Thursday 17 August 2017

Irish writers give their top book picks from 2016

Neven Maguire, his wife Amelda and children Connor and Lucia
Neven Maguire, his wife Amelda and children Connor and Lucia

From heavy tomes to one-sentence masterpieces, 24 leading Irish authors tell John Spain their favourite reads of the last 12 months

JOHN BANVILLE

Conor O'Callaghan's fiction debut, Nothing on Earth (Doubleday Ireland), is true to its title: there is surely nothing on earth quite like it. The world it portrays, at once eerie and ordinary, is nicely summed up in that post-2008 term, the 'ghost estate'. A beautiful and troubling novel.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet) is not beautiful - how could it be? - but it certainly troubles. It is the story of a black slave-woman's break for freedom before the Civil War, and her adventures as she makes her way northwards. Terrifying but thrilling, this is certainly a book for our times.

More accommodating is Travels with Henry James, introduced by Michael Anesko (Avalon). James was one of the great travel writers, sharp-eyed, urbane and witty. This handsomely produced little book is pure delight.

John Banville's Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir is published by Hachette Books Ireland

CATHY KELLY

Red Notice by Bill Browder (Corgi) is a non-fiction book that will put you off travelling to Russia for a long time. Browder was a US citizen who ran one of the biggest hedge funds in Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. All was great until the heart-stopping day in 2005 he was halted at Moscow airport and just managed to get out. His lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was not so lucky - he was beaten to death in a Moscow prison. This story of the theft of $230m of taxes is a salutary tale to anyone who thinks they can take on the Russian establishment and win.

Before The Fall by Noah Hawley (Hodder & Stoughton) is the tale of a struggling artist who somehow manages to hitch a ride on a TV magnate's private plane one Sunday evening and the plane goes down, leaving only the artist, and the magnate's four-year-old son, as survivors. Both a literary examination of popular culture and a thriller, this book will simply rivet you to your seat 'til you finish it.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Baker (Scribe) - originally called The Taliban Shuffle - this book was rereleased in 2016 under this name when Tina Fey made a film based loosely on this true journalistic account of a US TV reporter who knew nothing about war getting sent to Kabul to cover the Afghanistan war. It's hard to call a war book hilarious, but actually, it is thanks to Baker's sense of humour. In between bombs and people she loves being killed/kidnapped/sent home, there are madcap trips to see warlords and an attorney general who finds her hot. Read this and then see the film.

Cathy Kelly's latest novel is Secrets of a Happy Marriage (Orion)

JOSEPH O'CONNOR

Donal Ryan's wonderful novel All We Shall Know (Doubleday) impressed and moved me in equal measure. It's a stunning piece of work, utterly truthful and emotionally powerful, and the portrayal of the narrator's elderly father is so affecting that it sometimes had me in tears. Donal's control of the rhythms of his prose is just a joy to experience: the book bursts from short, punchy phrasings that draw the reader in, to these magnificent long sentences that are so risky and hard to do, but his wizardry makes them succeed.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't nominate a book in which my own work features, but Looking at the Stars, edited by Kerrie O'Brien and Alice Kinsella, an anthology put together to raise money for the Dublin Simon Rough Sleepers Team, is a fascinating collection of contemporary Irish writing by established and emerging authors, all for a good cause. Fine pieces of writing by, among others, Colin Barrett, Sinead Gleeson, Theo Dorgan and Sarah Bannan make it a most enjoyable read. It's published by the Munster Literature Centre and available online and in Dubray Books.

Tim Carey's Dublin Since 1922 (Hachette) is a hugely enjoyable book about the nation's capital, told through a series of key moments in its history, ranging from, say, the War of Independence to the first appearance of the Boomtown Rats on The Late Late Show. It's a gorgeous production, with many photographs I hadn't seen before, one of those books people will want to dip into again and again. It would make a lovely Christmas present for anyone interested in Dublin.

Joseph O'Connor is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. In 2017, a Spanish translation of his novel Star of the Sea will become the first Irish novel since Joyce's Ulysses to be published in Cuba

PATRICIA SCANLAN

One of my favourite authors, Ciara Geraghty's cracker of a novel, This is Now (Hodder), was the prefect read under a palm tree, listening to the shushing of the sea. I devoured this book in a day-and-a-half. You're immediately drawn into the lives of Martha and Cillian, Tobias, Rosa and Roman who make you guffaw on one page, and cry on the next. She keeps you turning the pages, often anxiously, as your concern for the characters increases and you hope that all will end well, if not happily. Her twists and turns are terrific. The characters are utterly realistic and skilfully portrayed. They come alive and linger long after you've finished the book. I couldn't recommend This is Now highly enough.

Another book I eagerly awaited was Deirdre Purcell's The Husband (Hachette), and as always with this writer, it is a plot-driven novel that has a lot going on. I love her sense of time and place that draws in the reader and makes them feel they are wandering through the parks and lakeside beaches of Chicago, or riding the L to bustling downtown. Her depiction of her protagonist, Marian, as the dependable put-upon carer, will resonate with many who are looking after elderly parents. Her portrayal of a dull, pleasant and uneventful marriage is superbly contrasted with the coup de foudre Marian experiences when the charismatic Daniel Lynch enters her life, accompanied by a slew of Irish relatives that give even more depth to the rich tapestry that is this most enjoyable novel.

The first book of renowned author, journalist and playwright Patrice Chaplin's that I read was her memoir, The Portal, an esoteric journey of awakening and initiation in the Cabalistic tradition. She travels to Catalan Girona and finds the 'Frenchwoman's Garden', and a link to Rennes-le Château, and other hidden secrets that leads her to explore ancient sites in Catalunya, Spain and southern France. It was fascinating, engrossing and very thought-provoking and she is a truly gifted writer. Her fiction is equally as riveting, grips you from the first page, and as The New York Times says of her latest novel, Mr Lazarus (CreateSpace), it is written with "a surging intensity that keeps the reader glued to the page". She's a real find for me - perfect for anyone interested in metaphysics.

Patricia Scanlan's A Gift For You (Simon & Schuster) is now out in paperback

JOHN BOYNE

Graham Swift's novella Mothering Sunday (Scribner) was an understated gem, a sensual and romantic story of secret love with a cruel twist in the tale. I read it in a single sitting, swept along by Swift's lyrical use of language, his attention to period detail and the elements of class struggle that pervade the text.

Rachel Cusk is engaged in an ongoing project about displacement and artistic identity. The first novel in the sequence - Outline - was published a couple of years ago and followed a woman as she travelled to Greece to teach a writing class. The sequence continued in this year's Transit (Jonathan Cape), where the same woman has returned to London to navigate a difficult path between builders, ex-loves, needy children and temperamental neighbours. Transit, like its predecessor, is a hypnotic novel with a cipher for a narrator. Cusk is extraordinary and I look forward to the next volume.

Probably my favourite book of the year, however, was a debut: Garth Greenwell's What Belongs To You (Picador), the story of a young gay English teacher in Bulgaria that blends his torturous relationship with a rent-boy with a traumatic father-son past. In dense, emotional prose, Greenwell creates a fascinating, isolated character tormented by his past, struggling with his present and uncertain of his future.

And - if I may - honourable mentions go to Paul MM Cooper's River of Ink, Edmund White's Our Young Man (both Bloomsbury), Rose Tremain's The Gustav Sonata (Chatto & Windus) and Barney Norris' Five Rivers Met on a Wooden Plain (Black Swan), all of which made my reading year a little more interesting.

John Boyne's 10th novel, The Heart's Invisible Furies (Hogarth), will be published in February.

JOHN BOWMAN

When Charles Moore's Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography; Vol 2 (Penguin) appeared in 2015, I was myself completing a book and only read the Irish chapter. But such was the quality of that insiderish account of how she was coaxed to sign her 1985 Agreement with Garret FitzGerald that at the first opportunity I read the rest of Moore's fascinating and meticulously detailed study. It is a tour de force and amply justifies his decision to revert to a three-volume framework.

Of the torrent of books which flourished at Easter, I enjoyed Tomás Irish's Trinity in War and Revolution: 1912-1923 (Royal Irish Academy) for its original research and outstanding use of photographs and illustrations.

This accolade would also be deserved for Michael Dervan's The Invisible Art: A Century of Music in Ireland, 1916-2016 (New Island and RTÉ) which tells another untold story, that of Irish composers - many of them too long neglected - in the century since 1916.

John Bowman's latest book is Ireland: The Autobiography (Penguin)

SHEILA O'FLANAGAN

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (Sceptre). Inspired in part by his grandfather's WW2 experiences, particularly in Malta, Cleave's book follows a group of English people during the war and explores its impact on the relationships between them. The book focuses on personal stories within the greater disaster of war and is a timely reminder of the effect that conflict has on combatants, their families and those who become refugees.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (Hodder & Stoughton). Ostensibly a thriller about the crash of a private jet, Hawley's book is really an exploration of the media's ability to shape a story and its desire to make and break heroes. Each person on the plane had a possible motive to sabotage it, but how the media finds and manipulates the information on them, and influences public opinion, is almost as chilling as the reason that the plane was brought down.

Set in Georgian London, the acutely-observed The Butcher's Hook by Janet Ellis (Two Roads) follows the rebellious elder daughter of an up-and-coming family who doesn't want to marry the putative good match chosen by her parents, but embarks on a dysfunctional relationship with a butcher's apprentice. Not at all a love story, it's a psychological drama about misinterpreted feelings and the dark, bloody side of human nature.

Sheila O'Flanagan's latest novel, The Missing Wife is published by Headline Books.

COLUM McCANN

Somehow Glenn Patterson always gets it right. Gull (Head of Zeus), his ninth novel, is my favourite of his - Glenn understands that the devil is in the details. The history of the DeLorean car - and, of course, DeLorean himself - is an insight into the psyche of a whole culture and time. Patterson writes with charm and grace and yet always maintains a raw tension underneath.

Every time a Sebastian Barry book comes out I go down to my favourite bookshop and stock up, simply because I know that it will be a gift that I will give to others. Days Without End (Faber & Faber), set against the American Indian and Civil Wars, is a gift of style and language.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain's epic novel Cré na Cille (Yale University Press) finds voice in an equally epic translation by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson. A book to be cherished for centuries.

And, of course, Donal Ryan's new book All We Shall Know (Doubleday) which I haven't read yet, but I know I can recommend because, well, it's Donal Ryan. It is, in fact, my Christmas present to myself.

Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer (Random House) will be published in April 2017

DEIRDRE PURCELL

I have always felt that Graham Norton used his quick-witted, sometimes giddy, public persona to conceal a deeply intelligent, thoughtful character and with his debut novel, Holding (Hodder & Stoughton), a murder mystery set around the finding of human bones in a small village in rural Ireland, he proves this theory. He is a born storyteller, a fluent writer with a keen ear for plausible dialogue and like all actors, is an acute observer of human behaviour. His three main characters in Holding, including the hapless local sergeant into whose lap the murder investigation falls, are satisfyingly present with all their human frailties, as is his page-turning depiction of what happens in a place like Dooneen when a small, closely-knit population is faced with unexpected drama.

John Banville's Time Pieces (Hachette) - illustrated with evocative photography by Paul Joyce - is cunningly presented as a memoir of the writer's adopted city of Dublin but is, in fact, a remembrance of young, unrequited love and of his own developing personality as an author. The book starts with memories of the mid-fifties, specifically the annual December 8 pilgrimage, taken by train along with his mother from Wexford to the pre-Christmas shopping Valhalla of the capital. His turn-by-turn description of the journey is riveting. As a 10-year-old he seems to remember how "oddly placed" was the church of St Andrew beside the train station on Westland Row, "rammed as though by a celestial pile-driver into the middle of a terrace of unassuming and resolutely secular 18th century houses"; this is merely a precursor to the vivid, rich prose that follows throughout this gentle, enjoyable and absorbing read.

And then there's Conclave (Hutchinson), Robert Harris's latest journey in his studies of how power corrupts. This time he is writing about the Vatican of the near future, where the world's cardinals, powerful men with differing, frequently covert, agendas, have gathered to elect a new pope. The fulcrum of the story occurs when into this august gathering arrives a cardinal unknown to any of the others because he has been created by the deceased pope in pectore (from his heart and thereby secret, a privilege, writes Harris, not unknown but seldom employed). Seasoned Vatican-watchers will have fun deciphering which man resembles which real-life figure; the rest of us will simply settle down to a great, intriguing story - and as always with Harris, we will learn a lot about the history, politics and ethics of an institution.

Deirdre Purcell's latest novel, The Husband (Hachette), is out now

ROB DOYLE

Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT by Graham St John (Evolver Editions) concerns a psychedelic drug, the effects of which are so astonishing and bizarre that many not-obviously insane people have claimed it facilitates transport to other dimensions or contact with alien entities. There are 600 pages and none of them is less than interesting. The author charts the drug's appeal to such countercultural icons as William Burroughs and Terence McKenna, its influence on electronic music, and much, much more.

The Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-volume autobiographical epic My Struggle has been tedious in places, but book five, Some Rain Must Fall (Vintage), translated this year, is wholly engrossing. In breath-catching detail it recounts the author's many humiliations, occasional triumphs, and eventual catastrophes as an aspiring writer in his twenties and early thirties. Knausgaard's originality is in his brazen refusal to hide behind literary sleight of hand. Few writers have been this honest.

Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails (Chatto & Windus) is a marvellous group biography of the philosophers loosely associated with the existentialism movement, including Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. Complex philosophical ideas are limpidly examined amid gripping, juicy accounts of the thinkers' remarkable lives, and evocations of mid-century Paris.

Rob Doyle's second book, This is the Ritual, was published this year by Bloomsbury and the Lilliput Press

SINEAD MORIARTY

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Viking) is a little gem of a book. It's about everything and nothing. Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother from whom she has been estranged comes to visit. Lucy tries to find a sort of peace or at least understanding of the family she left behind. Strout's writing is captivating and the character of Lucy Barton, who at first seems so ordinary, turns out to be quite extraordinary.

I loved Maria Semple's previous novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, and Today Will Be Different (W&N) is just as good. It's wacky, hilarious and worth reading just for the brilliantly quirky relationship between Eleanor and her son Timby. The book takes place over one crazy day in the life of Eleanor Flood. Semple's razor sharp observations about art and life, and how we all live so close to the edge, had me laughing out loud in parts.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (Vintage) is an old book (first published in 1929), but I read it this year and it's one of the best books about war that I've read. It's incredibly evocative and moving and vividly places you in the trenches with the young German soldier Paul Bäumer and his company of classmates who all volunteer for the army together. Based on Remarque's time as an infantryman, it's an honest, gritty, pull-no-punches look at the horrors of war.

Sinead Moriarty's latest novel, The Way We Were (Penguin), is out in paperback

DERMOT BOLGER

This year I greatly admired Neil Jordan's The Drowned Detective (Bloomsbury) which starts out as a conventional detective novel, but soon we find ourselves sifting through an emotional landscape that borders life and death, politics and the supernatural. Jordan creates a mysteriously intriguing world in a deft novel that - as befits a subverted genre - seems to get resolved on the last page while its complexities linger perturbing in the reader's imagination.

It is always nice to welcome a new writer and Oisin Fagan showed that he is a serious, sharp, dark and original new voice in Irish fiction, with his debut collection of stories, Hostages (New Island) in which the story 'Costellos' was a true tour-de-force.

It is also lovely when a writer whose stories you have read with pleasure for years finally collects them in an overdue debut, and I was very taken with Helena Mulkerns' Ferenji (Doire Press) where she mines her experiences as someone working in remote, dangerous regions with the United Nations to create short fictions which are finely written and astutely observed, in terms of the human heart and of the physical terrain they skilfully traverse."

Dermot Bolger's new novel is The Lonely Sea and the Sky (New Island)

MARY O'ROURKE

I bought All Through The Night - Night Poems and Lullabies, edited by Marie Heaney (Poetry Ireland), in late summer and I have returned to it again and again. I picked out the most beautiful, evocative poems imaginable, love poems, night poems, lullabies, but the one I have chosen as my very favourite is 'We'll Go No More A-roving' by Lord Byron.

We'll go no more a-roving

So late into the night

Though the heart be still as loving

And the moon be still as bright

Mind the three big loves of my life in these short four lines. My lovely husband Enda now almost 16 years dead. My wonderful nephew, Brian Lenihan, passed away five years, and my lovely sister-in-law, Ann Lenihan, dead just two months ago. To the three of you, we'll go no more a-roving either in the fields of love, of politics or of companionship, but I'll always remember, and love, the three of you.

Forgotten Patriot - Douglas Hyde and the Foundation of the Irish Presidency by Dr Brian Murphy (Collins Press) is a different book of new verifiable facts of the whole life of Dr Hyde and how it all came about. Most importantly, it is written in a racy, readable style and I have reckoned it to be a book of high adventure, how the whole life of Dr Hyde played out, and of all the myriad mini adventures which underline his presidency and what made it so successful in the history of Ireland. A really good read.

I have read Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) in the last month and it is beautifully and elegantly written. A really good adventure story of the American civil war, the Indian reservations in the US, of two young men, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms John Cole, and their adventures as they work through the history and geography of the US in the early days of the 1850s. This was a book I couldn't put down once I started it and I read it from beginning to end in one sitting and four pots of tea. Readers, was it worth it? Yes it was.

Letters of My Life by Mary O'Rourke, published by Gill Books, is out now

SEBASTIAN BARRY

This year saw Kerrie O'Brien's genuinely beautiful collection of radiant poems, Illuminate (Salmon). Like Keats, she has hit the ground running. The lack of bitterness, the embrace in the collection of the gift of life, is surely something new. She works in a sort of separate realm of her own.

As does Donal Ryan, whose books can't really be compared to other books. They are astoundingly his own, and never more so than in his new novel, All We Shall Know (Doubleday). The prose goes beyond itself in a unique way.

This year I also caught up with the great English writer Rupert Thomson's new novel in paperback Katherine Carlyle (Corsair). This is so good you wonder there isn't a statue to him somewhere.

Sebastian Barry's new novel Days Without End (Faber & Faber) was published in October

MARTINA DEVLIN

Some thought-provoking books about 1916 and all that have been published this year, both fiction and non-fiction. Women Writing War edited by Tina O'Toole, Gillian McIntosh and Muireann O'Cinnéide (University College Dublin Press)is one of my favourites.

It is a collection of essays, mostly by academics, who take us from the Ladies' Land League to the Easter Rising via the Boer and Great wars. Often, accounts of their involvement in historic events are given in the women's own (modest) words. Contributors include Lia Mills, author of Fallen.

Joyce Country: Galway and James Joyce by Ray Burke (Currach Press). Clearly, I'm a pushover for essays, and this accessible collection is ideal when you're in the mood for some Joycean information. It traces the many Galway threads in James Joyce's writing - for example, Nora Barnacle's girlhood in Galway is woven through his acclaimed short story The Dead. Joyce was observant about Galway during visits there and described the Claddagh area as "a cluster of hovels, but nonetheless a kingdom". Less accurate were his claims about a warm welcome in Galway for shipwrecked Spanish Armada sailors.

The Real Liddy James by Anne-Marie Casey (Hodder and Stoughton). Books with a strong female protagonist always appeal to me and the Liddy James of the title is a high-powered New York lawyer who appears to have it all - although other women, including her ex-husband's new partner, pick up the slack for her. Liddy isn't entirely likeable, but she's never less than compelling in this elegantly written slice of escapism peppered with literary references.

Martina Devlin's latest novel is About Sisterland published by Ward River Press

DONAL RYAN

In a time when more and more writers use the space they're given in newspapers to sneer and score points and denigrate the efforts of others, Billy Keane is a bright light. He uses his column to lift people, to bring warmth and fun and hope to his readers' lives, even in the saddest of times. The Best of Billy Keane (Ballpoint Press) is like a bunch of letters from an old friend, reminding me of what's really important in life. It's joined Ulysses on my nightstand: both books offer riches on any opened page. No household should be without a copy.

I was entranced by A Last Loving: Collected Poems by Maeve Kelly (Arlen House) and Playing The Octopus (Carcanet), the sublime new collection from Mary O'Malley. They've joined Martin Dyar's Maiden Names (Syracuse University Press) and Colm Keegan's Don't Go There (Salmon Poetry) in my bring-everywhere book pile.

Donal Ryan's novel All We Shall Know (Doubleday) is out now

KATHLEEN WATKINS

My book of the year is The Diary of Mary Travers (Somerville Press) by Eibhear Walshe, Professor of English at Cork University. This historical novel is the story of a young woman who had an affair with Oscar Wilde's father. The writing is beautiful. It gets you on the first page. The good news is that Eibhear has another book in the pipeline, set in Dublin around the time of Handel and the Messiah. I can't wait.

The Trout by Peter Cunningham (Sandstone Press) is a well-crafted psychological thriller - a mesmerising read. It is the story of a man whose life is turned upside down by childhood secrets. It's my first Peter Cunningham read - I'll be back for more.

Two volumes of her autobiography are combined in a new publication of Theodora FitzGibbon's book A Taste of Love (Gill & Macmillan). What a woman! She lived life to the full in Paris and London in the 1930s. She had interesting friends too, among them Picasso, Dali, Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon. Her later life was spent in Ireland. We all remember her recipes in the paper on Saturdays. She was our Delia Smith back then. This is another great read for over the Christmas holidays.

Pigín of Howth by Kathleen Watkins (Gill), with illustrations by Margaret Anne Suggs, is out now

PETER CUNNINGHAM

The Lonely Sea And Sky by Dermot Bolger (New Island). Bolger's father grew up in Wexford during WW2, and became a merchant seaman at the height of that conflict. When Jack Roche, a 14-year-old deckhand from Wexford talks his way on to the tiny M V Kerlogue, bound for neutral Lisbon, we are in the hands of a master storyteller. In this absorbing novel, youthful courage confronts U-boats, mines and other sources of sudden death, whilst learning to navigate sexual desire and budding love.

East West Street - On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). In 1939, crimes against humanity did not exist as a legal concept; the word 'genocide' had yet to be coined. During the Nuremburg trials, Nazi defendants, such as Göring and Hans Frank, argued that the rights of the state legally superseded those of the individual. Philippe Sands' powerful narrative follows the careers of the two Jewish lawyers, exiled from their homeland, who changed the mindset of international legal opinion.

A Single Headstrong Heart by Kevin Myers (The Lilliput Press). Fans of the well-known columnist will relish this candid account of his childhood in Leicester. In a page-turning, at times hilarious, at times deeply moving memoir, Myers must rank as one of the most forthright chroniclers of the agonies of the adolescent male. Admitted to UCD after his failure to get into an English university, this son of Irish exiles eventually found home.

The Trout (Sandstone Press), Peter Cunningham's most recent novel, has been shortlisted for France's Prix Escapades-Vernon

LISA McINERNEY

In a grim year, I've found myself drawn to grim books. Han Kang's novel Human Acts (Portobell), about the Gwangju student uprising in 1980, is an undeniably brutal experience, but it does what all great novels should: tell in a beautiful way a blistering truth.

No less brutal is Anuk Arudpragasam's debut, The Story Of A Brief Marriage (Granta), in which two young people during the Sri Lankan civil war are brought together, both resigned to the knowing that they will not live much longer. This is an astonishing novel, written in intense and rhythmical prose, shocking and numbing in turn.

Dark in a much more delicious way is The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes (John Murray), a book that's almost indecently imaginative, being an apocalyptic story told through the experiences of Jack the Ripper, William Blake, John Milton, and a computer programmer tackling the millennium bug. I must admit to a conflict of interest - Hughes and I share an editor - but this triumphant novel deserves its place on any Best of 2016 list.

Lisa McInerney's novel The Glorious Heresies (John Murray) won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction this year

TANA FRENCH

Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty (Head of Zeus) begins with Patrick, the protagonist, terminally ill and being visited in hospital by his mother, sister and brother-in-law; through a series of flashbacks, we come to understand the intricate, charged web of relationships between them all. It's a haunting, beautifully written book about relationships, secrets, and the myriad ways in which the past resonates through the present.

In Girl Unknown by Karen Perry (Penguin), David Connolly is a university professor and a contented family man - until one of his students walks into his office and tells him he's her father. Whether this is true or not, she's a lot more dangerous than she seems, and soon all his family are under threat from her manipulation. Karen Perry is a team of two authors who write intense psychological thrillers that explore emotional danger with relentless, surgical accuracy, and this may be their best yet.

In The Second Girl by David Swinson (Mulholland), Frank Marr is a retired DC detective-turned-private investigator. He's also a coke addict who uses his skills to rob stash houses. That's what he's doing when he stumbles across a teenage girl chained up in a bathroom - and gets dragged into the race to find a second kidnapped girl before it's too late. This is a fast-paced, compulsive read, with one of the most vivid narrators I've come across in a long time.

The Trespasser by Tana French (Hodder & Stoughton) was chosen as Crime Fiction Book of the Year at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards last month

COLM TÓIBÍN

Hisham Matar's The Return (Viking)is the riveting and fascinating story of a son in search of his father who was kidnapped from Cairo by Gadaffi and held for many years in a Libyan jail. It has elements of a thriller, but it also has the complexity and ironic suggestiveness of a great novel.

I also enjoyed two short prose books by Irish poets - Paula Meehan's Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in Them (UCD Press), four eloquent meditations on the power of poetry and the force of the imagination, and Vona Groarke's Four Sides Full (Gallery), an autobiographical essay, filled with insight and honesty and sharp intelligence.

The novel I liked best was Don DeLillo's Zero K (Picador) for its sombre tones, its perfect cadences and its rich storyline.

Colm Tóibín's next novel, House of Names (Viking), will be published in May

BELINDA McKEON

I know I won't be alone in this round-up in praising Mike McCormack's Solar Bones (Tramp Press), and there's a reason for that - it's a superb, memorable, brave and strikingly original novel. Forget what you've read about it consisting of just one sentence; in truly great writing, form matches purpose so perfectly that the reader barely notices what's being done in structural terms, and just notices the impact, the power. Among many things, Solar Bones is a meditation on power, on the way that the social violence of national and local politics can crush ordinary lives. It's also, very beautifully, about ordinary life. It's the rural novel for Ireland in the 21st century - and much more. McCormack deserves all the accolades he's receiving for it.

I also admired Pamela Erens' novel Eleven Hours (Atlantic), a short and visceral novel about a woman in labour. The body is too little written about; the realities of pain and of being embodied are too often skirted over or communicated in clichés. Erens' careful, honest, and always compelling narrative changes that. To describe it as a novel "about a woman in labour" may lose it readers, maybe, but if a novel about a man sitting at a table in Mayo can be magnificent, so too can a novel about a woman lying on a hospital gurney. Brilliant books bring us into moments we can't shake.

This summer, I read a thriller for the first time in years (I've tended to be a bit snobby about thrillers, and I don't see what the point of that was): Before The Fall by Noah Hawley (Hodder & Stoughton). It's about a plane crash off the coast of Nantucket, and it's so well-written and well-observed that I couldn't be parted from it until it was done. Little did I know that, within months, newspaper headlines would begin to look like chapters from a bad thriller - but that's another story.

Belinda McKeon's novel Tender (Picador) is now available in paperback

LIZ NUGENT

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Viking) was the most subtle of tales about the relationship between a mother and daughter. The story was almost hidden in what was not said.

I picked up Donal Ryan's All We Shall Know (Doubleday Ireland) on a day when I was struggling with my own writing. His book is so beautifully written and so full of compassion and humanity that I wanted to set fire to my laptop and never write again.

I am currently in the middle of Sebastian Barry's Days Without End (Faber) and I already know it's in my top three for the year. In the most brutal of landscapes, the central lovers he describes are so guileless and charming despite their baby-killing ways, that I am rooting for a good outcome for them, while knowing in my heart of hearts that this is most unlikely.

Liz Nugent is the author of Unravelling Oliver and her latest crime novel Lying in Wait (Penguin Ireland)

NEVEN MAGUIRE

For me it has to be cook books. I get inspiration from them. I am fortunate to be able to buy lots of cook books and this year the three that stood out for me are:

Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir (Bloomsbury) is possibly the most beautiful book I have ever bought. I love this man's passion and find his food an inspiration.

Paul Bocuse's Institut Paul Bocuse Gastronomique (Hamlyn). One of the most famous chefs in the world, this book is excellent for getting the basics right.

Monica Galetti's The Skills (Quadrille). I love the way she showcases the preparation of good quality raw ingredients and how she makes food look fabulous."

Neven Maguire's Complete Family Cookbook is published by Gill Books and is out now, priced at €29.99

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