Christmas Book Guide 2019
Damian Smyth, Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, picks out the best books for gift giving this year…
Books like dogs aren’t just for Christmas. They can be warm and safe and sit in your lap looking up at you as drift off to sleep; they’ll lie there accusing you of not paying them enough attention; they become companions, loyal and reliable, even as they get a bit worn and familiar and begin to shed.
So don’t expect just seasonal reading in your stocking – this stuff is to keep you going through the year.
And no one better for this than David Park, as his Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Prize-winning Travelling In A Strange Land proved. A Run In The Park (Bloomsbury £10) is another excursion into the territory of troubled relationships, this time with unexpected perspectives as five people set out on a Couch to 5k running programme. Serialised over several weeks on Radio Four, it’s a brisk read, with Park’s characteristically-poignant observations, elegant phrasing and at least one uncharacteristic and very satisfying act of violence to round off this quietly-charged story.
Another author whose last novel was a barnstorming success is Neil Hegarty, whose Inch Levels (2016) was a withering account of dark legacies in a small border community. With The Jewel (Head of Zeus, £18.99), he crafts a hugely-satisfying set of character studies, lost romances, bitter compromises, uneasy alliances, in the setting of a gripping gallery heist. A classy outing finding other dimensions to Hegarty’s bothering perceptions of what makes us all tick.
A Belfast-set Troubles-era novel is David Keenan’s Gordon Burn Prize-winning For The Good Times (Faber, £12.99). This seriously-raucous tale of IRA volunteers, 70s sideburns, an unlikely ménage à trois, grotesque disposals and some high-camp comedy is another original take on what is obviously not exhausted territory for fiction.
Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters (Transworld, £14.99) – magical interventions in east Belfast, many of them disturbing – won the Ireland EU Prize for Literature from a shortlist of four which included fellow northerners Rosemary Jenkinson’s Catholic Boy (Doire, £10.99) and Bernie McGill’s The Watch House (Tinder, £9.99). The flourishing of Carson’s imagination was one of the notable publishing events in these islands during the year.
Jenny McCartney’s debut novel, The Ghost Factory (Fourth Estate, £12.99), located in 90s Belfast as peace emerges fitfully from conflict, is ripe with energetic, fresh descriptions and surprising turns of phrase – as well as marking another entry for Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins as a modern urban legend.
For those who like their stories short and maybe (not so) sweet are three cracking anthologies – Being Various (Faber, £12.99), edited by Lucy Caldwell, Belfast Stories (Doire, £13), edited by Lisa Frank and Paul McVeigh and Still Worlds Turning edited by Emma Warnock (No Alibis Press, £14.99) – in all, dozens of stories by top writers.
Back in 2016, Dame Fiona Kidman was at the Belfast Book Festival researching a story based on a real-life death penalty case in New Zealand in 1955 involving Belfastman Albert Black. It so happens that the resulting novel, This Mortal Boy (Belgravia, £8.99) is a publishing sensation for the seasoned author, winning multiple major prizes including the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Acorn and the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Moreover, it is an essential read as a study of wrong choices, ambiguous motives, infinitely nuanced personalities and a grim complex tragedy of a loner. Black was hanged on 05 December, 64 years ago. “Not one of us,” the judge said. A tremendous novel, I say.
For something more sustained from an author magisterial in the short form, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home (£12.99) was picked up this year by global publisher Picador from its original imprint Stinging Fly and these subtle, intense, scrupulous accounts of unruly east Belfast lives have duly hit home everywhere.
Those needing a pit-stop to recover from seasonal excesses should seek out the brilliantly-wise Ian Sansom’s December Stories 1 (No Alibis Press, £9.99) – a gathering of knowing, bizarre and eclectic Christmas narratives which long outlast the season itself. (See the author reading some stories here, mind the beard … https://youtu.be/HkhdoMBwy8E & https://youtu.be/ybRgnkRSEU4).
Poetry has its yuletide place, whether in the lyrics of well-loved carols or much-loathed saccharine ditties. Stephen Sexton’s If All The World And Love Were Young (Penguin £9.99) – book of the year for both the New Statesman and the Daily Telegraph – is the top poetry debut of 2019 by some distance, winning the prestigious Forward Prize for Best First Collection. The poems here are sparklingly brilliant, memorable and vulnerable – images to live with for decades ahead.
Bangor poet and teacher Ross Thompson’s long-awaited debut Threading the Light (£9.00) is a delivery on years of promise - clever, moving, nimbly formal poems with wide range of themes and a reassuring quiet, meditative confidence make for a gorgeous production from Dedalus Press.
One of the happiest events of the year was the elevation of Fermanagh poet Frank Ormsby to the post of Ireland Professor of Poetry. His latest book, The Rain Barrel (Bloodaxe, £12), has been hailed as containing some of his best work.
A book some years in the making is No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters (Seren, £9.99) by the distinguished emigrée poet Anne-Marie Fyfe from Cushendall. By way of Orkney, Felixstowe and Swansea to Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod and Nova Scotia, this extraordinary creative memoir refreshes the artist's commitments to home, family and place via several miracles of departure. Lighthouses, harbours, isles of dreams - perfect for the fireside traveller.
Poetry makes short work of most things and, as short work itself, can be punchy and high-impact. Gaynor Kane’s pamphlet Memory Forest (Hedgehog Poetry, £7.99), shows a talent rapidly developing in lyrical skills, with keen senses and unexpected, enriched vocabulary. Gail McConnell’s second pamphlet, Fothermather (Ink, Sweat and Tears, £7.50), comprises 19 poems combining astonishing virtuosity and a memorably authentic heart.
Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie was the 2019 International Visiting Poet at Queen’s, part of the Arts Council’s Seamus Heaney Legacy partnership with the Heaney Centre there. For anyone interested in the natural world and how to notice it, in the threats facing small communities, in the customs of others and, in the end, in friendship, here is her latest celebrated collection of essays, Surfacing (Sort of Books £12.99). Her prose is the DNA of her poetry and often becomes it.
There’ll always be an aunty or uncle who’ll want to argue politics across the sprouts and drumsticks, so tuck Glenn Patterson’s Backstop Land (Head of Zeus, £9.99) under the tree. This is an account of the months leading up to 31 October when we were all supposed to leave the EU. Funny, racy, opinionated, rude, largely accurate and, at times, unbearably sad; but always laced with Patterson’s big-hearted sense of community and solidarity with the underdog.
A reminder of the vivid imagery of violence we have (no harm to you) left behind for good, is provided by Shooting the Darkness (Blackstaff, £19.99) – interviews with news snappers like Paul Faith, Stanley Matchett, Trevor Dickson and Hugh Russell, along with the images people died for.
The big developments in fiction over the last decade have been in kids and crime, not always at the same time. With writers like Gerard Brennan, Anthony J Quinn, Claire McGowan, Brian McGilloway, Sharon Dempsey, Steve Cavanagh, Kelly Creighton and Stuart Neville, crime has flourished as (for some) another way of writing about varieties of conflict and its aftermaths. Belfast publisher No Alibis Books builds upon a growing reputation for top work with Declan Burke’s boisterous and witty crime novel, The Lammisters (£16.99) – join Irish bootlegger Rusty McGrew on the run in 1920s Hollywood. The charm of Some Like It Hot mixed with the crisp patter and outsized characters of Chandler.
Adrian McKinty’s The Chain (Orion, £19.99), probably the already-lauded author’s biggest hit to date, and seemingly edging to the big screen, is one for the stocking, multiple interlinked child-nappings providing a distinctive festive treat.
Not such a perfect link, maybe, to what’s on offer in children’s fiction and Young Adult books! With the Department of Education confirming that children who read outside class time are 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. With Every Sparrow Falling (Hachette, £8.99), Arts Council ACES writer Shirley-Anne McMillan builds impressively on earlier novels A Good Hiding and The Unknowns, to produce another compelling story, here of fostering, loneliness and self-assertion, with another credible central character, a nuanced plot teasing out the ironies of human affections, a good few laughs (think LGBT in an evangelical context) and a touch of mystery to boot.
In the same age range is Sarah Crossan’s Toffee (Bloomsbury, £12.99). This multiple award-winning author and current Laureate na nÓg has produced a wonderful, surprising novel featuring a runaway girl who finds refuge in an abandoned house with an elderly woman with dementia. It’s touching, wry, and acutely conceived – a fitting successor to her amazing verse-novel Moonrise.
Those suffering from RWS – Rita Withdrawal Syndrome – will be delighted to hear that Myra Zepf’s flame-haired whirlwind is back, this time in Rita agus an Ninja (An tSnáthaidh Mhór, £14). Both Myra and Rita specialise in entertaining both children and adults, and the artwork here by Andrew Whitson is terrific in conveying the action, sentiment and surprise of the story.
Kelly McCaughrain’s extraordinary debut novel, for young adults, Flying Tips for Flightless Birds (Walker, £7.99), won all major awards at the Children’s Books Ireland ceremony this year – the first time in the 29 years of the awards that all three went to one title. The writer is now the second Children’s Writing Fellow for NI, another part of the Heaney Legacy with Queen’s.
Another pair of characters worth mentioning are Malachy Doyle’s Molly and the Whale (Graffeg, £12.99), also with artwork by Mr Whitson. This is a wonderful collaboration across the Irish Sea delivering a spectacular imagining as Molly waits for the tide to rescue a stricken whale.
Lastly, there is a brand new edition of the late Ciaran Carson’s uncategorisable memoir/meditation/handbook The Star Factory (Head of Zeus, £8.99) out now. Why not buy a copy and, like some merry and strange philanthropic-type individual – Santa, say – just leave it lying around yours or someone else’s house. There are lots of writers hidden inside in that particular book, you see, waiting for the right readers to become them.