Sunday 20 August 2017

Maeve Binchy and Ryan Tubridy. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Maeve Binchy and Ryan Tubridy. Photo: Gerry Mooney

I also thought it would be full of violence and that would frighten me, and that it would have abusive sex scenes, which would puzzle and confuse me.

But a very trusty friend told me that it had none of these things. Instead, it was the world seen by a five-year-old who had never left this room, and his relationship with a marvellous mother who taught him about a world he might never see. I loved it and felt I was there in the room with the child and his mother, half hoping they would be freed and half hoping they would stay there because it was so intense and somehow, in a mad way, safe. I won't tell you what happens, but if you are afraid of it, don't be -- it's wonderful.

I also loved Ryan Tubridy's book JFK in Ireland: Four Days That Changed the Nation (HarperCollins), for a strange reason. When Kennedy arrived in Dublin, I wasn't here to see it all. The day before he arrived I had set out for Israel and the airport was all covered with flags and bunting to welcome him. Months later, when I came back full of my tales of the Negev desert and all the adventures I had, nobody wanted to hear. They were all talking about Kennedy and where they were standing when he drove through and who he smiled at and what he said. It did change people, and you felt a loser if, like me, you hadn't been there. This book makes you feel that in a small way we were all part of it.

Maeve Binchy's latest novel is Minding Frankie

Emily O'Reilly

Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) was remarkable for a number of reasons. It details, through diary entries, the 33-year relationship between the historian/biographer Antonia Fraser (daughter of Lord Longford) and the celebrated "left-wing" playwright Harold Pinter.

Yet despite the presumed candour and completeness of diaried thoughts and events, there is much that is missing. Fraser had six, still very young, children by her then first husband Hugh Fraser when she met Pinter. Within a matter of months, the two lovers had abandoned their respective spouses and would shortly marry.

Yet the practical and emotional consequences of that familial sundering are barely alluded to by Fraser, although her detractors have been quick to fill in the messy, unromantic gaps.

Fraser's reticence may well be out of consideration for the privacy of others, but it also speaks of a passion for her lover where only they could breathe and others barely existed.

Her landscaping of the glittery, upper middle-class, arts and political world they inhabited is more rounded. Here the diary entries are claggy with famous names -- intimates of the Pinter Frasers -- from Daniel Ortega to Vaclav Havel, princes and presidents, nobel prize winners, Hollywood actors ... No global luvvie strolled through London without Harold and Antonia in tow.

Still, only the most obdurate of hearts could fail to melt at the opening that lent the book its name. The end of a dinner party, Antonia preparing to leave, pausing only to say goodnight to the playwright that she barely knew. Must you go, asked Pinter . . .

Emily O'Reilly is Ombudsman and Information Commissioner

Antony Beevor

Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands (Bodley Head) is the most important work of history for years. Snyder shows what really took place between 1930 and 1945 in the Baltic states, Belarus, Poland and Ukraine. From the Stalinist famines to the death marches of 1945 and the mass ethnic cleansing, these borderlands were the focus of both Stalin's and Hitler's ideological obsessions.

Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire (Allen Lane) is a marvellous epic account of the American Civil War -- with an emphasis on British involvement.

Antony Beevor's most recent book is D-Day -- The Battle for Normandy

Cathy Kelly

This year I loved At Sea by Laurie Graham (Quercus Publishing), a comic genius who made me roar laughing last year with a tale about a Bulgarian quartet of grannies touring the UK under the wing of a wildly neurotic, Xanax-popping music executive.

At Sea, another gem, tells the tale of the sweet Lady Enid, who joins her temperamental husband, Professor Bernard Finch, on a Mediterranean cruise where he is paid to bring guests touring Greek ruins, a task he detests.

But when a loud American gentleman insists that the highly-educated, upper-class Englishman Bernard is really his old pal Wally, Enid finds herself... well, at sea. Utterly joyous.

Reissued this year from 1970 is From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbour by Jerry Della Femina. Billed as the cult classic that inspired Mad Men, these are wild, wry tales from advertising's coal face, with martinis and office 'who's hot and who's not?' competitions thrown in for fun. The title comes from an ironic post-WW2 meeting about how to advertise the latest Japanese television set.

Armistead Maupin has revisited the world of Anna Madrigal and friends in Mary Ann in Autumn, a gentle ramble through the streets of San Francisco where dogs rule and kindness runs through every page. I'm a huge fan.

Finally, if you want to replace Stieg Larsson, then get The Snowman by Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian crime writer. His hero, Harry Hole, is the classic heavy-drinking, over-loaded-with-personal-issues detective but he gets to mooch around the streets of Oslo looking for a serial killer who abducts women after building a snowman every time. Captivating and almost makes snow seem fun.

Cathy Kelly's latest novel is called Homecoming

Diarmaid Ferriter

Thomas Bartlett's Ireland: A History (Cambridge University Press) is an ambitious and sweeping new history of Ireland from the fifth century to the present day that bristles with irreverence and assertiveness.

There are particular challenges in writing such lengthy overviews of the history of any country. How do you strike a balance between political, social, cultural and economic history? How do you structure a narrative incorporating so much?

One thing is clear; in tackling such dilemmas, a good style of writing is crucial and Bartlett's ability to draw the reader in through a mixture of informality and authoritativeness is one of the strengths of this book.

"May I begin in the year AD 431?" he asks at the outset, to reassure the readers they have not opened an abstract thesis.

He then takes the reader on a journey that lasts until 2010, over the course of 600 pages.

Commendably even-handed, confident without being overbearing, this book reveals a historian at ease with himself and firmly in command.

High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg (Allen Lane). This absorbing biography by bestselling British historian Niall Ferguson is greatly enhanced by the use of the rich and varied collection of private correspondence (more than 10,000 hitherto unavailable letters) of Siegmund Warburg.

A refugee from Hitler's Germany, and a scion of one of the great German-Jewish banking dynasties, Warburg became one of the most dominant and influential bankers in post-war London through his own firm, SG Warburg, which became one of the masterminds of the takeover bid.

A complex, opinionated, ambitious workaholic with a mercurial temperament, Warburg was in the habit of recording his observations of all that crossed his path and, because of the tumultuous period he lived through and his engagement with the issues of his time, his life story is fascinating.

There is another factor that propels Ferguson's narrative; he is explicit in his repeated assertions that because of Warburg's business methods and strict ethical code he stands apart from the venal speculators and traders who have wreaked financial havoc in recent times.

His career and his personality, though not without their failures and disappointments, now read like an antidote to the obnoxious "expansion euphoria" devoid of ethics promoted by the early 21st century financiers, a development Warburg had warned so fervently against.

Brian Hanley, The IRA: A Documentary History 1916-2005 (Gill and Macmillan).

One of the most welcome developments in the writing of books on modern Irish history over the last decade has been the determination of authors to bring the reader directly to the archival sources and present them in a colourful and accessible way.

It's a process that has been greatly facilitated by developments in the quality of reproduction, incorporating high resolution scanning and skillful design.

With this handsome book by Brian Hanley, the history of the IRA has now been subjected to this treatment, and the result is thoroughly satisfying, enlightening and visually impressive. Included are a great range of posters, photographs, pamphlets, propaganda leaflets and typed documents, many of which have never been published before and were highly confidential at the time they were written.

The emphasis is very much on the documents, but the narrative is accessible and informative. Hanley is a balanced, objective scholar with no axe to grind.

Diarmaid Ferriter's most recent book is Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland (Profile)

Joseph O'Connor

Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails, compiled and edited by Philip O Ceallaigh (Stinging Fly), is a really wonderful anthology of new short stories. The collection is refreshing in that it mixes the work of Irish authors, both new and established, with stories by writers from other parts of the world. Anyone who loves the short story will be thrilled by this courageous, highly original and pleasure-filled book.

Seamus Heaney's Human Chain (Faber) is so hopeful and in love with life. I was moved almost to tears by some of the poems it contains, and then the extraordinary sequence of translations of medieval poems about plants is quietly stunning and redemptive in how it keeps faith with the world's everyday glories and unnoticed joys.

Another beautiful book of poetry came my way this year: An Afterglow: A Gallery of Connemara Poems was published by Ballynahinch Castle with Peter Fallon of the Gallery Press and it's a collection of writings inspired by that stark and lovely place in the west of Ireland. There's superb work by Richard Murphy, Michael Hartnett, Paul Muldoon and many others, and the illustrations are spellbinding.

The collection also contains the most beautiful single poem I read this year -- Synge Dying by Derek Mahon.

My book of the year is Patti Smith's Just Kids, a memoir of her life in 1970s downtown Manhattan. I love the East Village of New York, the most enthralling and endlessly changing neighbourhood of that fascinating city, and I have loved Patti Smith's music since I first heard it 30 years ago; but this memoir will appeal to anyone who has ever been touched by music, and to anyone who was ever young, poor and in love.

It's a masterpiece of storytelling from one of the last truly uncompromised artists in rock music.

Joseph O'Connor's novel Ghost Light has been chosen as Dublin's One City One Book novel for 2011

Mary Kenny

Alone in Berlin by Hans Faluda (Penguin Modern Classics) is a stunning book, and an important one, which has gradually gained a word-of-mouth following, rather than being promoted by book prizes or slick marketing.

It was first published, in German, in 1947, the same year that the author died, and was published in English translation in 2009, and republished again last year.

It is a plainly told tale about a stolidly brave ordinary man, Otto Quangel, who embarks on an anti-Nazi postcard campaign in Berlin at the height of the Third Reich's power. The Gestapo are soon on the case, and the story develops a thriller-like quality, doomed and yet breath-catching. I put it down thinking that courage is surely the most vital of cardinal virtues.

I much enjoyed Piers Paul Read's The Misogynist (Bloomsbury), which is a well-observed tale of oldie courtship and its perils. Older people embarking on dating may have less to lose -- maybe their dignity, of course -- but they also carry a heck of a lot more baggage.

The descriptions of taking Viagra are hilarious and yet strangely sad -- the forethought and precision with which the timing of conjugality has to be planned is rather a long way from love's sweet rapture. The souring of life post-divorce -- particularly where the ex-husband feels he's been taken to the cleaners financially -- is piquantly invoked.

I was bemused that when I met Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall at the Irish Embassy in London in November, she mentioned the novel as her winter bedside reading.

Fiction can often tell a real story better than fact. Peter Cunningham's Capital Sins (New Island), set in 2006, is a clever and significant insight into the sheer nastiness of the Celtic Tiger movers and shakers, when they were masters of their own universes.

Colm Toibin's The Empty Family includes a short story, The Pearl Fishers, illuminating the many ambiguities that can attend recalled memories of child sexual abuse; it reveals how close religion and sex can be -- especially in the emotional intensity of adolescence.

Finally, I was much entertained by John Waters' Feckers -- 50 People who Fecked Up Ireland (Constable). It is a diverting read, often unexpected and paradoxical. He gives Maud Gonne both barrels, and Terry Keane's life emerges as a comedy of errors. But then, isn't everyone's?

Mary Kenny's latest book is Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate Between Ireland and the British Monarchy

Colm Toibin

Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor (Harvill Secker) tells the story of the love affair between the playwright John Millington Synge and the actress Molly Allgood. It displays an astonishing command of voice, using tones that are both tender and powerfully emotional, with brilliant command of the period.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Hamish Hamilton) is by one of the great contemporary American stylists, someone in possession of a glittering mind and a way of dealing with experience which is original and sharp.

I also enjoyed Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes (Chatto) for the quality of the writing and the evocation of a Europe that was destroyed.

Philip Larkin's Letters to Monica (Faber) are a hoot and make clear that Larkin was not only a good poet but a great big sour softie.

Colm Toibin's latest book is his collection of stories The Empty Family

Antonia Fraser

The non-fiction book I enjoyed most this year was Philip Ziegler's biography of Edward Heath (HarperPress). It may come as a surprise to find that the life of this prime minister is exciting. Heath's chronological position, between the colourful figures of Wilson and Thatcher, has diverted us from what an extraordinary political life he had.

As for fiction, no year that includes two thrillers by Lee Child -- 61 Hours (Bantam) is better than Worth Dying For (Bantam) -- can be anything but blessed. Jack Reacher is another loner like Heath, but he has a more dramatic love life.

Antonia Fraser's latest book is Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter



Jilly Cooper

One of the loveliest sounds of the year was the tumultuous cheer that rang out when the 15-times champion jump jockey, AP McCoy, at last won the Grand National. In McCoy (Racing Post) that peerless racing correspondent, Brough Scott, pays tribute to AP's incredible career.

The other lovely sound this year was the laughter, at the British Book Awards, that greeted Paul O'Grady's spiel when he presented the Popular Fiction Award. Paul is that precious thing: as funny on the page as on the stage. The second volume of his autobiography, The Devil Rides Out (Bantam), is even funnier and more touching than the million-selling first volume. It follows Paul's riotous life from dizzy teenager to even dizzier drag queen. I defy anyone not to enjoy this book.

Jilly Cooper's latest novel is Jump!



John Boland

Jonathan Franzen's much-anticipated Freedom, his first novel since The Corrections in 2001, was that rare thing -- a long book that you didn't want to end. This saga of the Berglund family coming to grips with their own demons and with the America of the last 40 years was psychologically acute, socially shrewd, often extremely funny and genuinely poignant, too -- the old-fashioned, character-driven novel at its finest.

William Ryan's The Holy Thief (Pan Books) was a first novel written with all the narrative assurance of someone who'd been perfecting his art for years. A thriller set amid the paranoia of 1930s Moscow, it was persuasive in all its local and historical details, told its tense story with style and aplomb and had an engagingly troubled hero.

Philip Larkin's Letters to Monica, edited by Anthony Thwaite, provided both a revelatory insight into a 40-year relationship and a valuable rebuttal to those who had maligned this great poet's reputation with charges of misogyny. The tender chat and confidences of these letters proved otherwise, while also disclosing Larkin's personal and artistic insecurities and the enthusiasms and dislikes he shared with his long-time lover and friend.

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell (Vintage) had the title of a self-help book and in a sense that's what it was as it explored the life and work of Michel de Montaigne, whose cherishable essays asked all the big questions and came up with answers so wise and incorrigibly human that he seems to be speaking to us today rather than from a distance of over 400 years. How did he know so much about us?

John Boland reviews Fiction for the Irish Independent

Esther Freud

I was entranced and moved by Maggie O'Farrell's The Hand That First Held Mine (Headline), a novel that proves yet again what a brilliant storyteller she is.

Louise Doughty's Whatever You Love (Faber), about a woman reeling from the death of her daughter, is a masterful, structurally perfect thriller.

Helen Simpson's elegant short stories In-Flight Entertainment (Cape) cleverly bring home their serious message; and Polly Samson's Perfect Lives (Virago) is a life-enhancing treat of a book, stories too, but strung together cleverly into a novel.

I also loved Tim Parks's searingly honest memoir, Teach Us to Sit Still (Harvill Secker), about his prostate problems, which, unlikely as it sounds, was funny and inspiring.

Esther Freud's next novel Lucky Break will be published in April. She is the author of the autobiographical novel Hideous Kinky, which was filmed starring Kate Winslet



Sebastian Faulks

I enjoyed Michael Lewis's The Big Short (Allen Lane) on the sub-prime mortgage crisis in America. It's slightly technical, but he's such a funny writer and so good and clear at explaining how finance works.

Sebastian Faulks's latest novel is A Week in December

Amanda Foreman

I loved Ed Moloney's Voices from the Grave (Faber), which consists of his interviews with the IRA mastermind Brendan 'The Dark' Hughes, and the UVF bomber David Ervine.

Because both men were dying when they recorded their testimonies, Moloney's account does more to reveal the sordid truth of the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland than any other book in print. But most important, Hughes makes a persuasive claim about Jean McConville, the Belfast mother of 10 who was kidnapped and murdered on the orders of the IRA.

Voices from the Grave opens up the possibility of justice for one of the greatest crimes ever committed by any side during the Troubles.

Amanda Foreman's latest book is A World on Fire, about the American Civil War

Allison Pearson

I stayed up all night to finish What to Look for in Winter (Cape), Candia McWilliam's extraordinary account of how a beautiful, feted novelist became a "fat ghost", an alcoholic slaking her addiction with cleaning fluid. Just when it seemed Fate had done its worst, McWilliam lost her eyesight.

There is a horrible amount of misery lit out there; most of it misery without the redeeming power of lit. This book is the opposite. The blind author does not wallow in her suffering; rather she uses her formidable word armoury to vanquish the dark.

Anyone suffering Downton Abbey withdrawal symptoms (who isn't?) will find an instant tonic in Daisy Goodwin's My Last Duchess (Headline). The story of Cora Cash, an American heiress in the 1890s who bags an English duke, this is a deliciously evocative first novel that lingers in the mind. Henry James with belles on.

Allison Pearson's latest novel is I Think I Love You

John Bruton

Foremost among the books I enjoyed this year was David McCullagh's The Reluctant Taoiseach (Gill & Macmillan), a masterly biography of John A Costello. Costello had two parallel careers, one as politician and the other as a barrister. In 1948 he won the trust of a very diverse coalition of parties and pioneered inter-party government in Ireland, something that flows healthily from our good proportional representation electoral system.

I read Inside the Kingdom by Robert Lacey (Arrow Books) in preparation for a recent visit to Saudi Arabia. It shows how the religious fundamentalist trend in that country is a consequence of compromises made by the monarchy to get support to overcome the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. The current king is easing this somewhat.

I was intrigued by the title of Power, Where is it? by Donald J Savoie (McGill-Queen's University Press). He shows that media-generated popular distrust of elected politicians has led to a lot of power in modern societies being hived off to expert bodies of all kinds, which are far less accountable to the people than politicians are. This artificial diffusion of power has not improved democracy at all.

John Bruton is a former Taoiseach

Niamh Greene

A couple of books really stood out for me this year. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (Hamish Hamilton) was recently named as one of Time Magazine's Top 10 novels of 2010 and deservedly so -- poignant and powerful, it's a must read.

One Day by David Nicholls (Hodder) was another excellent story -- the premise alone was so intriguing.

In the midst of all the doom and gloom, I was inexorably drawn to feel-good fiction. Maeve Binchy's Minding Frankie (Orion) was, as always, a delightful tale from the Queen of Fiction and Ross O'Carroll Kelly was as hilarious as ever in the Oh My God Delusion (Penguin).

For the children, I bought John Boyne's Noah Barleywater Runs Away (David Fickling Books) -- but I ended up thoroughly enjoying it too!

Niamh Greene's latest book, Rules for a Perfect Life, is out now in paperback

Sinead Moriarty

Having spent last Christmas curled up by the fire reading the Stieg Larsson trilogy while the house literally fell down around me, I looked forward to a good year in books in 2010, and it was.

This year I read Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, which I loved. It's funny, irreverent and very moving. Skippy is such an endearing character, you will warm to him instantly -- although I was shocked that he died in the opening scene during the doughnut eating race! The book then rewinds and we learn about all the trials and tribulations that led to this fateful day. Murray draws tortured teenage boys very well. This boarding school comi-tragedy is well worth a read.

I also read Adam's Pirate Treasure by Benji Bennett (Adams Printing Press) to my boys (6 and 4). They absolutely loved this beautifully illustrated pirate story. It takes them on a whirlwind of adventures that all children will love. Even my two-year-old loves it because the pictures are so colourful. I have just finished Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and I am pleased to say I enjoyed it as much as his previous novel, The Corrections. I find Franzen hilariously funny. His characters are so flawed, so difficult to like and yet you can see yourself and people you know in all of them. He is particularly skilled at drawing female characters.

Among other themes, the book describes the disintegration of a modern American marriage, honing in on the disappointments, unfulfilled dreams and eventual compromises of middle age. A cracking read.

Sinead Moriarty's latest novel, Pieces of my Heart, is out in paperback on January 6

Peter Mandelson

High Financier: the Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg by Niall Ferguson. Politicians often struggle to do detail. It's easier to deal in vision and the long-term view. The world of finance is the reverse. But in the case of the iconic German/British banker Siegmund Warburg, the two came together.

Ferguson's account of Warburg's life not only reveals a prophet of European unification and, later, globalisation, but a banker from a more responsible (and civilised) era. Having learnt from the excesses and chaos of the 1930s, Warburg created a model which set the standard which others followed and which we now have to rediscover.

Peter Mandelson's memoir The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour was published in 2010



Myles McWeeney

This year has seen some outstanding novels from many of the masters of the thriller genre. One of the best is Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre (Viking), which sees a glittering young couple on holiday in Antigua: Oxford English professor Perry Makepiece and Jane Perkins, a successful young barrister, become involved in a dangerous effort to arrange the defection of a Russian banking oligarch and his family to Britain. Tautly plotted and richly peopled with fascinating characters, this is Le Carre's best in years.

Nobody is more lyrical than James Lee Burke at describing the steamy bayous of Louisiana and their dangerous inhabitants, animal and human, and The Glass Rainbow (Orion) sees New Iberia detective Dave Robicheaux and his outrageously reckless and violent private detective buddy Clete Purcell on the trail of a serial killer who has murdered seven young women. Their investigations trigger a deadly threat to Robicheaux's daughter Alafair, and a cataclysmic and enigmatic final confrontation between good and evil.

On the home front, one of the outstanding achievements of the year is Faithful Place (Hodder & Stoughton), Tana French's third thriller, an atmospheric and literate investigation by undercover garda officer Frank Mackey into the disappearance of his girlfriend 20 years before. The mystery changed his life utterly, and now he must return and face the demons of his childhood and youth in Dublin's Liberties. Utterly engrossing.

Myles McWeeney reviews Thrillers in the Irish Independent

Neil McCormick

I was halfway through Jonathan Franzen's much-lauded Freedom before it really got a grip on me, and it took his imaginary rocker Richard Katz to perk my interest.

It is difficult to pull off rock stars in fiction but the contradictions of Katz, paralysed between idealism and hedonism, arrogance and self-loathing, balanced with a cocktail of womanising and drugs, are completely seductive.

I was amused by Franzen's description of Keith Richards looking like "a wolf dressed up in a grandmother's bonnet". Now here is a rock star too far-fetched for a work of fiction, as his highly entertaining autobiography Life (Weidenfeld) demonstrates. As anyone who has met him knows, Richards is poetically eloquent and observant, and the book, written with James Fox, captures his true voice.

Neil McCormick is the author of I Was Bono's Doppelganger

John Bannville

Since our future seems to be heading back to the past at a rate of light-years, it might be salutary for us all to read Tom Garvin’s News from a New Republic: Ireland in the 1950s (Gill & Macmillan), a chilling and yet oddly bracing survey of another dark time in our island history. The book is sharp, elegant and witty, and will put the fear of God into a generation that grew up in the Celtic Tiger years.

Not least of the pleasures is a sheaf of 1950s cartoons, including one of Lemass as a frock-coated tailor fitting out an Irish Everyman from a rack of hair shirts . . . Plus ça change.

In the mordantly titled Maggot (Faber), Paul Muldoon is at his brilliant best. These poems are intricate and affecting, and far more entertaining than poetry has any right to be.

Writing as Benjamin Black, John Banville’s latest novel is Elegy for April

Simon Schama

The Israeli writer David Grossman’s novel To the End of the Land (Cape) has some first-rate writing about the craziness of modern war; but it is also a book about the Jewish family that manages to embody Palestinian suffering while not being sentimental about Israeli Arabs.

The opening can be a bit difficult to read, but I would urge everyone to stick with it. It is unsettling, moving and profound and it’s been splendidly translated from the Hebrew.

I also rather loved Stephen J Pyne’s history of the Voyager space journey, Voyager (Viking).

Simon Schama’s latest book is Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Ice Cream, Obama, Churchill and My Mother

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