Top Ten Stocking Fillers
Damian Smyth, Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, picks out his top Christmas books for those last minute presents…
The almost half-million sales of Belfast-born 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 numbers 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.
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.
- 1. For those who prefer their fictions short and sweet, where better to start than Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home (Stinging Fly £11.00), ten strikingly-ascetic stories of east Belfast life ranging from the wistful to the disturbing from the year’s top literary discovery.
- 2. Éilís Ní 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.
- 3. Just off the press is Jamie Guiney’s The Wooden Hill (Époque Press £7.99), adroit, tricky and touching tales of the everyday and mortality from a writer also at the outset of a promising career.
- 4. 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.
- 5. 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.
- 6. 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.
- 7. No less unsettling is Ricky O’Rawe’s James ‘Ructions’ O’Hare, mastermind of the bank robbery planned and executed in his 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.
- 8. It’s not all boys and toys, though. The ten stories in Sophia Hillan’s long-awaited collection The Cocktail Hour (Arlen House £15.00) are small masterpieces of mood and character, ranging from a graceless USA to the coast of east Down, from glamour to disappointment and often unexpected grimness, to a sense that one can do much worse than live on with illusion.
- 9. Pauline Burgess’s novel for young people, Who Do You Think You Are? (Children’s Poolbeg £8.00), 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.
- 10. Finally, 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 and a hefty (and affordable) addition to any seasonal pile under the tree.