’t warm to, I’m moved to think that In Parenthesis, with its flaws and in spite of the fact that Faber have never honoured it with the decent reset it deserves, is probably the greatest single work of art to emerge from the First World War in any medium.
The activity around that exhibition drew a number of events, including a reading by Diana Powell from her elegant, taut short novel things found on the mountain (Seren) set in the Black Mountains, and in which a fictionalised David Jones makes an appearance.
Paul Henry’s As if to Sing (Seren) was a worthy winner of the English language poetry prize at Wales Book of the Year. Long overdue.
Sam Adams’s monumental Letters from Wales (Parthian, edited by Jonathan Edwards) collects Adams’s columns for PN Review from 1996 on. It covers a huge range of cultural topics, each essay not more than half a dozen pages – and there are 768 pages. Adams writes with magisterial clarity as if for the general reader from outside Wales, but it’s sometimes when describing ourselves to others that we learn most. Informative, great for dipping into, and testimony of a lifetime of service to this country.
I was pleased to re-read Ned Thomas’s Bydoedd (Lolfa) first published a few years back. This looks intently and intelligently at much of the world and the 20th century, from early post-war Germany to Soviet Russia to Fascist Spain, to Wales, through a quasi-autobiographical lens. Thomas is probably the purest example we’ve got of a committed public intellectual in the manner of Raymond Williams.
The one that got away this year was Wiliam Owen Roberts’s novel Cymru Fydd (O’r Pedwar Gwynt). The long extract that appeared in O’r Pedwar Gwynt – one of the best magazines in Britain in my opinion – was scintillating. The whole thing’s on my To Read list.
Christopher Meredith‘s novel Shifts was re-issued in the Library of Wales series this year with a new introduction by Diana Wallace.
2023 has been a rocking good year for Welsh books. Wind-assisted by the new UWP imprint Calon, the world of creative non-fiction has been especially buoyant.
My book of the year though is a poetry collection: Hymnal by Julia Bell (Parthian). It is a memoir in verse, the beguiling tale of her strange and peripatetic childhood in the rural west, as daughter of an evangelical English priest who, she explains in a preface, ‘heard a voice – which he knew to be God – directing him to minister to the Welsh’.
The work is nigh on perfect. As poetry, it is exquisite, just as you’d expect from a writer as accomplished as Bell. She produces verse that is somehow simultaneously dainty and meaty, and clearly adores words and what can be done with them. It is taken to another level by her mastery of the subject matter. Religious fundamentalism, national identity, class, sickly family dynamics and homophobia are all difficult topics that can easily overwhelm fine writing, but Bell dances past the pitfalls with such grace and style, without ever cheapening their reality. Her wit is sharp and ever-present, but make no mistake, she is deadly serious.
Her eye for the telling detail is that of a well-trained hawk. Bell calls her poems ‘exploded memories – small snapshots in time’, intensely personal moments that she renders universal. Her outsider-insider takes on Welshness are especially thrilling, but in truth, there is no duff topic here, no slight slip-up anywhere in this consistently brave and brilliant collection.
Mike Parker’s latest book, All the Wide Border: Wales, England and the Places Between is out now with Harper Collins.
Bad year to ask me for end of year picks because (a) I had my first baby in April, and (b) I had my first nonfiction book deadline in September, which has meant that any available hours where I’m rested, sane and free to read a book have been devoted to magpie research of various kinds. For all those reasons, Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood deserves a special mention for being a literary thriller that was good enough for me to start in April, before baby was born, and pick up again almost four months later and still feel invested in. For once it isn’t faint praise to say I stuck with it right to the end.
In Welsh books, I’m much looking forward to reading Kandace Siobhan Walker’s poetry collection Cowboy, but don’t know if I’m allowed to nominate something I only know is going to be great in the future tense.
Dad George’s novel The Counterplot is out now with Audible Original.
I tend to shy away from picking my favourite book in any given year, but in 2023, one book does stand out to me. Back in the Spring I read Nerys Williams’ Republic, a prose poetry collection which charts the formative years of a young woman growing up in West Wales, drawing on the music which defined that era in order to explore nationhood, identity and politics. Fast forward seven months and it’s the one book I’ve already made the time to revisit this year.
Republic manages to be affectionately nostalgic and full of rage against the political and sexual rollercoaster that made up the 1980s and 90s. The personal collides with the political in a maelstrom of musical references, lyrical descriptions and sharply expressed recollections of what it felt like to be a young woman in Wales at a time of such change and uncertainty. There’s real craft in being able to combine that social and cultural commentary with writing that is brilliantly evocative and witty at the same time. It’s a collection which will be staying on my bookshelf for a long time to come.
Emma Schofield is Editor of Wales Arts Review.
Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023 Books 2023