Friday 18 October 2019

Critics' choice: the definitive guide to the best books of 2018

Our critics cast a cool eye over the reading year and select the best titles from popular, literary and crime fiction, history and politics, nature, food, cookery and memoir

Jodi Picoult's new novel A Spark of Light is a gripping read
Jodi Picoult's new novel A Spark of Light is a gripping read
Éamon de Valera. Photo: Getty Images
Liz Nugent has published three books. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Anne Cunningham

This year saw some remarkable debuts, along with some gems, from more experienced pens.

Julian Barnes's The Only Story (Jonathan Cape, €23) was published in February, following a departure from familiar ground with his previous novel. The Noise of Time, published in 2016, was a fictional but pretty accurate slice of Shostakovich's life under Stalin's iron fist. This offering featured another tortured soul, although an imaginary one. Nineteen-year-old Paul embarks on a delicious affair with a married woman 30 years his senior. He is not to know that the affair will shape all of his days to come. Vintage Barnes, The Only Story is a masterpiece of regret and disenchantment.

February also heralded Jess Kidd's genre-bending gem The Hoarder (Canongate, €11.99). When care worker Maud Drennan is assigned a particularly difficult client in Cathal Flood, she finds herself knee-deep in hoarded junk and intrigue. What exactly happened to Flood's wife years before? Why has he got photographs with faces removed hidden away? And why is Maud haunted by practically every saint that was ever canonised, dishing out some fairly useless advice on what her next move should be? It's part Gothic murder mystery, part ghost story, part social commentary, riotously funny and loved by the critics, including this one.

Rebecca O'Connor's He is Mine and I Have No Other (Canongate €17.99) is a remarkable account of adolescent love in the 1990s, backlit by the true story of 35 children who burned to death in a Cavan orphanage 50 years earlier. This debut gives us an author's eye for setting that is absolutely unrivalled. Whether it's in the music of the time, the now outdated condiments on the kitchen table or merely the everyday shabbiness of pre-Tiger Ireland, her meticulous details are familiar and yet eerily strange, prompting Christine Dwyer Hickey to describe it as "…never a word less than a true work of art".

And while Rebecca O'Connor's debut reels us back to pre-Tiger Ireland, Caoilinn Hughes's Orchid & The Wasp (Oneworld, €14.99) drops us right into the height of the foolishness in 2003, before blazing forward into 2008 when it all falls down. Gael Foess is determined to save her family from the ravages of the Tiger's whimpering retreat. Her banker father's retreat to the UK doesn't help much. The pre-publication hype around this book was actually deserved. It's original, clever and frequently very funny. Hughes's luminescence is staggering, breezing a determined young Gael from Dublin to London to New York and back again with scarcely a breath drawn. Brilliant.

Future Popes of Ireland (4th Estate, €14.99), yet another debut by an Irish writer, would probably get my first preference. Darragh Martin's family saga follows the Doyles from the first papal visit in 1979 through to Barack Obama's visit in 2011. If we had an Irish John Irving, then Martin would be it. Comedy and tragedy are deftly stitched into this fat, generous tome with no visible seams and these flawed siblings, reared by the stropping and unforgiving Granny Doyle, will hang around long after the ending. A modern classic.

Non fiction

Hilary A White

Non-fiction is arguably the engine room of the publishing industry, but commerce aside, what 2018 reminded us was that true-life subject matter can enter the discussion when it's configured in the right way.

An obvious example was seen right here at home with Emily Pine's Notes To Self (Tramp Press, €14.99). This first non-fiction outing for Tramp was a gamble that paid off long before Pine took the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year at the recent An Post Irish Book Awards. Family bewilderment, that most urgent of motivators for soul-baring, was the fuse that saw Pine deconstruct and rebuild herself through these mesmerising, minutely calibrated essays that delve right into the heart of emotional regions rarely visited. A classic.

Enormous credit must also go to Arnold Thomas Fanning, whose Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery (Penguin Ireland, €14.99) ushered itself into the conversation on mental health through a mixture of bravery and craft. Fanning put into plain, but jarringly immediate language, a terrifying decade where he spiralled into near total mental collapse, only to make an incredible return to health. Like Pine, this is the type of account that not only grips you wholesale as the pages flitter past, it also changes your very perception of psychology. Engrossing in a more cartoon caper way but given to moments of heart-stopping mayhem is Tony 10 (Gill, €16.99). Declan Lynch (of this parish) imbues the tale of postmaster and chronic gambler (not to mention co-author) Tony O'Reilly with the giddy pace of a heist film. As only Lynch can do, he zooms right into the mainframe of this case that saw the unassuming Carlow native gallop through millions upon millions of other people's cash while working for An Post. While offering cautionary analysis, Tony 10 is a rollicking night in because it also embraces the mad, adrenalised aspects of O'Reilly's spiral.

Squalor of a different kind, courtesy of the always brilliant UK nature writer Tim Dee. Landfill (Little Toller, €16.99) is nature writing for the Trump era, an age where we must look around at our global culture of waste, and notice what else is taking place there amid the rubbish pile. In doing so, Dee pens a majestic character portrait of the not-so-humble gull, a creature that is at once a graceful, soaring emblem of land-ho and a piratical scavenger ready to snatch sandwiches out of kiddies' hands. Thanks to us, they're here to stay, so we might as well get to know them a bit better. Another maritime species that are fundamental but often overlooked is the Irish lighthouse. Regardless of whether or not weather readings from Tusker Rock or Slyne Head fill you with romantic images of crashing waves and cliff-top ocean views, Lighthouses of Ireland (The Collins Press, €27.99) is essential for any household. Author and illustrator Roger O'Reilly takes us around the coastline of this island, spending a couple of pages to profile each of these charismatic and illuminatory sentinels and the incredible social, architectural and geographical histories that have gone into each one. A handsome monument to human endeavour, endurance, and conscientiousness.

Popular fiction

Margaret Madden

Popular fiction titles drop onto bestseller lists faster than I can keep up with them, but some deserve a special mention. I nailed my thesis to the wall, earlier this year, by declaring John Boyne's A Ladder to the Sky (Transworld, €15.99) as my Book of the Year. A brave move, with more titles yet to be released; a decision I stand by. A truly marvellous read which shows just how far one person can go to realise their dream. In this case, Maurice Swift covets the 'Book Prize' and is prepared to step over anyone to get it. A sharp and acidic look at the literary world which left me with a mighty book-hangover.

Kit de Waal, author of My Name Is Leon, took us back to the 1970s in her second novel, The Trick to Time (Penguin, €17.99), where Mona reflects on the Birmingham bombings and how they changed the course of her life. A story which touches on the lives of the Irish community in Britain during the Troubles and how grief, love and loss can be intertwined to create something beautiful. The opening chapters captivate and reel you in to Mona's world, one thread at a time.

A new Jodi Picoult novel is always something to look forward to, and this year we were treated to both sides of the abortion debate in A Spark of Light (Hodder & Stoughton, €15.99). Told in reverse, Picoult reveals why a lone gunman has entered a female reproduction clinic and created a hostage situation. The stories of the women in the clinic are blended with those of the gunman and his hostage negotiator, creating a broad view of an issue still being debated decades after Roe v Wade.

On a lighter note, a bit of royal scandal has always sold newspapers and the world's fascination with the British monarchy shows no sign of decline. A O'Connor's By Royal Appointment (Poolbeg Press, €14.99) is based on the true story of Prince Bertie and his pre-marital affair with Irish actress, Nellie Clifden. Set in post-famine Dublin and Kildare, we are treated to a fictional re-telling of the young prince who has discovered the joys of partying (much to the chagrin of Victoria and Albert) and Nellie, the high-class escort who falls for the prince and his promises. O'Connor reveals the juicy scandal that existed long before Diana and Fergie entered the royal circle.

Eithne Shortall's Grace After Henry (Atlantic Books, €17.99) stands out as one of my favourite heart-warming reads. A young Dublin couple are on the hunt for their dream home when tragedy strikes. Grace is consumed by grief and barely functions on a day-to-day basis. When she spots Henry walking through Glasnevin cemetery her whole world is transformed. Shortall uses a perfect balance of sadness, humour and quirky characters, making for a wonderfully warm novel in the tradition of Marian Keyes. I particularly loved how she describes Dublin, almost as if it's a character itself.

History & Politics

JP O' Malley

For those of us with a centrist political world view, 2018 - we can now safely conclude with confidence - has been a disaster. An isolationist, illiberal, approach to politics has now become the norm and not the exception for a whole host of countries across the globe. This toxic embrace of far right politics may not have resulted in full-blown fascism, just yet. But as former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, reminds us in Fascism: A Warning, (Harper Collins, €13.99) this is exactly where fascism, historically, began: in the emotive and hate-fuelled language of hardcore nationalism. I really enjoyed Albright's approach of intertwining the personal, the political, and the historical together, to produce a book that suggests the toxic atmosphere of international geopolitics is going to get worse before it's going to get better.

It's with a touch of historical irony that the Soviet Union always stood in opposition to fascism, while at the same time embracing much of its totalitarian tendencies. Former Moscow Guardian and Observer correspondent, Shaun Walker, explores this peculiar paradox in The Long Hangover (Oxford University Press, €20.99):

It attempts to comprehend the existential void that the Russian people have experienced since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. I've a soft spot for this stylish gonzo-like first person narrative voice that Walker uses to great effect. The book also documents the enormous power of nation-state mythologies, which control the lives of millions of ordinary citizens, blind to the real truth behind these fabricated myths of history.

Every nation is merely the sum of the story that a tribe tells itself to justify its existence. But what of the individual who controls that narrative to change the course of history? Julian Jackson begins A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle, (Allen Lane, €39.99) by asking a simple question: what did de Gaulle's idea of the French nation actually consist of? The answer, Jackson contends, may be surmised in four words: patriotism, Catholicism, history and culture .This is the best political biography I've read all year, and a magisterial study of France during World War II too.

Eamon De Valera (Read-Only).png
Éamon de Valera. Photo: Getty Images

Shortly after de Gaulle resigned as French President in 1969, Eamon de Valera received him with open arms at Aras an Uachtarain.

They had much in common: a loyal allegiance to the Catholic church; a mathematical and strategic approach to politics, and a deep distrust of Winston Churchill too. David McCullagh begins De Valera Vol 2 (Gill Books, €24.99 )in 1932, when Fianna Fail first came to power and de Valera had his mind firmly set on three goals: crushing any enemies within; dismantling the 1921 Treaty, and maintaining Irish sovereignty. McCullagh's close dissection of the 1937 Constitution of Ireland is a joy to read for anyone trying to understand the nuts and bolts of modern Ireland. The book also keeps in line with a changing trend in recent years from Irish historians, which praises de Valera's management of independence; arguing that if the price of Irish freedom meant economic hardship for a number of decades, in the long term, it was worth the sacrifice.

As the eternal optimist, I think it's important to finish with some good news. Former president of Ireland, and the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson's Climate Justice (Bloomsbury, €16.99) is the most uplifting and positive read I managed to get my hands on this year. Robinson's concise book offers viable solutions to climate change, giving a platform to disempowered citizens whose lives have been drastically affected by it, while also delivering a simple but effective message: it's up to us to take immediate action if we want to prevent our planet cooking itself to death in the coming decades.


Anne Marie Scanlon

Liz Nugent has published three books. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Women, both as authors and characters, dominate this year's list, which will come as no shock to Irish crime fiction fans. Small wonder Liz Nugent won the Irish Independent Book Crime Fiction of the Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards for her bestseller Skin Deep (Penguin Ireland, €10.99). The novel follows Cordelia from her damaged childhood through life as an emigrant, a wife, an unwilling mother. While Cordelia is an anti-heroine, her story has resonated with a generation of Irish women who were treated badly at home, forced to leave, and then faced discrimination abroad. But Skin Deep isn't a polemic, it's a brilliant thriller.

John Connolly knocks it out of the park again with his 16th book featuring private detective Charlie Parker The Woman in the Woods (Hodder & Stoughton, €21). Connolly's books are broadly categorised as crime but the novels with their mixture of the supernatural and the hyper-real defy genre. The main theme of this book is intimate partner violence, but Connolly also touches on the soullessness of corporate philanthropy and the complexity of lawyers' working lives. The supernatural, as usual, is all pervasive and Connolly introduces readers to two of the creepiest characters, Quail and Mons, ever to slither across a page.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (Faber & Faber, €12.60) is a page-turning psychological thriller; the author nails modern motherhood and also puts class under forensic examination. Myriam like many privileged middle-class women is afforded the opportunity to pursue her high-flying career by the less privileged (and far less well paid) Louise, who does the mucky business of childrearing. While Slimani has plenty to say about class, privilege and motherhood she never lets it get in the way of the increasingly chilling plot - as befits a novel which opens with the lines "The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds."

Her Name Was Rose by Claire Allan (Avon, €11.20) focuses, like many recent crime novels, on social media, the internet and the blurring of public personas and private motivations.

After witnessing a young woman (Rose) die after being hit by a car, Emily starts reading the Facebook posts of her grieving widower, Cian. Having escaped a bad relationship, Cian epitomises everything Emily thinks a loving and romantic partner should be. By degrees she starts filling the dead Rose's shoes and slowly learns that perhaps private Cian is different. There's a fantastic twist at the end.

The Sentence is Death, the second Daniel Hawthorne book by Anthony Horowitz (Century, €18.99) is sheer genius. The crime becomes secondary to the story as told to the reader by Anthony Horowitz - now a character in his own book. Despite Anthony's wish not to be John Watson to the mysterious Hawthorne's Holmes, that's exactly what he is. The narrative is hilarious and full of Holmesian clues and deliberate errors which will leave the eagle-eyed reader feeling just a bit smug. A joy from start to finish.


Sophie White

How to live better, more cleanly, more ethically and more mindfully feels like an additional full-time job these days.

Thankfully we have a whole crop of new lifestyle books to the rescue. The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll (Harper Collins, €23.80) is a how-to on organisation that verges on the philosophical and taps into our current craze for minimalism.

The method dispenses with the nerve-jangling alerts that invariably pepper the tech approach to planning our lives and instead revives a more analogue mode. With just a simple pen and journal, Carroll's strategy promotes a more mindful and intentional way of living. Another author opting to keep things simple is food giant Yotam Ottolenghi.

Clearly a man engaged with his audience, and willing to act on feedback, Simple (Penguin, €32.99) is as visually appealing as his other books but gone are the days of sourcing 35-plus ingredients for a delicately perfumed rice pudding. Simple embraces the casual cook. It's more accessible with recipes promising culinary surprises in 10 ingredients or less. From the pared back to the joyfully OTT, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon by Iris Apfel (Harper Collins, €30) offers an altogether different kind of feast - a glittering, sumptuous buffet of visual treats.

It's the story of fashion in the 20th Century as told by one 96-year-old woman's stellar wardrobe. Apfel confides that she has 750,000 followers on Instagram but has never even had an email address, the account is run by a devotee in Vienna. The icon is delighted to be of interest to younger people. She bemoans a move away from individuality with "these characters with no personality who they follow on social media". Good thing then that Apfel is currently enjoying a renaissance, inspiring the new generation.

Author and comedian Sarah Cooper's star was born when a 2014 blogpost went viral resulting in 100 Tricks to Appear Smart In Meetings. Her third book, How To Be Successful Without Hurting Men's Feelings (Penguin, €12.99) is a spoof guide for women who want to get ahead in business and offers a playful poke at the infuriating double standards that plague the workplace while exploring deeper issues.

"How to Be Harassed Without Hurting His Career" is spot on with clever one-liners that simultaneously mock and critique sexist office culture.

"Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious offence and will not be tolerated, except in cases where the harasser was clearly joking and you need to relax," she advises.

The Irish Book Award-winning Currabinny Cookbook by James Kavanagh and William Murray (Penguin Ireland, €24.99) came out of the many years the couple spent hosting pop-up dinners. Their enthusiasm and irreverence leaps from the pages just as much as their flair in the kitchen. With Murray's background in fine art (he later trained at Ballymaloe), it's no surprise that the book is beautiful with delicate illustrations and tempting photographs.

Read more: The best reads of 2018: Our critics name their top picks

From history to politics, nature to science, cookery to music - the best non-fiction of 2018

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