UN­WRAP A TER­RIFIC NI BOOK THIS CHRIST­MAS

From thrillers and chil­dren’s tales to po­etry and Trou­bles mem­oirs, Damian Smyth chooses some great fes­tive reads

Belfast Telegraph - - REVIEW - Damian Smyth is head of Lit­er­a­ture at the Arts Coun­cil of North­ern Ire­land

Call me eas­ily im­pressed, but I reckon the al­most half-mil­lion sales of Anna Burns’s novel Milk­man (Faber, £8.99),

since it won the Man Booker Prize in Oc­to­ber, should give us all pause for thought.

The amaz­ing fig­ures give the lie to the idea that read­ing is on the de­cline, that good nov­els are old hat or that the pub­lic lis­ten to snooty com­men­ta­tors who thought the book ‘dif­fi­cult’, ‘brain-knead­ing’ and ‘baf­fling’.

Well, by the end of the fes­tive sea­son, the num­bers of ‘baf­fled’ read­ers will have risen still fur­ther, as there is some­thing about this dark tale of para­mil­i­tary stalk­ers, re­sis­tance, sur­vival and the black­est hu­mour which has struck a global chord, and will squeeze the story of Mid­dle Sis­ter firmly into many a Yule­tide stock­ing.

Not bad, you might say, for Ms Burns. But it’s a good time to be re­minded that, while Milk­man is the most ac­claimed book to re­flect the pe­cu­liar cul­tural pres­sures of North­ern Ire­land, it sure isn’t the only one.

For those who prefer their fic­tions short and sweet, where bet­ter to start than Wendy Ersk­ine’s Sweet Home (Sting­ing Fly, £11), 10 strik­ingly ascetic sto­ries of east Belfast life, rang­ing from the wist­ful to the dis­turb­ing from the year’s top lit­er­ary dis­cov­ery.

Just off the press is Jamie Guiney’s The Wooden Hill (Epoque Press, £7.99), adroit, tricky and touch­ing tales of the ev­ery­day and mor­tal­ity from a writer also at the out­set of a promis­ing ca­reer.

For those un­der ex­treme sea­sonal pres­sure, Emer­gency Fic­tion Treat­ment can be ob­tained from the sparkling imag­i­na­tion of Ian San­som, with his De­cem­ber Sto­ries 1 (No Al­i­bis Press, £9.99), a gath­er­ing of wry, bizarre and eclec­tic Christ­mas nar­ra­tives which will long out­last the trou­ble­some sea­son it­self (see the au­thor read­ing some sto­ries here … https://youtu.be/HkhdoMBwy8E & https:// youtu.be/ybRgnkRSEU4).

Just be­fore you give up on the border en­tirely with Brexit fa­tigue, check out Michael Hughes’s epic Coun­try (John Mur­ray, £12.99),

a sav­age ren­di­tion of the equally sav­age an­cient story of the Iliad, re­lo­cated to the bor­der­lands, com­plete with Achill, an IRA sniper. One of the best bru­tal nov­els of the year, per­fect for Box­ing Day headaches.

Mean­while, Ty­rone’s An­thony J Quinn swaps his border cop Cel­cius Daly for a whole other fron­tier — the Scot­tish bor­ders — and a whole other gen­der, as de­tec­tive Carla Her­ron brings her for­mi­da­ble in­tel­li­gence to bear on an es­pe­cially grisly dis­cov­ery in a Scot­tish for­est (The Lis­ten­ers, Head of Zeus, £14.99).

Quinn puts an­other layer of wis­dom on his al­ready ac­com­plished man­ner of ex­pos­ing the moral du­plic­ity of the mar­gins.

With The Liar (Orion, £8.99),

Steve Ca­vanagh scooped the Crime Writ­ers As­so­ci­a­tion Gold Dag­ger Award for the year’s best novel, a pres­ti­gious ac­co­lade but one which the qual­ity of his writ­ing has been invit­ing for sev­eral years. In Ed­die Flynn, ex-con artist turned at­tor­ney, Ca­vanagh has built an anti-hero of en­dur­ing ap­peal and a per­fect, if un­set­tling, com­pan­ion for your snoozy fire­side.

No less un­set­tling is Ricky O’Rawe’s James ‘Ruc­tions’ O’Hare, mas­ter­mind of the bank rob­bery planned and ex­e­cuted in the au­thor’s de­but fic­tion North­ern Heist (Mer­rion Press £13.99). You’ ll soon for­get about par­al­lels with the in­fa­mous North­ern Bank bust of 2004 — O’Rawe has a racy, pacy style and aplomb with witty ob­ser­va­tion which make this tale of Celtic Tiger rob­bery a bit of a Belfast ur­ban clas­sic.

It’s not all boys and toys, though. The 10 sto­ries in Sophia Hil­lan’s long-awaited col­lec­tion The Cock­tail Hour (Arlen House, £15.00) are small mas­ter­pieces of mood and char­ac­ter, rang­ing from the de­cay of a rep­u­ta­tion in the States to the coast of east Down, from glam­our to dis­ap­point­ment and of­ten un­ex­pected grim­ness, to a sense sharply­imag­ined that one can do much worse than live with il­lu­sion.

It may not be the arts, as such, but af­ter all, good writ­ing is just good writ­ing and noth­ing can

prove that adage more com­pletely than writ­ing about sport. As foot­ball or any other mem­oirs go, Lis­burn-born Paul Fer­ris has

penned a clas­sic. The Boy On The Shed (Hod­der, £9.99) is a mov­ing tale of sec­tar­i­an­ism, prom­ise, dis­ap­point­ment and re-in­ven­tion, with New­cas­tle United as the back­drop to a riv­et­ing per­sonal and fam­ily drama.

The punk rev­o­lu­tion in North­ern Ire­land is the cen­tre­piece of Stu­art Bailie’s mon­u­men­tal and hugely read­able en­cy­clo­pe­dia Trou­ble Songs: Mu­sic and Con­flict in North­ern Ire­land (Bloom­field, £14.99). Even if, like me, your role mod­els were Mr Tra­volta and those chaps at Gibb Bros — less spit than pol­ish — this pub­li­ca­tion will be a guide for decades to come.

An­other joy­ous gift is Field of

Dreams (Black­staff, £9.99), in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed ed­u­ca­tion­al­ist Bob Sal­is­bury and his wife Rose­mary’s lovely ac­count of trans­form­ing 14 acres of Ty­rone into a wildlife habi­tat. This book re­cently won the Sus­tain­able Ire­land Award, spon­sored by the NI En­vi­ron­men­tal Agency.

It’s been a suc­cess­ful year for the re­vived Black­staff pub­lish­ing ven­ture, with two very dif­fer­ent re­cent pub­li­ca­tions gar­ner­ing at­ten­tion. Re­port­ing The Trou­bles, edited by Deric Hen­der­son and Ivan Lit­tle, (£14.99) has the re­flec­tions of 68 jour­nal­ists who cov­ered the Trou­bles over a span of 40 years — of­ten har­row­ing, only slightly

less of­ten up­lift­ing, the book is a trib­ute to vic­tims and those who were among the first to pay at­ten­tion to them.

Eilis Ni Dhuib­hne’s Twelve Thou­sand Days: A Mem­oir of Love and Loss (£9.99) is some­times un­bear­ably mov­ing, oc­ca­sion­ally chill­ing, al­ways fear­lessly ac­cu­rate, and is set to be some­thing of a hand­book of en­durance and re­cov­ery in the face of grief.

Po­etry has long been linked with the dis­tinc­tive mys­ter­ies of the sea­son, so it is ap­pro­pri­ate to con­sider some of the pick of the year. A gor­geous gift by any­one’s stan­dards is Blood Horses (Caesura Press £20pb, £60hb) ,a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween poet Moyra Don­ald­son and equine artist Paddy Len­non — a show­stop­per of a pro­duc­tion, and you’d want a big­ger stock­ing.

Mel McMa­hon re­sponded to the chal­lenges of the Great War cen­te­nary with Be­neath Our Feet (Nicholson

& Bass, £10) ,a mem­o­rable col­lec­tion charged with and vexed by the spirit of Wil­fred Owen. Paul Mad­dern’s The Tip­ping Line

(Tem­plar, £10) is an au­da­cious doc­u­ment, by turns dis­cur­sive and sym­phonic, reach­ing from his na­tive Ber­muda to Arc­tic wastes pa­trolled by (among oth­ers) the Crea­ture from James Whale’s Franken­stein (1931) and sundry ghosts of the Great War via ten­der mis­sives to friends, al­lies and his late fa­ther.

That in­de­fati­ga­ble po­etry pro­moter Colin Dardis’s de­but col-

lec­tion, the x of y (Eye­wear Books,

£10.99), is a set of res­o­nant lyrics ex­press­ing a life lived in­tensely at the edges and on the edge, a style man­aged with po­tent rhetoric and felt in­tent.

Multi-award-win­ning Grainne Tobin has gath­ered many of her re­cent poems in The Uses of Silk (Arlen House, £10), show­cas­ing both for­mal dex­ter­ity and en­vi­able sto­ry­telling in her own hu­mane and em­pa­thetic id­iom.

Blue Sand­bar Moon (Ir­ish Pages

Press, £15), Chris Agee’s first col­lec­tion in 10 years, is a lovely vol­ume from a new pub­lisher, but with sub­tle poems brief, spare, lu­cid, gen­tle, griev­ous, at odds with loss and in no way rec­on­ciled to it. Hey, no one ever claimed po­etry was fun. But it is use­ful on those many days when it hap­pens not to be Christ­mas.

With the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion con­firm­ing that chil­dren who read out­side class time are an as­ton­ish­ing five times more likely to read above the ex­pected level for their age, the im­por­tance of good raw ma­te­rial for young read­ers has never been more recog­nised.

Not only is Oliver Jef­fers’s Notes for Liv­ing on Planet Earth (Harper Collins, £14.99) into its sec­ond Christ­mas as a mas­sive best­seller, but now there is its first trans­la­tion into Ir­ish, and Ul­ster Ir­ish at that, thanks to writer Myra Zepf — Anseo Ata Muid

(Futa Fata, £15). Cou­pled with her English trans­la­tion of her own Na Gabh ar Scoil! as Don’t Go To

School! (Futa Fata, £7), with il­lus­tra­tor Tar­sila Krüse, and her ex­pand­ing roster of Rita pic­ture books with Belfast pub­lisher An tS­nathaid Mhor, it’s been a busy year for the Arts Coun­cil’s NI Chil­dren’s Writ­ing Fel­low based in Queen’s Univer­sity.

The great Sam McBrat­ney — whose Guess How Much I Love You (1994) has sold more than 30 mil­lion copies (yes, you read that right) — re­turns to the shelves this win­ter with The Most-Loved Bear (Pan Macmil­lan, £4.99) ,a Christ­mas story for ages 3-plus, il­lus­trated by Sam Usher. Pauline Burgess’s novel for young peo­ple, Who Do You Think You Are? (Chil­dren’s Pool­beg, £8),

fol­lows the tri­als of Magda, a Pol­ish girl grow­ing up in Belfast, with aged rel­a­tives be­hind her and a world of new op­por­tu­ni­ties and risks be­fore her. Burgess proves her­self again a flex­i­ble, in­ven­tive and com­pas­sion­ately en­gaged writer.

Gimme a bleak north­ern Ir­ish town with an aero­drome handy and I’ll ex­pect to hear about the con­fines of Down­patrick and windy Bish­op­scourt … as it hap­pens, Eoin McNamee’s haunt­ingly both­er­some new novel The Vogue (Faber, £12.99), is re­ally about Kil­keel, a tale that reaches from an army base dur­ing the war to very un­pleas­ant ap­pari­tions in the present day, all told in McNamee’s inim­itable style of driv­ing nar­ra­tive be­side dense at­mo­spher­ics that are rarely con­ceal­ing any­thing whole­some.

There is a po­etry which makes other po­etry look and sound like it’s been recorded on C90 cas­sette tapes. Gail McCon­nell’s

pam­phlet Four­teen (Green Bot­tle Press, £6) — im­pres­sive, dense, play­ful, for­mally nim­ble — marks out one such com­pletely new reg­is­ter in Ir­ish po­etry. Su­san­nah Dickey’s sec­ond (art­ful, shrewd,

vig­i­lant) pam­phlet from Belfast’s Lifeboat Press, gen­uine hu­man val­ues, (£6.50), is al­ready a col­lec­tor’s item as this poet’s star rapidly as­cends. Natasha Cuddington’s Each Of Us [Our Chronic Al­pha­bets] (Arlen House, £10) is ev­ery bit as much of a chal­lenge as the ti­tle sug­gests, but am­ply re­wards those who take it up with bright, un­ex­pected phrases and dis­con­cert­ingly fresh ways of see­ing the or­di­nary around us.

Not ev­ery­one likes madeup things, so a lit­tle nod to in­dis­pens­able mod­els of lo­cal re­search. For­mer li­brar­ian of the Linen Hall John Killen has pro­duced St Pa­trick’s Trea­sury (Black­staff, £12.99), an an­thol­ogy of myth, folk­lore, fact and tra­di­tion from the heart­land of the pa­tron saint. Duane Fitzsimons, the Sherpa Ten­z­ing of east Down,

and have co-au­thor com­piled Cado­gan a for­mi­da­ble En­right, lit­tle guide (Kil­clief to Res­i­dents The Pads As­so­ci­a­tion, of North Le­cale £3) — wind­ing through the wilder­nesses around Saul, Cas­tle Ward and Strang­ford.

One of the many things fic­tion does do well is reg­is­ter tremors in so­cial and cul­tural mem­ory, so, as we’re in a sub­stan­tial an­niver­sary pe­riod for the Great Famine, be­tween 170 and 175 years, re­flec­tions on the pe­riod are sur­fac­ing. Orla McAlin­den’s large-scale nar­ra­tive The Flight of the Wren (Men­tor, £12), a bro­ken fam­ily saga reach­ing from the ori­gins of the famine to the An­tipodes and back again over sev­eral gen­er­a­tions, tells a most un­ex­pected but all too plau­si­ble story of what it takes for women to sur­vive against fright­en­ing odds.

A novel decades ahead of its time in 1986 and now re­turned to us for fresh scru­tiny is Linda An­der­son’s Cuckoo (Turn­pike

Books, £10), fol­low­ing a young Belfast woman’s tra­vails in Eng­land as she flirts with self-de­struc­tion. A com­pletely dif­fer­ent ver­sion of young women’s lives is found in Tara’s blog in Sharon Dempsey’s breath­less fam­ily snapshot My Vir­tual Life (Blood­hound Books, £7.99),

as the teenager lit­er­ally tells all about her mum, the past, fash­ion, am­bi­tion and the price of se­crets.

Lastly, it would be dif­fi­cult this Christ­mas not to cel­e­brate the art of mem­oir by rec­om­mend­ing two ti­tles which did so much to il­lu­mi­nate the life of the late Dr Mau­rice Hayes, one of our great­est cit­i­zens and for many decades one of the stars of Co Down, who died just be­fore last Christ­mas. Sweet Kil­lough, Let Go Your An­chor is a touch­ing and vivid evo­ca­tion of a child­hood lived in what was, in more ways than one, an­other cen­tury; a se­quel, Black Pud­dings And Slim:

A Down­patrick Child­hood, picks up the story of ru­ral town life in the 40s and 50s.

These record the for­ma­tive years of an en­vi­able ca­reer in so many are­nas of civic life which was a model of the four car­di­nal virtues of pru­dence, tem­per­ance, for­ti­tude and jus­tice. Virtues ex­pressed ad­mirably, I think, in this ex­change in the na­tive Doric of Milk­man:

“‘Ach’, I said. ‘Ach noth­ing,’ he said. ‘Ach sure,’ I said. ‘Ach sure what?’ he said. ‘Ach sure, if that’s how you feel.’ ‘Ach sure, of course that’s how I feel.’ ‘Ach, all right then.’ ‘Ach,’ he said. ‘Ach,’ I said. ‘Ach,’ he said. ‘Ach,’, I said. ‘Ach.’ So that was that set­tled.”

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