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Brought to book: Brilliant page-turners by Northern Ireland’s finest

By Lee Henry

On National Read a Book Day today we ask 12 writers, all of whom have been supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, to recommend their all-time favourite local read — and their wide-ranging choices underline our vibrant and talented literary culture.

Myra Zepf (40) is Northern Ireland’s first Children’s Writing Fellow. She lives in Holywood and writes children’s books in Irish. She says:

Street Song by Sheena Wilkinson is an edge-of-your-seat book, gritty and gripping. It is aimed at older teenagers but I loved it. It tells the story of Ryan, a teen pop sensation known as Rylee, whose instant fame bubble has burst, leaving him struggling with drug addiction and failure. 

After an argument with his over-bearing pop-promoter stepfather turns violent, the 18-year-old runs away. Ryan takes a chance meeting with the music-loving Toni in a Dublin park as an opportunity to begin again — he calls himself ‘Cal’, invents a back-story and moves to Belfast to begin a new life, busking and gigging. It is there that things begin to unravel. We watch through our fingers as Cal lives life on a knife-edge, underlining how easily young people can slip into poverty, homelessness or sexual exploitation. 

The book is powerful and hard-hitting, but never bleak. In fact, there is so much in it to love. The female characters are great — sassy and unapologetically with-it. Humanity shines throughout. As a reader, I disliked Ryan/Cal so much at the start that I was dragged kicking and screaming by the author into loving him by the end. 

I’m not sure how she did that — some sort of dark voodoo magic, I think. But possibly my favourite thing about Street Song is the Belfast backdrop. It’s a Belfast we know and love without a caricature in sight. If you enjoy your fiction realistic and raw, but beautifully-crafted, then Street Song belongs on your to-read list.  

Rosemary Jenkinson (49) is writer-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Her most recent play, Arlene and Michelle, comes to the Belfast Comedy Festival in October. She says:

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore is a brilliant read because of its view of Belfast as a dour 1950s Presbyterian city, seen through the eyes of a devout Catholic. It’s the incisive tale of Judith Hearne, a woman in her 40s who descends from taking the odd drop into full-blown alcoholism. Being in my 40s, I can definitely relate. 

There’s a terrific depiction of a lazy poet who freeloads off his mammy — all writers have been guilty of that at some time or other! The novel’s such a dark, rainy, uncompromising vision of our city but it’s shot through with Belfast humour. 

The tension culminates in a shocking scene where Judith, in despair at God’s abandonment, staggers drunkenly into her local chapel and trashes the altar. It’s one of the most powerful reads about Belfast you’ll ever encounter.

Bernie McGill (50) is based in Portstewart. Her most recent novel, The Watch House, is currently garnering rave reviews. She says:

My pick would be The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill, originally published in 1964 and recently republished by Turnpike Books. It tells the story of Sarah Vincent, a 52-year-old unmarried school teacher living in Thronehill, her parental home, on the north shore of Belfast Lough in the early 1960s. Sarah was an only child, her parents have passed on, and their once grand Victorian villa is now subdivided into flats. 

It’s written with real insight, honesty and humour. Sarah is also a poet and is undeluded enough to acknowledge that her ego, which she refers to as ‘the beast’, needs to be exercised from time to time. One of the funniest episodes in the book sees Sarah invited for an interview about her work. The importance of finding a ‘shape’ for the interview is impressed upon them by the condescending young presenter who seems determined to present Sarah as a provincial, pastoral poetess. 

“This is where the beast should have made his entrance,” muses Sarah, “but there was no sign of him. Beasts in the Province are private animals, secretly cosseted. One requires a licence from London or America to justify a public parade.” One can’t help but wonder how much of McNeill’s personal experience was expressed in that sentiment of Sarah’s.  

Tony Macaulay (50) is a comic memoirist living in Portstewart. His most recent novel is Little House on the Peace Line. He says:  

The book by a local author that I’ve enjoyed most in the past year is The Ministry of S.U.I.T.S (Strange, Unusual, and Impossible Things) by Paul Gamble. I read the book in preparation for interviewing the author for Novel Ideas on NVTV and it’s advertised as a book for boys and girls from 10 years old, but I have to admit that this big kid loved it. 

It tells the story of a secret ministry hidden away in the far reaches of the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

It deals with all the strange, unusual and impossible things in the world, the things we don’t want to have to think about or deal with as ‘perfectly-normal-thank-you-very-much people’: dinosaurs, monsters, wild animals, pirates and aliens.

The book is deliciously ridiculous and very funny. 

The local setting is truly fantastic. Imagine if Harry Potter was from the Newtownards Road and if Hogwarts was the Ulster Museum. And the footnotes are glorious. I’d love to see this book on the big screen and as it’s the first in a series, who knows, it could indeed be the next Harry Potter.

Sheena Wilkinson (49) is a Contemporary Young Adult writer based in Belfast. Her most recent novel is Street Song

Northern Irish writers I admire include Bernie McGill and David Park, both of whom are great stylists with a humane way of seeing the world. I’ve also really enjoyed everything by Bernard MacLaverty, who shares those qualities. I was really excited when Midwinter Break came out this summer. I’ve actually got it with me on holiday right now; I’ve been saving it. 

I love the clarity and spareness of MacLaverty’s prose and his way of creating flawed, utterly believable characters. I remember reading Cal when I was a teenager. It was probably one of the first contemporary Irish novels I read. It taught me a great deal about how to say a lot in few words. I still remember snatches of the dialogue. 

Anthony Quinn (45) is a crime author based in Tyrone. His latest novel, Trespass, is out now. He says: 

Neil Hegarty could have set his debut novel anywhere, but I’m grateful he chose the locale of his childhood berth, the Derry and Donegal landscapes of the 1970s and 80s, a coastal and rural setting sliced by the Irish border. Inch Levels might begin like a crime novel but the mystery of the victim’s death — a little girl who disappears while cycling down an overgrown lane — is suspended at the very start and revisited only in the final chapters. 

What the reader gets instead is the literary equivalent of a long photographic exposure of the Ulster borderlands; a sensuous spectrum of seasons blurring into each other; a sense of time passing tensely and a family rearranging itself around a dark secret, a blot on the otherwise idyllic setting. In the place of a detective, we get a dying man, a history teacher named Patrick Jackson, who on his deathbed finally makes the brave decision to save his surviving family members from the corrosive hold of the past.

What Hegarty masterfully captures is a landscape and a community haunted, watched and revisited by ghosts. Patrick and his sister are ensnared by a shared secret. We keep waiting to see which character Hegarty will force to reveal the terrible truth. However, the narrative constantly turns away from that onerous task, lingering instead at the feast in full view, the gallery of landscapes, internal and external, that lead the reader’s eye away from the ugly event with which the book begins.

Tara West (46) is a novelist and short story writer based in Newtownabbey. She most recently featured in The Glass Shore anthology. She says:

Over 100 5* reader reviews on Amazon can’t be wrong. But that’s not why I recommend Lesley Allen’s The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir. Rather, the book hits many of the right notes for me, both as a reader and a writer. The protagonist is a young ‘weirdo’ who lives in a fictional Northern Irish seaside town, who transcends years of bullying and neglect to … well, I won’t give it away, but the denouement is very satisfying. 

The book can be a painful read at times, but Allen earns the right to go there: where other writers might veer into melodrama, she controls the tone with a masterful touch, allowing the reader to feel deeply by showing us what is happening. She doesn’t over-describe or over-emote, she simply leads us and leaves us. 

Her characters are just as subtle, particularly Biddy’s father, whose unspoken love for his daughter had me swallowing back tears. It’s a story that stays with you for a long time. The novel received 80 rejections, including one from a publisher who made an offer, then rescinded it.

As a writer, I feel Allen’s pain, but she is clearly as resilient as her heroine. And I do love a satisfying denouement.

Sharon Dempsey (47) lives in Belfast. She is author of the crime novel Little Bird. She says:

Michael McLaverty’s Call My Brother Back tells the story of a young boy, Colm MacNeill, as he negotiates life away from his beloved Rathlin Island and being transposed to the streets of Belfast. 

I first read the book at school as a wide-eyed 14-year-old and it definitely awakened something in me as a teenager. It was powerful to experience a book that utterly captures the displacement of Colm, moving from the beauty and wildness of Rathlin to the contained, tight streets of Belfast, full of foreboding during the Troubles in the 1920s. 

More recently, Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man has had the same powerful impact on me, illuminating aspects of Belfast’s violent past in a way I haven’t experienced before. I have gone back to it several times over the years and I always recommend it. The longing young Colm feels for Rathlin and his life before losing his father, and moving to Belfast, is so visceral.

Paul McVeigh (48) lives in Belfast. His debut novel The Good Son won the Polari Prize. He says:

I chose Lucy Caldwell’s short story collection Multitudes.

Lucy is one of Northern Ireland’s most lauded authors and certainly I can think of no other who has won recognition in so many fields: theatre, radio, novels and short stories. 

Short stories allow authors to take risks they wouldn’t in a novel and Lucy takes full advantage of this in her collection, which contains her most challenging and most personal work so far.

At times uncomfortable and at others heart-breaking, these stories are rooted in Belfast, a city we see through fresh eyes.

Short stories are often overlooked by readers but I thoroughly recommend that everyone give them a go, you won’t be disappointed by this collection.

Multitudes contains world-class stories from one of Northern Ireland’s finest writers.

  • Paul McVeigh’s book The Good Son, is the current book of choice for the Libraries NI/BBC Initiative The Big Summer Read

Jan Carson (37) lives in Belfast. She is the author of two novels and one short-story collection Postcard Stories. She says:

The Northern Irish book that I’ve returned to most over the years is undoubtedly Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. I have such a clear memory of reading it for the first time about 10 years ago, and thinking, this isn’t just good by local standards, it’s a phenomenal read by anyone’s standards. I went on to read most of Moore’s substantial back catalogue and have enjoyed many of his books, but Judith Hearne will always be my favourite. 

The title character is so very well drawn. The setting and scenarios are so believable and there’s something about Moore’s unflinching eye for the tiny details of Judith’s sad existence — the frugal decor in her rented room, the little buttons on her shoes — that reveal just how well Moore writes the brokenness and fragile potential of human beings. 

As a writer, it has been an almost constant guidebook as I try to write my own stories about Belfast life honestly and with some degree of grace. Every piece of dialogue and description is perfectly, almost intimidatingly, crafted. My copy is dog-eared, underlined and much-loved. It’s the sort of book I’m going to keep coming back to for the duration of my writing life.  

Kelly Creighton (38) lives in Newtownards. Her latest short story collection, Bank Holiday Hurricane , is published later this month. She says:

A book I have recently read and absolutely loved is Little Bird by Sharon Dempsey. A gritty crime thriller set in Belfast, Little Bird tells the tale of forensic psychologist, Declan Wells, whose daughter is found murdered at a wedding. 

In the aftermath of the tragedy, while trying to track down the killer, Wells, who has been a wheelchair-user since an incident during the Troubles, develops a close relationship with Welsh detective Anna Cole. Cole is on secondment to the PSNI and going through her own personal issues with a dead-end relationship and the death of her mother. 

Dempsey’s characters are complex and engaging. Not only does she keep the reader hooked with action, each scene is full of atmosphere. For her first fictional publication, which is poles apart from the author’s usual health journalism, the narrative is confident, assured and thrilling. If you like books that are set in places you will recognise, and you like your fiction on the darker side, Little Bird is definitely the book for you.

Jane Talbot (50) lives in Ballymena. She is an oral storyteller and author of The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories. She says:

I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Bernie McGill’s The Watch House to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read and it’s certainly my book of the year. Set on Rathlin Island at the end of the 19th century, The Watch House is an unsettling and heart-breaking read.

Abandoned by her family, Nuala makes the decision to marry the aging local tailor. When Gabriel, an Italian engineer sent to the island by Marconi, arrives, Nuala’s world opens up in exciting new ways and her marriage to the tailor begins to look like a bad decision.

Bernie’s writing is lyrical, lilting, multi-layered and rich. The way she weaves in local folklore helps to add to the incredible sense of place, so characteristic of her work. The Watch House is dark, beautiful and compelling, and the twist at the end will stop you in your tracks.

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