Recent Summer Reads: Historical Fiction

historical fiction booksI’ve been busy lately (with PhD work etc.) so rather than reviewing lots of books in separate blog posts, I decided to review a few of them together. I love historical fiction, both as time travel and escapism. It’s also a genre that makes you compare your own attitudes to those of others – other people living in different times and different cultures. And though it’s difficult to pinpoint how, I am sure that some of these characters and ideas are subsumed into my subconscious and resurface, often years later, in my own poems.    Continue reading

Five Favourite Reads from 2021

Five favourite reads of 20212021 was a busy year (PhD, teaching etc…) so I’ve not been able to spend as much time as I’d like reviewing books. Here are five of the books I’ve enjoyed over the past year, with just a quick summary or comment for each one, rather than a full review…     Continue reading

Cheltenham Literature Festival: Bernadine Evaristo, Sebastian Faulks and More…

Bernadine Evaristo introducing Judith Bryan, Jacqueline Roy and Nicola WilliamsThe highlight of my day at the Cheltenham Literature Festival was seeing Bernadine Evaristo and Dawn French in conversation, but I must admit that I was too tired to take proper notes by this point (and too busy laughing!) so I can’t report all of what was said. It felt good, after the last two years, to be part of a live audience again, and it was fascinating to hear them discuss their own careers and compare writing techniques, both coming from a background of theatre and performance. They also discussed the controversial topic of white writers writing black characters, agreeing that so long as the characters are fully rounded, well-researched and well-written, it is good to create diverse characters in order to reflect the society in which we live.    Continue reading

Book Review: Salt by Catrin Kean

Book - Salt by Catrin KeanBased on a true story, Salt begins in Cardiff, in 1883, where young Ellen lives a dull and lonely life, working as a domestic. She longs to escape, but is forced to witness her mother’s daily turmoil, as she confronts the ghosts of her past. Then, one day, Ellen meets Samuel, a ship’s cook from Barbados. Despite the disapproval of some, they fall in love and get married, and Ellen is able to fulfill her childhood dream of running away to sea. Together, they set sail for San Francisco, working their way across the Atlantic Ocean, getting to know each other along the way.   Continue reading

Book Review: Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

Human Traces by Sebastian FaulksI read Human Traces several years ago, and it is no less incredible on a second reading. Set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the story begins when Jacques Rebière (from France) and Thomas Midwinter (from England) meet each other at the age of sixteen. They discover that they share a common fascination with the growing field of psychiatry and its quest to solve one of humanity’s greatest mysteries: the complex workings of the human mind.    Continue reading

Book Review: A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Book - A Single Thread

A Single Thread, like many of Tracy Chevalier’s novels, takes us back to a time before, when life for a young woman was far more challenging than it is now. Set in the early 1930s, the book is told from the perspective of Violet, a 38 year old woman who lost her fiancé in the First World War. She has lived with grief and loneliness for many years, and her future looks set: to remain unmarried and unwanted, as a companion to her suffocating mother.

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Poet in Residence at the Cynon Valley Museum

poet in residenceFor the month of June I’ve been writing and posting new poems on the Cynon Valley Museum website, responding to their online art exhibitions, and artefacts from their collection. I was privileged to work at the museum for a few months last year, before starting my PhD, and was impressed by their high quality art exhibitions, some of which you can now see online.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Book - The Mirror and the Light by Hilary MantelHilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series is a triumph of historical enactment in book form. When The Mirror and the Light (the third and final book) was published, I was still recovering from post viral fatigue, and didn’t have the strength to hold a normal paperback, never mind this giant brick of a book, so I left it a few weeks before ordering a copy, and, as my strength returned, I was able to sink back into the sixteenth century as if I had never been away.   Continue reading

Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes – A Series of Mysteries by Laurie R. King

Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell booksLast summer I was sheltering from the rain in one of the many second-hand bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, and my eye was caught by a book. That book turned out to be from a popular series of books charting the later years of Sherlock Holmes, and his partnership with a young woman named Mary Russell. The first of these, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice begins in 1915, when Sherlock is supposedly retired, focusing his incredible mind on the mysteries of beekeeping. It is told in the enigmatic voice of Mary Russell.    Continue reading

Book Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Book - Once Upon A RiverIt was the beautiful cover design that attracted me to Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield and, as soon as I began to read, I was hooked. It’s a wonderfully mysterious, ghostly tale, set in a time before people travelled far, and centred around The Swan Inn, on the edge of the Thames, at Radcot, where the age-old tradition of storytelling holds sway.   Continue reading

Poetry Review: This Tilting Earth by Jane Lovell

This Tilting Earth by Jane LovellThere is a strong sense of time passing, in This Tilting Earth, a pamphlet of poems by Jane Lovell (the winning entry from last year’s Mslexia pamphlet competition). It begins with ‘Song of the Vogelherd Horse’, an elegy which takes us back to the Ice Age, giving voice to the artefact itself, conjuring up the ghosts of those who ‘smoothed my lissom back’ and ‘buried me in soil’. This introduces the pamphlet’s main theme – an exploration of mankind’s complex relationship with animals over the centuries.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Book - The Downstairs Girl by Stacey LeeThe Downstairs Girl is set in 1890s Atlanta, and it reminded me very much of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, which also features a protagonist called Jo, who writes. But this novel examines American society from a different perspective – that of the outsider. Jo Kuan is Chinese, scraping out a meagre living as a hat maker, and hiding away at night in the basement of a print shop, with her adopted father (Old Gin). They exist on the edge of society – not white or black, but viewed warily by others as something in between, to be avoided and ignored.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie Munnik

Book - The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie MunnikThis is a quiet, beautiful novel which stretches across time, rooted, to begin with, in an open, wild Scottish landscape on the North East coast. It follows the lives of three women. First there is Jane, newly married and learning to survive small-town life alone, with her husband away, fighting in the Second World War. She seeks refuge in walks along the shore, but is unable to escape the harsh brutality of war, or to defend herself against the local gossips, forced to do everything she can to protect the man she loves.    Continue reading

Hay Festival 2019 – Myths, Heritage, Landscapes, Stories & Maps

Hay Festival signI’m writing this from the sanctuary of my own home, after what has been an incredible yet exhausting few days at Hay. The sun did come out yesterday afternoon, and I did enjoy sitting in a deckchair, reading for a bit, but this year’s festival has been more of a challenge than in previous years, due to my lack of energy and a general lack of sunshine, and I am grateful for some much-needed rest.

There were two events that I found particularly fascinating over the last couple of days, both relating to the historical landscape, the way in which we ‘read’ and interpret the past, and the importance of maps and stories…   Continue reading

Book Review: Dignity by Alys Conran

Book - Dignity by Alys ConranI was mesmerised by Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon, and her second novel, Dignity, is no less stunning. It follows the stories of three women – Magda, Evelyn, and Susheela – travelling across time and continents, from North Wales to India, as their lives begin to unravel in all sorts of ways, anchored always to thoughts of Home. This is a novel which does not shy away from portraying the conflict and hypocrisy of Britain’s colonial past.   Continue reading

Book Review: Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Book - Paris Echo by Sebastian FaulksParis Echo, the latest novel by Sebastian Faulks, explores our complex relationship with history, glimpsed through the lives of two very different characters in modern-day Paris. Hannah and Tariq end up in Paris for different reasons, but they are both searching for something, and they are both haunted by the ghosts of the past. We see the city through the eyes of two outsiders, with all its quirks and contradictions.    Continue reading