NEW WELSH READERS' POLL 2019: BEST EVER SHORT BOOKS OF PROSE WITH A WELSH THEME OR SETTING WINNER ANNOUNCED: CYNAN JONES WITH COVE

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As well as looking for the best unpublished writing in the categories of dystopian novellas and prose with a Welsh theme or setting, this year, we asked readers to vote for their favouriteshort books of Welsh-themed prose ever published in the English language in our New Welsh Readers' Poll 2019. The winner is Cynan Jones with Cove and he was presented with his prize at our shortlisting event on 1 May 2019 at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre Bookshop. 

A longlist of 11 titles in each category was selected by judge Gwen Davies with nominations from the students of the Aberystwyth University and librarians across Wales and the shortlist of the top three books as voted by the reading public was  (in alphabetical order by author):The White Trail by Fflur Dafydd,Coveby Cynan Jones (Granta Books) and The Life of Rebecca Jonesby Angharad Price (MacLehose Press). Thanks to all our readers who took part!

NEW WELSH READERS’ POLL 2019 - BEST EVER PROSE BOOKS WITH A WELSH THEME OR SETTING SHORTLIST

The full longlist of titles in the category of short books of prose with a Welsh theme or setting in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2019 Readers’ Poll is as follows:

SHORT BOOKS OF PROSE ON A WELSH THEME OR SETTING

  • Cove, Cynan Jones (Granta Books)

  • Conundrum, Jan Morris (Faber & Faber)

  • A Machynlleth Triad, Jan Morris and Twm Morys (Viking)

  • Advantages of the Older Man, Gwyneth Lewis (Seren Books)

  • All the Souls, Mary-Ann Constantine (Seren Books)

  • The Life of Rebecca Jones, Angharad Price, translated by Lloyd Jones (Maclehose Press)

  • The Great Master of Ecstasy, Glenda Beagan (Seren Books)

  • See How They Run, Lloyd Jones (Seren Books)

  • The White Trail, Fflur Dafydd (Seren Books)

  • The Sky of our Lives, Gwyn Thomas (Quartet Books)

  • The Great God Pan, Arthur Machen (John Lane)

THE GREAT GOD PAN by Arthur Machen

Reviewed by Paige Briscoe 

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In many ways, one can compare The Great God Pan to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – both are tales of high consequence, with results that are not wholly favourable. Both are considered to be horror and science-fiction novels – or novellas in Machen’s case. The book’s original Victorian readers would, have found it to be shocking and full of terror. But even for readers today, Machen’s use of experimental themes, his interest in mysticism and even, perhaps, the sublime, all work to create a compelling narrative that really leaves one wondering. 

It is difficult to discern whether or not The Great God Pan has aged well in terms of its ‘horror factor’, having to compete today with the likes of Stephen King and his ferocious ‘It’ or ‘Pet Sematary’. But, indeed, King himself does cite Machen as one of his biggest influencers in the horror genre. Likewise, HP Lovecraft was inspired by this author’s work and his use of horror and the experimental, suggesting that Machen is the forerunner for many of todays’ modern classics. Overall, this is an intriguing read full of enjoyable and odd surprises that gives us insight into an author that remains a mentor for modern horror writers.

Paige Briscoe is a student in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and part of a team that helps New Welsh Review run our annual writing prize, the New Welsh Writing Awards and Readers’ Poll, focusing in 2019 on dystopian novellas and short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting, to complement the themes of the writing prize. You can vote forThe Great God Pan or other short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting on our longlist above (the shortlist will be announced on 19 March).

THE GREAT MASTER OF ECSTASY by Glenda Beagan

Reviewed by Chloe Hunter 

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I really enjoyed this book. I felt involved in the stories and loved its metaphors used. The short stories are quick and snappy, and really grab the reader’s attention. They also maintain attention by creating a perfect image on your mind.

They show wisdom and range by exploring themes such as identity, mental illness, grief and memory. Beagan takes the idea of ‘self’ and sees how far she can push it. Whether it is in ‘Narcotic Crocus’ where the character can see and hear things that are not real, or in ‘Collecting Archetypes’, which explores the human psyche, it is characters’ decisions that really drive the plot. These are well-fleshed out and flawed, making them seem like real people, whether they are what we might consider ‘good’ or not.

These stories also tear the boundary between life and death. The first story (at novella length) for example, follows Kieran the shaman. This examines grief and how we deal with it; whether we let the past keep a hold on us. The character exists in what is described as ‘the strange freezing and unthawing of time’, a metaphor for not being able to move on. Beagan executes her descriptive skills brilliantly, but still allows room for the reader to fill in their own gaps. 

Chloe Hunter is a student in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and part of a team that helps New Welsh Review run our annual writing prize, the New Welsh Writing Awards and Readers’ Poll, focusing in 2019 on dystopian novellas and short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting, to complement the themes of the writing prize. You can vote for The Great Master of Ecstasy or other short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting on our longlist above (the shortlist will be announced on 19 March).

ADVANTAGES OF THE OLDER MAN by Gwyneth Lewis

Reviewed by Autumn Haworth

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When I set out to read this Advantages of the Older Man, I didn’t exactly know what to expect. I was ready for light comedy featuring the ghost of Dylan Thomas, but what I got was so much more. Here are explorations of life after death, dealing with what appears to be unrequited love and the struggle of being a writer (albeit a dead writer attempting to make a comeback).

Advantages of the Older Man centres around Jennie, a twenty-something looking for a little more in her life. She’s had to move back in with her parents and is pining after a Dylan-Thomas-adoring-poet, Peter. She makes a pact with the ghost of the curly-headed cherub poet: Dylan helps her to win Peter’s affection if she aids his cause to become relevant again. However, Dylan’s concept of relevance isn’t exactly what any of us, especially Jennie, would expect.

The engaging nature of this novella may be explained by Lewis’ way with characters. I easily fell in love with them, despite their flaws. In only a hundred pages, Dylan Thomas gets a brilliant character arc. I can’t say that I warmed to his character at first but the more I learned about his life after death and how he struggles with the truth of how his wife, Caitlin, felt about him, he really grew on me to the extent that a strong attachment with him was forged.

There’s always a worry in any romance that an awkward lead can thrust all those little character quirks upon a reader so that she asks herself whether this sort of person could ever really exist. Jennie does feel real to me, however; she attains that ridiculous status –for a fictional character – of being a friend. She just struggles to find a way to impress someone she’s into. While we can’t all summon up a writer’s ghost, we dodo ridiculous things, just like Jennie does, merely to give ourselves hope.

I absolutely adore this book and know that I’ll find myself back among its pages countless times. I cannot recommend Advantages of the Older Man highly enough.

Autumn Haworth is a student in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and part of a team that helps New Welsh Review run our annual writing prize, the New Welsh Writing Awards and Readers’ Poll, focusing in 2019 on dystopian novellas and short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting, to complement the themes of the writing prize. You can vote for Advantages of The Older Man or other short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting on our longlist above (the shortlist will be announced on 19 March).

THE WHITE TRAIL by Fflur Dafydd

Reviewed by Lauren Jones

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In a world that combines medieval mythology and contemporary mystery, Fflur Dafydd’s The White Trail is a story that is bound to hook even the most incurious of readers. From the onset, the tale’s initial conundrum of pregnant Goleuddydd’s disappearance grapples with issues of despair and desire in a realm where familial ties run deeper than blood. Cilydd’s quest for answers is heart-breaking, shocking and gripping at its paramount, as Dafydd’s polished plot twists are guaranteed to keep you on your toes. It’s hard to know what to expect from a story so embedded in a state of unsettling ambiguity, but Dafydd carefully constructs the plot’s overarching puzzle, one that continuously unravels throughout to create an enthralling adventure. 

Dafydd’s tale is a reworking of the medieval Welsh Arthurian myth ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’, in which Culhwch, son of Cilydd, refuses to marry the daughter of his stepmother. Out of anger she places a curse upon Culhwch, meaning that he will never be able to marry until he wins the heart of Olwen, daughter of the menacing giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr. Dafydd’s retelling of this myth is both ingenious and fresh, as she puts her own contemporary spin on a tale with its roots in Welsh history. The story’s blend of thriller, mystery and fantastical elements against a rural backdrop makes for a striking read, with captivating imagery of white flowers and dangerous forests drawing from the original myth. 

Dafydd balances the story’s light-hearted moments with pivotal scenes of brutality and wickedness that will gnaw at the core of every reader. From Cilydd’s whirlwind journey, as he attempts to navigate heartache, to the story’s electrifying climax, no moment in the story goes without a sense of tension and uneasiness. The tale is reassuring and propitious at the best of times, and heart-wrenching and scandalous at its worst. In a story of love, revenge and heroism, you are bound to sit on the edge of your seat as the secrets of the forest unfold. Dafydd’s retold tale is simply unforgettable, and one that fans of mystery and thriller are certain to enjoy. 

Lauren Jones is a student in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and part of a team that helps New Welsh Review run our annual writing prize, the New Welsh Writing Awards and Readers’ Poll, focusing in 2019 on dystopian novellas and short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting, to complement the themes of the writing prize. You can vote for The White Trail or other short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting on our longlist above (the shortlist will be announced on 19 March).

COVE by Cynan Jones

Reviewed by Bee Malin

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Cynan Jones’ Cove comes in at under one hundred pages, a brief gasp of air in an age of thickening paperbacks. This novellafollows a man who set out to sea by kayak with the intention of scattering his father’s ashes but is struck by lightning. He awakes in unknown waters, injured and alone, haunted by his own fears and only briefly motivated by the thought of his pregnant lover back on land. Jones strays from traditional nature writing, distilling it into concise sentences that confirm his poetic skill.

 This desolate survival forces the reader to slow down, while the author tantalisingly plays with shocks and twists that eventually spiral down to refocus back on the individual, whose grip on reality slackens as his own stomach empties and he starts to grapple with dolls, dream of unborn children and hallucinate sounds such as a bell ringing inside (we presume his wife’s) swollen stomach. Disorientation and desperation unbind the prose while an epicentre of love and stubbornness keeps the story grounded (even while the protagonist stays far from land). 

There is certainly something uprooting about Jones’ writing. Primarily written in second person, dissociation heightens a sense of dizzyiness, as the story tumbles into a whirl of metaphor, each saturating and dissolving into the next. Inevitably, Hemingway comparisons leak into most discussion of this book. However, Cove features more fish-gutting than even Hemingway manages, and its protagonist appears to do a better job of retaining relative sanity than do the older author’s characters. This is thanks, in part, to the voice of the father of Jones’ protagonist, who intercepts regularly in a ringing tone, and inspires motivation in lines of imperative defiance, lines which are usually used to signify a particularly arduous part of the journey. 

Overall Cove, albeit a short story, demands a lot from its reader. Jones created a story in the most naked of settings, forcing a frank look at humanity through examining a desperate situation. This is bound to be a popular read among fans of literary fiction, poetry and of Hemingway: be prepared for stillness and fish guts.

Bee Malin is a student in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and part of a team that helps New Welsh Review run our annual writing prize, the New Welsh Writing Awards and Readers’ Poll, focusing in 2019 on dystopian novellas and short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting, to complement the themes of the writing prize. You can vote for Cove or other short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting on our longlist above (the shortlist will be announced on 19 March 2019).

THE LIFE OF REBECCA JONES by Angharad Price, translated by Lloyd Jones

Review by Eleanor Willner-Fraser

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Angharad Price’s beautiful novel about her great-aunt,O! Tyn y Gorchudd,won the 2002 National Eisteddfod Prose Medal and the 2003 Hay Festival Prize, and was named Wales Book of the Year in 2003. In 2010, Gomer Press released The Life of Rebecca Jones, which contains the original Welsh parallel with an English translation by Lloyd Jones. The Welsh title translates as ‘Oh!, pull aside the veil,’ and Price indeed pulls aside the veil covering Rebecca’s family and their life in Cwm Maesglasau, in southern Snowdonia.

Although Rebecca’s father is portrayed as severe – a dedicated farmer with no time for books, though an engaging storyteller – Rebecca’s loving respect for her calm, diligent, and spiritual mother consistently shines through.The now-elderly Rebecca remembers her childhood friendship with her younger brother, Robert, and the lives of those of her three other brothers that reach adulthood, who are all three blind. As Rebecca grows older, and her extended family’s composition changes, she observes that to shift generations is to be thrown into the water and become an anchor for others.

Price has surely spent much time exploring Cwm Maesglasau and listening to her family’s stories, besides performing substantial external research. Rebecca describes the course of the stream running through Maesglasau, and the harvest and shearing time. The novel gradually turns to changes in the cwm, such as the arrival of prisoners of war who stay at the farm during the Second World War and the installation of a water turbine to generate electricity for the farm.

In Rebecca, one senses a human being with her own worldview. Although she chafes at women’s subservient domestic role and goes on imaginary holidays, her love for home and family define her. The ending makes it clear that Rebecca has been so orientated toward others that her tangible legacy will be minimal. Price’s novel makes a convincing case for Rebecca’s significance, however.

One may not ache to return to The Life of Rebecca Jones the moment that one sets it down. It is slow-moving and meandering, yet the meanders build off each other, and it remains a novel that rewards the contemplative reader.

Eleanor Willner-Fraseris a student in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and part of a team that helps New Welsh Review run our annual writing prize, the New Welsh Writing Awards and Readers’ Poll, focusing in 2019 on dystopian novellas and short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting, to complement the themes of the writing prize. You can vote for The Life of Rebecca Jones or other short prose works with a Welsh theme or setting on our longlist above (the shortlist will be announced on 19 March).