| 16.8°C Belfast

Books worth staying home for during Northern Ireland lockdown

On week two of the official lockdown, Damian Smyth, head of literature and drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, selects some of the best new titles to escape into

It was the great Dickinson - Emily, not David - who said, "There is no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away". So, the Covid-19, coronavirus, CR9 crisis (oops, that's Ronaldo), gives us a chance to test that theory, when we're not even allowed out to the yard.

Glenn Patterson is a civic lodestar in his native city, but mostly he is one of the handful of important writers this island has produced in 30 years. His 11th novel is bidding to be one of his best yet.

In Where Are We Now? (Apollo, £18.99), a measured work with all his gifts for identifying vulnerability matured and seasoned, Herbie is a man suddenly adrift in Belfast, reflecting on values, identity, purpose (notably he works with public records), at the point his relationship and family dissolve and he understands failure. Traumatic, yes, but not melodramatic - Herbie flakes from the edges in, but not so you'd notice, a disjoint credibly and beautifully realised. This against Patterson's obsessive backdrop, economically drawn, of a society still shaken by violence, piecing together a benevolent aftermath, getting used to civilities other places take for granted.

Tyrone's-own Michelle Gallen's first novel Big Girl, Small Town (John Murray, £14.99), also set in a contemporary Northern Ireland, shows a confident stylist matching a storyteller's enthusiasm. It's grim alright and it's traumatised, but it's resilient, a bit racy and more than a bit brilliant. Her humour - often raucous, sometimes dark - introduces in Majella (who works in a chippy called A Salt and Battered) a memorable hero, outside the Belfast-centred fiction of much work, but joining Anna Burns' Middle Sister as a spirit guide for our time.

Journalist Malachi O'Doherty - broadcaster, cycliste, photographer, memoirist, Arts Council Major Artist - is now novelist. Terry Brankin Has A Gun (Merrion, £14.99) has proved a winning debut as a throttling thriller set in post-conflict Belfast, with the eponymous protagonist seeking to keep the dust of his (fairly brutal) Provo past well shaken off his slick solicitor present. When a Cold Case cop comes calling, Terry finds himself pulled back in among sinister but plausibly-persuasive characters northern readers will enjoy trying to identify from real life politics and others will simply enjoy.

When people look back at the fiction of this last 10 years in Ireland north and south, I'll wager Sheena Wilkinson's name will strongly feature.

Joining Name Upon Name (2015), during the Easter Rising, and Star By Star (2018) with suffragism and revolution at the end of the Great War, is Hope Against Hope (Little Island, £7.99). Set in a women's hostel in a newly-partitioned island, Wilkinson again presents motivated believable female characters in entirely convincing historical conditions, taking control of their own lives and impacting on others'. The writer is an Arts Council Major Artist and has a formidable narrative gift and an acute sense of historical justice.

How lucky we are. Sinead Morrissey's Found Architecture (Carcanet, £14.99) gathers almost a hundred poems from her six collections, including 'Through The Square Window', which won the National Poetry Competition in 2007, and items from her 2013 TS Eliot Prize-winning collection Parallax and her 2017 Forward Prize-winning On Balance - and she isn't yet 50. Stunning, accessible poems on her Communist family, The Clangers, outdoor exercise, women air pioneers and That Big Ship That Sank.

"My gun was clenched in his hand. His hoodie, which I had been wearing over my pyjamas, lay crumpled on the floor, spattered with blood that was probably mine."

Thus Arts Council ACES writer Kelly Creighton's PSNI detective Harry Sloane reveals one of several dark secrets in The Sleeping Season (Friday Press, £8.99), as she (oh yes) and buddy DI Diane Linskey track a missing four-year-old in a Belfast packed with known locations. There are vivid character studies of people under pressure - addiction, disease, suspicion, debility, domestic abuse, as well as the old companions of fear, loathing and greed of all kinds. This satisfying thriller from the police perspective is also very much the story of a 21st-century woman in a male profession within an aggressive male country. This is Book One of a series. Good work, detective.

Editors Ruth Carr's and Natasha Cuddington's anthology Her Other Language: Northern Irish Women Writers Address Domestic Violence and Abuse (Arlen, £10.00) brings together stories, extracts, drama, reportage and poems, tough at times but always important, and, in the end, affirmative, wry and courageous, as well as containing writing of a frighteningly high standard.

Alice Lyons's showstopping Oona (Lilliput, £12.00) is a novel without the letter 'O' - a feat achieved with such discretion it's hardly noticed, though the absence betokens loss, neglect, frustration and disappearance. That's to say nothing about this debut novel's intensely-written, originally-cast emotional journey from suburban New Jersey to Dublin to Leitrim, escaping secrets and death as the Celtic Tiger keels over.

The first Children's Writing Fellow for NI, Myra Zepf, published the first verse-novel in Irish early this year. Shortlisted for the KPMG Children's Books Ireland Awards, Noinin (Cois Life, £11.00) is a shy teenager who meets a young man online and disappears - cheerio De Valera's Ireland, alright.

It's about "online safety versus freedom, the protective power of scepticism, the question of who to trust and our culture of victim-blaming," says Zepf. That young people are spending their own cash buying it tells you it's a cracking story also.

The Tide (Little Tiger £6.99) is written by Clare Helen Walsh with artwork by Ashling Lindsay - before any other diagnosis of what it's about, it's a lovely economical story of understanding between generations, as metaphors are found for when familiar relationships get confused and blurry as age takes its place, and it's also shortlisted for the KPMG CBI Book Awards. One of the Arts Council's literature ACES, Lindsay's art is mellow, subtle and full of discoveries to be made.

A writer developing real authority is Rosemary Jenkinson, playwright, memoirist and short fiction specialist, whose Catholic Boy (2018) was shortlisted for the EU Ireland Prize for Literature. Her fourth collection and second from Galway's excellent bijou Doire Press is Lifestyle Choice 10MG (£11.00): 12 witty, observant and punchily-written stories of classic Jenkinsoniana - the lonely, the drugged, the frantic, the adventurous, the paranoid, the hunted, the hilarious, the desperate, moving through the vexed streets of Ulster, who end up oddly in a condition close to heroism.

You may remember Enoch Powell, but I bet you won't remember the man he succeeded as MP for South Down in 1974. In The Shepherd and the Morning Star (Birlinn, £9.99), Willie Orr - that man's son - has written at once a gripping memoir of his father, Unionist Party grandee Lawrence Percy Story Orr, and an equally compelling autobiography relating his separation from and disavowal of the politics and personality of his womanising, near-bigamist father, and his own long journey from Belfast to Oban where he finally settled, after spells as a shipyard worker, an actor, a shepherd and a teacher. It's a unique, rather eccentric tale, peppered with the author's own good verses, some political and social observations of our day, and touching tributes to dogs that were good on the hill. In other words, very nearly perfect.

"Today is the day God and I call/A truce," says poet Linda McKenna, "He nods across the chasm between us", and so many elegantly-phrased, craftily-shaped poems in her debut collection, In The Museum of Misremembered Things (Doire, £11.00), reach across that gulf between the known and unknown, the half-recalled and guessed-at, the missed and lost, in both domestic and historical settings. Impressive.

Whit? That slapping sound you hear is Henry McDonald's fierce, fast and frank Belfast Troubles love-story/thriller, Two Souls (Merrion, £14.99), being thrown against the wall by ABBA fans - these are the '70s and '80s you won't find in Mamma Mia - before they sidle over to retrieve it, just to see what happens to punky Ruin McManus and the goddess Sabine, so authentic is this confrontational Belfast which can - it seems - never change, even as it tilts into the '90s, in a novel where the violence is relentless but operatic, the language florid but never less than riveting.

Talking of cyclistes, there was a bidding war last year for Helen Moat's A Time of Birds: reflections on cycling across Europe (Sarabande, £9.99). This wonderful narrative of her epic mid-life trek across Europe with her son to Istanbul is harrowing and inspiring by rapid turns. The celebrated travel author and TV contributor is from Lurgan and this pretty spectacular account of her childhood upbringing, 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, joins the small but potent library shelf of Brethren 'survivor diaries' on which sit such as Edmund Gosse's Father and Son and our own Max Wright's Told In Gath. Indispensable, heart-breaking, uplifting, beautifully-conceived and written, Moat's contribution is of that standard.

May Tyrants Tremble: The Life of William Drennan 1754-1820 (Irish Academic Press, £25.00), a biography of the tremendously influential Belfast thinker and democrat by his foremost scholar Fergus Whelan, presents a fresh examination of this complex, subtle, nerveless pioneer of modern Ireland, son of the radical educationalist Thomas, coiner of the phrase the 'Emerald Isle', founder of both the United Irishmen and Inst, great-grandfather to a Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, a Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and the designer of the Titanic, and who, carried to his grave by six Catholics and six Protestants, pointed the way towards the anti-sectarian island we still await.

Phew! After a few months under house arrest, you'll be ready for a break, say a refreshing cruise. But don't pick Sir John Franklin as your tour guide. On the strength of a chapter-and-a-half released online, Nicola Pierce's Chasing Ghosts: An Arctic Adventure (O'Brien, £7.99), is a novel, for younger readers, which you won't want to miss at any age or stage. It follows the voyage of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to the Arctic in 1846 - a journey so ill-fated that even the names of the ships don't do it justice. Across its pages steps the famous hero of Banbridge, Sir Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, whose statue adorns his native town. But the novel opens with an extraordinary account of the last days of little Weesie - childish pronunciation of 'Louisa' - who is to haunt the pages, with an uncanny echo of the Arctic disaster.

Finally, the release by Faber of the late Lyra McKee's selected writings. The murder of the journalist in Derry just a year ago resonated around the world and coincided terribly with the arrival in Belfast of her good friend Anna Burns on her first public visit after her novel Milkman had scooped the Man Booker Prize. Lost, Found, Remembered (£12.99) is a small volume of big writings - in particular, her advice on growing up gay in her 'Letter to My Fourteen Year Old Self' ("Kid, it's going to be okay"), and the groundbreaking essay on 'The Ceasefire Suicides' ("suffering the legacy of a conflict most of them know little to nothing of").

"Must we really leave her here?", Weesie's brother asks in Chasing Ghosts. "I mean, won't she be terribly scared when it gets dark being here all alone?"

"No, no, William, It is just her bones and skin and hair that we buried, like an empty tortoiseshell."

Little Weesie and her haunting may have the last say after all.

Belfast Telegraph