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Unwrap a terrific book from Northern Ireland this Christmas

From thrillers and children’s tales to poetry and Troubles memoirs, Damian Smyth chooses some great festive reads.

Anna Burns with the cover of her novel Milkman, as she has become the first Northern Irish winner of the Man Booker Prize
Anna Burns with the cover of her novel Milkman, as she has become the first Northern Irish winner of the Man Booker Prize

By Damian Smyth

Call me easily impressed, but I reckon the almost half-million sales of 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 figures 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.

Not bad, you might say, for Ms Burns. But 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.

For those who prefer their fictions short and sweet, where better to start than Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home (Stinging Fly, £11), 10 strikingly ascetic stories of east Belfast life, ranging from the wistful to the disturbing from the year’s top literary discovery.

Just off the press is Jamie Guiney’s The Wooden Hill (Epoque Press, £7.99), adroit, tricky and touching tales of the everyday and mortality from a writer also at the outset of a promising career.

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Jamie Guiney's The Wooden Hill

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 (see the author reading some stories here and here).

Just before you give up on the border entirely with Brexit fatigue, check out Michael Hughes’s epic Country (John Murray, £12.99), a savage rendition of the equally savage ancient story of the Iliad, relocated to the borderlands, complete with Achill, an IRA sniper. One of the best brutal novels of the year, perfect for Boxing Day headaches.

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.

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.

No less unsettling is Ricky O’Rawe’s James ‘Ructions’ O’Hare, mastermind of the bank robbery planned and executed in the author’s 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.

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Northern Heist (Merrion Press £13.99)

It’s not all boys and toys, though. The 10 stories in Sophia Hillan’s long-awaited collection The Cocktail Hour (Arlen House, £15.00) are small masterpieces of mood and character, ranging from the decay of a reputation in the States to the coast of east Down, from glamour to disappointment and often unexpected grimness, to a sense sharply imagined that one can do much worse than live with illusion.

It may not be the arts, as such, but after all, good writing is just good writing and nothing can prove that adage more completely than writing about sport. As football or any other memoirs go, Lisburn-born Paul Ferris has penned a classic. The Boy On The Shed (Hodder, £9.99) is a moving tale of sectarianism, promise, disappointment and reinvention, with Newcastle United as the backdrop to a riveting personal and family drama.

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.

Another joyous gift is Field of Dreams (Blackstaff, £9.99), internationally acclaimed educationalist Bob Salisbury and his wife Rosemary’s lovely account of transforming 14 acres of Tyrone into a wildlife habitat. This book recently won the Sustainable Ireland Award, sponsored by the NI Environmental Agency.

It’s been a successful year for the revived Blackstaff publishing venture, with two very different recent publications garnering attention. Reporting The Troubles, edited by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little, (£14.99) has the reflections of 68 journalists who covered the Troubles over a span of 40 years — often harrowing, only slightly less often uplifting, the book is a tribute to victims and those who were among the first to pay attention to them.

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Journalists tell their stories of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Eilis Ni 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.

Poetry has long been linked with the distinctive mysteries of the season, so it is appropriate to consider some of the pick of the year. A gorgeous gift by anyone’s standards is Blood Horses (Caesura Press £20pb, £60hb), a collaboration between poet Moyra Donaldson and equine artist Paddy Lennon — a showstopper of a production, and you’d want a bigger stocking.

Mel McMahon responded to the challenges of the Great War centenary with Beneath Our Feet (Nicholson & Bass, £10), a memorable collection charged with and vexed by the spirit of Wilfred Owen.

Paul Maddern’s The Tipping Line (Templar, £10) is an audacious document, by turns discursive and symphonic, reaching from his native Bermuda to Arctic wastes patrolled by (among others) the Creature from James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and sundry ghosts of the Great War via tender missives to friends, allies and his late father.

That indefatigable poetry promoter Colin Dardis’s debut collection, the x of y (Eyewear Books, £10.99), is a set of resonant lyrics expressing a life lived intensely at the edges and on the edge, a style managed with potent rhetoric and felt intent.

Multi-award-winning Grainne Tobin has gathered many of her recent poems in The Uses of Silk (Arlen House, £10), showcasing both formal dexterity and enviable storytelling in her own humane and empathetic idiom.

Blue Sandbar Moon (Irish Pages Press, £15), Chris Agee’s first collection in 10 years, is a lovely volume from a new publisher, but with subtle poems brief, spare, lucid, gentle, grievous, at odds with loss and in no way reconciled to it. Hey, no one ever claimed poetry was fun. But it is useful on those many days when it happens not to be Christmas.

With the Department of Education confirming that children who read outside class time are an astonishing five times more likely to read above the expected level for their age, the importance of good raw material for young readers has never been more recognised.

Not only is Oliver Jeffers’s Notes for Living on Planet Earth (Harper Collins, £14.99) into its second Christmas as a massive bestseller, but now there is its first translation into Irish, and Ulster Irish at that, thanks to writer Myra Zepf — Anseo Ata Muid (Futa Fata, £15). Coupled with her English translation of her own Na Gabh ar Scoil! as Don’t Go To School! (Futa Fata, £7), with illustrator Tarsila Krüse, and her expanding roster of Rita picture books with Belfast publisher An tSnathaid Mhor, it’s been a busy year for the Arts Council’s NI Children’s Writing Fellow based in Queen’s University.

The great Sam McBratney — whose Guess How Much I Love You (1994) has sold more than 30 million copies (yes, you read that right) — returns to the shelves this winter with The Most-Loved Bear (Pan Macmillan, £4.99), a Christmas story for ages 3-plus, illustrated by Sam Usher.

Pauline Burgess’s novel for young people, Who Do You Think You Are? (Children’s Poolbeg, £8), 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.

Gimme a bleak northern Irish town with an aerodrome handy and I’ll expect to hear about the confines of Downpatrick and windy Bishopscourt … as it happens, Eoin McNamee’s hauntingly bothersome new novel The Vogue (Faber, £12.99), is really about Kilkeel, a tale that reaches from an army base during the war to very un¬pleasant apparitions in the present day, all told in McNamee’s inimitable style of driving narrative beside dense atmospherics that are rarely concealing anything wholesome.

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The Vogue (Faber, £12.99)

There is a poetry which makes other poetry look and sound like it’s been recorded on C90 cassette tapes. Gail McConnell’s pamphlet Fourteen (Green Bottle Press, £6) — impressive, dense, playful, formally nimble — marks out one such completely new register in Irish poetry.

Susannah Dickey’s second (artful, shrewd, vigilant) pamphlet from Belfast’s Lifeboat Press, genuine human values, (£6.50), is already a collector’s item as this poet’s star rapidly ascends. Natasha Cuddington’s Each Of Us [Our Chronic Alphabets] (Arlen House, £10) is every bit as much of a challenge as the title suggests, but amply rewards those who take it up with bright, unexpected phrases and disconcertingly fresh ways of seeing the ordinary around us.

Not everyone likes made-up things, so a little nod to indispensable models of local research. Former librarian of the Linen Hall John Killen has produced St Patrick’s Treasury (Blackstaff, £12.99), an anthology of myth, folklore, fact and tradition from the heartland of the patron saint. Duane Fitzsimons, the Sherpa Tenzing of east Down, and co-author Cadogan Enright, have compiled a formidable little guide to The Pads of North Lecale (Kilclief Residents Association, £3) — winding through the wildernesses around Saul, Castle Ward and Strangford.

One of the many things fiction does do well is register tremors in social and cultural memory, so, as we’re in a substantial anniversary period for the Great Famine, between 170 and 175 years, reflections on the period are surfacing. Orla McAlinden’s large-scale narrative The Flight of the Wren (Mentor, £12), a broken family saga reaching from the origins of the famine to the Antipodes and back again over several generations, tells a most unexpected but all too plausible story of what it takes for women to survive against frightening odds.

A novel decades ahead of its time in 1986 and now returned to us for fresh scrutiny is Linda Anderson’s Cuckoo (Turnpike Books, £10), following a young Belfast woman’s travails in England as she flirts with self-destruction. A completely different version of young women’s lives is found in Tara’s blog in Sharon Dempsey’s breathless family snapshot My Virtual Life (Bloodhound Books, £7.99), as the teenager literally tells all about her mum, the past, fashion, ambition and the price of secrets.

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Sharon Dempseys breathless family snapshot My Virtual Life (Bloodhound Books £7.99)

Lastly, it would be difficult this Christmas not to celebrate the art of memoir by recommending two titles which did so much to illuminate the life of the late Dr Maurice Hayes, one of our greatest citizens and for many decades one of the stars of Co Down, who died just before last Christmas.

Sweet Killough, Let Go Your Anchor is a touching and vivid evocation of a childhood lived in what was, in more ways than one, another century; a sequel, Black Puddings And Slim: A Downpatrick Childhood, picks up the story of rural town life in the 40s and 50s.

These record the formative years of an enviable career in so many arenas of civic life which was a model of the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. Virtues expressed admirably, I think, in this exchange in the native Doric of Milkman: "‘Ach’, I said. ‘Ach nothing,’ he said. ‘Ach sure,’ I said. ‘Ach sure what?’ he said. ‘Ach sure, if that’s how you feel.’ ‘Ach sure, of course that’s how I feel.’ ‘Ach, all right then.’ ‘Ach,’ he said. ‘Ach,’ I said. ‘Ach,’ he said. ‘Ach,’, I said. ‘Ach.’ So that was that settled.”

Damian Smyth is head of Literature at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

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