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Picks of 2023: Gaynor Funnell, Anthony Shapland and Jonathan Lee

30 Dec 2023 7 minute read
Vulcana by Rebecca F John is published by Honno; The Silence Project by Carole Hailey is published by Corvus

Gaynor Funnell

This year has been a cornucopia of books and literary events. Three of my favourite novels have been written by women about women. Vulcana, by Rebecca F. John, is a fictional story about a real person, Kate Williams, a Victorian strongwoman. Spellbinding writing about a strong, Welsh woman, what’s not to like?

Carole Hailey’s The Silence Project, is a gripping, speculative tale of how one woman’s action changed the world – would she be remembered as a monster or a martyr?

Morgan Is My Name by Sophie Keetch is an absorbing re-telling of the early life of the mystical Morgan le Fay of Arthurian fame. I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Two non-fiction books take nature and place writing a step further by weaving stories, legends and facts, plus beautiful images, with discussions around the current ecological crisis.

Tom Bullough takes a physical, emotional and time-shifting journey through the landscape of central Wales in Sarn Helen, while James Roberts searches for a wilder and more compassionate world in the immersive Two Lights, observing life through the lens of dawn and dusk.

The Turning Tide -A Biography of the Irish Sea is published by Harper North


Conversations discussing books were fabulous. I travelled borders of land and sea with wordsmiths Jon Gower and Mike Parker, in The Turning Tide and All The Wide Border respectively, and was mesmerised into silence by the conversation between Tessa Hadley and Thomas Morris, both events organised by the fabulous Griffin Books in Penarth.

I was also lucky enough to hear the incomparable Margaret Atwood at Hay.

The Green Man festival in Crickhowell was the best place to be in August. A smorgasbord of eclectic music, great food, more literary jewels, sunshine and rain, all mixed together with mountains and river and stars.

A late musical entry is the enchanting Calennig, a unique interpretation of ancient plygain carols magicked together by singer Angharad Jenkins and jazz pianist Huw Warren. A harbour of calm against the business of the world. Just sublime.

Kit by Megan Barker is published by Cheerio

Anthony Shapland

I owe you a book… is the opening line of Kit by Megan Barker, and I try and make everyone read this one. I tumbled through it, through the raw and intense connection between the writer and Kit, between me and the world.

Richly built with few words. I re-read it, re-re-read it to understand what I was experiencing.

With empathy, we go deep into emotional territory, but never far from the demands of the present. The deftness of language propels the story, the elliptical countdown, so completely that everything sings, everything grieves, everything interconnects. It is remarkable.

Kit is a debut novel; it is a book because that form fitted that story. Megan, happily, doesn’t stick to one lane and I’m interested in similar sidestepping. With a different hat on, a very personal highlight for me was being invited to curate an exhibition in Denbigh, at a space run by artists Angela Davies and Mark Eaglen.

ImpactArdrawiad Canolfan Celfyddydau Aberytwyth Arts Centre

A I OS EI DI at StudioMADE was shaped by amazing works by Mareah Ali, Paul Eastwood, Radha Patel, Barry Finan, Esyllt Lewis and Dylan Huw. It roughly translates as I’ll go if you will, an invitation. Loosely built around language, the slippage between translations and how marks on a page – or the gestures of hands – make sounds, that make words to shape stories.

Angharad Pearce Jones’ exhibition IMPACTArdrawiad is at Aberystwyth Arts Centre until February. Angharad works in that pull between tradition and contemporary in Wales, and is never intimidated by scale. The exhibition opens up space, like Kit, to process, to witness.

Part of it is a series of twisted, distorted gates; skilful replicas of sites of impact. Like roadside tribute-gathering shrines, they are silent. Melancholy. They’re coated or painted – bruises left by a rupture, a collision, a trauma – held in that moment, at high speed, when time distorts.

Local Fires by Joshua Jones is published by Parthian Books

This year saw the launch of Joshua Jones’ collection of stories, Local Fires. It is both completely specific and deeply rooted, but also universal. The combination feels familiar. I frequently use the place I grew up as a setting, a character or a structure in my own work. Inevitable – it shaped me.

Mapped across Jones’ home town, Llanelli, his insight into his characters is compelling and convincing. His skill is in threading a poignancy, a searching narrative of hope and community, in amongst bittersweet comedic elements and visceral, bloody anger.

This debut is still fizzing, still volatile – between its covers it sustains that feeling of not having settled yet – a promising step toward whatever is next.

Tides of Sulfur

Jonathan Lee

My favourite record released in Wales in 2023 was Tides of Sulfur’s Apathy Chasm. The south Wales three-piece make dark and heavy music for dark and heavy times and showcase this in blistering style on album opener ‘Anxiety Veteran’.

The band then holds unwaveringly on the accelerator, and distortion pedal, through the following seven tracks through to noisy closer ‘Nazinsky’.

The album as a whole sees the band have a fair crack at all the superlatives that have come to define their corner of extreme metal: the fastest, the heaviest, the doomiest, without ever sacrificing the most important element of all – big riffs to bang your head to.

Big riffs

Speaking of big riffs, there were two live shows this year that stood out for me. Firstly, singer, guitarist and bandleader extraordinaire Josh Homme brought Queens of the Stone Age from the Californian desert to Cardiff Castle.

With QOTSA now in their twenty-fifth year, and with various health problems in recent times, Homme could be forgiven for repurposing his band as a legacy act, playing the hits and going through the motions.

But instead, he has assembled perhaps the best group of musicians working in rock n roll today, put out a fantastic new record in In Times New Roman and played a colossal gig on a warm June evening to shake the foundations of the capital’s clock tower.

Josh Scogin

And it was another Josh, at the other end of summer, who provided the next big night.

With his dishevelled hair, cherubic face, and black bowtie, ‘68 frontman Josh Scogin bore more than a passing resemblance to Dylan Thomas as he took the stage in Swansea’s Bunkhouse in August.

It was a fitting look for the poet’s hometown, as Scogin’s two-piece band did not go gentle into that good bank-holiday night, but instead tore through their setlist with the energy and swagger of a band far larger in number.

Before playing the choice cuts from their new album Yes, And… as well as numbers from Two Parts Viper and Give One Take One, the Atlanta duo were supported by south Wales volume dealers They Live We Sleep and Continents. 

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