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  1. Glenn Patterson is one of Northern Ireland's national treasures. His novels over the past thirty years have documented the social history of Belfast, both contemporary and historic, with a great deal of love. Where other writers have focused mainly on the Troubles and the Catholic part of the community, Patterson writes from a Protestant perspective and his novels have kept the Troubles firmly in the background. Serendipitously, his writing has coincided with the Peace Process, allowing him to reflect great social change across his works. Where We Are Now is about middle age. Herbie is somewhere in mid-life - perhaps in his 50s - living somewhere in East Belfast. He has been laid off from his work as a payroll manager; as his company downsized, so too did the payroll Department. His ex-wife Tanya lives down south with her new partner Martin. He fills his time walking to the Public Records Office in the Titanic Quarter and offering research services to the visitors looking to recreate their family histories. His speciality is the records of public applotments. In between researches he drinks coffee in Sam's cafe and shops in Lidl. Herbie is lonely. He drifts into other people's conversations, lives on the edge of other people's lives. He used to ave more going on in his life; he remembers former times living in Mount Oriel when he and Tanya socialised a bit, did things. They had an identity. But now, in reduced circumstances, a visit from his daughter Beth forces Herbie to see his life now for what it is. This is, of course, a metaphor for where Belfast sits now. Trading on a recent history of being edgy, dangerous, Belfast now welcomes cruise ships, ferries its visitors around in tour buses to take selfies in front of murals. The paramilitaries no longer go on military manoeuvres but still stand over local businesses demanding protection money and free pizzas. They are hard men turning to flab. They still blight the lives of the communities they bleed, but they no longer impress anyone. And as the Troubles fade, Northern Ireland tries to hark back to an even earlier history - the artificial creation that is the Titanic Quarter. Modern buildings set on the derelict land left when the Harland and Wolff shipyard closed, named for its most famous ship. A ship which, of course, sank on its maiden voyage. Meanwhile, in the city centre there is real history that is being renovated to the point of extinction. Where We Are Now does have the signs of new beginnings. Sam and Derek - a same sex couple - seem to be accepted into the community. There are migrants coming to Belfast - although whether Brexit will let them stay remains to be seen. As the sub-post offices close they make way for new enterprises. The black taxis are making way for Uber. Even Herbie might find a way to reinvent himself. There is plenty of observational stuff - the small talk of the middle classes; the sparsely attended local football game (I presume Glentoran); the airport and its connections to the disappointing public transport network; the topography of East Belfast (although I could never quite work out where Herbie lived - perhaps Ballyhackamore); the migration of businesses to the petrol station. The characters also feel real, even though most of them wander in and out of the pages without ever setting the story alight. They are bit part players in the bigger story of a city that is having a mid-life crisis. So this isn't particularly a plot led story; it isn't exciting or shocking. It is more a chapter in Glenn Patterson's life work that suggests a turning point. Let's see where it goes next. *****
  2. The quirky female narrator in a Northern Ireland novel is not a new thing but it’s often an enjoyable thing. Big Girl is Majella O’Neill, an underachieving young woman of stout proportions who is squandering her considerable academic potential by working six nights a week in her local chip shop. The small town is Aghybogey, a thinly disguised version of Castlederg in County Tyrone. So Majella keeps a list of all the things she doesn’t like, including sub-categories. She also keeps a much shorter list of things she does like, many of which are related to food. She uses these lists to narrate the story of a week following the murder of her grandmother. Given that her father has disappeared ten years ago, Uncle Bobby died while priming a bomb 16 years ago, and her mother is a non-functioning alcoholic, this presents Majella with an opportunity to become an adult and master of her own destiny. Or she could just keep working for the Hunters in the fish shop. In truth, not much happens during the week; and what does happen is glossed over by Majella as she focuses her thoughts on the foibles of the chip shop regulars, hating alcohol (because of what it is doing to her mother and her home life) and looking for bedding. She drinks a bit, has sex a bit, and eats fish suppers. The charm is in her cynical, comical way of looking at the world, mixed with tragedy that she resolutely refuses to take her place in the real world, instead just hiding behind routines and tics. This is a really good evocation of small town Ulster, told in a local vernacular that will bring a smile to those who know it and frustrate them those who don’t. The self-segregation of the two halves of the community (the Protestants would only dare come to A Salt and Battered in daylight, even though it serves better chips than the Protestant chip shop); the relatives away across the water; the stories of what you did in the war... If there’s something that sets this apart from similar semi-comic Northern Ireland novels it would be the rural setting west of the Bann allowing for ludicrous ideas like the poshy-woshy Omagh accent and thinking of Strabane as urban. I just wish Michelle Gallen had done something a bit more with Majella. The story is mostly back-story. The story of the dead grandmother, although acting as a McGuffin, never really takes off and I’m not sure there’s any real character development. This means that some of the repetitiveness of Majella’s life does seep into the text. There are only so many ways of ordering a fish supper or having banter with your work colleague as you put the chips in the fryer. So four stars rather than five. Oh, and I read an advance copy. I do hope the final version is more consistent in the name of Johann-Pol, or Johann-Paul, or Yawn-Pawl, or Yawn-Paul... ****0
  3. Milkman is a stream of consciousness story narrated by an unnamed young woman living in an unnamed part of Belfast (probably the Ardoyne), some time in the late 1970s. By way of context, the intensity of the killings in the early 1970s – especially the civilian deaths – had subsided; there had been population movement and people had retreated into small, “safe” pockets exclusively populated by people of the same political tradition (which was also generally correlated to people’s national identity and religion). Both unionists and nationalists still thought they could win the war through armed conflict, and the political voice of Sinn Féin had not yet come to the fore. The Hunger Strikes were still a couple of years into the future and most people could remember a time before the British Army was deployed to assist the civil power… So the novel is almost a love story set in this quite specific time period. Our narrator lives in a Catholic enclave of North Belfast. She reads 19th century novels while walking, which marks her out as a bit odd. Her maybe-boyfriend is a car mechanic from another unspecified Catholic district of Belfast. She is from a large family, four-ish brothers and three sisters and Ma. Da is dead. Our narrator talks to herself extensively in a colloquial Belfast voice that hinges on repetition and over-explanation. It is a sarcastic voice, cynical about the sectarian conflict and the motives of those who engaged in it. She narrates in euphemisms: the Sorrows, Renouncers of the State, Defenders of the State, the country across the water, the country across the border. People are second sister, the real milkman, chef, the tablets girl, Somebody McSomebody. Similarly places are not names and although most are recognisable – the reservoirs and the parks is Cavehill Road; the ten minute area is Carlisle Circus; the usual place is Milltown cemetery – the euphemisms allow liberties to be taken with the geography. The resulting text is very dense, often circular (at the very least non-linear) and pretty intense. It is like Eimear McBride crossed with James Kelman. The story is one of personal love and personal tragedy set within a dysfunctional society. Our narrator wants to be with maybe-boyfriend, but is admired by Milkman (a senior ranking paramilitary) and Somebody McSomebody (a wannabe paramilitary – was this a time before spides?). In a world where normal law and order does not operate, where law is made by the paramilitaries and is mutable, where whispers and innuendoes constitute evidence, this is a dangerous space. Our narrator knows the perils and even the most mundane activities – jogging by the reservoirs, buying chips, learning French, winning a scrap Blower Bentley supercharger – can be fraught with danger. Her quirky narration and eccentric world view manage to create deliciously black comedy from these dangers. Milkman is a timely novel. This period of the late 1970s has been largely airbrushed out of both world and Northern Irish history. Nowadays the Republican movement has been rehabilitated. They are seen to champion human rights and to lead the equality agenda. Its history is seen to be the ballot box in one hand and the armalite in the other. Their community justice is seen to have been a viable – almost legitimate – alternative to the RUC and the state agencies. It is often almost assumed that those who lost their lives (apart from in the early 1970s) had been “involved”. But what we see is a violent society with kangaroo courts based on self-interest and hypocrisy, arbitrary expulsions, witch hunts, suspicion. Paramilitaries tyrannise their own communities but the communities seem to lap it up. Each fresh atrocity is just casually dropped into conversation. More than anything, our narrator, her family and friends needed stability and predictability. What they got was the law of the jungle. And we know from history that they had 15 more years of this ahead of them before the first signs of the re-emergence of normality. Of course all this is viewed from a nationalist vantage point but we can safely assume that the situation was mirrored in the loyalist community across the road. And Milkman is also relevant to current developments as we start to see the emergence of an anti-political movement based on extreme and ill-planned actions. Brexit as a response to immigration and crime. Walls and travel bans and flip-flopping between nations and leaders being best friends and beyond the pale. If Milkman has a failing, it is that the meandering narration can frustrate the reader. There are few natural pauses, there can be a feeling that we have already covered this ground, ideas and phrases repeat. But they do add up to a work that is strong enough to carry the frustration. Milkman is a mature work that does say something new (or at least say it in a new way) in a field that has been ploughed often before. *****
  4. I loved Memorial Device - For The Good Times feels like an awkward second novel. Basically we have some lads who are into comics and laughs who've joined the IRA. First they take over a comic shop in Belfast, then they end up on the mainland plotting atrocities. It was good, funny in parts and horrific in others. But basically, I didn't buy the characters and very specifically, I didn't buy Sammy, the main protagonist. The boys seemed to be driven neither by ideology nor by psychopathy. i just don't believe the Ra would have taken on such uncommitted, ill-disciplined jokers. Sure there's some nice scene setting - Belfast and the Ardoyne in the 70s and some wonderful, biting humour. But the politics was done better in Milkman, and the humour was done better in The Fire Starters. For The Good Times does try to break out of the genre of Troubles novels, but in doing that it sort of becomes a parody of itself. There have been worse Troubles novels (mostly by Americans) but this is far from the best. All this is made more disappointing when we know how well David Keenan can write and innovate from Memorial Device. ***00
  5. Absolutely loved The Fire Starters. Maybe it was all the references to Connswater Tesco where I used to do my shopping (though it was better when it was still Stewarts). This is a comic novel set in the heart of loyalist East Belfast. Sammy Agnew is a decommissioned paramilitary trying to cope with civilian life. Jonathan Murray is a GP whose heart is not really in his work. Both share a feeling of irrelevance; both share concerns that their children are growing up to become monsters. Much of the humour is derived from a deadpan explanation of the cultural mores of the protestant working man. With a straight fact, we are told of the traditions of the Twelfth; the need to assert cultural supremacy over the neighbouring Catholics by the building of immensely tall bonfires; and the injustice of the lack of appreciation for these acts of fealty by the State that they are designed to venerate. And there is Jonathan's first person narrative that sneers at his patients - especially the older and poorer sections of society - as he himself feasts on red wine and pizza. Then, every now and then, the Sammy and Jonathan narratives will break for a vignette of a child with some extraordinary and esoteric superpower - with some superpowers more useful than others. Being able to turn into a boat, for example, is probably less useful than, say, the ability to fly. Both Sammy and Jonathan are simultaneously grotesque and loveable. There is a sense that they put on an external act to satisfy others' expectations but underneath there is a genuine human. They feel real. The novel is also hugely referential. Some references - to popular culture, music, the Anonymous movement, politicians - are quite obvious. Others are more subtle - there's more than a hint, for example, of the NIO Cats In The Cradle advert; or the Midnight's Children superpowers. And then there's this idea of linking prodigy to fire starters... Spotting these references adds enormously to the fun. The plot as it unfolds is a masterpiece. It leads the reader off to expect some kind of terrorist/police procedural but in fact is a really insightful look at the relationships between parents and children; the aspirations we have for our kids and how we handle things when they don't turn out quite the way we expected; the way we understand their uniqueness in a world where other people's children blur into a single society. I really cannot find fault in The Fire Starters. I wholeheartedly recommend this novel. *****
  6. Travelling in a Strange Land is another masterpiece from David Park. Tom is a photographer. Often commissioned for weddings and portraits, he has a good eye for composition. He is a man of taste and discernment, appreciating his surroundings and those around him. He knows he is being superseded by the ubiquity of the selfie, shared on social media in an instant, forgotten in a moment – but he still believes he offers a quality product. He is a comfortable man with a comfortable life in North Down (my guess is Holywood). Shortly before Christmas, his son Luke is stranded in his university digs in Sunderland, snow has closed the airport and Luke has a terrible cold. Tom is sent out on a rescue mission to bring Luke home for Christmas. The plan is to get the first ferry to Stranraer, drive to Sunderland and back in time for the last sailing home. God and snow willing… The novel is Tom, alone in a car, lost in his own thoughts as he travels across a strange land. Self-satisfaction starts to fray a little at the edges, and ultimately Tom’s thoughts are overtaken by his older son, Daniel, who is no longer part of the happy family. Daniel was a difficult child who became a difficult adult. Tom skates a fine line between guilt at his failure to love Daniel completely and resentment of Daniel for not being easy to love. All this crowding out the feelings he ought to have been having for Luke. There are occasional interruptions to phone home, the occasional interjection of the satnav, and a stop or two along the way. But mostly the strange land through which Tom is travelling is his own mind rather than the Scottish borders. The journey takes us back in time to a Northern Ireland long gone: paramilitaries and territoriality. There is a journey too through different social classes; Tom steps away from leafy North Down to explore the Belfast drinking dens and squalid bedsits of the Holy Lands. And then there is the journey through generations; from youth to fatherhood, back into the world of the young as he tries to find reconciliation with Daniel. As we get to know Tom’s story, we start to see him as more than the slightly pompous photographer. He is a man struggling to understand familial love and to accept human failings. It is not that Tom is perfect; he knows he isn’t and knows that neither he nor anyone else ever can be. It is that Tom cannot accept his own imperfection. There are some beautiful set pieces, sometimes inspiring, sometimes harrowing. The imagery is undemonstrative but precise. David Park needs few words to convey really complex ideas – not least the bonding near the end with the Angel of the North. Park trusts his readers to fill in the blanks, to make associations, and gives his readers the time and space to let their own imaginations wander. Park is a generous writer who lets the inherent goodness of the human spirit shine through in his characters, even when they go to dark places. David Park is one of the finest writers; pretty much every one of his works could match anything from Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro. Yes, he really is that good. I hope that one day he will get the recognition he so richly deserves. *****
  7. Bernard MacLaverty is a sublime writer and Midwinter Break is as good as anything he has ever written. Gerry and Stella Gilmore are a long-married couple of pensionable age, living in Glasgow but originally from the north of Ireland. Gerry is fond of a nightcap and Stella has quite a strong Catholic faith. They know one another inside out. They have decided to take a mid-winter break to Amsterdam, perhaps to celebrate their enduring marriage. Gradually, and gently, we start to see the flaws in the characters emerge. This is done with such grace; the reader knows, likes and empathises with both Gerry and Stella; the flaws that emerge are real, but we see the real people beneath and they are likeable. As they wander the streets of Amsterdam - both together and separately - they start to discover more about themselves and each other. Partly, they explore the present day, partly their lives in Glasgow, and partly their lives in Ireland. This is a novel about ageing. I recognise myself in Gerry. In fact, the similarity between Gerry's life and my own is uncanny - right down to the night-time leg cramps. There are themes of unfulfilled ambition, fatigue, closure. There is guilt, including the nagging guilt about minor slights and mistakes from years ago. But also there is lots and lots of love. Not bodice ripping young love, but old, mature love that is too often taken for granted. There is change, often not for the better. The change of a nature of a community, the change brought by significant events, and the change brought simply by time, with two people slowly ceasing to be who they once were. The questions that arise are whether to resist or accept those changes. It is an illustration of the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference." Midwinter Break is deeply moving. It speaks of truths that many of us will face some day soon. *****
  8. The First Day is a really well crafted novel exploring love, loyalty, forgiveness and revenge. Samuel Orr is a pastor in East Belfast. He is married and has children. One day, inexplicably, he meets Anna, a literature PhD student from across the divide. They fall for each other and Samuel Junior is the result. The first half of the novel is told in third person by a very present narrator, throwing in editorial comment. It is heavily laden with biblical references - perhaps also Samuel Beckett references that I wouldn't recognise - telling the sorry tale of Samuel and Anna. Samuel wrestles with conflicting loyalties to Anna and his wife; to God and to his congregation. He tries to do the right thing, but sometimes there is no right thing to be done. This part of the novel is not a new plot but it is told in such a distinctive way, and the spirit of Belfast is evoked with brilliance. The second half of the novel is set thirty years later - some distance in the future - where we meet Sam Jr in New York where he works in the Met art gallery. He is haunted both psychologically and literally by Philip, his half brother who has never forgiven the two Samuels for the infidelity. Sam Jr narrates this in first person but, ironically, it loses some of the immediacy and feeling of the first half of the novel. The time and place never seems to be fully created and the plotting becomes somewhat more obscure. The chronology gets really hazy and it is not always clear what is driving the characters, what is motivating them to do what they do. It's still a good read, but just not as captivating as the earlier sections. Overall this is an impressive novel that captures some of the nuances of Northern Ireland society without being captured by the obvious divisions of sectarianism and politics. It demonstrates real innovation in narrative voice and structure, and leaves the reader wanting more. That's pretty good for a debut novel. ****0
  9. Inspector Sean Duffy, token Catholic in the Carrickfergus RUC, is no stranger to murder. Rain Dogs is his fifth outing. In the preceding four novels, he has committed a long list of transgressions, has fallen out with many colleagues and most if his near neighbours have been caught up in previous investigations. This creates a fair amount of baggage that has to be disposed of at the start of each subsequent novel. One particular feature of Sean Duffy’s previous novels is the link between Carrickfergus crime and the big political picture. We have previously had the Brighton bombing, John de Lorean and Freddie Scappaticci. This one, set in 1987, is a bit different: the political events are national rather than Provincial and this allows Duffy and his team to go across the water – and ultimately to Oulu in Finland. Duffy, who has previously met Margaret Thatcher and Gerry Adams now gets to meet a genuine TV celebrity. Oh, and did I mention that the murder (there is a murder-suicide question for a long while but this is an Adrian McKinty novel so the reader is never in any real doubt) is a locked room mystery? It is a bit of a cliché, and one that the reader will work out much sooner than Duffy (smoking lots of dope doesn’t make for quick thinking). It feels too theatrical, and when the mystery is finally explained it all seems a bit, um, improbable. But really, the crimes are just a pretext to join a middle aged bachelor behaving badly in 1980s Northern Ireland, smoking, drinking and playing tunes. To that extent, the novel fully delivers on expectations. ***00
  10. The cover should have warned me what lay ahead, but the premise of a Northern Ireland Troubles thriller with links to current day Byron Bay sounded intriguing. Halley meets Aidan, who is on a mission for his brother Liam. Halley, it seems, has not always been Halley the Mullumbimby cafe owner and had some involvement with Liam on a paramilitary mission in London some years back... The novel starts out like a pretty standard romance - Kimberley Brown's Trusting a Stranger comes to mind - as Halley is persuaded by Aidan to turn her life upside down. The back story seems incomplete - why would Aidan want to meet Halley? How did he find Halley? Why is Halley in hiding anyway? As the details start to fill in, they don't seem quite right. Anyone with half an idea of Northern Irish politics will spot that the wrong people seem to be doing the wrong things at the wrong time. The timelines seem to be impossible to follow, with Liam and Aidan and Halley/Megan moving backwards and forwards from Australia to Europe and back again, lack of clarity of motivation at any given point, Liam being in prison and out of prison and in prison again seemingly at will, lack of clarity about the mission, when it was supposed to take place, who was involved and what their roles were. And as explanations are offered for why some of the details seem off, other details unravel behind them. This is not written like a thriller - way too much focus on Aidan's sinewy body and hot breath - and seems a bit plotty for a romance. It tries to do both but succeeds at neither. Sorry Laura Bloom, this really wasn't my cup of Nambarrie. **000
  11. This is the fourth Sean Duffy police procedural and it's the point where something really clicked for me. The series weaves real life, historic events into a parochial, Carrickfergus based crime spree. There is invention and, as Adrian McKinley notes in the epilogue, he has compressed events so they unfold quickly when in real life they were slow burning. But the effortless placing of these newsworthy events into a fictitious plot is really unusual. What felt uncomfortable in the first three novels now just feels right. So in this one, we find Inspector Sean Duffy investigating what appears to be a double killing and suicide in deepest East Antrim and quickly getting enmeshed in international sleaze and corruption. Duffy, as is his wont, is torn between personal corruption, doing the right thing and doing what the greater powers suggest. As he flip flops between these paths, he makes enemies and fails to take any path to its conclusion. Gun Street Girl has a great sense not only of time, but also of place. The locations are perfectly described and create a sense of history as so much has changed since the 1985 setting. There are also forays to Oxford and Ayr which capture the places perfectly. One thing that I had not fully appreciated from previous Sean Duffy novels is that the titles all come from Tom Waits songs. Gun Street Girl is too obvious to miss, especially when you know the fifth is called Rain Dogs. Knowing this makes you appreciate Duffy's musical taste all the more. A man who shares my tastes in music, whisky and literature can't be all that bad, even if he is a Peeler. I am glad to have read Gun Street Girl and look forward to reading Rain Dogs very much. ****0
  12. I'm a big fan of David Park - I have read all his previous works and loved them - but somehow The Poet's Wives had not appealed. I finally bit the bullet, bought it and read it. I should have listened to my instincts. See, the thing is, I don't really get poetry. It's just never interested me. So books about poets - or their widows - is unlikely to float my boat. This is really three separate novellas. The first, Catherine, tells the story of William Blake's wife who seems smitten with jealousy when Blake looks to hired help to supplement Catherine's inadequate housekeeping. Then we have Nadezhda, the widow of Osip Mandelstam, victim of Stalin's purges in the 1930s. And finally, we have Lydia, widow of a fictional and mediocre poet who neglected his family. Each of the stories is well written at the surface level. Each sentence is beautifully composed, presumably drawing from all sorts of poetic references. But when viewed from a distance, it feels flat. There is not enough in each story to keep the reader going. The characters never feel fully formed; they are short story characters inhabiting too many pages. The Mandelstam story, in particular, was familiar having been told previously in Robert Littell's more compelling The Stalin Epigram. In this telling, it was chopped into chunks many years apart, scrambled into random order - which can sometimes be a sign of a story that is not strong enough to carry itself on its own merits. As a collection of three stories, there seems to be a common theme of poets being narcissistic, self-absorbed people who treat their families with disdain. Somehow, their art provides sufficient justification in their own minds for treating other people badly. Perhaps this is some kind of comic juxtaposition between such insensitive people being famous for their sensitive writing. But this just doesn't seem to be enough to sustain the reader. In truth, the book drags. That's a shame, because Park's other works have so much more life to them. ***00
  13. It’s a little known fact that Lionel Shriver lived in Belfast for 12 years from 1987-1999. I shared a city with her and never knew – OMG. Anyway, shortly into her sojourn in the North, Lionel Shriver published a Troubles novel called The Bleeding Heart – later re-issued under the title Ordinary Decent Criminals. It was not a success. As Lionel Shriver herself acknowledges half way through the book, saying “the North was a tiny, exclusive Hell: only one and a half million people on earth would get your jokes”. So probably writing a book full of jokes about the North designed to offend and alienate all of those one and a half million people in equal measure was never going to end well… And Ordinary Decent Criminals is very funny. There are caricatures of the various political factions, paramilitary groupings, religious bigots, soldiers, peace brokers and writers. They are universally drunken, mediocre, unfaithful and have flexible morality. Shriver’s central thesis is that the Troubles were not, for the most part, terribly troublesome and the people of the North got off on pretending to be scary hard-men when going to great lengths to avoid actually inflicting real damage. Even the Enniskillen bomb is portrayed as a terrible mistake based on the timer being prepared without taking the end of daylight savings into account. Thus, she seems to argue, the paramilitary activity that did take place was more the work of ordinary decent criminals hiding behind a veneer of political respectability. The story itself is Estrin, a young American woman who has spent the past decade wandering the globe, landing up running a squalid hoods’ bar in West Belfast. She catches the eye of Farrell O’Phelan, a freelance bomb disposal engineer who has come to be seen as a celebrity-expert on The Troubles, assisting and irritating both traditions in equal measure. Farrell has a plan to bring peace to the North, in all probability paving the way for his schoolfriend Angus McBride to become Secretary of State in a power sharing Executive. The story feels quite convoluted for something that ought really to be straightforward, and does tend to be used as an opportunity for political grandstanding. After a couple of hundred pages, the reader is left feeling that the story is drifting somewhat, whilst the big political point has already been made. For all that, there are enough wry observations; namechecks of familiar shops and bars; overt references to real people; and a crystallisation of political thinking in the years immediately preceding the actual ceasefires that make ODCs worth sticking with. This is an important slice of cultural history, augmented by a satirical and entertaining glossary at the end that many readers may not notice. I suspect ODCs is more than loosely autobiographical. Estrin looks very much like Shriver, torn between observing the community and becoming part of it. It is not a perfect novel, but it does demonstrate a deep and mature understanding of both the history and the c.1990 present of Northern Ireland, presumably the product of many afternoons in the Linenhall Library. It offers a different perspective to the many novels written by Northern Ireland’s own authors and supports this perspective with authentic detail. The novel deserves to be better known, but finding an audience is always going to be difficult. When I asked Lionel Shriver to sign my first edition some years ago, I told her that I loved reading Northern Ireland novels. She replied ruefully that nobody else seemed to. ****0
  14. Most of us know the bare bones of the De Lorean story - a fantastical sports car with gull-wing doors, manufactured on the Peace Line in Belfast, running into financial difficulties and ending in scandal in a hotel room in the States. Glenn Patterson sets out to fill in the details; adding context, factual information and personal stories. The story as told by Glenn Patterson is, if anything, even more incredible than the sketchy details that most of us know. For a start, we meet John De Lorean himself. His public persona - the slick salesman with the looks of a statesman - is there. But we also get to see him as a motor man with a long and credible history in General Motors. We see him as a man who wants to break free of the mediocrity of mainstream motor manufacturing - wanting to set up a revolutionary company making a revolutionary car - a car bringing gold standard safety to a modest family budget. We see him through the eyes of Edmund Randall, a journalist recruited to turn De Lorean's vision into a reality. For most of us, De Lorean and Northern Ireland are inextricably linked. Therefore it's a bit of a surprise to find that the factory's location was almost an afterthought - previous negotiations with other states and nations having come to naught. At this point, dare we say it, the story feels like it is drifting. But once the decision is taken to locate in Dunmurry (not actually Belfast - more an unlovely dormitory town still just within the reaches of the red buses), the novel really takes off. We follow two story lines in particular - Randall's experiences as a sort of boss (his role is never defined) of a new-start motor works, and Liz and her co-workers on the shop floor. Both are learning more about themselves, about Northern Ireland, and about industrial relations than they could ever have imagined. The story of the De Lorean factory is one of public subsidy, given in the belief that peace would come to Northern Ireland through the prosperity of its workers. A man from overseas offering highly paid, highly skilled work was like a gift from god, even if the jobs were subsidised at more than 100%. It offered vindication to Roy Mason - and then Humphrey Atkins - that the paramilitaries would be defeated in battle and the war would be won on economics. History shows how wrong-headed this thinking was. Even from the earliest days, the Dunmurry plant had separate gates for the two halves of the workforce and had to contend with the tensions created by the hunger strike. What follows will be familiar to anyone who worked in the public sector (or publicly subsidised private sector) of Northern Ireland. Staff happy to get on with co-workers from the other side, willing to pretend to be aloof from the sectarian politics whilst actually having their entire world-view formed through the lens of their own tradition. Keeping to safe conversations, pretending to be involved only under duress... But in the case of the De Lorean Motor Company, there is also a genuine sense of family spirit - a sense of showing a sceptical world just what they were all capable of. For a brief while, there was a burning flame of ambition, workers trusting in management and making personal plans for self-development and future comfort. In this way, the workers on the shop floor are a concentration of the spirit of hope and adventure that was emerging in wider Northern Ireland society. Yet for all the broadening horizons of Ulster Man, we felt for Randall whose life seemed to have shrunk to the short pathway between house and factory. He never belonged and even what became his weekly Sunday outing was limited and fearful. One of the brilliant cameo roles created in Gull is that of Jennings, the NIO civil servant trying to stage manage the relations between the Americans and the Government. He is a genius at serving many masters, speaks in perfect mandarin understatement and, frankly, works damned hard to keep the thing on the rails despite appearing completely effortless. Anyone who has ever had dealings with the NIO will recognise the character - maverick yet conventional; obedient yet autonomous. Gull is a really compelling read, grounded clearly in time and space. It may be a fictionalisation, but it feels authentic. It switches effortlessly from an American voice for the Randall scenes to Norn Irn for Liz's scenes. The politics is there, but it is nuanced and set in context. In a beautiful example, he takes some of the workforce to train in the United States - they all happily celebrate their Irishness by singing Danny Boy, even though half of the company would never have dreamed of signing up for such singing back home. If there is a criticism, it is that the prelude feels slightly too long, the finish feels somewhat sudden. But I guess that's how it really was. And it has made me feel a whole lot more sympathy towards John De Lorean. ****0
  15. Glenn Patterson is described on the back cover by Will Self as "Northern Ireland's Prose Laureate". That's a bold claim, especially since Patterson is almost unknown outside of Northern Ireland (and probably not that well known within it), but he is one of a handful of Northern writers who have something significant to say. The Mill For Grinding Old People Young is basically a history lesson for Belfast. Narrated in 1897 by an old man, Gilbert Rice, looking back at his youth, we find ourselves in Belfast pretty much as the Industrial Revolution arrives. If you love Belfast, it will be a treat to visit familiar streets and see them in such a different context. And it may be shocking to realise how little of that history we ever knew. For example, we find Castle Place dominated by (who would have thought it) a Castle. The castle of the Chichesters, no less, one of whom (Lord Donegall) gave his name to so many of the streets. Instead of the City Hall, we have the White Linen Hall - hence Linenhall Street and the Linenhall Library. Ormeau is the country seat of the Chichesters; Ballymacarrett is a separate and rural settlement across the river; the docks were tidal sludge; Shankhill had an H, Glengormley was all farms, and Belfast was 100% Protestant. Almost... The story, such as it is, concerns plans and schemes to upgrade the harbour and docks. Plus, Gilbert discovers what's inside his trousers as he falls for a serving maid at the wonderfully named inn: The Mill For Grinding Old People Young. The story is told in Gilbert's voice, a pastiche Victorian language. Gilbert is great fun - a young man of a well heeled family, many of whom died of typhoid, living with his grandfather in a grand house on Donegall Place with gardens leading down to Fountain Street (now build over by large retail stores). Gilbert is trying out the world for size, unsure exactly whether to be a squire or a larrikin, stepping blithely into dangerous places... Gilbert is not really bad, he's just terribly innocent. The story, though, is secondary to the history lesson. The novel as a whole is, perhaps, an urban counterpoint to William Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry - written at the time this novel is set. Broadly, it works well and paints a picture of a place that is on the move, an engine of commerce with more in common with London, Liverpool, Glasgow and mainland Europe than with its agricultural hinterland. It has inspired me to Google maps, pictures (sadly there seem to be no pictures of the Castle), and imagine myself treading the same streets all those years ago. Pat Catney used to run history talks at The Kitchen Bar - before it, too, became history. I always regretted not going. I guess this novel is full of what I missed. ****0
  16. The world is not short of Bildungsroman novels set in Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Invariably they feature Catholic kids growing up in West Belfast. You’ll not see much about the Troubles from a Protestant child’s perspective, and Heaven forbid that you might see something set in one of the other towns or cities – or <<shudders>> the countryside. There’s nary a blue bus in sight. The Good Son is not about to break the mould. Mickey Donnelly is in his summer holidays between primary school and secondary school, living right in the heart of Belfast’s Ardoyne probably in 1978. This is an area surrounded on all sides by Protestants, patrolled heavily by the British Army, and run by the local command of the IRA. Mickey is familiar with the world of guns, bombs, balaclavas and threats. The Good Son raises itself above the norm, though, in Mickey’s voice. Mickey is a sensitive soul, academically able but oppressed by the poverty of his family, the alcoholism of his father, and bullying at school for his effeminacy. He dreams of leaving the Ardoyne and sailing off to new opportunities in America. But Mickey is not (or certainly doesn’t perceive himself to be) a victim of the Troubles. It is simply the backdrop to his more personal problems and may even, sometimes, be a source of opportunity. Mickey is endearing. He usually tries to do the right thing; to please his mother and to do right by those around him. In particular, he forms a bond with his dog that, in spite of his sensitive nature, he calls Killer. Killer is a kind of embodiment of Mickey’s hopes and dreams. From the very first chapter, Killer represents the impossible becoming possible. And as the novel progresses, Killer emboldens Mickey to look outside his own small enclave and see the wider world. Killer allows Mickey a focus for his conscience, an ear for his confession, and a driver for his resolve. There are obvious parallels between Mickey and Cuchullain. The writing is first rate; although the events are fictional, there is an excellent sense of place and time. Paul McVeigh captures a sense of change. The old world of the 1960s and early 70s – with counter-service grocer’s shops, the civil rights movement, internment, local sink schools all about to slip into history. The new horizons were filled with ambition, supermarkets and a slowly simmering detente between the communities punctuated by tit-for-tat killings rather than big bomb atrocities. McVeigh manages to convey the change – both in society and in the Troubles – through the impact on individuals rather than grandstanding or editorial comment. And on a personal level, Mickey is at the transition from childhood to adulthood. There is a great deal of humanity and compassion in the text. McVeigh avoids the easy trap of demonising a particular group – whether the paramilitaries, the clergy, the police or the (largely unseen) Protestants. Across the piece there is good and bad. It feels balanced. The relationships are beautifully constructed and complex – not just between Mickey and his mother, or Mickey and others – even the relationships between supporting characters are well thought through and reveal hidden depths. Having read many similar novels, a common issue seems to be the difficulty in bringing the novel to an end when the Troubles are obviously ongoing. Approaches have varied from surreal to slapstick to tragic. They seldom feel right. But in this case, the ending feels genuine and quite moving. It’s no mean feat. Did the world need The Good Son? Probably not. It doesn’t tell us anything new. The Troubles were long enough ago that one wonders whether Paul McVeigh lacks the confidence to bring us something contemporary – a bit like Liam O’Flaherty perpetually reliving the Irish Civil War or John LeCarre stuck in a cold war timewarp. But, for all that it may lack originality, it is a very good example of the genre and, being quite a short novel, is still worth a read. ****0
  17. A long time ago, Eoin McNamee wrote a novel called The Blue Tango about the true unsolved murder of a Judge Lance Curran's daughter Patricia in 1952. The novel did not offer up any answers, but did nudge readers in various directions. There wasn't anything at the time to indicate a trilogy in the making. We met Judge Curran again in McNamee's 2010 Orchid Blue. Here, he was presiding at the 1962 murder trial of Robert McGladdery, the last man to be hanged in Northern Ireland. It offered a greater insight into the life and mind of Lance Curran. Now, with Blue Is The Night, we find the two previous novels joined by a third that is part new case - the murder of Mary McGowan and trial of Robert Taylor, and partly a revisiting of Patricia Curran's murder with the occasional mention of McGladdery thrown in for good measure. It is a strange novel that doesn't quite fit within conventions. Perhaps it is the power of suggestion with a quote from David Peace on the front cover, but it is not unlike Peace's Nineteen Eighty-Three in revisiting past novels. Again, as with The Blue Tango and Orchid Blue, this instalment doesn't really answer the unknowable questions. Instead, it focuses on the sleaze and decay that was eating the heart out of Ulster society in the days before The Troubles. There was a constant threat of violence and breakdown of civil order. There was an understanding that ends justified means, and if a guilty man walking free was the price to be paid for civil order then it was a price worth paying (compare and contrast with guilty men being released from jail under the Good Friday Agreement, again to secure civil order in Northern Ireland). Now, of course Eoin McNamee is not a neutral observer. As an Ulster Catholic, he is bound to have his own perspective and will have his own points to make. But, even accepting that there may be two sides to a story, McNamee presents his story well. There are enough discontinuities and nuances to add plausibility. There are lines to read between. There are nudges and winks. And at the heart of it all, we have Lance Curran. Eoin McNamee has a fascination with players who step outside their roles. Justice Curran is such a man - on the one hand, a unionist Member of Parliament and Attorney General; a successful lawyer and member of the establishment, but on the other hand he is willing to prosecute a Protestant for the murder of a Catholic; he is a problem gambler; he has a "fast" daughter, a son who is training for the priesthood and a wife who grew up in Broadmoor. He comes across as reckless, lacking strategy and living for kicks. He is a man who would play with law and order - play with people's lives - just as he would play with dice. He has ambition, but no direction. Curran has a number of foils, particularly his election agent Harry Ferguson with whom he seems to have a relationship of mutual contempt. But also there is his dysfunctional family and a revolving cast of the great and the good. We see government as being tight and shady, double-faced. The murder, the trial and Robert Taylor are well drawn. McNamee manages to wring tension from the courtroom drama even though Taylor's guilt is not in doubt and the outcome (by inference) is known. If there is a gripe, it is that the dialogue scenes from the 1960s between Harry Ferguson and Curran's estranged wife Doris are hard to follow and seem to obscure rather than illuminate. Also, the revisiting of Patricia Curran's murder serves to reopen The Blue Tango and suggest that not all the relevant material had been presented to the reader at the time. That grates a bit. But, overall, I have to agree with David Peace that this is a genuine, original masterpiece. *****
  18. Three parties travel from Belfast for long weekends in Amsterdam. As their paths cross, and free of the constraints of home, they have an opportunity to take stock of their lives and address their deep seated dissatisfaction. It's not a new premise, but David Park draws his characters well. They might appear to be stereotyped at first blush, but Park has the sympathy and generosity to turn them into real, whole people with hidden qualities to balance their very obvious faults. The novel opens with George Best's funeral cortege, winding its way through the streets of East Belfast. It grounds the novel. It shows us we are exploring a slice of life in Belfast - straddling the working class through Karen, a cleaner at a retirement home, visiting Amsterdam on her daughter's hen party; Marian, wife of a garden centre owner is worried that her husband is no longer interested in her, travels with him back to Amsterdam to relive a honeymoon; and Alan, forced by circumstance to take his teenage son with him as he travels to see Bob Dylan in concert. We see the characters in their home lives; we see them starting out their journey to the airport, and we see them finding their feet in Amsterdam. We see them taking decisions we would never take ourselves, we see them finding meanings that we would never find. But that's the point - these are people who are not like us. Although, as they grow and develop, as they use the clear light of Amsterdam to see themselves, we find connections. We care about their fates. There is humour but it is not a comic novel. Amsterdam takes a bit of a back seat. The city is there, Rijksmuseum, red light district, canals and cafes, but it is only ever a backdrop for the human drama. It could just as well have taken place in Prague, Krakow or Dublin - it just needed to locate the characters somewhere outside their comfort zone. In this sense, it is a bit like some Alan Warner, a bit like Alan Bissett's Pack Men. Ironically, Belfast - the city where most of the action doesn't take place - has a much stronger presence. The pacing errs on the side of being slow. Although Light of Amsterdam is not a long novel, it feels as though there is a lot of space in it; a considerable amount of languor. That's appropriate, but it does take a while to get into the story - the scene setting at the beginning feels like a luxury that some readers would be reluctant to pay for. But those who do pay will ultimately be rewarded with a satisfying experience. The high point - for the reader at least - has to be Alan's night with Bob Dylan. David Park captures the moment with perfection; the moment when one finally sees a childhood hero in the flesh. There is not a word out of place in that section and we feel every twinge of Alan's conflicted emotion. There are other great set pieces too, but Dylan rang so true... The ending is not going to please everyone. Without spoiling things, it is coloured heavily by a dose of realism. Of course the characters have learned things about themselves but they end as the same people they began - perhaps a bit wiser, but still the same people. ****0
  19. In The Morning is a lurid, over the top police procedural set in 1980s Northern Ireland. Our hero, Sean Duffy, has been busted down to sergeant and has been posted to the South Armagh border due to past indiscretions Sean is not happy, despite the helicopter rides. In a roundabout way - and without giving too much away - Sean Duffy finds himself given one last chance to prove himself. He is put on a mission to find a missing man. This gets him out of Armagh and back knocking on doors of Derry Housing Executive flats and making furtive trips across to Donegal. So far so good. But then Duffy gets involved in investigating a coid case murder of young woman who had been minding a bar on the shores of Lough Neagh near Antrim. Things go a bit Jonathan Creek as Duffy wrestles with a locked room mystery. To be honest, it all feels a bit improbable, and the relation of this plot-ette to the main story is contrived. But it is also a bit of fun. The main manhunt, once we get back to it, seems to be stuck on with sellotape. But despite the far-from-seamless join, the denouement is well done. There is an OMG moment when you realise the main historical event it is all leading up to, and Adrian McKinty has a nice touch in blending subsequent reality with some personal speculation. These end scenes rescue what would have been a fairly poor novel and redeem it int a fairly good novel. I still don't believe in Sean Duffy. He doesn't act or think like a policeman. His living arrangements, walking up his front driveway on a loyalist housing estate in riot gear is just not the way things were. Buying dope off the crime squad ditto. And I know Adrian McKinty will read this and say 'but I created this fiction and if I want to have policeman walking up their driveways in riot gear I can', but when you trade on verisimilitude, it just punches a bit of a hole in the suspension of disbelief. Adrian McKinty is worth reading. He tells a good story and his style is engaging. However, I do wonder whether he could sometime do something slightly less lurid. ​****0 (being generous)
  20. Glenn Patterson is a long-established Belfast novelist whose works tend to focus on mundane lives with a backdrop of the Northern Ireland sectarian divide. Often these references are subtle, almost incidental. The Rest Just Follows starts out in much the same way – Craig Robinson is a young Grammar School boy. Maxine Neill failed the 11 Plus. StJohn Nimmo is a new boy at the Grammar School with a fondness of cigarettes. All three seem to have dysfunctional families. But unlike some of Patterson’s other novels, the details seem confused and hazy. Patterson has always had a thing where timelines blur a bit and we can switch from the present to the past in the course of a single sentence. But this has always been made navigable through clear and distinctive storylines and a single uniting theme. The Rest Just Follows lacks the clarity of storylines and doesn’t seem to have a central focus, meaning the opaque timelines just confuse things even more. The narrative moves, almost without notice, from school to university to work to parenthood to adulthood. There are some signposts of passing time – movements in the political process, known atrocities, social and physical change in the built environment. But the known events are often fictionalised, making it unclear as to exactly how much time has elapsed – and hence how old the characters are. Some of the details are plain wrong – the first civil partnership ceremony in fact took place in 2005 rather than the late 1980s/early 1990s that would fit with the novel’s sequencing – which make them unreliable as markers of time. The narrative is also disconcerting as it moves from the generic backdrop of the The Troubles to some very specific events and specific people. We see the formation of the Women’s Coalition, for example; and we meet a thinly disguised Jim Gray. Some of the other details seem close but not quite a match for real events. Craig, for example, is approached by a unionist political group – was this supposed to be U3W or something else? As well as the blurring of fiction and fact, the blurring of timelines, there is a fuzziness of purpose. In Patterson’s previous novels, there has been a clear story at play. Sometimes that was an individual moving from point A to point B; in Number 5 it was the story of a house; in The International it was the human story behind a known atrocity. This just feels like there is not enough to tie the characters together – not enough to make them interesting. All the brothers and sisters and boyfriends and girlfriends means the focus shifts too much for the reader to remain really engaged. It is all a bit too slippery. It’s a shame for such a consistently good writer to have produced a novel that is so disappointing. It feels like an attempt to recreate Fat Lad, Patterson’s Belfast classic, but without the sense of immediacy or concentration. Patterson is apparently working on novel Number 10 right now; I hope it sees a return to form. ***00
  21. Northern Ireland has long needed a really good police procedural writer. Until now, all those who have aspired have tripped themselves up with high body counts, high shock factor, obsession with paramilitaries or poor geography. Or a combination of the above. But Brian McGilloway has created a pretty regular detective - DS Lucy Black - operating in a post Good Friday Agreement PSNI. In Little Girl Lost, a local businessman's daughter has gone missing and DS Black answers a call about a girl found in an ancient woodland on the outskirts of Derry. Of course, the case is not as straightforward as DS Black would hope and brings her into contact with all the local pond life and causes her to confront demons of her past. The plotting is taut and for the most part credible - although as in so many NI based crime/thriller novels the bodies do start to mount up. The depiction of modern Derry (and Strabane) feels authentic; the dialogue feels real; and the geography is right. The characterisation does - as is so often the case in crime/thrillers - tend towards cliches and stereotypes although it is possible that DS Black and her family might get fleshed out more in future novels in what will obviously become a series. One suspects there may also be a love interest waiting in the wings. I do wish, as a small point, that Brian McGilloway had not chosen to refer to DS Black as Lucy throughout the novel. Most crime writers stick to surnames for the police as it helps to remind the reader of their official capacity. Lucy sounds a bit "almost". I look forward to seeing where Brian McGilloway takes this series - and may well read his previous series. Perhaps Northern Ireland had a good crime writer in our midst all along and just never knew. ****0
  22. Cassie is a girl on a mission. A nasty, gruesome mission. The man she meets will remember their meeting for a long time. Because Cassie is fighting for the Republican Cause. Sure, there's a ceasefire, but Cassie never signed up to it... So It Is weaves together Cassie's story with that of Aoife, a girl growing up in the nationalist Lower Ormeau Road area of Belfast. Aoife's world is a small area of houses, bounded by the river and the railway, isolated, but on the direct marching route from Protestant Ballynafeigh to the city centre. Aoife and her family shelter as loyalists hit golf balls over the railway at their windows; the RUC (97% protestant, 100% unionist) force Orange parades down the road and raid the houses. Aoife's mother has some kind of post traumatic stress disorder and spends her days with her hand in the sink whilst her father drives his taxi between the social security office and the bar. This casts Aoife into a role caring for her young brother Damien whilst trying to steal time to spend with her friend Becky and his rather good looking brother Ciarán. As the stories progress, we see hatred and hurt growing - with justification - by the day. But we also see the early stages of the peace process as the politicians, many of whom were the paramilitaries of yesteryear, try to draw the hatred and violence to a close. This leaves their community in a limbo; the young bloods looking for their part of the action, still feeling the pain of a stolen childhood, whilst denied the opportunity to play their part. Liam Murray Bell unashamedly portrays this period of time from one side of the divide. His characters are partisan; the history they learn; the politics they follow; the attitudes they adopt - are all from the one side. But So It Is allows the reader to infer that there are symmetrical relationships on the other side of the divide. At one point, Aoife and her friend Becky try to sell cheap jewellery they have made to some of the protestant houses on the Ravenhill Road. They discover that, apart from a picture of the Queen in place of the picture of the Pope, the houses and the lives are the same. And later on in the book, as we follow Cassie, we find that there's very little difference between her own brand of vengeance and the deeds she is avenging - which in turn would probably have been vengeance in a cycle of tit-for-tat violence. By the end of the novel, the reader starts to see the humanity in the situation. Nowhere is violence condoned; this is not a glamorisation of violence. There are plenty of characters who also suffer pain and don't turn to violence. But there is a sense of damaged people within a damaged society, some of whom turn to violence as an escape. These are not the brigadiers; not the OCs. These are the gunfodder and they damage themselves as much as they damage anyone else. The ending is ambiguous, and on a personal level it is tragic. But there is also the hope that the reader knows comes to fruition through the Good Friday Agreement, decommissioning and devolution. Liam Murray Bell has a remarkable ear for dialogue, though, and his colloquialisms are authentic. He captures the mood of the early ceasefires perfectly - a sense of tension, nobody believing it could last but afraid to do or say anything in case it fractured the peace. And, the frustration of those who felt cut adrift. Bell's geography is not quite perfect, though, when he tells us that Cassie knows very few people in South Belfast and nobody in East Belfast despite living on the Lower Ormeau and having an aunt in the Short Strand. Still, it's a small thing in a compelling, horrifying and satisfying novel. ****0
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