Indie Publisher of the Month for November 2020 – Seren Books @SerenBooks

Seren Books was founded in 1981 and has grown to become Wales’ leading independent literary publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales. Based in Bridgend, Seren aims to

not only reflect what is going on in the culture in which we publish, but to drive that culture forward, to engage with the world, and to bring Welsh literature, art and politics before a wider audience.

At the heart of our list is a good story told well or an idea or history presented interestingly or provocatively. We’re international in authorship and readership, though our roots remain here in Wales, where we prove that writers from a small country with an intricate culture have a worldwide relevance.

With a list spanning poetry, fiction and non-fiction, many of our books are shortlisted for – and win – major literary prizes across the UK and America.

I was tempted recently by the intriguingly entitled The Stromness Dinner by Peter Benson.

Ed Beech is one half of Beech Building Services. He’s based in Bermondsey but no job’s too small, no distance too great. So when he’s asked to do some work on a house in Orkney, he loads the van with paint, tools and sandwiches, and takes off. He gets nervous around farm animals and large ships, and he’s never been so far north, but when he’s joined by Claire, his client’s city banker sister, he discovers that in Stromness, anything is possible.

Peter Benson’s compelling new novel continues his exploration of unlikely relationships, and paints a vivid picture of a place where all is not what it seems, but might be.

When I browsed through Seren’s catalogue I spotted another title that I’d previously bought, namely Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch – a book set in my home town of Hull. Worryingly, for my bank balance, I spotted more tempting titles that I didn’t own. In the spirit of sharing I’ve listed them below, so perhaps you’d also like to investigate what Seren has to offer. I’ve only listed those that caught my eye so please have a look at their extensive list of poetry and non fiction titles, as well as works in translation.

If you’re tempted by any of the titles you’ve seen please be aware that if you register for a free, online Seren account you’ll receive exclusive news as well as 20% off all the books you buy direct from their website.

Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch

Step into Larkinland. Home of bicycle clips, trains, trolley buses, despair in rented rooms, and of course, the ‘almost love affair’.  Jonathan Tulloch deftly builds Philip Larkin’s poems into a sustained landscape, fills it with Larkin’s characters and just for good measure adds a version of Larkin himself – meet Arthur Merryweather: librarian, poet and would be great romantic.

Arriving in 1950s Hull, Arthur Merryweather finds himself lodging with the landlady from hell, and falling in love with fellow librarian Niamh O’Leary. But just as their love threatens to bloom, the mystery of Mr Bleaney, the enigmatic insurance salesman who rented his room before him, threatens to pull the poet into disaster and cast him into the criminal hinterland of ‘fish town’, that sublimely banal Larkinland ‘beached on the mudflats at the end of the railway line, like a brick seal with a woodbine in its gob’.

Hilarious, hugely enjoyable and deeply moving, Larkinland is the most compelling love story, mystery and biographical novel you are likely to read.

A pitch-perfect realisation of Larkin’s poetic world, the author also cooks up his own set of moving misadventures, which reveal the loneliness, commonplaces, fears, lusts and hope we all must face. Drawing on meetings with the women in Larkin’s life, Larkinland casts startlingly fresh light on one of Hull’s greatest ever poets.

Miriam, Daniel and Me by Euron Griffith

When he smiled it really did feel as if the chilly Caernarfonshire wind had stopped for a few seconds and as if the place had suddenly got warmer.

When Miriam fell in love with Padraig life seemed simple. But soon she discovered that love is a treacherous business. Everything changed when she met Daniel. She was taken down an unexpected path which would dictate and dominate the rest of her life.

Spanning three generations of a North Wales family in a Welsh-speaking community, Miriam, Daniel and Me is an absorbing and compelling story of family discord, political turmoil, poetry, jealousy…and football.

The Amazingly Astonishing Story by Lucy Gannon

By turns laugh out loud funny and deeply sad, The Amazingly Astonishing Story is Lucy Gannon’s childhood memoir, a frank and surprising look into a child’s tumultuous mind. A soldier’s daughter, Lucy lived in many places but after the death of her mother when Lucy was six, she was lodged with relatives in Lancashire, taken in only because the Army paid an allowance for her care. Escape beckoned when her father remarried but Lucy and her brothers soon found they had swapped one difficult situation for another. The boys fled into the armed forces leaving Lucy behind, a loathed gooseberry in her father’s second and passionate marriage. 

Lucy’s escape was her convent school where, though abysmal at maths, she discovered a flair for writing and in the nuns she found warmth and understanding. Forced to leave home at sixteen, she joined the Women’s Royal Army Corps (‘the only organisation desperate enough to take me on’). 

Vividly told, The Amazingly Astonishing Story is a classic story of a working-class girl growing up in the fifties and sixties, where dreams and reality seem irreconcilable. Her Catholic upbringing, a father torn between his daughter and his new wife, her irreverent imagination and stubborn determination to enjoy life , all mean that Lucy Gannon really does have an amazing story (including meeting the Beatles in her school grounds) as she finds her place in the world.

Nia by Robert Minhinnick

Nia by [Robert Minhinnick]

Nia Vine is about to fulfil her dream of exploring an unmapped cave system. With her will go two friends who were brought up in the same seaside town. These companions are international travellers, but Nia, who has recently become a mother, feels her experience insignificant compared with that of her friends.

While the three explore, Nia finds herself obsessed by a series of dreams that finally lead to a shocking revelation. As events unfold, the strands of her life come into focus – her dysfunctional parents, the daughter she must raise differently, the friends with whom she shared childhood.

A Simple Scale by David Llewellyn

A single piece of music starts a story that takes us from Soviet Russia and McCarthyite Hollywood to post-9/11 New York. A single piece of music, and two composers – one American, the other Soviet – but which of them wrote it? How did their lives cross? How were their fortunes shaped by history, and what were the consequences for those they loved?

A young Russian, Pavel Grekov, arrives in New York in the October of 2001, and accuses ageing TV composer Sol Conrad of plagiarising a work by his grandfather, Sergey. Conrad’s young PA Natalie is determined to defend her boss, but as she digs deeper she discovers worlds she barely knew about – the labour camps of Siberia, the “Red Scare” of 1950s Hollywood, government oppression, and the plight of gay men in the USA and USSR of the mid-20th Century.

Natalie, Sol and Sergey’s stories range across decades and continents, and A Simple Scale moves through narratives of love, death, deceit, the secret police, atom bombs, Classical music and the last days of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”. In a dramatic conclusion, the past and present catches up with them, as the secrecies and betrayals of Sol and Sergey’s lives inform events in 2001, when history is just about to repeat itself. 

Lime, Lemon & Sarsaparilla by Colin Hughes

Lime, Lemon & Sarsaparilla is a wonderful evocation of Italian immigration in south Wales from the turn of the century to the postwar years, when the Italian café was central to life in many small communities in the Valleys. This first detailed book on the subject follows the fortunes of Italian families such as Rabaiotti, Berni, Bracchi, Conti, Fulgoni, Sidoli and many others, and explores their influence on Welsh society.

In this award-winning study Colin Hughes, himself a south Walian, explains why so many immigrants from Bardi settled in the area. He looks at the rise of Italian temperance bars in non-conformist Wales, and at the economic and social factors which lie behind the rapid rise and slow decline of the Italian café. His book also includes a fascinating chapter on the treatment of Italian internees, and the Arandora Star tragedy in which many died when their ship to Canada was sunk by a U-boat.

Ibrahim & Reenie by David Llewellyn

Ibrahim and Reenie, David Llewellyn

Ibrahim is walking from Cardiff to London. He has his reasons and he’s not doing it for charity. What he hasn’t counted on is bumping into seventy-five-year-old cockney Reenie doing the same thing, before he’s even reached Newport.

With her life’s luggage in a shopping trolley, complete with an orange tent and a cockatiel, Reenie is also walking from her Cardiff home to London, and not for charity.

A young Muslim ex-student with a tough few years behind him, Ibrahim is not looking for company that day. But when the police stop to check on him and Reenie on the grass verge by a hotel on the edge of town, he finds himself offering to share a journey that will take him places he had never dreamed of, starting with a night’s camping on the Coldra M4 interchange!

The odd couple soon attracts the attention of local journalists, one of a number of unexpected encounters that shape their route. But more life-changing is the relationship that builds between them. As Ibrahim and Reenie talk, their paths stretch out before and behind them into the personal and political turns of European history in ways neither could have foreseen. 

The Women of Versailles by Kate Brown

In The Women of Versailles, the narrative slips between the decadent world of Versailles during the reign of Louis XV and the day, just before the French revolution in 1789, that Versailles is stormed by the women of Paris and Louis XVI is forced to move the court to the Tuileries. At the centre of this story is Adélaïde, who struggles with her budding sexuality and a desire for freedom of expression, both of which conflict with the expectations of the restrictive court.

Adélaïde envies her brother, is bored with her sister and, when Madame de Pompadour, a bourgeoise, comes to court as her father’s mistress, she is smitten, with dangerous results. Adélaïde pushes against the confines of the court, blind to the difference between a mistress and princess, with tragic results.

Forty-four years later, under the looming shadow of the revolution, what has happened to the hopes of a young girl and the doomed regime in which she grew up?

Murder at the Star : Who Killed Thomas Thomas? by Steve Adams

The murder of God-fearing, bible-quoting, partially deaf Thomas Thomas at the branch of Star Stores he managed in Garnant, South Wales has remained an unsolved mystery since it happened in 1921. His body was found on the morning of Sunday February 13th, his head smashed, his throat cut and with a stab wound to the stomach, any of which could have killed him. Over £126 was missing from the store safe, yet there were oddities about the attack which suggested this was more than a robbery that went tragically wrong: Thomas had been gagged with cheese, and there was no tear in his trousers, shirt and waistcoat above the stab wound. What circumstances could explain these things?

Garnant was in shock, and Scotland Yard arrived in the form of DI George Nicholls. A number of suspects were identified but none seemed to have the telling combination of motive and opportunity. Despite the expertise of Nicholls the case was eventually abandoned and the killer’s secret died with him.

Until now. In classic cold case fashion journalist Steve Adams’s extensive researches have finally identified the killer, who is revealed at the end of the book, after a thorough reconstruction of the murder and the subsequent investigation.

This is the story of a terrible crime in an almost archetypal Welsh mining town. It was a crime symbolic of a turning point in early twentieth century Wales, as the coal industry declined and its recently assembled townships came to terms with their uncertain futures and sought new identities.

Swimming on Dry Land by Helen Blackhurst

Set in a small fictional mining town in south-west Australia, Monica Harvey, a twelve-year-old English girl, is looking for her younger sister, Georgie.  The Harvey family has recently moved to Akarula, having been persuaded to set out in search of a new life by their rich Uncle Eddie, who owns the town.  Monica discovers Georgie down one of the disused mine shafts but when she returns later that day with her father and Uncle Eddie, Georgie has disappeared.   

It becomes clear that Georgie’s is not the first disappearance in the town. Eddie, a self-made money-man – a dreamer whose main concern is to save his beloved town – has thus far concealed the disappearances from his brother, Michael. But as the search for Georgie widens, the pressure intensifies and Eddie’s dream-like vision of his town gradually implodes. Mr M, the only aborigine left in Akarula, sees it all from his seat under the town’s single tree, giving rise to local superstition and fears.

As the history of the land unfolds new possibilities and answers to the mysterious disappearances slowly suggest themselves.

The Rice Paper Diaries by Francesca Rydderch

Winner of Wales Book of the Year, English Language Fiction 2014
Francesca Rydderch has been shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award 2014

This is a story of war told from the edges. Four interweaving accounts relate the intimate havoc wrought by military conflict on individual lives. It is spring 1940, and newly wed Elsa Jones is finding her way in Hong Kong’s ex-pat society. Lonely and homesick, she finds an ally in her amah Lin, who has travelled downriver from her native village in Canton, but their friendship is clouded by Lin’s own longing to be reunited with her young sister and the simpler life of her childhood. Hong Kong is changing by the day: soldiers appear on the streets and bomb shelters spring up around them, but, taken up by their own concerns, both Elsa and Lin fail to notice the darkening of the political landscape.

When Hong Kong falls to the Japanese, Elsa and her husband Tommy are captured and interned in a makeshift camp on the southern side of the island. Along with the rest of Hong Kong’s European elite, they have to knuckle down to the task of survival in hostile surroundings. As the internees settle into some kind of community on a rocky peninsula facing the South China Sea, Elsa and Tommy find their relationship tested to the limit. Ever optimistic, Tommy comes up with a plan to make the camp self-sufficient, but as the mental pressure of internment grows his personal crusade develops into an obsession so deep and dark that it becomes a prison of its own.

The final war story in this lyrical novel is the poignant tale of baby Mari. When we rejoin her in 1947 she is six years old, on her way home from the Far East to a village on the coast of Wales. Everyone tells her there is much to celebrate, not least victory and a return to the securities of the past. But for Mari camp life is all she has known. Her new home is a cold, strange place riddled with secrets which can only be decoded by eavesdropping on the broken, confusing exchanges between the adults around her. As we follow her desperate attempts to create a happy ending, we learn more about the tragedies as well as the joys of coming home.

Love & Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds

Love and Fallout, Kathryn Simmonds

When Tessa’s best friend organises a surprise TV makeover, Tessa is horrified. It’s the last thing she needs – her business is on the brink of collapse, her marriage is under strain and her daughter is more interested in beauty pageants than student politics. What’s more, the ‘Greenham Common angle’ the TV producers have devised reopens some personal history Tessa has tried to hide away. Then Angela gets in touch, Tessa’s least favourite member of the Greenham gang, and she’s drawn back into her muddy past.

Moving between the present and 1982, and set against the mass protests which touched thousands of women’s lives, Love and Fallout is a book about friendship, motherhood and the accidents that make us who we are. A hugely entertaining novel from debut novelist and award-winning poet Kathryn Simmonds.

After Brock by Paul Binding

After Brock, Paul Binding

In Paul Binding’s After Brock, Pete, a talented and intelligent schoolboy, though an outsider in both home and school life, enters and wins a quiz show ‘High Flyers’ a name that is to resonate throughout the rest of his life. One December night after watching his mother perform in the Mikado with a local amateur dramatics society he meets Sam, an attractive and flamboyant boy, somewhat of a misfit with whom his infatuation is instant. They begin a tempestuous friendship seeking a world removed from the difficulties of home life: Sam’s alcoholic mother and Pete’s frayed relationship with his unappreciative family. They confide in each other with almost everything. They become obsessed with UFOs and otherworldly phenomena, inseparable until one day they embark on a journey sparked by a sighting of something deep in the Berwyn mountains but this event leads to a terrible betrayal. Thirty-five years later Pete’s own son, Nat, disappears and is found in that very same place. A scrupulous journalist appears and, suspecting foul play, is determined to find out what led Nat there and why…

Some tempting titles I’m sure you’ll agree. You can see the full Seren catalogue here


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