Book Review: The Sandstone City

Sandstone City

When The Sandstone City, by Elaine Canning, was offered to me for review I expected it to be just the sort of story I enjoy. The author lived and was educated in Belfast, as I was, before moving away to pursue a life and career elsewhere. This background led me to believe she would understand her subject matter, that she would appreciate and be capable of articulating the guilt instilled by an Irish family on those who dare to flee the nest. What I hadn’t anticipated was just how disturbing I would find the supernatural elements of her debut. The family featured are capable of physically following their offspring from beyond the grave.

The story opens in an inner city estate house in contemporary Belfast. Eighty-eight year old Michael Doherty has recently died and his family are preparing to bury him. In the scenario imagined, the dead man can hear what is being said about him as his body lies in the open coffin, family and neighbours passing through to pay their respects. He is particularly concerned about his youngest grandchild, Sarah, who is using the religious period of Lent as an excuse to starve herself in an attempt to ward of guilt. She has not shared with anyone the source of her pain, although the reader is made aware it is to do with a young man in Spain who may or may not be dead, something for which she blames herself.

Sarah had moved to Spain for study and work. She was based in Salamanca, a city that held memories for her grandfather, ones he has never shared with his family. His wife, Annie, was aware that before they met he had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Michael had struggled to settle during their early years of marriage, eventually leaving her with their young children to work away from home. When he eventually returned she accepted his past with few questions, although did banish him to a separate bedroom.

Despite this, the family are portrayed as close – to each other and to their neighbours in the estate. When Sarah moves away she is expected to ring home regularly as well as returning for visits. She seems to accept this, telling small lies in her updates when she wishes to keep aspects of her new life private. Despite being dead, Michael sees that she is now hurting and wants to help. He is granted permission to call up ghosts from his past and haunt her into investigating the secrets he kept, something he believes will encourage her to confront whatever it is she is avoiding.

The unfolding story sees Sarah first frightened and confused by the messengers but then curious about what is being revealed about her grandfather. Despite this curiosity, she appears reluctant to learn anything about his past that could change her perception of an old man she was close to. This reluctance slows the pace. Michael, observing her reactions, worries about what he is sharing. Still, he remains sure it is necessary if he is to help her.

Other than getting Sarah to travel back to Spain, and therefore deal with what she ran away from, I wasn’t convinced by her grandfather’s machinations. Of course, from a storytelling perspective they provided an interesting strand, but the structure chosen was strange and at times irritating. The way in which the dead were brought back was troubling as was the influence they were capable of exerting. Irish family ties may be powerful but patronising from beyond the grave takes this to a whole new level.

I mentioned that I found the pacing slow. This wasn’t helped by the need to work out without initial explanation the relevance of the various ghosts in Michael’s past life, and the reluctance of his family to acknowledge any history or behaviours that may not fit their carefully maintained narrative. The family may be loving and supportive, but members were required to behave in certain ways and not ask potentially awkward questions. Conformity mattered.

I was also confused by the character, Tommy – initially a McBride, then someone closer. Perhaps I missed something but, if so, using the same name didn’t help. Michael’s occasional interjections – his determination yet reluctance to open a past he had kept hidden – didn’t convince in terms of helping Sarah.

Michael’s experiences in Spain as well as Sarah’s are eventually revealed. I was left wondering why the big secrets could not be shared. For all the family is presented as an important anchor in their lives, if they cannot talk to each other about personal matters then such value is questionable. Certain threads remained unanswered, particularly why Michael left his young family and what he did during those years. Annie remained loyal, as a religious woman would, but at what cost?

Sadly this was a story that simply didn’t work for me. It happens, and I hope the book finds many more appreciative readers. Perhaps what I expected to appeal – the author’s background making me anticipate more shared attitudes towards family and upbringing – shadowed a story I struggled to engage with. That the dead could remain in the land of the living as anything other than memory, continuing to judge and exert influence, I find seriously unsettling.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Aderyn Press.


Edward Explores: Belfast

Edward Belfast arrival

Edward arrived in Belfast as dawn was about to break on a rather damp morning. The car ferry on which he had travelled overnight thankfully docked without incident and, despite the comforts provided on board, he was eager to disembark and continue his latest adventure (you may read about the first part here).

First on the itinerary was a road trip along the northeast coast of the Ards Peninsula, stopping at: Bangor, Donaghadee, Millisle and its nearby Ballycopeland windmill. These places had emotional significance to chief bearer’s late parents, a few of whose belongings they were in Ireland to collect. Edward is particularly skilled at offering support at such moments. He was pleased when the rain eased and all were able to admire and enjoy the various harbours and beaches that held treasured memories.

By mid afternoon Edward was ready for a rest so was taken to the palace in which he was to stay (you may learn more about this place by reading the review, in which he features, written here). The large and comfortable room proved a suitable base for a bear who, while enjoying myriad new experiences, likes to indulge in life’s finer offerings occasionally. The palace gardens contained many interesting sculptures. Edward discussed this art form with a large, new friend.

It is always good to make new friends and that evening’s dinner offered such an opportunity. Edward was taken to the home of a lovely couple who had specially requested his attendance. While his bearers enjoyed the good food and fine company provided, Edward was pleased to make their delightful young lady bear’s acquaintance. Her seat by the fireside looked most comfy – an apt pride of place.

Edward Belfast teddy

The following day Edward had the opportunity to catch up with some family bears. A barbeque had been arranged during which he was able to spend time with another bear from The English Teddy Bear Company, along with this bear’s best friend.

Edward Belfast family

Due to an excess of precipitation, Edward stayed in bed while his bearers climbed Divis and the Black Mountain. He did, of course, join them for dinner later.

Edward Belfast pudding2

The final evening of Edward’s sojourn in Belfast required a train journey into the city. Informed that he was to eat at a particularly fine establishment, Edward consulted with the little duck provided in his room and dressed appropriately. He particularly enjoyed the final course of the ensuing six course taster menu and accompanying wine flight, although the dash for the return train somewhat rattled his now very full tummy.

The next day it was time to pack his bags and travel onwards. Another car ferry was boarded, although this one took just a couple of hours to reach its destination. There followed: a short drive, a stopover in Scotland, and then the long journey south. This time Edward was happier during the car journey as suitable snacks were provided.

It had been a very fine adventure but, as always, it was good to reach home. Here he was able to delight his friend, Goldie Bear, with a lovely surprise. In amongst the boxes his bearers had travelled to Belfast to collect was Quackers, a duck given to chief bearer when she had to spend her very first Christmas in hospital. Quackers had not been seen for many years and was thought lost. Goldie, chief bearer’s childhood teddy, became quite emotional when reunited with his oldest friend.

Edward Belfast home

Edward may not have spent much time in the heart of the city, being based on the coastal area this time. For anyone eager to know what delights central Belfast can offer a tourist, chief bearer wrote about a previous visit here.

Hotel Review: The Culloden at Cultra

Edward Belfast hotel

The Culloden Hotel has long been considered one of the finest hotels in Northern Ireland. Built in 1876 as a private residence, it became the local bishop’s palace at the end of that century. In the early 1960s it was converted into a hotel and was purchased by William Hastings in 1967. The Hastings Hotel Group now owns six luxury hotels across the province. The Culloden has been updated and expanded but retains the aspects on which its reputation was built – comfort, good service, and excellent food.

Located near the coast at Cultra, a short drive from the centre of Belfast, the hotel stands in extensive grounds with views over Belfast Lough towards Cave Hill. The immaculately maintained gardens contain an interesting collection of statues that may be admired by strolling the winding paths around the estate.

Also within the grounds is the Cultra Inn, a small pub with a beer garden that offers a more basic bar style menu. Beyond this is the local train station, with an impressively regular service into the centre of the city.

We stayed at The Culloden for four nights in mid September, booking into one of their Deluxe King rooms. This was located in the latest extension to the hotel, with a view over the terrace. It proved comfortable and spacious. The bathroom was also a good size with separate walk-in shower. As has become an issue at hotels recently, the water jet was not as powerful as first seemed due to air injection for eco reasons. I had to run a bath – which took ages – in order to wash my long, thick hair. The plug then had to be fully unscrewed in order to drain the water as the pop up mechanism did not work as intended. This is perhaps as well given sliding down into the water popped the centred plug each time – an interesting design feature…

There was no two pin shaver socket in the bathroom. We asked for a plug adaptor at reception but they couldn’t help. Husband had to wet shave with the little safety razor provided until we met up with my brother-in-law who was happy to lend the adaptor needed for the duration of our stay.

Bathrobes and slippers were provided, although we had to ask for these and ended up collecting them ourselves when they were not delivered when needed. We also had to ask for various replenishments to the hospitality tray over the coming days as the daily room service did not always notice what we had used. I require a morning cuppa on waking and basic breakfast tea at this time is a necessity. We also noted that the coffee provision was lower quality – instant coffee sachets and a kettle – than on the overnight car ferry where a pod machine had been available in our cabin.

The hotel also provided a daily turndown service, not something we expected and would not have missed until they failed to visit on our final evening.

The robes and slippers were useful when we used the excellent spa facilities. The gym is one of the best equipped I have come across in a hotel. I particularly appreciated the squat rack with full sized plates from 5kg. There was also a separate studio room for those important post workout stretches. The swimming pool was small but not postage stamp sized. The rectangular hot tub had a pleasant view over the gardens. A window was also a feature in the spacious sauna – I have never been in one with this before. A word of warning though, slippers are needed here as the floor is too hot to walk across comfortably barefoot. There is also a large steam room, and feature showers. A small café is available for healthy meals and snacks, or for complementary lemon water and fruit.

On the first morning of our stay we booked breakfast at the hotel. This was served buffet style and offered everything one would expect for such a feed. Due to its cost – it is very expensive – we expected more variety. I cannot fault the quality of ingredients and preparation but there was little I haven’t had elsewhere for half the price.

We therefore opted to eat breakfast elsewhere on subsequent mornings. It proved rather pleasant to walk along the coast path into neighbouring Holywood and try a new café each morning. We ate at Joxer, Suitor & Co, and Homebird, enjoying what was on offer – fewer courses than at The Culloden but still more food than we needed. The walk back aided digestion as we gazed in awe at the opulent housing, prevalent in this area.

We also enjoyed walking along the coast path in the other direction, going as far as Crawfordsburn Country Park where we would have taken part in their Parkrun had we been staying on a Saturday.

The Culloden serves breakfast in what becomes its Vespers Restaurant in the evening. Although curious about this we had already planned meals with family and friends during our stay. Once again, the cost made us think twice about eating together at the hotel on our final evening, as we had considered. Instead we caught the train into the city and enjoyed a fine feast at Six by Nico who serve an excellent taster menu with accompanying wine flight for a fraction of the cost of Vespers.

To be clear, we were well aware that The Culloden was never going to be a value range option. We paid a great deal for our room and staying there was an experience I will long remember. The staff were unfailingly friendly and eager to be helpful. The place was kept clean and welcoming, even when busy with day guests and conference parties.

One thing I would have liked improved was access to WiFi. In our room this was slow and sporadic – a source of irritation. I also kept taking the wrong exit from the warren of staircases. Guests are obviously expected to use the lifts, something I only do if encumbered with heavy luggage.

I was eager to explore the original building where those staying in certain suites are accommodated. The stairways here are impressive, as is the stained glass in some of the windows.

A fun little touch that Hastings Hotels offer is a bath duck to take away. Our smartly attired ducky has now joined the one we acquired when staying at The Europa several years ago.

Having known of The Culloden since I was a child as the epitome of luxury, it was worth staying to satisfy my curiosity. The coastal location with easy access to the city is as close to perfect as one could wish. The ambience is peaceful with an aura of grandeur. The cost will likely make it a once in a lifetime stay for us. For all that, if you have the means and opportunity, it is worth a visit.

Book Review: Trespasses


This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

There have been a growing number of fine books published recently where the story unfolds amidst a backdrop of Belfast’s Troubles. Adding to these, Trespasses stands out for its powerful and forensic dissection of just how pervasive the sides taken during this time were in ordinary residents’ everyday choices and experiences.

It focuses on Cushla Lavery, a twenty-four year old primary school teacher who embarks on an affair with Michael, an older, married man who knew her late father. Michael is a barrister, a Protestant whose wealthy peers accept his philandering.

The bones of the tale, then, are commonplace in fiction – unwise sexual liaisons that lead to difficulties and recriminations. Let me assure you, however, this is not a story akin to others read. The threads woven are tangled up with how the Belfast community in the 1970s was so bitterly divided. Church and state propounded hatred and condoned the violent treatment meted out as maybe illegal but likely deserved. Fear and guilt were sown at every turn to ensure compliance.

Other than a brief prologue and epilogue, the action takes place in 1975. Cushla, a Catholic, enters her family’s bar on Ash Wednesday with the ‘papish warpaint’ of the day visible on her forehead. Her brother, Eamonn, demands she remove it lest their customers are affronted. The bar may be Catholic owned but it serves many Protestants, including army personnel from a nearby barracks. Being located just outside the city, it has thus far avoided much of the violence inherent therein.

The bar has a television set and the author uses news broadcasts as a means of conveying how normalised daily beatings, murders and bombings were. At her school, Cushla is required to start the day by asking the children she teaches to share a recent news item, the headmaster claiming they should be aware of the world around them.

“Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now.”

Cushla lives with her alcoholic mother, Gina, and is tasked with caring for her through Gina’s increasingly regular benders. When she is invited into Michael’s world it is an escape. Here she can discuss music, art and literature. His friends’ political views may be at odds with hers but Michael himself is more tolerant and sympathetic.

“Everyone else takes a position. Like ‘those towers are full of Provos and they deserve all they get’. Or ‘they’re lucky to be getting a place to live for nothing’. You don’t do that.
It’s depressing that you find that remarkable, he said.”

When Cushla tries to help the family of one of her pupils, Davy, whose father has suffered a life changing beating, it draws the attention of her employer and the hate filled priest who has unfettered access to the school and its pupils – who Cushla struggles to protect. Davy’s Catholic family have been housed in a Protestant estate where they are subjected to daily abuse, and worse. The sectarian divides in housing, education and available labour offer reminders of how the Troubles were perpetuated.

Residents of the city were subjected to constant surveillance with police and army using their powers to attack and intimidate. There were tit for tat murders carried out by both sides’ sectarian organisations. The story brings to the fore how it wasn’t just the horrific violence that became commonplace but also the hatred and bigotry casually spouted by otherwise ‘reasonable’, educated people. Cushla’s kind acts are regarded as insolence, deserving of punishment for not toeing the line expected. Eamonn is furious at the risk she thereby poses, not just to herself but the wider family.

This depiction of the mess that was Belfast during the Troubles serves as the base on which the various strands of the story are built. The author skilfully weaves Cushla and Michael’s affair through the loom of how insular the community they lived within remained. Locals watch and condemn. Much is not spoken of in the hope it will be suppressed or cease if not acknowledged. Children are groomed to take sides and then action, by puppet masters guarding their power bases.

Any Cop?: For those of us who grew up in Belfast during this time period it is a reminder of how much twisted behaviour was passively accepted. The story is of the people depicted and how their lives were affected. A poignant and, at times, rage inducing love story written with mastery and depth.

Jackie Law

Book Review: these days

these days

“It was impossible not to think that this was a film set. This was photographs of some war zone somewhere. Of Franco’s Spain. The fires, the tramlines wrenched from the road and pointing up in helpless angles at the sky.”

these days, by Lucy Caldwell, tells the story of two sisters living through the horror of the Belfast Blitz. Audrey and Emma are the daughters of a respected doctor and his stay-at-home wife. Their life is one of conformity and privilege yet they are straining against the constraints this imposes – the choices they feel they must make.

Audrey has just turned twenty-one and works as a junior clerk at the tax office. She has been stepping out with Richard, a young doctor working with her father, for almost a year. She imagines they will get married but understands this would require her to give up the job she enjoys and is good at. Her colleague, Miss Bates, just a few years older but already an inspector, talks casually of attending interesting lectures and cultural events that Audrey would love to experience herself, something she cannot imagine happening. Her day to day existence has always followed a staidly predictable trajectory.

“it was somehow unreal, so exactly had she pictured it, so much did she feel like an actor going through the motions of her own life”

Emma is the younger sister and volunteers at a First Aid post where she has met Sylvia, a decade older and living independently. Emma’s mother is concerned that such work will not help her daughter meet a man considered suitable. Emma struggles to talk to anyone in her family about the frustration she feels at such expectations. With Sylvia she discovers a life where she feels fully alive and authentic.

“she felt an irrational lightness come over her, a giddy sense of possibility: I can do, now, I can be, anything that I want to”

The story opens in April 1941 with the first air raid of the Blitz. The family take cover inside the cupboard under the stairs, a reaction planned but not prepared for. When they emerge their world has been inexorably changed. Over the next two months, as the death and destruction increase exponentially, they will be affected in ways previously unimaginable.

The horror of each air attack is brilliantly evoked. The terror, noise, stench and damage wrought to people and place bring to life the fear and dissociation required to somehow cope in such a situation. The Blitz Spirit is portrayed through looting and men trying to take advantage of young women removed from their more normal protective environment. This seemed more realistic than the saccharine version too often conjured from nostalgia.

Belfast suffered terribly over four air attacks that spring. In between, the sisters must deal with more mundane considerations. Audrey longs for Richard to show more passion, whereas his desire is to protect her. Emma comes to realise that her feelings for Sylvia cannot be proclaimed publicly.

Secondary characters are given chapters that skilfully portray how Belfast was at this time. There are deep inequalities: the poor living in badly maintained, cramped accommodation; the wealthy holding parties in their spacious and luxurious properties, promoting causes they are drawn to but rarely affected by. A trip to Dublin offers a reminder of the impact of customs checks on the recently divided island. Audrey and Emma’s younger brother, Paul, reminds readers how the media glorified the horrific war through propaganda. Women make choices that will be frowned upon, that in a future these may become accepted. Such depictions add depth to the lives Audrey and Emma must deal with.

What comes through most strongly is how searingly affected even those who did not lose a home or loved one were by what they encountered walking familiar streets now bloodied and razed. Adults as well as officially evacuated children left the city, an exodus that was frowned upon by the authorities as causing issues with where they would end up staying. There may have been ‘a grim, stoical sort of endurance’ but there was a mental price to pay.

The final chapters move key characters forward although the timeline left me a tad confused about the choice Audrey made. Having reread these sections several times, I formed an interpretation of what happened, although not its full effect. This was the only slight bump in what remains an impressively told tale.

The author captures the essence of Belfast brilliantly, including how it was regarded by the English elites.

A novel of wartime that focuses on character development amidst a powerful evocation of time and place. An affecting yet piercing story, beautifully written and fully three dimensional.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber & Faber

Book Review: The Emperor of Ice-Cream


The Emperor of Ice-Cream was recommended to me by an author on Twitter whose book, Source, I very much enjoyed. Having heard Brian Moore mentioned by other authors I rate highly, receiving the recently released new edition of this book offered me a chance to find out what I made of his work. The tale being told is set in Belfast during the early years of the Second World War and culminates in the blitz that killed around 1000 people, hitting half the houses in the city and leaving 100,000 people homeless. My parents lived through this event, my father being of similar age at the time to the protagonist in the story.

Gavin Burke is seventeen years old and has just failed his Schools Leaving Certificate, much to the disgust of his solicitor father who had planned for Gavin to join his older brother at Queen’s University. Gavin is straining at the leash his family hold him by. He has lost faith in the god they worship yet fears he is being punished for his impure thoughts and actions, especially his sexual desires. Fond as he is of his girlfriend, Sally, her unwillingness to step outside the constraints of her religious upbringing cause frustration and a questioning of how suited they are.

While he prepares to sit the London Matric, an alternative and supposedly easier route to university, Gavin joins the Air Raid Precautions unit – a chance to earn some money and step beyond the bubble he has been raised within. His nationalist father is appalled that any son of his would be willing to don such a uniform. It is his view that Hitler offers a chance to defeat the British colonisers and return the North to a United Ireland. Gavin has little time for his father’s opinions, although he still struggles with ingrained shame at the route he has chosen.

“Gavin, watching him, decided that his father read the newspaper as other men played cards, shuffling through a page of stories until he found one which would confirm him in his prejudice.”

The ARP trains recruits in first aid, their role being to provide a first response to casualties of air raids and bear the stretchers that will take them to the local hospital. Gavin is assigned to a unit run by an unhinged and power hungry Post Officer. He quickly discovers that most of the men and women he will work with are misfits from a variety of walks in life. Nevertheless, he makes friends and joins them in outings to pubs and dance halls. He tries to hide his drinking from family and Sally – drunkenness being regarded by them with disgust. He longs to escape the confines of expectation but then dislikes how he acts when offered the chance to break out.

“The grown-up world was no different from school, it was a world where bullies came out best, where excuses satisfied no one, least of all one’s self”

There is humour within these pages, such as when the literature loving Gavin encounters a group of arty types and it is revealed they are homosexuals. Suddenly he is questioning his own prejudices. Like his view of Sally, he had considered himself tolerant and interesting until forced to make choices.

The ARP training comes to appear pointless as the war continues to be waged only on distant shores. Unsure of the direction he now wishes his life to take, Gavin struggles when his father states he is washing his hands of his failed son after another refusal to follow the line set out for him and go to work for a wealthy uncle. Neither Sally nor his father can understand why Gavin won’t conform to this future, especially when he can offer no acceptable alternative.

When the war finally arrives in Belfast, it shakes things up both physically and emotionally.

“Now, for the first time, his father would have to put his principles to the test. Would Hitler still be a great fellow, if Hitler bombed one’s house?”

I was fascinated by this historical setting and the attitudes portrayed. I had no idea people in Liverpool took to the streets in protest against the government continuing with the war after the terrible bombing they endured. I had no idea there were those who admired the fascists, who would do almost anything to see the British government and their pay lords stripped of power. We are taught only the glory and heroism of the victors, the ‘blitz spirit’, rather than the looting. In this story there are men pushing women and children off overloaded vehicles attempting to escape the city. There are men refusing to help casualties as their condition is too sickening to stomach. The heroes are not the brave but rather those who, in the moment, can distance themselves and recognise the personal benefits of being regarded heroic.

The writing skilfully captures the insularity of family life alongside the frustrations of children on the cusp of adulthood. Gavin wants to break away from the religious and political ideologies inculcated by the parents he no longer respects yet cannot help but care about what they think of him. His encounters with a wider variety of cultures proves thought-provoking – portrayed here with understated nuance.

I pondered if the prejudices portrayed, although obviously realistic for the time, could be written of so openly today without bite-back, especially the anti-Semitism. Gavin’s thinking and development around these issues are allowed to be irresolute as he experiences his own reactions in settings where, in his head, he would have acted admirably. His inflated disdain of others’ actions and intolerances is pricked by his disappointment in himself when tested.

His final test is both tense and evocative, his actions and reactions offering a powerful elucidation of how young men function in the moment. I sped through these pages, desperate to know what the outcome would be. The author takes the reader into the heart of the blitz with stunning clarity.

An engaging but never sanitised portrayal of the apathy and horror of the war years. It is also a story of family and community – how these can both stifle and anchor those seeking to spread their wings, only to find the sun can burn.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Turnpike Books.

Book Review: The Fire Starters

“This is a power worth believing in. I’m not at all sad for Ella Penney. I’m sad for her parents who do not understand what they’ve been given. Who may well miss the most glorious part of her.”

The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson, is a tale of two fathers struggling to gain control of events surrounding their offspring. Set in contemporary East Belfast during an unusually long, hot summer it perfectly captures the voice, quirks and insular concerns of the local community. There is a dash of magical realism that may be read as possibility or metaphor. It all adds depth to a tale of parental concerns for children, who insist on developing as individuals despite best efforts to mould them as approved.

Dr Jonathan Murray is a single parent caring for his newborn daughter, Sophie. Having been raised in the knowledge that his own parents had never planned to have a child, and then been left behind as a teenager when they emigrated to New Zealand, he has few pointers to good parenting other than practical knowledge gained from his profession.

Jonathan has little positive experience of any close relationship. The few friendships he formed whilst at university bore little resemblance to those depicted on American television. The time spent with Sophie’s mother has left him afraid of the power their child may unleash as she develops.

Forced to return to work in order to pay the bills, Jonathan hires a nanny. He takes what precautions he can to protect his child from outside influences but believes that, longer term, more drastic measures will be necessary to keep the rest of the world safe from Sophie.

Sammy Agnew has a violent and bloody past that he put behind him when he and his wife had their children. Two have now flown the nest but the eldest, Mark, still lives a nocturnal existence in the attic upstairs. When local politicians decide to limit the height of the loyalist community’s July bonfires – citing health and safety – there are calls for protest in the form of widespread arson attacks. Sammy fears that Mark may have inherited the anger he himself, at times, can barely suppress and become involved in events that could lead to tragedy.

Growing ever more despairing, Sammy seeks help from his doctor and thereby meets Jonathan. Dr Murray has also recently been consulted by the mother of a child born with wings but who cannot fly. Even in this small corner of the city he discovers there are numerous parents struggling to deal with children whose particular gifts, characteristics and behaviours cause them issues. They do not fit within what society is willing to accept. Despite this, Jonathan still regards Sophie as a special case. He advises Sammy to act for the wider good. The tension ratchets up as the reader realises how Jonathan plans to follow similar advice in dealing with Sophie.

The author has a knack for capturing the nuances of everyday conversation and activity. Jonathan’s interactions with the lady receptionists at his GP practice are a delight. His discomfort in any company is astutely portrayed. Sammy and his wife offer a picture of a long married couple who quietly coexist whilst longing for their past selves. Every character, major and minor, adds to the humour and pathos redolent of this still troubled city.

There have been a number of novels published recently offering windows into life in Belfast – the experience and legacy of The Troubles. Those that I have read focused on areas to the west of the city. The Fire Starters captures the idiosyncrasies of people living to the East – from the narrow inner city terraces to the more affluent Castlereagh Hills. The resentments and aspirations emanating from these streets are evoked with unstinting authenticity.

A delicious and layered tale written with a refreshing lightness that complements its originality and wit. Playful yet piercing, this was a joy to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: Sweet Home

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine.

Sweet Home is a collection of ten short stories that prove what powerful tales can be told in this condensed format. All are set in and around contemporary East Belfast. They feature ordinary people as their quiet disappointments and resentments bubble to the surface of their everyday lives. The author captures the quotidian with insight and poignancy along with each character’s yearning for what they perceive to be passing them by. There is a depth of understanding, a recognition that most hurts go unnoticed as individuals deal with their own demons and desires.

The collection opens with To All Their Dues which is told from three points of view. A young woman is trying to establish her new small business; a thug is demanding protection money but fears for the future of his nefarious income; his wife is trying to find a way to cope with her familial past. The way these three flawed lives are presented, with understanding but also clear sighted portrayal of limitations and worst behaviours, demonstrates the wit and skill with which the author writes.

Inakeen is an searingly honest depiction of a mother and son whose lives and aspirations are of little real interest to the other. The son visits his mother out of duty, not understanding how dull she finds his conversation. He does not notice her growing interest in her new neighbours, and how she feels let down by his inability to maintain relationships. While he is bitterly resentful that his former partner left him, his mother misses the younger woman’s company and that of her grandchild. She imagines the enjoyment her new neighbours – three women, one dressed in a burqa – have living together. Without knowing them, she longs to join in.

Observation looks at two families whose teenage daughters are best friends. Lauren is drawn to her mother’s new boyfriend. Cath is intrigued by a family setup so different from her own. Cath’s parents talk of Lauren’s mother in less than flattering terms. There is an undercurrent of denial in how much each character knows about what is going on, and in what is being said.

Locksmiths introduces a young woman raised by her grandmother after her mother was sent to prison. The grandmother is now dead and the mother due for release. The reader is offered views of each of these women through the others’ eyes. Little is flattering.

The titular story is a tale of two couples: a man who returns to Belfast with his English wife, both having established successful careers; the other couple younger and more ordinary, who are employed as gardener and cleaner. The latter pair have a child who becomes the focus of the returned man’s interest. None of these adults are content with their current situation and, to a degree, blame their partners.

Last Supper is set in a coffee shop run on a charitable basis. This skews the terms under which staff and customers operate. Daily tasks are carried out but the success of the enterprise is compromised by limitations imposed by the benefactors. The manager does his best to deal fairly with unrealistic expectations built on crumbling foundations.

Arab States: Mind and Narrative features a middle aged woman who allows her lingering regret at a choice made while at university to distort her current reasoning. She imagines that an old acquaintance, who has written a book, will still be interested in her. She wishes to bask in his reflected success. She tries to remake herself as the intelligent conversationalist she thinks he regarded her as back in the day. She is blind to her current self, which is all others see.

Lady and Dog tells the story of a teacher whose life changed when, as a teenager, her lover was killed. As she approaches retirement she becomes obsessed by a young man who teaches sport to her pupils. The denouement is horrific in ways that made me question why certain deaths shock more than others.

77 Pop Facts You Didn’t Know About Gil Courtney is a list, as described in the title, telling the life story of an almost famous musician. The structure is fun, clever but with a depth of sadness. Growing up on the Cregagh estate, Gil’s father would have preferred his son to take the expected factory job at Mackies. Gil’s exceptional musical abilities as a child were nurtured but these did not lead to long term happiness. The rock and roll lifestyle requires financial resources, the accumulation of which requires business acumen. It is interesting to reflect on the cost of fame and benefits of accepting a more ordinary life.

The Soul has no skin is a shattering tale of a young boy whose life is irreparably denuded by an act of kindness. Barry lives an austere and often lonely life, choosing to eschew ambition and exist below society’s radar. He has experience of being noticed and the scars this created run deep.

No mere summary of these plots can do justice to what is special about the writing. The author gets under the skin of what it means to live in a world striving to offer something better than that which an individual already has. This desire for better, rather than taking pleasure in the here and now, leads to restlessness and a blaming of others. Yet the tales are poignant rather than depressing, understanding more than recriminating. The use of language and fragile intensity make them alluring and satisfying to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Stinging Fly Press.

Book Review: Dark Chapter

Dark Chapter, by Winnie M Li, is the story of a rape. Told from the points of view of both the victim and the perpetrator, the subject matter has been informed by an assault the author suffered which changed the course of her life. The narrative is detailed, stark and harrowing. The portrayal of a sordid lifestyle within the Irish Traveller community withering.

Vivian Tan is a Taiwanese-American living in London. A Harvard graduate, she works for a film production company in the city. Her work is demanding but enables her to live in a flat share overlooking the river. She enjoys socialising with her many friends; travelling both for business and pleasure. Often she will take the opportunity of visiting a new country to hike alone and discover quiet places where she may admire natural vistas. She enjoys the challenge and feeling of accomplishment that comes from being independent.

On a trip to Belfast Vivian sets out on a hike from the west of the city towards Cave Hill. A young Irish Traveller, Jonny, spots her on the trail and decides he will have sex with her. His rough upbringing, where domestic assault was routine and casual theft expected, has led him to consider good looking girls fair game. He boasts to his friends of his conquests, feeling no shame that his victims were forced, often violently, to accept attentions that satisfy the cravings he feeds with pornography, first offered to him at a young age.

The timeline jumps back and forth between the protagonists’ childhoods, the attack, and the aftermath. The writing is precise and measured with no shirking from graphic detail. Jonny is shown to be incapable of understanding how his victims are feeling. Vivian is shattered by her experience and by the painful process of seeking what passes for justice when she refuses to quietly shoulder her ordeal.

This is a powerful account of a crime that is too often maligned and misunderstood. For this alone it could be regarded as an important work. In deriving empathy for the unremitting and ongoing horror it can also, in places, overwhelm. The bitter undercurrent and raw pain, although understandable, are challenging to read.


My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Legend Press.


Dark Chapter has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.

Book Review: Postcard Stories

Postcard Stories, by Jan Carson (with illustrations by Benjamin Phillips), is a collection of fifty-two short stories, one for each week of a year. They were originally written on the back of postcards and then mailed individually to the author’s friends. Set in or around contemporary Belfast they capture the attitudes and vernacular of their subjects with wit and precision. As with Carson’s previous work, there is at times an injection of magical realism which beautifully offsets the dry humour of her candid observations.

To tell a story as short as these the prose must throughout remain pithy. The author presents the quirks and poignancy of little moments in everyday life with warmth and affection. These small snapshots of the ordinary become extraordinary when painted with her words.

The stories in which elderly people feature offer a wry yet sympathetic account of life from their perspectives. All the characters are recognisable, their foibles presented with gentle perceptiveness.

From Ulster Hall Belfast (Week 34), where the narrator is mourning her increasing forgetfulness:

“There was not even a way to say that I had forgotten these things; only a jumble of words too long or too short for the job and a clenching of fists when the words would not come.”

From Armagh (Week 8)

“A provincial Northern Irish library, early evening, and the usual suspects have gathered for a creative writing workshop: two amateur poets, a sci-fi guy in a black t-shirt, a lady who writes letters to her sister in Australia, and that one elderly gentleman who’s working on a biography of someone you’ve never heard of.”

Writers feature as many of the stories appear personal.

From Whiteabbey (Week 9), which tells of a gathering of friends:

“Three writers and a much more useful person gathered for a dinner party. They ate aubergines and couscous impregnated with tequila. Like Jesus, they kept the good wine for pudding. Later, they ended their evening with Bob Dylan and cheese so ripe it might have been shoes.”

From Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 29), where the author talks of making a robot of herself:

“The robot of me will not be funny or write stories or be good at conversation with wine. I will be particularly careful to ensure the robot is a dull dinner party guest for fear that my friends might begin to prefer its company over mine.”

One of my favourite tales in the collection was Albertbridge Road, Belfast (Week 27). It starts:

“The Tall Ships arrived in Belfast yesterday. They were not as tall as we’d been led to believe. We thought you might be able to see them from space or, at the very least, Cave Hill.”

Another I particularly enjoyed was Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 50) where the narrator ponders bible stories and the characters who do not feature:

“which made me think of the shepherd who went off for a quick wee at exactly the wrong angelic moment, and all the people who, upon hearing there was only one portion of loaves and fish to split between so many, went home to fix their own sandwiches”

Both of these feature a last line so perfect I had to stop to savour the effect before rereading from the beginning. The length of each story allows for this. In many ways they are akin to poetry.

There are tales that play with word meanings: a consideration of happiness prompted by a sign in a coffee shop; a museum as a place to take the old things that remind the narrator of events they would prefer to forget. There are stories which deal with meetings and misunderstandings, arrivals and departures, loneliness and the throwaway comments that lodge in memory, endlessly chewed over yet remaining difficult to swallow.

The collection is ideal for dipping into. It is an attractively presented, slim volume with illustrative sketches for a number of the tales. Perfect for slipping into a bag or a pocket, this is a sagacious and entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Emma Press.