Politics and poetry, sport, food, nature, crime, art, memoir and literary fiction — our critics select their picks of the year.
Kevin Myers's Burning Heresies (Merrion Press, €19.95) is the saddest and funniest political book of year. Under the bludgeonings of both chance and evil design - Myers has some malign foes - his sardonic eye is always searching for the comic barb to embed in his enemies. His memoir makes a perfect Christmas gift: his hilarious Bleak House portrait of The Irish Times in the 1960s is worthy of Dickens at his comic best.
Deirdre Nuttall's title, Different and the Same: a Folk History of the Protestants of Independent Ireland (Eastwood Books, €25), does what it says on the tin and confirms the pioneering work of Kevin Myers on southern Protestants. Nuttall is a Wexford woman with an eye for engaging stories and her book is full of surprises for Catholic nationalist readers who think all Protestants are born with a silver spoon in their mouths.
Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan's Saving the State (Gill Books, €24.99) proves that a journalist and a historian are the perfect fit to trace the extraordinary evolution of Fine Gael, a story they tell with pace without sacrificing historical detail. Beginning with WT Cosgrave's beleaguered cabinet fighting a civil war for democracy, they trace the party's extraordinary evolution to its recent endorsement of Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil as Taoiseach of a historic coalition. For me, the heroes of the story are the two Cosgraves - WT Cosgrave who saved the State from anarchy, and Liam Cosgrave who had to do it all over again.
Liam Kennedy's Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? (McGill, QUB Press, €29) is one of my three final choices disproving the cliche that books on Northern Ireland are boring. Kennedy's gripping survey has all the dash of the hurlers its Tipperary-born author so admires. Naturally, the man who coined the acronym MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) conducts his field court martial of the chief culprits with a sharp eye. As an historian, he is ferociously fair, but, while he gives a clean bill of health to no side in Northern Ireland, on balance, he believes the Provisional IRA was mostly to blame for the long misery of the armed struggle.
Patrick J Roche and Brian Barton's The Northern Ireland Question (Wordsworth, €17.99) is a sparkling collection of essays from a liberal unionist standpoint that will both enrage and engage southern readers. Barton's essay on the birth of Northern Ireland should be on our schools' curriculum, as should Clare-man Patrick J Roche's polemic on terrorism and nationalism. Graham Gudgin's essay on discrimination and housing may cause some nationalists to choke on their Christmas puddings, but they'll be hard pressed to disprove his statistical claim that the unionist government built more houses for Catholics than Protestants.
Ian Cobain's Anatomy of a Killing (Granta, €16.99) reads like a work of fiction but is the true and harrowing story of how a Protestant member of the IRA murdered a Protestant RUC photographer in front of his child, and why he remains as unrepentant as most IRA veterans.
Eoghan Harris is a political commentator and former senator
This year, while less than ideal in so many ways, proved to be a bumper year for memoirs. Locked down at home, the great and the good turned their thoughts to their favourite subject - themselves - and gave a public jaded of boxsets and grim news reports the celebrity dish they really deserved. And that dish was served, as it should be, ice cold.
Revenge was a big theme this year. Andre Leon Talley's gloriously gossipy, name-dropping memoir, In The Chiffon Trenches (4th Estate, €20) must have burned a hole in Anna Wintour's desk when it landed. The Vogue editor doesn't come out of it well: Talley says she's more obsessed with power than fashion and he explains with some bitterness how she put him - her long-time sidekick - out to pasture.
In any other year, it would have cantered away with the revenge memoir of the year award, but Talley played second fiddle in 2020 to Barbara Amiel, whose score-settling in the deliciously entertaining Friends and Enemies (Constable, €25) knew absolutely no bounds. As the name might suggest, Amiel brandishes her pen like a blade and gleefully flays all the society dames and fair-weather billionaires who turned their backs on Amiel and husband Conrad Black after he was convicted on fraud charges.
Amiel had already experienced a type of social death but Sasha Swire's exile came by her own hand. Her Diary of an MP's Wife: Inside and Outside Power (Little Brown, €20) rampaged across the pages of several Sunday newspapers in September and told the inside story of the Tory clique that has ruled Britain for the last decade. The book prompted a quiet backlash but it was surely worth it for Swire who stormed up the bestseller list.
Mary Trump's book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man (Simon & Schuster, €20), ensured she would never be welcome in the White House while her uncle was still in residence.
Some stars were clearly cashing in on lockdown but some had a book in them all along. Matthew McConaughey's Greenlights (Crown, €16.99) was the product of years of diaries and note-taking and mixed that actor's life philosophy with well-written and sometimes shocking anecdotes about his life, including a moment of revelation in Dublin.
Mariah Carey's The Meaning of Mariah Carey (with Michaela Angela Davis, Macmillan, €20) joyously hams up Carey's reputation as the Marie Antoinette of pop, while also, at times, pulling back the glittery curtain to reveal the pain that forged her.
Books about the royals are always somewhat tricky, consisting, as they do, mostly of unverifiable allegation and gossip, but while we know it's probably rotting our brains, it tastes so good. 2020's guilty pleasure, then, is Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand's Finding Freedom (HQ, €20) which confirms once and for all that Prince Harry really is Charles's kid and contains so much bland detail about Harry and Meghan that you suspect they must have been involved in it.
For an added royal sugar rush, gorge yourself on Robert Lacey's Battle of Brothers (HarperCollins, €20) which tells the story of the falling out between Harry and William.
Dónal Lynch is a journalist and critic
This year, with lockdown forcing us to put our lives on hold, any time spent outside in the fresh air has a precious, wholesome feel. It's like our world has hit the reset button, and we have become acutely aware of our need for connection with nature. A number of prominent authors, from Helen Macdonald to Wainwright Prize and Newcomer of the Year winner Dara McAnulty, have reflected on this therapeutic aspect of engaging with flora, fauna and wildlife, whilst David Attenborough and Chris Packham have lent their high-profile heft to issues of conservation and environmental awareness.
Naturalist-writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris have produced a beautiful benediction to the natural world in The Lost Spells (Penguin, €17.99), a dazzling companion to their first collaboration The Lost Words. This stunning invocation in verse and watercolour conjures up egrets and barn owls, silver birches and swifts, grey seals and the ancient oak "stubbornly holding its ground" year after year. These painted lyrics sing and shimmer with exuberance. A lovely gift for the young and the not-so-young.
A beautifully produced academic tome Ireland's Rivers (UCD Press, €36) aims to raise awareness of Ireland's fantastic and often undervalued river resource, and the importance of keeping our waterways clean and healthy. Likewise, Sir David Attenborough's inspiring autobiography, A Life on our Planet (Ebury, €16.99), sends a powerful message about the importance of preserving our precious ecosystem for generations to come.
In Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller, €22.40), Dara McAnulty opens up about his autism and the connection he feels with nature and provides fascinating, practical advice and knowledge about doorstep wildlife. An exceptional book by an extraordinary young man. Such passion delivered with such eloquence, a vital and urgent cry on behalf of the natural world. Helen Macdonald, author of award-winning H is for Hawk, offers us a powerful collection of essays in Vesper Flights (Jonathan Cape, €17.99) about humankind's relationship with nature. Sensitive and intelligent, these essays are full of gorgeous images and moving insights. If you want some respite from the doom and gloom that is 2020, these wonderful books provide solace and a perfect escape.
Justine Carbery is a writer and teaches creative writing at UCD and The Irish Writers Centre
This year's literary fiction offerings blasted a much-needed path to other worlds.
When you hit the last page of Anne Enright's Actress (Jonathan Cape, €19.60) you take a breath and dive straight back in again. Showcasing her mastery of the sentence and her extraordinary emotional intelligence as she explores the relationship between an actress and daughter, it's moving but never sentimental, funny but never pastiche.
In Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell (Tinder Press, €19.99), we're transported to Shakespeare's home -although the man himself is never named. The title refers to Shakespeare's ill-fated son who died at the age of 11, but it is Shakespeare's wife, known in the book as Agnes, who takes centre stage in this strangely modern story of life in a plague-worn Warwickshire village. Hamnet won this year's Women's Prize for Fiction.
A Thousand Moons (Faber & Faber, €16.99) sees Sebastian Barry at his powerful, lyrical best. It's an ambitious sequel to the Costa-winning Days Without End but easily read as a standalone piece. Barry (inset)continues his multi-book exploration of the Irish diaspora through generations of the McNulty and Dunne clans. Identity, culture, gender and race are examined sensitively through the eyes of Winona, a Native American girl adopted by the cross-dressing Thomas McNulty and his partner John Cole during the American Indian Wars.
Another sequel, featuring a complicated young woman, Tsitsi Dangerengba's Booker shortlisted This Mournable Body (Faber, €17.99) is a gem. This follow-up to 1988's Nervous Conditions sees the central character Tambu all grown up. Set in 1990s' Harare, this is a powerful, magical novel that considers race and colonialism through Tambu's eyes as she turns her village into an ecotourism location.
There's a universality to Donal Ryan's stories, never more so than in the Eason Novel of the Year, Strange Flowers (Transworld, €11.99). Set in the 1960s in Tipperary, where we meet the Gladney family, whose village is rocked by the disappearance of their daughter and her reappearance some years later, with her unusual family in tow. Ryan's love of people pours from every page.
I needed more sun and more Africa and I got both in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's The First Woman (One World, €20.50). Growing up in Idi Amin's Uganda, Kirabo is a young girl searching for her maternal origins. This is a funny, funny book, filled with magic and ancestry. Transported indeed.
Estelle Birdy is a writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Ravelling, will be published by Lilliput Press in 2021
Edgar Allan Poe is often spoken of as the father of modern detective fiction. He created the first classic detective - C Auguste Dupin - and many of the plot devices of the genre that were subsequently mastered by Arthur Conan Doyle.
In The Purloined Letter, Poe built a detective story around one such device - that of hiding in plain sight. A frantic search for a stolen letter proves fruitless, until Dupin intervenes and finds it, sitting among other letters in a rack hanging on a wall. It had been there all along, even as the room was searched many times.
John Delaney hid in plain sight for many years as chief executive of the FAI. The warning signs were there that all was not as it should be, but he surrounded himself with a band of loyalists, hit back hard at critics and repeatedly insisted the cash-strapped FAI would be debt free by 2020.
Last year, he left the association under a cloud after a series of revelations by journalists Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan. In his wake, Delaney left the FAI on the brink of insolvency, requiring a bailout from its bankers and the State. Tighe and Rowan detail this shocking slide into ruin in Champagne Football (Penguin, €21), aptly subtitled 'John Delaney and the betrayal of Irish football'. The book documents the culture of excess during Delaney's years in charge and how it all finally unravelled.
Intrigue, drama, romance, betrayal, scandal, tragedy, comedy are themes not often associated with sports books, but they are there in this one, and also in David Walsh's The Russian Affair (Simon & Schuster, €13.99). This is the story of an unlikely Russian couple, their love-hate relationship and how they exposed an extraordinary doping culture to a disbelieving world.
Vitaly Stepanov was a Russian anti-doping official who fell in love with 800m runner Yuliya Rusanova, a doper who was unapologetic about her cheating. After a long and sometimes heartbreaking struggle with each other, and with the truth about Russian sport, the couple turned the tables on the system which almost broke them and their marriage and fought back. Such were the risks they took that they had to go into hiding in the United States.
It was love at first sight for Vitaly and Yuliya - they were married within two months of meeting.
In February 1962, it was also love at first sight when college student Robert Kraft fell for Myra Hiatt one Friday night in a coffee shop in Boston. The following evening Kraft borrowed his uncle's car and they went on their first date. Hiatt proposed to him that night and they were married the following year after Kraft graduated. From a poor background, Kraft went on to build a hugely successful business empire. But he is best known as the owner of the New England Patriots, the most successful franchise in American football history. The Dynasty (Avid Reader Press, €19.99), by Jeff Benedict, tells how Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady turned the Patriots from also-rans into world beaters. It's a super read.
Another greater sporting turnaround is told in Michael Bamberger's The Second Life of Tiger Woods (Avid Reader Press, €28). The world's most famous golfer came back from public humiliation and a crippling back injury to win last year's Masters.
The autobiographies which stand out this year are Barry Geraghty's True Colours (with Niall Kelly, Gill Books, €17.99), Bernard Brogan's The Hill (with Kieran Shannon, Reach Sport, €13.99) and Dylan Hartley's The Hurt (with Michael Calvin, Penguin, €16).
John Greene is Sunday Independent sports editor
Struggling authors could have been forgiven a little envy when Richard Osman, TV producer and presenter, was given a seven-figure advance for his first crime novel; but the truth is that The Thursday Murder Club (Viking, €11.99) was actually rather good. The story concerned a group of elderly residents of an exclusive retirement village who get together once a week to investigate cold-case crimes, only to find themselves with a real murder to solve when a builder is found dead. It zipped along in 115 brief chapters, peppered with Osman's trademark wit and an admirable, entirely uncynical commitment to "kindness and justice".
By coincidence, Elly Griffiths' The Postscript Murders (Quercus, €17.93) also made passing mention to "a group of old ladies in a care home who solve crimes", though it mainly centred on the murder of a different elderly woman who helped a group of crime writers come up with plots. Was she killed for something she learned in the course of her work? The novel memorably featured a cheerful Sikh lesbian as its main detective, which makes a change from the usual tormented souls who populate so many other books, and confirmed the prolific Griffiths as one of the most reliable names on the crime scene.
Seven Lies (Sphere, €9.99) was another big-money debut, this time by Elizabeth Kay, a pseudonym for Transworld commissioning editor Lizzy Goudsmit. It turned out to be an enthralling take on obsession and female friendship, as Jane, an unprepossessing thirtysomething whose husband has died tragically, intrudes into her best friend Marnie's life, to chilling effect.
Simone St James's The Sun Down Motel (Berkeley, €24.65) was unusual in being as much of a ghost story as a thriller. Carly comes to a small town in upstate New York to find out what happened to her aunt who vanished whilst working the night shift at the eponymous motel 35 years earlier. She takes the same job, soon placing herself in both real life and supernatural danger. It was intricately plotted and perfectly paced, with bags of atmosphere. If it isn't snapped up by Netflix, then something is seriously wrong.
The most original book of 2020 was probably Eight Detectives (Michael Joseph, €18.20) by Alex Pavesi. On an island in the Med, a woman comes to visit a man who once published a collection of short stories to illustrate his theory about the hidden mathematical structure of crime fiction. But were the stories clues to a darker secret in his past? The novel was clever and playful and suffused with a love of Golden Age murder mysteries.
Eilis O'Hanlon is a journalist and author
'In the dark times/Will there be singing?/There will be singing/ Of the dark times' wrote Bertolt Brecht in 1938 while in exile in the Danish countryside. A calamitous decade behind him, a terrifying one ahead. And now in 2020, over 80 years later, we have had a year where poets once again are here to write and sing about the dark times.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's Collected Poems (Gallery Press, €20) is a lifetime achievement from the Ireland Professor of Poetry, bringing together iconic titles Acts and Monuments, The Girl Who Married the Reindeer and a selection of beautiful new work, which explores the music of language. Grace Wilentz impresses with her debut The Limit of Light (Gallery Press, €11.95), 'Sometimes I can feel us diving/weightless, as I dream' (Belly of a Whale). As does Sean Hewitt's debut Tongues of Fire (Jonathan Cape, €12.50), while Leeanne Quinn's second collection, Some Lives (Dedalus Press, €12.50), creates new, imaginative spaces, 'It was still/nothing like I'd imagined' ('Unless').
This dream-like wonder is an attribute of much of the work published this year. Sadly, we lost the great poets Eavan Boland and Derek Mahon. They wrote until the end, both publishing important posthumous collections. Mahon's Washing Up (Gallery Press, €12.50pb/€18.50hb) contains poems of the pandemic with Quarantine, and A Fox in Grafton Street and an elegy to Ciaran Carson. And Boland's The Historians (Carcanet, €12.50) extends her legacy of reclaiming forgotten voices from the past. Shadow of the Owl (Bloodaxe, €12.50) by the much-loved Matthew Sweeney is another posthumously published title of note and contains moving poems of his final year living with illness. Not forgetting Sinéad Morrissey's sublime Found Architecture: Selected Poems (Carcanet, €15). The anthologies African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, edited by Kevin Young (Library of America, €38), and When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo (Norton, €16), give a sense of the depth of marginalised voices.
Paul Perry's most recent collection is Blindsight (above/ground press 2020)
Lifestyle quite literally means 'the way in which a person lives' and the genre has never been more relevant than right now when our very way of life has been upended entirely. Escapism, entertainment and inspiration can all be found in the pages of these wonderful books.
Spending 24 hours a day in our homes has highlighted their shortcomings so an ideal gift is Gaff Goddess by Laura de Barra (Transworld Ireland, €21). It is chockful of illustrations and useful advice about stopcocks, stains, blocked drains and everything else that relates to house maintenance. There are also helpful chapters on the aesthetics of a home - decor, space, light and shade. Particularly useful for a first-time buyer.
Since we've all been looking at the same four walls, any giftee would relish looking at the stunning interiors in The Lives of Others by Simon Watson (Rizzoli, €59.50), Dublin-born Watson photographs the homes of the rich and famous for the likes of Vanity Fair and the New York Times and he has brought many of them together for this book. The result is a glimpse into sumptuous homes yet, at the same time, a subtle commentary on heritage, wealth and privilege.
For a deep dive into the homes of our ancestors and how they lived, Irish Country Furniture and furnishings 1700 to 2000 by Claudia Kinmouth (Cork University Press, €32.05) is a fascinating read. Illustrated with many examples of farmhouse and cabin furniture, it leaves us marvelling at the ingenuity of our forefathers.
For the architects, historians and sociologists in the family, get Dublin by Design. Edited by Noel Brady and Sandra O'Connell (O'Brien Press, €29.99), it's an informative history of Dublin and its evolution, beautifully illustrated with archive and contemporary images. With contributions from a range of influential people, including Mary Robinson, and Pritzker-prize winning architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, it discusses the direction in which we are heading with the city. Not light reading but extremely informative.
If there's any positive to be found in the year we've just endured, it's that people have a renewed interest in cooking.
There's been a lot of noise about Nigella Lawson's latest book Cook Eat Repeat (Chatto & Windus, €16.99) and the sultry queen of cuisine has, as usual, managed to get the foodies a-chatter with some of her more outre recipes. Who would even want to try making banana skin and cauliflower curry? But her tome is a seductive combination of excellent writing and imaginative dishes.
Neven Maguire's Midweek Meals (Gill, €16.99) is full of inventive recipes geared specifically to slow cooking - put on your casserole early and after a day's work it's all ready to be plated up. His festive take on the Vietnamese pho - slow-cooker turkey pho - will no doubt become a St Stephen's day staple.
While Nigella's and Neven's books abound with mouth-watering images, Rory O'Connell's The Joy of Food (Gill, €24.99) is illustrated with the Ballymaloe chef's own vibrant drawings. The lack of photographs is compensated by his detailed recipes which leave no room for error, and he has a way with words that makes them all seem possible.
Journalist Mary O'Sullivan writes about interiors, books and travel
Anne Marie Scanlon
This was the year when best-sellers went from being a guilty pleasure to an absolute necessity - escapism no longer being a luxury. Marian Keyes's great talent, apart from making readers laugh, has been to weave serious themes into her comic novels. Grown Ups (Michael Joseph, €14.24), her 16th, features another quirky family - the Caseys who each have their issues, but it is Cara's story of bulimia that keeps the pages turning. Eating disorders don't sound especially funny or escapist but in Keyes's capable hands, Cara's struggle is riveting.
Carmel Harrington's My Pear-Shaped Life (Harper Collins, €18.20) also takes on the issues around weight, fat-shaming and the multimillion-euro global diet and fitness industry. Greta Gale has always been the 'jolly fat girl' making herself the butt of the joke but the 30-year-old is also a struggling actress, trying to make her way in an industry that is obsessed with body image. Greta is addicted to sleeping pills and crashes her car. After rehab, she goes to the US in search of her favourite self-help guru and meets extremes of female bodies. Touching in some places, very funny in others.
Readers expecting Graham Norton's third novel Home Stretch (Coronet, €12.99) to provide riotous laughs may be disappointed. The novel which won the An Post Popular Fiction Book of the Year begins with a car crash on the eve of a wedding in 1987. The bride, groom and bridesmaid are killed while the bridesmaid's sister is left in a coma. Two young men walk away unscathed and the novel tracks their lives. There may be no gags, but Norton is brilliant at capturing life in a small town and the dialogue of those who live there. In the end, it's a story of hope, not defeat.
Finally, one of my perennial favourites - Ross O'Carroll Kelly stars in his 18th outing Braywatch (Penguin Ireland, €10.99). Once again, Paul Howard knocks it out of the pork, as Ross himself would say. Ross gets a job in Bray (of all places!) while his daughter Honor channels Greta Thunberg. The prologue, written well before the US elections, makes me wonder if Howard has access to a crystal ball. Waterproof mascara a must as you will howl laughing.
Anne Marie Scanlon is a journalist and author