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Summer reads

Saturday 6th July 2019 at 9am 0 Comments Literature

Damian Smyth, Head of Literature, picks some of the best of the recent reads now in the shops by local writers. Image: Damian Smyth, Head of Literature, picks some of the best of the recent reads now in the shops by local writers.

Looking out across Belfast’s dank misty tundra in early July, it’s hard to imagine burnt necks, the lilo, the cocktail with an umbrella in it, and a few tasty pages of a new(ish) read smeared with suncream. But someone’s got to live the dream.

As it happens, you can for the first time bring the city on holiday with you. Belfast Stories (Doire, £13) is a collection of 16 contemporary short stories, each set in a particular quarter, by well-established writers like Linda Anderson, Shannon Yee, Lucy Caldwell and Peter Hollywood, and newer authors like Caoileann Hughes, Michael Nolan, Winnie M Li, Jamie Guiney. Edited by Doire’s Lisa Frank and Ardoyne writer Paul McVeigh, whose novel The Good Son (Salt, £8.99) won the Polari First Book Prize, it’s an irresistible pot pourri of surprising, touching, challenging and often stunning writing, making the familiar strange.

Also on the shelves is the Faber anthology of Irish stories, entitled Being Various (£12.99) and edited by east Belfast’s own Caldwell. It’s a brilliant, astute, all-island gathering of champagne prose - 24 writers, a third of the contributors from north of the border, two-thirds female. With Kevin Barry, Lisa McInerney, Sinead Gleeson and Danielle McLaughlin are Sally Rooney, McVeigh, Darran Anderson and Stuart Neville. Caldwell is happily nuanced in what ‘Irishness’ can mean, perhaps a legacy of the vexed issues of identity in her native city.

But stand by for another gathering, this time from the new No Alibis Press, an imprint of the legendary bookshop on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue. Still Worlds Turning (£14.99) casts its net widely and isn’t limited by geography or ‘nationality’, but with Sam Thompson, Wendy Erskine, and Jan Carson beside Judyth Emanuel, Joanna Walsh and Eley Williams, editor Emma Warnock has gathered a selection of compelling inventive imaginations and substantial very modern preoccupations.

Prose makes for beefy tomes, so maybe just one in the suitcase will be your quota. For slimmer treats, it’s poetry. In addition to Moyra Donaldson’s latest title Carnivorous – dense, brief lyrics of adult awareness and wise perceptions – and Glen Wilson’s meditative debut full of prize-winning work, both from Doire (£9), there is Miriam Gamble’s third collection What Planet (Bloodaxe, £9.95), a witheringly clever set from a writer building a reputation for classy work which reaches important themes delicately and with tender aplomb. Colin Dardis’s second collection, The Dogs of Humanity (Fly On The Wall, £6.99) promises socially-engaged, snappily witty and humane lyrics from this Arts Council ACES poet and performer.

It’s a stern universe that veteran Belfast poet and critic Fred Johnston, domiciled in Galway, occupies in Rogue States (Salmon, £10), his ninth collection, one fraught by the cancer unit and with a bracing black humour: “There’s a TV in a high corner no one watches/the news we want isn’t likely to come up there”. Hey, even in Majorca, you can’t laugh all the time.

For those who prefer no-nonsense non-fiction, thank you very much, there are a few gems on the market this summer. In the race for a prime spot by the pool, chuck Guy Beiner’s Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster (Oxford University Press) on the sunlounger and you can be sure even the sternest usurper will leave you well alone. This magisterial account of how the 1798 Rebellion was forgotten, remembered, caricatured, recovered, owned and disowned by a whole population across two centuries, may seem like hard going; but in fact it is a storehouse of scholarship, character and anecdote. A folklorist in the 1940s in the Glens of Antrim is awakened at 6am by a neighbour shouting in his garden with shaving foam on his cheeks. He had just remembered the name of a man who had survived a hanging in 1798 and was afraid he’d forget it. That would wake you up alright.

If a staycation is on the cards, check Tom Hartley’s Balmoral Cemetery (Blackstaff, £12.99). The latest in the former Lord Mayor’s classic series, following on Milltown and the City, it’s a gripping read as well as a tremendous addition to the lore of this famous but not-so-old city.

Amid the wonderful upsurge in literary activity in the east of the city, Philip Orr’s essay Down By Avalon (Eastside Partnership, £4.99) is the best introduction to the history, geography and people of Belfast’s own Orient. Equally illuminating is Fr Martin Magill’s The Poor Clares in Belfast 1924-2012 (Shanway, £10), a diligent, moving and definitive account of a religious community’s charitable and devotional mission across almost a century.

You can blow that mood away, though, with The Chain (Orion, £19.99), the new thriller from Adrian McKinty. Multiple interlinked child-nappings string out across an urban landscape of increasingly nightmarish criminal depravity, carried out by, er, well, folks like you and me actually. Deadly.

Two lovely titles from outgoing Children’s Writing Fellow Myra Zepf are Heartland (Mid Ulster Council, free), a collection of delightful poetry on heritage themes from local childlife, gorgeously illustrated by the artist Ashling Lindsay; and Nóinín (Cois Life,  €10), Zepf’s new verse-novel as gaeilge, a touching, evocative, deceptive tale of online dating gone very wrong …

It’s been a brilliant year for our fictioneers. David Park’s savage study of grief and failure, Travelling In A Strange Land (Bloomsbury, £8.99), recently won the major Irish Book of the Year prize. Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters (Transworld, £14.99) is already established as a classic of Belfast fiction, winning her the Ireland EU Prize for Literature. Shortlisted for that Ireland prize were Bernie McGill’s haunting historical tale set on Rathlin, The Watch House (Tinder, £8.99), and Rosemary Jenkinson’s racy, irreverent and moving stories in Catholic Boy (Doire, £10.99), longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize; while Michael Hughes’s Troubles epic, Country (John Murray, £12.99), bringing a nerveless and slaughtery Homeric ethic to the borderlands, was up for the UK edition. Sheila Llewellyn’s harrowingly beautiful account of PTSD in World War Two, Walking Wounded (Sceptre, £16.99) was recently shortlisted for the Paul Torday Prize. Publication of Sweet Home (Stinging Fly, £10) made an instant hit of Wendy Erskine’s generous, guileful scrutiny of the everyday, with the book now reissued by Picador and the stories up for gongs everywhere, including the Edge Hill and the Gordon Burn Prize.

New from the elder statesman of Belfast fiction, Maurice Leitch, is Gone to Earth (Turnpike, £12.99) – another dark foray into the human psyche; like Gilchrist (1994), located in a sleazy, bleeding post-civil war Spain, but worrying away also at the old sores of conflict past and present in Ireland.

The emerging star of Young Adult writing in Ireland is Kelly McCaughrain, whose first novel, Flying Tips for Flightless Birds (Walker, £7.99), won all major awards at the recent Children’s Books Ireland ceremony. It’s the first time in the 29 years of the awards that all three went to one title and the burden of a great potential has already settled lightly on this hugely-gifted writer’s shoulders.

It’s been a game-changing year for new poets. The title of National Poetry Competition winner Stephen Sexton’s début collection is completely appropriate in fact, as it characterizes a whole new mood and manner in the artform here. If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin, £9.99) marks the arrival to maturity of a major voice – it’s already shortlisted for the Forward Prize. Bravura of execution, unexpected approaches to dark themes, intoxicating linguistic play and exuberant self-confident fluency all energise this collection and feature to different degrees in that of other poets beginning to write at a high level of skill. Recent pamphlets by Scott McKendry (Curfuffle, Lifeboat, £6.50), Caitlin Newby (Ceremonies, Lifeboat, £6.50), Conor Cleary (priced out, Emma, £6.50) and Dawn Watson (The Stack of Owls is Getting Higher, Emma, £6.50), show an engaging prowess with original ideas and help define a daring new practice – not just that things are kept in order, with the correct name and the right colour, as McKendry might say. Watson has prose fiction in both Belfast Stories and Still Worlds Turning. These names will appear in the lists of best new writing for years to come.

There are 62 contributors, from north and south, in The Danger and the Glory: Irish Authors on the Art of Writing (Arlen, £20), from Banville to Enright to McNamee to De Fréine, Hillan, McGowan, Denton and O’Donnell, each giving away their secrets.

Scary new versions of ancient morality tales, Aesop’s Fables: The Cruelty of the Gods (New Island, £18), with stings in all their tails, from Enniskillen’s Carlo Gébler and drawings by writer/artist Gavin Weston, are full of adult wisdom, human misfortune and bitter experiences, which, because they happen to other people, are hilarious.

Finally, historical novelist Anne Doughty passed away in the winter. Begin again with the very first in her enthralling multi-volume family saga on the Armagh Hamiltons, The Girl From Kerry (Allison & Busby, £7.99). A finely-wrought, fearless and fair account of our tempestuous shared history in Ulster.


Damian Smyth

Head of Literature

Arts Council of Northern Ireland 


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