books, Reviews

Book Clubbing

I was all set to write about the books I’ve loved getting my literary teeth into during 2021 but it struck me that the biggest difference in my reading world this year has been book club.

Since January I’ve been running a monthly book club so I’ve been pushed to read titles, genres and authors that wouldn’t usually have been my thing.

I was worried that reading a book because I felt obliged to would kill my buzz for reading like my BA in English Lit did. My degree stopped me reading for fun. I felt guilty if I was reading for pleasure rather than reading something for an essay, seminar or tutorial. I devoured books in sixth form but got through very few in Uni, aside from a couple of stand outs like Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

Back to book club and it hasn’t felt like a chore. I’ve loved meeting new people from all sorts of backgrounds in my area, people who have very different lives from me but who all share a love of reading. We have varied tastes, but I think I’ve made it a safe space for us all to have respect for opposing points of view.

One of the highlights has been a live Q&A session with an author and another with an editor. Huge thanks to the Reading Agency for making those happen. It also felt important to explore the work of local authors, something the group’s particularly keen on.

Being part of a book club has exposed some of the members to concepts and ways of life that they have never encountered, and it’s been quite moving to see how a book opened their eyes and gave them a new understanding of people of different races, sexualities, cultures, or periods in time.

It’s the only clubbing I’ve done all year. 10/10 would recommend. No hangovers, no sore feet and far cheaper than the other clubbing. If I were pushed to choose some personal faves from the books I’ve read in 2021 so far, my top five would be:

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Reid Jenkins

Young Skins by Colin Barrett

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

The Survivors by Jane Harper

Which books have your book club delved into this year? Any titles you’re keen to tackle in 2022? Let me know in the comments.

A photo taken from above of a table with a big rug on. A pile of three books sit in the lower left of the image with the words The Elephant and the Buns on the front and an illustration of a very long elephant trunk reaching for a plate of big round iced buns with cherries on top. To the right is a large iced bun with a cherry on top, nestled in a brown takeaway box and in the top of the image is another bun in tongs on a square white plate.
books, Reviews, Things To Do

The Elephant and the Buns Book Launch

We popped to the book launch of The Elephant and the Buns at Elephant & Bun Deli in Cowbridge on Sunday and met the lovely author Megan Mattravers. We were lucky enough to be one of the early birds to get a free sticky bun with our book purchase and my youngest was delighted to get his books signed by Megan.

A photo taken from above of a table with a big rug on. A pile of three books sit in the lower left of the image with the words The Elephant and the Buns on the front and an illustration of a very long elephant trunk reaching for a plate of big round iced buns with cherries on top. To the right is a large iced bun with a cherry on top, nestled in a brown takeaway box and in the top of the image is another bun in tongs on a square white plate.

Like Megan’s previous children’s book Vintage Owl, The Elephant and the Buns is based on a true story and set in beautiful Cowbridge with some familiar shops and characters in the gorgeous illustrations from Owain Lewis (who also created the fabulous window display at the deli).

Megan, a dark haired lady in a camel coat, stands in front of a deli's shop window with four floating balloons next to her. An elephant is drawn on the window and a box in the foreground has an elephant picture on it too. In the clear reflection of the window and people buying books and the reflected high street shops.
Book launch day at Elephant & Bun Deli in Cowbridge

The book is perfect for older primary school readers who might be overwhelmed by a thick novel without pictures, for confident readers aged 6-9 who are on the journey from picture books to longer stories, or simply for you to share with your younger children when you read to and with them.

The deli was an absolute trove of edible delights. I heartily recommend the sausage rolls. The spherical iced buns were the cherry on the top.

Megan is at the Goodsheds in Barry on Saturday 23rd October for a book reading and book signing event 10am-11am. Tickets are available here:

You can buy the book from Megan’s Etsy shop here:

It’s a brilliant chance to support a local author and to kick the October half term off with something a bit special.

Megan, a smiling woman with short dark hair in a cosy light pink roll neck jumper, stands with her hands in her camel coat pockets behind a table on which her books are displayed. In the foreground, also on the table, are shiny round iced buns with big glossy cherries on top. The deli window behind her has a white, hand illustrated elephant trunk and the words the ELEPHANT and the BUNS.
Local author Megan Mattravers at the book launch of her newest children’s book The Elephant and the Buns
A gruff looking, well built Luke Evans as DSI Steve Wilkins stands to the left of frame in a dark coat buttoned up against the wind. The Pembrokeshire coastline curves behind him. A cold and gritty filter gives the shot a dark and ominous feel.
Reviews, Television

The Pembrokeshire Murders: killing the competition on terrestrial television

One in three people who watch normal television were watching The Pembrokeshire Murders this week. Without the live, appointment viewing lure of Strictly or Bake Off and in an era of on demand overabundance through Netflix and Prime, this is no mean feat for an ITV Drama.

Made in Wales with Welsh actors, the overwhelming takeaway is that we can do it. I live in an area frequently used as a televisual filming location that doubles up as pretty much anywhere (London, Sheffield, Moordale, Billericay, Oxford, other galaxies), that isn’t here (Barry, Penarth, Dinas Powys, Cardiff, Wales in general) so it is astonishingly refreshing to see Welsh locations filmed in Wales. Yes, Cardiff courts were filmed in place of Swansea, a Barry corner shop in place of Milford Haven but it’s closer than usual.

Perhaps it was a reaction to the baffling Stephen Graham accent in White House Farm or the stereotypical lilting Valleeeeys accent that seems to be the go-to Welsh accent, but the use of natural and varied Welsh accents (Newport, Cardiff, a bunch of places further west) really helped embed this production in reality. It smacks of real life that police have moved for their job or haven’t necessarily grown up in the area. The real DSI Steve Wilkins has more of a North West England accent.

The opening credits were reminiscent of the ITV superhit crime drama Broadchurch, with sweeping aerial views of the coast through a cold gritty filter. Interspersed with 70s cine film camcorder footage of seaside days, this set the stall as a three parter that is as much about place as character and action. A refreshing use of a Welsh language soundtrack over these images was another important nod to embracing the Welshness of the story, place and people.

We start with a gratuitous shot of Hollywood’s handsome Welsh man mountain (AKA Gaston) ironing shirts in his pants and vest in front of the world’s biggest window. Turns out it’s just patio doors overlooking the sea but that was my first take. After getting momentarily side-tracked wondering what size shirt Luke Evans wears (men’s shirts are weirdly measured by neck size, how does he get a shirt large enough for his bulging back and biceps but not baggy on the collar. Maybe his neck is deceptively enormous too, perspective and all that) I’m in the action. Our main man is established as a family man with an Olivia Pope style love of red wine with paperwork and low lighting.

I mention this because the domesticity sets the tone. The production is about family and home. It never feels that it is exploiting the grief of the families involved in the crimes, including the victims’ families, the family of the murderer and the families of those undertaking the investigation. John Cooper’s son was interviewed before production and his input into the impact on him and his mother is woven into the episodes beautifully. The ripples of the horrors Cooper committed last for decades. Many scenes are filmed in homes, from the maximalist floral blooms of the Cooper’s lounge to Andrew’s sad and dated place, from Wilkins’s busy contemporary pad to the familial cosy norm of Erin’s living room. The attacks and burglaries took place in homes, near homes and in places that simply felt like a home from home.

Despite briefly diverting from realism in episode two when Andrew/Adrian answered his mobile to an unknown number in a cheery manner (who does that?! Where was the anxiety and suspicion?!), I was pulled through the plot at a pace. Split into three hours of broadcasting, there is no dilly dallying. In much the same way that the investigating team repeatedly refer to their budget and a need to be selective and strategic, so too the production team went about crafting and editing The Pembrokeshire Murders.

Based on the book The Pembrokeshire Murders: Catching the Bullseye Killer by Steve Wilkins, the plot follows our hero and his police team cracking a cold case or three, focusing on John Cooper with a sense of more urgency than is typical of old cases as he is up for parole from jail time for burglary. As the show is about a real life story, it wisely steers clear of showing the murders and maintains a respect for the victims, survivors and their families. As a dramatisation of a true story, it focuses on the processes and tactics used to solve the crimes and convict the criminal.

The success of The Pembrokeshire Murders is partly in the timing, with us all trapped in the house in the evening, but word of mouth has played a huge part in driving up viewer figures. Programming across three midweek 9pm slots appealed to those of us with the lack of patience borne of binge watching.

The cast is awesome with big names like Luke Evans and Keith Allen alongside familiar Welsh actors who leave you wondering where you know them from and actors who you might not have seen before but absolutely hold their own. One I’ve worked with before, one is in my mum’s dog walking circle and several I recognise from stage productions with Sherman Theatre, The Other Room, Omidaze, National Theatre Wales etc. I hope they can use this as a springboard for their careers.

Of course, we’ve seen success and popularity for Wales made thrillers, crime dramas and Cymru-noir in recent years with Hinterland and Keeping Faith. Both were simultaneously filmed in Welsh as Y Gwyll and Un Bore Mercher, both were longer series and neither were based on true stories. I hope that The Pembrokeshire Murders builds an appetite for more Wales made and Wales based work. It has been a challenging year for the creative industries. The film and television sector is a major employer and hub of innovation here in Wales. I think this is a calling card for more and statement of intent for ambitious future productions.

The Pembrokeshire Murders is available to watch on ITV Hub