If you’re still searching for the best books to read or gift this Christmas, then look no further. Eleven of our top writers choose their favourite titles of the year.
Not the least of our losses in this plague year was one of our greatest poets, Derek Mahon. Washing Up (Gallery Press) is a glorious late harvest - vigorous, funny, angry, blithe - beautifully produced, like all Gallery editions, and including, appropriately, a lovely tribute to another luminary of the dead poets' society, Ciaran Carson. Mahon's last is vividly alive. Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters, edited by Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten (Thames & Hudson) is a judicious selection from the magnificent six-volume Complete Letters of 2009. Had he not been a painter, Van Gogh could have made his name as a writer, as his correspondence shows. Impassioned, often heartbreaking, furious, funny and tender, these letters form a unique testament from a pivotal figure in 19th-century art. For my third choice, I am going to flout the rules by picking a book to be published in January 2021: Billy O'Callaghan's Life Sentences (Cape) is a superb and moving novel of family life in Cork spanning a large part of the 20th century. O'Callaghan is one of our finest writers, in the tradition of John McGahern and Brian Friel, and this is his best work yet.
John Banville's latest novel, Snow, is published by Faber
Among my standout reads this year was The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey (Atlantic) which is set in Cape Cod in the summer of 1950. Dwyer Hickey weaves a compelling story around the friendship that develops between artists Josephine and Edward Hopper, and Michael, a young boy who has suffered much grief and trauma. I loved this novel for its depth of feeling, the way it delicately excavates the inner lives of its complex, flawed and always fascinating characters.
Another novel that wowed me was The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes (Oneworld). This darkly comic and tragic family drama is set in rural Ireland and plays out against a backdrop of the devastation left in the wake of the economic crash. Hughes's writing is truly inventive, with the richness of poetry. She brings rural Ireland to the page in a way that is fresh, sharp, and original. I read a lot of short stories and thoroughly enjoyed Almost the Same Blue by John O'Donnell (Doire Press), a riveting collection, full of humanity. These entertaining stories take place across a range of settings, all of them skilfully drawn by O'Donnell, whose attention to language is evident throughout.
Danielle McLaughlin is the author of the short story collection, Dinosaurs on Other Planets. Her debut novel, The Art of Falling, will be published in February 2021
Emma Donoghue's The Pull of the Stars (Pan MacMillan) is beyond timely. In a Dublin maternity hospital in 1918 during the Spanish Flu, nurse Julia Power tends the expectant mothers struck down with the virus. Donoghue paints the trauma of loss and survival effortlessly as Julia battles with a disease that doesn't care who it takes, adding in delicious moments of love, bravery and hope.
In Rage (Simon & Schuster), Bob Woodward gives us his second book about Donald Trump's presidency. In Fear, we learned how Trump believed fear was a legitimate way to rule. In Rage, we witness how Trump's appointees coped with their erratic and often out-of-control president right up to and during Covid. This is a balanced -Trump gives 17 on-the-record interviews - and accessible search for the often complicated and elusive truth.
What is most engaging about Jenny Offill's Weather (Granta) is the voice of her wonderful main character Lizzie Benson. Lizzie's panic and scramble to cope with a world out of control, politically, environmentally and socially, is very touching, not to mention understandable. Lizzie's own personal life hasn't been that great either. Lizzie is funny and human and deeply, deeply loveable. You simply want to reach out and hug her.
Anne Griffin's second novel, Listening Still, will be published in April 2021 by Hachette
Among the books I read during this year's first lockdown, The Narrow Land, by Christine Dwyer Hickey, stood out. Creative turmoil marks the lives of two visual artists in Cape Cod in the 1950s. Edward Hopper is admired and successful, but his volatile wife is not and this failure makes her irrational and obsessed. Hickey's ability to involve us in how visual artists approach their work is superb. For my birthday, I was given the wonderful The Ratline by Philippe Sands (W&N). SS Brigadefuhrer Otto Von Wachter, Hitler's governor of Galicia, presided over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles, including the family of the author's grandfather. In 1945, Wachter disappeared. This is the riveting narrative of Sands's journey to find him. In the second lockdown, I greatly enjoyed Laura Cassidy's Walk of Fame by Alan McMonagle (Picador). The inner worlds of young people are sustained by their dreams, but often with little connection to reality. In this engaging story, Laura Cassidy has always believed she will be a famous movie star, and for her hilarious riff on Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy alone, she deserves to be one. Freedom is a Land I Cannot See by Peter Cunningham is published by Sandstone Press
I want to feel something when I read, and Claire Allan's psychological thrillers never disappoint. The Liar's Daughter (Avon) left me feeling disgust and contempt for one of the main characters, while at the same time, compelled to keep turning the pages. A psychological thriller about secrets and lies within a blended family, it is full of suspense and kept me guessing right to the end.
I want to care about the characters in a book, and Grown Ups by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph) drew me into the world of the Casey family from the get-go. I was curious about this big, complex clan from page one. I needed to know more about their relationships, their secrets, their lives. Grown Ups is a huge book and I devoured and savoured every page, wanting to be left alone to keep reading.
In The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life (Rider Books) via short, easy-to-read chapters, with quick guides at the end of each, therapist and Holocaust survivor Edith Eger deals with some of life's common psychological challenges.
Included are grief, shame, resentment and anxiety. Her writing is a mix of personal and professional and the blend works well. This is a book for an insightful reflection on some of life's difficult emotions.
Niamh Fitzpatrick is a psychologist and the author of Tell me the Truth about Loss (Gill Books)
The death of writer Eugene McCabe this year sent me back to his 1992 novel, Death and Nightingales (Vintage). Set in the tough, rural domain of Co Fermanagh in 1883, it chronicles the story of Beth Winters, whose destiny is scuppered by decades of pain and betrayal. This outstanding novel by a master craftsman was a joy to encounter again. Christine Dwyer Hickey's recent novel, The Narrow Land, set in Cape Cod in the summer of 1950, portrays the marriage of Edward Hopper, the painter, and his wife Jo, but also the life of an orphaned German boy. This astutely balanced novel delicately champions love as the most powerful antidote to loneliness and was one of my favourite reads.
New poetry collections that inspired me included Kerry Hardie's Where Now Begins (Bloodaxe) for its fragility and courage, Mary O'Donnell's integrity of purpose in Massacre of the Birds (Salmon poetry) and the distinctive poetic vision of Paula Meehan's As If By Magic: Selected Poems (Dedalus Press). I also found Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's Collected Poems (Gallery Press) containing poetry from more than 50 years ago as well as new, previously unpublished poems, to be a singular book.
Enda Wyley's recent poetry collection is The Painter on His Bike (Dedalus) and she co-hosts a podcast, Books for Breakfast. http://booksforbreakfast.buzzsprout.com
Professor Luke O'Neill
The three books I enjoyed the most this year were Shadowplay, Catching the Worm and A Quiet Tide. Shadowplay (Vintage) is Joseph O'Connor's fictional account of Dracula author Bram Stoker's life in London when he was actor Henry Irvine's manager and ran the Lyceum Theatre. O'Connor has Bram going on night walks into the darker parts of the city, where Jack the Ripper roamed. The most memorable scene, though, is when Oscar Wilde comes to the theatre. He is ribbed by Irvine: "We exported our language to you primitives." "Indeed you did, darling," says Oscar. "Now we can say 'starvation' in English."
Catching the Worm (Royal Irish Academy) is the autobiography of Ireland's only Nobel Prize winner in Medicine or Physiology. Co-written with Claire O'Connell, it describes William Campbell's childhood in Donegal, his time in Trinity College Dublin and then his work in America, where he discovered a drug to treat parasitic infections, which would go on to prevent river blindness, saving the sight of millions of children.
A Quiet Tide (New Island Books) is a fictional account of the life and work of Irish botanist Ellen Hutchins, who was the first to describe many species of seaweeds and lichens native to Bantry Bay. Marianne Lee does a remarkable job at conveying what life was like for this 'meek and sickly' young woman in the early 1800s, whose family life restricted her, but who made a huge contribution to plant and environmental sciences.
Professor Luke O'Neill wrote the Irish Book award-winning Never Mind the B#ll*cks, Here's the Science (Gill Books)
Peter Cunningham has been one of the most outstanding Irish novelists for the past 30 years. His wonderful Freedom is a Land I Cannot See is a lyrical contemplation of life in Sutton, Co Dublin, towards the end of the War of Independence, as viewed through the memory and the senses of a blind girl. Its elegiac and measured metre makes its tragic conclusion all the more stunning.
Mary O'Donnell is our finest living poet whose name can be rightly listed alongside those of Heaney, Boland and Kavanagh. Her latest selection, Massacre of the Birds, confirms her astonishing subjective range, from immigrants in Malmo to a first communion, sexual predation to daughterly love, as sensuousness, memory and anger flow like quicksilver. In Blackout (Threshold), doughty American Candace Owens takes her libertarian sword to that toxic entity, Identity Politics, which unchallenged might yet choke the life out of the world's greatest democracy.
The great Lionel Shriver is at her very best with The Motion of the Body Through Space (Borough), a darkly hilarious look at the obsession with immortality among American fitness addicts, especially the monstrous control-freak Bambi, upon whom she here confers a literary if ghastly immortality.
Kevin Myers's memoir, Burning Heresies, is published by Merrion Press
I lost my reading mojo earlier this year, and was very relieved to find it again with Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet. Beautifully written and brilliantly imagined, it was inspired by the little-known story of Shakespeare's son. In Maggie O'Farrell's gifted hands, this becomes an exquisite study of grief, marriage, and creative ambition. An incredible novel which has been deservedly hailed as the best of the author's career, An Irish Nature Year by Jane Powers also resonated with me. During lockdown, many of us turned to nature for a sense of well-being and hope. This beautifully written and illustrated book takes the reader on a daily nature meditation over the course of a year. Packed with fascinating details, it is the perfect antidote to 2020's stresses and strains. And what would a year of reading be without at least one good scare? With her latest The Nothing Man, Catherine Ryan Howard delivers a high-concept, fast-paced thriller in which we meet infamous serial killer Jim, and Eve, the woman whose life he destroyed. Whip-smart and chilling, this book within a book kept me up at night for all the right reasons
Hazel Gaynor's novel, The Bird in the Bamboo Cage, was published by HarperCollins
Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin
The year 2020 has been a year of many things, but most particularly the book - with social media toxic and the news, frankly, grim, reading has been a true escape. For me, historical fiction was a safe place to escape to - no matter how bad things get in an historical novel, ultimately, we know we come out the other side.
Hazel Gaynor's wonderful The Bird in the Bamboo Cage (HarperCollins) took me to China and World War Two, to friendship and courage and fiction forged on a true story that captured the voices of the past so clearly, I could hear them.
Catherine Ryan Howard's The Nothing Man (Corvus) is a 2020 stand out for me- a completely brilliant concept, a book within a book - a serial killer reading of his past crimes as written by his last, almost, victim. Executed in her trademark confident prose, it has a wicked twist - I love a surprise ending.
In The Cutting Place (HarperCollins) Jane Casey brings us another exhilarating Maeve Kerrigan thriller. Perhaps because it's genre fiction, I often think the brilliance of Casey's writing is underestimated, but coupled with her gripping plots, it's proven her to be a multi-award winner. She's an author I will drop everything to read.
Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin writes crime as bestseller Sam Blake. Her book The Dark Room is out January 7
As time passes and we gain perspective on this chilling year, it’ll become ever more evident that we’ve all been as crazy as hyenas, what with the fractured attention spans, the raging paranoia, the lockdown weeping jags, and all the rest of it. Reading has, for me, and for many of us, been the great reprieve — there’s no better place to gather yourself than within the pages of a book.
Two of my favourites this year came from the glamorous Tramp Press. Handiwork, by Sara Baume, is a beautiful meditation on her daily practice as an artist and writer, and quietly, at its edges, it’s a portrait of grief. She is utterly incapable of a false note in her work.
Meanwhile, A Ghost in the Throat, the acclaimed fiction/memoir/essay hybrid by the almost eerily gifted Doireann Ní Ghríofa is brilliantly achieved and absolutely unique, a book that will last.
Hilary Mantel didn’t perform her usual gong-haul this year, but through no fault of her own. The Mirror and the Light (4th Estate), the third instalment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is in places a little looser and baggier than its predecessors but is still the most accomplished, funny, and poignant work of fiction this year.
Kevin Barry’s collection of short stories, That Old Country Music, is published by Canongate