It has been a vintage year for Welsh books, befitting birthdays for industry body Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru – Books Council of Wales, who turn 60, and Seren Books, who are celebrating 40 years of independent publishing. 

Seren have had a strong year, and the release in July of 100 Poems to Save the Earth, edited by Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans, perfectly demonstrates how the imprint has managed to go from strength to strength across these last four decades.

Founded by Cary Archard as the Poetry Wales Press, the press has changed with the times and branched out from both poetry and Wales to publish a wide range of writing from across the world.

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The anthology takes on the biggest issue facing humanity – climate change – with an appropriately international selection of poems, nevertheless highlighting the raft of poetic talent that has developed in Wales over the publisher’s lifespan with well established figures like Robert Minhinnick, Gwyneth Lewis, Sheenagh Pugh and Owen Sheers alongside newer voices like Abeer Ameer and Marvin Thompson.

READ MORE:  Poets Zoe Brigley and Marvin Thompson take on race and climate justice

Meanwhile, Tapas y Copas encapsulates the way Seren has continued to broaden the range of its list.

Its authors are Cowbridge brothers Tom and Owen Morgan, the duo behind the Bar 44 restaurant group – one of the leading Spanish hospitality companies in Britain – and the book, designed by Matt Inwood with a cover by Andi Rivas is a simply stunning objet d’art. 

Even if you are not an aficionado of Iberian gastronomy, the photography conjures a feast for the senses, and the brothers’ attention to detail. 

The passion for the food they produce is evident on every page, especially in the short essays that punctuate the recipes and offer insight into the lengths they go to in ensuring the authenticity of their produce, making it as much a travel memoir as recipe book.

Tapas y Copas deserves to sit on as many coffee tables as kitchen shelves.

If Seren and the Books Council have each reached impressive milestones in 2021, it is worth remarking also that next year will be the centenary of the University of Wales Press, the highlight of whose innovative publishing programme this year has undoubtedly been veteran literary critic M Wynn Thomas’ inventive attempt to tell The History of Wales in Twelve Poems.

Structured as a journey – from Y Gododdin of Aneurin in the seventh century through the likes of Dafydd ap Gwilym, Henry Vaughan and Dylan Thomas to contemporary poets like Menna Elfyn and Gillian Clarke – the concept allows Thomas to undertake a virtuoso exploration of Welsh culture, class, religion, industry and education, and in doing so underscores the importance of both poetry and history to the very existence of Wales. 

In The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed puts Cardiff history front and centre of the literary world in the only British novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Telling the story of Somali merchant seaman Mahmood Mattan, and the 1952 miscarriage of justice that saw him convicted of a murder he did not commit, the book – as well as being exceptionally well written and researched – also chimed uneasily with our own times, as the BBC put out a major documentary on a 1988 murder and subsequent miscarriage of justice, A Killing in Tiger Bay, and the country still awaits the outcome of the IOPC investigation into the death following police custody of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan.

READ MORE: The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed could become an opera

One of the most moving aspects of The Fortune Men was the postscript in which we learned the fates of Mattan’s wife Laura and the couple’s children.

The challenges of being in a ‘mixed marriage’ were also foregrounded in the year’s other great Tiger Bay novel, Catrin Kean’s Wales Book of the Year winning Salt.

Kean explored in fiction the true story of her great grandparents’ relationship, and in doing so revealed something of how Cardiff’s nineteenth century status as a major port made it an incubator of multicultural society.

READ MORE: Wales Book of the Year winning author returns to Hay

Easy Meat, the latest novel from Rhondda’s Rachel Trezise, deals with more contemporary events, set as it is on the day of the 2016 Brexit referendum – at one step removed from the politics.

Following a meat factory worker called Caleb through an Ivan Denisovich style day-in-the-life it paints a realistic and detailed picture of contemporary working class valleys life.

READ MORE: Rachel Trezise author of Easy Meat in conversation

Trezise’s publisher Parthian are themselves fast approaching thirty years on the Welsh literary scene and have been taking the opportunity this year to republish classics from their backlist. 

Lloyd Robson’s cardiff cut is perhaps the stand-out example of Cardiff dialect writing.

In fact, the novelist Niall Griffiths called Robson’s work ‘some of the finest dialect writing in these islands, ever’, and he wasn’t wrong.

In the absence of new work, Parthian’s re-release of Robson’s classic prose-poem is a great reminder of what the Welsh literary scene has been missing since the author left for the United States.

Topher Mills’ new and selected poems Sex on Toast is also worthy of an honourable mention here – not only because its author is a huge part of the Parthian story (his own press Red Sharks was the initial inspiration for Richard Lewis Davies’ own adventures in publishing) – but because, inspired the Ely scaffolders he was working with at the time, Mills wrote the first ever poem in Cardiff dialect. 

‘Nevuh Fuhget Yuh Kairdiff’ is just one of a panoply of poems in Sex on Toast that blow up the average person’s impression of what poetry is, and does, and is for.

In his introduction, Mills explains that before attending extra-mural ‘Adventures in Creative Writing’ with the late Chris Torrance: ‘I had known nothing about poetry except that I didn’t like it… traditional metrical verse [wasn’t] Welsh or working class’. This book deserves the wide exposure that would bring an authentic (and laugh-out-loud funny) Kairdiff voice to a new generation of readers.

Another reissue worth getting your hands on is a new book that brings together much of the best writing from the pen of Patrick Jones. Fuse/Fracture is a twentieth anniversary collection of Jones’ poetry, which – like the work of Manic Street Preachers with whom he is indelibly associated – oscillates wildly between the brutal and tender, the viscerally raw and the beautifully honest.

James Dean Bradfield writes the foreword, and the book includes lyrics Jones and Bradfield collaborated on for Bradfield’s last solo album Even in Exile, about the murdered Chilean singer-songwriter and activist Victor Jara. 

One former Parthian author who has gone on to have success with a variety of London publishers is Tyler Keevil, and of all the books in this list the most unputdownable is certainly Myriad Editions’ Your Still Beating Heart.

READ MORE: Dark thriller inspired by author's youth in Prague

Keevil’s thriller begins with a random murder on a London bus and ends with a car chase across Eastern Europe, all within a poisonous atmosphere of darkness born out of the depths of depravity to which human beings can sometimes sink. It’s not for the faint hearted.

As the calendar year draws to a close we have also seen the posthumous publication of miscellanies celebrating two of the country’s most beloved literary figures.

Jan Morris died in November 2020, and Allegorizings is the follow up to two late life diaries – a collection of short musings mostly written around 2009 that she always intended would be published following her death.

A review of Morris’ classic The Matter of Wales in the New York Times, once claimed that: ‘Most Americans' entire experience of Wales is likely to have come from the pen of Jan Morris’. Lucky Americans!

READ MORE: Remembering Jan Morris by Mike Parker

Allegorizings proves, once again, that Morris was a true one-off, that rare writer whose most incidental work can draw you in to the extent you feel you have spent an hour or so in her warm, wise, witty and wonderful company.

Sadly another such writer, Nigel Jenkins – whose life was cut tragically short in 2014 at the age of 64 – was not afforded time to prepare such a volume, but he would be thankful that two of his great friends, the writer and broadcaster Jon Gower and the indefatigable entrepreneur and director of the H’mm Foundation, Ali Anwar, have taken it upon themselves to produce something.

Damned for Dreaming and Other Essays is the perfect kind of ragbag for stuffing a literary loved one’s stocking, brimful of insights, opinion and anecdotes shot through with an unquenchable love for Cymru.

However you celebrate this holiday season, why not give the gift of a book from Wales?

Dylan Moore’s own novel, Many Rivers to Cross, is available from publisher Three Impostors.

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