The perfect stocking fillers
Published 02/12/2012 | 06:00
Maeve Binchy's passing last July was mourned by everyone who had been beguiled by her books, her journalism and the warmth of her personality. And so it was no surprise when her posthumously published final novel became an instant bestseller.
There was notable fiction from other Irish writers too, not least three arresting collections of stories – Kevin Barry's Dark Lies the Island (Cape), Joseph O'Connor's Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker) and Emma Donoghue's Astray (Picador). And on the international scene, the peerless Alice Munro produced what's rumoured to be her last story collection, Dear Life.
Other much-talked-about fiction included new novels by Anne Tyler (The Beginner's Goodbye), Richard Ford (Canada), John Lanchester (Capital) and Zadie Smith (NW). And then there were:
THE CASUAL VACANCY JK Rowling (Little, Brown)
Children play key roles in Rowling's first adult novel, but they inhabit a world of drugs, sex and violence that would have horrified Harry Potter and his wizardly chums.
Middle-class smugness, provincialism and intolerance are the main targets in a well-paced blockbuster that tells a good story and has fun skewering most of its characters.
BRING UP THE BODIES
Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)
If you're partial to intelligent and well-researched historical novels and thought Wolf Hall an eminently worthy Man Booker winner, Mantel got the prize again for this follow-up to her Cromwellian saga. Fans will be eagerly awaiting the third in the trilogy.
THE TESTAMENT OF MARY
Colm Tóibín (Viking)
A short but intense imagining of what the mother of God was thinking and feeling when her earthly son was hounded, crucified and resurrected.
The author persuasively depicts a fallible, put-upon, sometimes angry woman who for two millennia has been consistantly portrayed as a passive icon of female purity.
Gillian Flynn (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
One of the year's finest thrillers, this concerns a thirty-something wife who suddenly vanishes from the rural backwater in which she and her husband had settled following the collapse of their Manhattan lifestyle.
The story of the marriage and disappearance is told by each spouse in alternate chapters and becomes increasingly unsettling, though the book is darkly funny, too, in its dissection of the war between men and women.
A WEEK IN WINTER
Maeve Binchy (Orion)
The swan song of Ireland's most loved novelist. The setting is a West of Ireland hotel in which a variety of people seek a resolution to their separate problems.
The device is not new but the author brings to each character her customary humanity, so you can't help caring how their lives turn out.
ONE HUNDRED NAMES
Cecelia Ahern (HarperCollins)
Ahern has a fondness for mysteries that must be unravelled, and here disgraced young journalist Kitty sets about making sense of a list of names left by her late mentor, Constance.
There are intriguing parallels to contemporary Irish controversies but these aren't allowed to darken the author's usual benign view of life and relationships.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
EL James offers sado-masochism and sexual enslavement as the key to fulfilment in the year's publishing phenomenon.
Maybe your granny or maiden aunt hasn't read it yet, or maybe they'll just shrug and say: been there, done that.
John Banville (Viking)
Youthful love for an older woman in the small-town Ireland of a vanished age leads this Man Booker winner to reflect on desire, transience and memory.
Exquisitely written, which was to be expected, but entirely accessible, too, which isn't always a given with this writer, and very moving.
An impressive first novel by an American who lived in Dublin for some years and who, in A Preparation for Death, had written a raucous account of his time here. The Apartment follows the attempts of an Iraq vet to find accommodation in an unnamed European city and to come to terms with his past life.
The wintry city is brilliantly evoked, along with the narrator's sense of alienation from most of the people he encounters, even from the young local woman who accompanies him on his quest.
Irene Nemirovsky (Chatto)
Nemirovsky's first novel, written when she was just 21, is an astonishingly mature account of a doomed adulterous affair.
Published in France in the 1920s and only now translated into English, it deserves to be ranked alongside all the other fine novels by this great writer.
Ian McEwan (Cape)
For most of its length, this account of a young woman's adventures in the British secret service of the 1970s reads like Le Carre-lite, but with McEwan nothing is ever quite as it seems and towards the end the reader is asked to re-examine what's gone before.
Real-life friends and acquaintances of the author have walk-on parts, which you may find fascinating.
Martin Amis (Cape)
Featured as a brilliant young turk in McEwan's novel, Amis is here in his contemporary curmudgeonly self, attempting a what's-wrong-with-England analysis from the comfortable distance of his New York exile.
Some of the satirical setpieces in this broad-stroke chronicle of a lottery-winning lout have a crude energy.