Summer Reading with Damian Smyth
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is proud to support many of our leading literary greats as well as some of the most talented emerging writers of our generation. Damian Smyth, Head of Literature, picks some of the best of the recent reads now in the shops by local writers.
We’re all subject to the lure of the lilo and the sand under our feet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t read at the same time. In fact, reading a good book is the best way to get the angles just right, limiting movement and managing that tan.
With that in mind you could do no better, believe me, than run off with a Catholic Boy - er, Rosemary Jenkinson’s, that is (Doire Press £10.99). Soulful and melancholic, but witty too and often hilarious, these stories are little epics of contemporary life from a compelling storyteller.
If all you know about the Troubles and music is Bono holding John Hume’s and David Trimble’s arms aloft like two exhausted heavyweights in the Waterfront Hall to seal the peace process, then Stuart Bailie’s Trouble Songs: Music and conflict in Northern Ireland (Bloomfield Press, £14.99) is a must. At 260 pages, it packs everybody in, from John Lennon to Elvis Costello, Cranberries and Christy Moore. Indispensable. And the Moondogs get a mention, which is always a plus.
Factor 50 and sticks of rock are just the perfect accompaniments to poetry. (You’ve never tried it, so how do you know they’re not?) After all, beaches would be Stephanie Conn’s natural habitat, if her second collection is anything to go by. Island (Doire Press £10) includes engaging, clever poems about the writer’s ancestral and spiritual home, the Copeland islands, off the Co Down coast, as well as intense lyrics from experiences farther afield. With an already impressive following online and as a spoken word virtuoso, Colin Dardis’s long-awaited debut in print, the x of y (Eyewear Publishing £10.99), includes a darker aspect, but one shot through with cute observations and unconventional perspectives. What poetry does, in fact.
Still, it’s only a slip of the tongue from Belfast to Buckfast, if you’re lucky, and no one knows this better than Gerard Brennan. His latest novel has the distinction of being the first title from a new imprint, one run by the famous No Alibis Bookstore in the city. Drinking Buckie by the neck on a sofa in the front street may be my idea of a good time, but don’t you be fooled into thinking Disorder (No Alibis Press £8.99) is an easy read - it is pleasantly brutal and one to keep you on the edge of your towel.
Lord knows, Brexit has added new vim to the age-old Ulster admonition in mixed company ‘Don’t mention the border’, but the redoubtable Darach MacDonald’s new book from New Island is a gripping read on a whopping scale on the vexed topic. Hard Border (£15) is a travelogue across five of the province’s counties, gathering anecdote, diary, poem and story to capture the uncanny appeal of that invisible line.
Uncharted territory of a different kind bothers Shirley Anne McMillan’s The Unknowns (Atom Books £6.99) – mainly that occupied by a cadre of tearaways who are also moral urban heroes of the twilight world Belfast has created for young people somewhere between peace and war. Another original, crafted and crafty take on growing up from the already accomplished author of the memorable A Good Hiding.
It could always be verse. Two seasoned voices with new books are Nick Laird (Feel Free, Faber £14.99) - an Atlantic-straddling fourth collection with elegies and lyrics echoing US pioneers as well as Heaney and MacNeice - and Kate Newmann, whose fifth collection (Ask Me Next Saturday, Summer Palace £10), while lighter fare than the much-praised Grim (2015), is no less focused and imaginative for all that it is more wide-ranging in its themes.
There isn’t a day goes by this piece of advice doesn’t get more and more accurate – but Don’t Go To School!, the prizewinning picture book for 4-5 year olds with words by Máire Zepf and illustrations by Tarsila Krüse (Futa Fata €7.95), launches this summer in English for the first time for a UK and Ireland market. Zepf is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland, based at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University, supported by the Arts Council. Why not double that up with the third instalment of Zepf’s magical Rita series with Belfast publisher An tSnáthaid Mhór? Close your eyes with Rita agus an Dragún and, even by the cerulean waters of Portstewart, you can dabble your toes in far-off snows.
There’s something about rural Ulster that brings out the pastoral in people and internationally-acclaimed educationalist Bob Salisbury has written a gorgeous account of his and his wife Rosemary’s transformation of a small patch of Tyrone into the perfect habitat for thriving wildlife. Field of Dreams (Blackstaff £9.99) is already a classic of the genre and another feather in Blackstaff’s cap as it strengthens the brand after some difficult years. (Not an actual bird’s feather. Obviously.)
On that topic (er, which one would that be?, ed.), why not pick over the reflections of one of Belfast’s august literary sons? In The Wrong Country (Irish Academic Press, £20), Gerald Dawe writes perceptively about his peers, such as Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker and Seamus Deane, as well as historical figures and younger writers such as Leontia Flynn and Sinéad Morrissey, both Arts Council of Northern Ireland Major Individual Artists. A book to impress them in the bar when you are escorted to your room by the local constabulary.
The variety of writing skills in the culture in Northern Ireland is astonishing. Arts Council ACES awardee Emma Heatherington excels in several genres - as an accomplished ghost writer to the stars, as well as a writer of musicals - but in A Part of Me and You (HarperCollins) she returns to her first love with a novel of poignant choices and tragic dilemmas. (Well, do you think that stuff stops happening just because you are on holiday? Get real!)
Those who recall Anna Burns‘s searing debut No Bones (2001) and the extremely strange, utterly brilliant but obviously opaque Little Constructions (2007) and Mostly Hero (2014), will really want to grab a copy of Milkman (Faber £14.99) and take it hostage. This is a sensational and macabre novel, bringing Burns (almost) back into the mainstream, possibly the best novel from or about Northern Ireland in a decade, certainly the one which peels back the skin off insidious sectarianism with a shocking frankness which repeatedly prompts applause.
Two other titles worth highlighting are David Park’s Travelling In A Strange Land (Bloomsbury £12.99), a novel of quiet forensic meditation on grief which is fast becoming something of a signature title for this distinguished author; and the feisty F for Ferg, the late Ian Cochrane’s vastly irreverent, punchy, dated, possibly illegal, certainly hair-bleachingly accurate snapshot of the inside of an Ulster-bred teenage boy’s head from 1980, reissued by Turnpike Books (£10). If it makes for uncomfortable reading in your 5-star en suite jacuzzi, it’s only because this is the holiday you used to have when you were 20 years younger ...
Sad news for fans of Paula Maguire, the forensic psychologist hero of Claire McGowan’s multi-volume series from Headline, which comes to a close with the sixth title The Killing House (£14.99). Missing persons, a long-lost mother, a shifty border town (‘Can she mean me?’ sez Newry), and her customary eye for fine detail of place and character, this brings an excellent series to an appropriate close. What next for McGowan? A whole new direction, it seems, with a two-book deal at crime and thriller imprint Thomas & Mercer.
Finally, and happily, no list could be complete without an offering from our late great Nobel Prize-winner. Shortly after his death in 2013, some there were who opined that he couldn’t be much of a poet since no one could recite his poems ... I’m not kidding, universities are indeed full of wonders ... Well, imagine a Greatest Hits album from Elvis or the Stones or Dylan, any of the greats – I’ll even let you include the sentimental Beatles – and you’ll have something close to Seamus Heaney: 100 Poems (Faber £10.99).
Page after page after page of astonishingly good poems, an achievement unparalleled in 20th century English for sustained, accessible, surprising inspiration, I would suggest.
Seamus Heaney - the poet with no B sides.
Head of Drama and Literature
Arts Council of Northern Ireland