The best reads of 2018: Our critics name their top picks
After another bumper year for books, our critics pick the best reads of 2018
From the angle of this island and the monumental changes that have been blowing through us this year - some seismic - homegrown literary fiction felt imbued with something in 2018.
Anna Burns' Milkman (Faber), a dark reel of suburban dread, sounds a loud message that Ulster has more to offer than Brexit headaches. If Burns was a bolt from the blue, Silence Under a Stone (Doubleday Ireland), the proficient debut of 82-year-old Norma MacMaster, was an example of biding your time and making sure everything was in its right place. It told of more poison from the border counties through the lens of a beleaguered female inhabitant. For atmospherics, Eoin McNamee, another cousin from the North, reigns supreme. The Vogue (Faber), his first novel since 2015's Blue is the Night, is a masterclass in northern gothic from one of our most criminally underappreciated writers.
Children's author Darragh Martin took to the adult fiction market with Future Popes of Ireland (4th Estate) with lovely results. Hitting shelves just as the nation was gearing up for the arrival of Pope Francis, its brisk, chirpy and wryly perceptive saga of siblings shaking off their baggage - Catholic or otherwise - is a delight.
These works tore open dogmas to allow in change via the patient meters of fine narrative prose. Another approach, however, was found by Jade Sharma. Problems (Tramp Press) doesn't so much work through the modern mania of life as pummel it with a baseball bat. Untamed, blackly hilarious, and searingly raw in parts, Sharma's tornado of drugs, sex and angst dismantles any expectations of the literary fiction heroine.
Gary Shteyngart's Lake Success (Hamish Hamilton) gives us a burnt-out hedge-fund manager who's gone AWOL across Trump's America with nothing but fear, loathing and a case of valuable watches. It has an enjoyable, knock-kneed charm and a picaresque protagonist who is modern America itself.
Masters old and new dropped some particularly choice gifts upon us. The voice of Jaxie, the chief protagonist of Tim Winton's The Shepherd's Hut (Picador) was one. With a mix of wartime slang and digital wiring, this young Outback anti-hero's unforgettable narration is both stifled by Aussie hypermasculinity but also negotiating a heroic and liberating sea change. Winton's heart beats loud, even when he has you in the grip of laughter or suspense.
The same is true of Donal Ryan. Towering high in 2018 was From a Low and Quiet Sea (Doubleday), a sublime tale of lives interlocking in a dimension somewhere between small-town Ireland and the choppy maritime treachery of the Syrian refugee crisis. Modern science still hasn't been able to explain where Ryan's extraordinary consistency comes from, but you can bet that the answer will be of great interest to novelists much longer in the tooth than the former civil servant.
Michael Ondaatje, you could argue, was back to near his best with Warlight (Jonathan Cape) and like Ryan's From a Low and Quiet Place, it picked up a Booker nod and delivered scenes that were not quickly shaken from the mind's eye.
Audacity and intrigue bubbled up from Co Wicklow at the hands of Paraic O'Donnell, whose The House on Vesper Sands (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson) made good on the promise of his 2016 debut The Maker of Swans. This had everything - elegance, humour and shady supernatural foreboding, all wrapped up in a Victorian detective novel. O'Donnell has been keeping shtum on the nature of his day job. Whatever it is, the time may be approaching to give it up.
Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape) was a hot favourite on this year's Booker shortlist, and it's easy to see why. Romy is a twenty-something woman facing two life sentences at a women's prison in California. She is joined by a dazzling motley crew of unfortunates and deplorables, and once the surface is scratched, it's obvious that former stripper Romy barely stood a chance in life. It's by no means an easy read, but Kushner's atmospheric writing is compelling to the last.
Sally Rooney's Normal People (Penguin Random House) has picked up plaudits and award nods aplenty this year. The Castlebar writer has managed to build on the exuberance and energy of her debut, Conversations With Friends, to create an assured voice. Here, Marianne and Connell grow from two awkward small-town teenagers into slightly less awkward Trinity College students. Despite their wildly differing characters, the two are thrown back together down the years. The painstakingly crafted new versions of themselves clash time and again, resulting in a muted, but compelling, love affair.
Emer Martin's The Cruelty Men (Lilliput Press) is a cathartic, richly epic multigenerational saga that charts the fortunes of a Kerry family uprooted and ultimately ravaged by both Church and State. Stunningly ambitious, achingly tragic and resonant in a key year for Church-State relations, this is a timely work that illuminates a dark past and wades bravely into tangled social ills. This is what "the Great Irish Novel" looks like in 2018.
Hilary A White & Tanya Sweeney
Among the standout thrillers of 2018 is The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). When the police have failed to find missing children, distraught parents, often long after the original disappearance, contact Naomi Cotter seeking her help. Her own traumatised childhood - kidnapped and imprisoned for years by a psychopath - has made her very good at her job. This haunting, disquieting and utterly gripping thriller is brilliantly told.
Also well told is TH1RT3EN by Steve Cavanagh (Orion). Former successful con artist turned trial lawyer Eddie Flynn is hired to defend Hollywood star Bobby Solomon, accused of murdering his wife and her lover. But things go badly askew from the start, and Eddie suspects that somehow a serial killer has murdered his way on to the jury. This highly enjoyable fourth Eddie Flynn case is Grisham on steroids.
The Late Show (Orion) by Michael Connelly, creator of Harry Bosch and The Lincoln Lawyer's Mickey Haller, introduces a new main character, Detective Renée Ballard. Ballard, banished to the night shift for accusing a superior of sexual harassment, investigates the death of a prostitute in her own time against direct orders. A nail-bitingly tense offering with a spunky new character.
Ballard turns up again in Dark Sacred Night by Connelly (Orion), this time teamed up with Harry Bosch. The veteran detective is obsessed by the death some years before of a 15-year-old runaway, Lucy Clayton. Her death is personal to him - he knows her former junkie mother, Elizabeth. Ballard finds 68-year-old Harry's dogged persistence fascinating and once again works a case against direct orders, a lifesaver for Harry when he's targeted by a vicious LA gang boss. Sterling stuff.
Less frenetic by far is A Taste for Vengeance by Martin Walker (Quercus), in which food-and-wine loving Bruno, the amiably efficient and newly promoted Chief of Police of St Denis in the south of France, has to deal with a double murder and the possible presence of an IRA hit squad on his patch. An effortlessly charming and engaging slice of rural French life.
Mankind's future in the dawning of the AI era is at the heart of Under the Night by Alan Glynn (Faber & Faber). In what is both a prequel and sequel to Irish writer Glynn's extraordinary The Dark Fields -which became the hit film Limitless with Bradley Cooper - the story focuses on Ray Sweeney, the grandson of 1950s advertising executive Ned Sweeney who took mind-expanding psychoactive drug MDT-48 and became an advisor to presidents. Ray meets 90-year-old former CIA operative Clay Procter, who suggests Ray's grandfather may not have committed suicide as he was led to believe. Fascinating, as is Here and Gone by Haylen Beck (Harvill Secker), who is, in fact, Stuart Neville, one of Ireland's most highly regarded thriller writers. Set in a remote part of Arizona, this adrenaline-charged tale charts the desperate efforts of a mother to recover her children who vanish after a routine police road stop.
The Missing Ones by Patricia Gibney (Sphere) is a gripping debut set in the imaginary town of Ragmullin near Tullamore and introducing widowed Garda Detective Lottie Parker, who fears for her children while investigating a double murder. Gibney's promise is more than confirmed with her excellent Lottie Parker follow-up, The Stolen Girls (Sphere), a gritty tale of murder among refugees in Direct Provision.
Inishowen solicitor Benedicta 'Ben' O'Keefe has two deaths to investigate in Murder at Greysbridge by Andrea Carter (Constable). The deaths cast a pall over a wedding attended by members of a mysterious nearby island community, and Ben's nosiness puts her life at risk. It's an engaging read, as is The Liar's Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard (Corvus), in which Amsterdam-based businesswoman Alison Smith must return to Dublin to face her convicted murderer former boyfriend when a spate of copycat killings begin. A great plot, solid characterisation and a brilliant sense of place make this a standout.
In Firefly by Henry Porter (Quercus), 13-year-old Naji, a desperate but determined youngster with an off-the-scale IQ, decides to flee from an ISIS stronghold in Syria to Europe with information he shouldn't have. Pursued by murderous jihadis and a less lethal ex-MI6 agent, Luc Samson, Naji battles through mountainous Macedonia and the treacherous Balkans towards safety in Germany. A tour-de-force of breathless suspense.
The shadow of last year's Eleanor Oliphant hung over a lot of popular fiction this year, and while Gail Honeyman held on to the top spot on the bestseller lists, fans found similar delight in Joanna Cannon's Three Things About Elsie (HarperCollins), a heartfelt story about memory and ageing in which 84-year-old Florence plays detective on the curious new resident at her elderly home.
Another life-affirming read came in Cathy Kelly's The Year that Changed Everything (Orion), which follows three women as they celebrate different milestone birthdays. Eithne Shortall, meanwhile, hit her stride with second novel Grace After Henry (Atlantic Books), a bittersweet story that tackles grief, love and moving on after a partner, and keeps readers guessing until the final page. This emerging genre has been christened 'up lit': novels that embrace difference and emotional trauma with tenderness, empathy and compassion. We could do with a break from all those dreary psychological thrillers.
But those looking for a bit of intrigue were spoiled for choice. Liane Moriarty, the master of suspenseful storytelling, followed up the success of Big Little Lies with some more twisty plotting in Nine Perfect Strangers (Penguin), casting a wonderfully varied group of characters at a 10-day wellness retreat.
Graham Norton's second novel, A Keeper (Hodder & Stoughton), affirms his position as a writer worth watching, once again exploring buried familial secrets as Elizabeth, an academic, returns to rural Ireland after her mother dies, and discovers a box of mysterious letters.
The Irish literary world lost one of its most beloved writers this year, following the death of Emma Hannigan in March. Her final novel sees three sisters mourning the loss of their devoted nanny, and struggling to get along as they each harbour their own private turmoil. Letters to My Daughters (Hachette) has all of Hannigan's signature warmth and wit, a fitting tribute to its much-loved author.
Ireland has gained a couple of bright new stars, too: Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, who shot to fame with publishing phenomenon Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling. The sequel, The Importance of Being Aisling (Gill & Macmillan), finds our heroine knocked out of her comfort zone and faced with tricky decisions about her relationship, her job and her friendships. McLysaght and Breen's wry take on Irish culture will hopefully ensure many successful instalments to come.
The rom-com got a refreshing update, thanks to Justin Myers' gay hero looking for love in The Last Romeo (Piatkus), a laugh-out-loud account of the modern dating landscape that also packs an emotional punch.
There were shades of Bridget Jones in AJ Pearce's Dear Mrs Bird (Pan Macmillan), about an aspiring reporter in London during the Blitz, who ends up answering letters for a magazine's problem page. It's a charming romp, and a lovely ode to friendship and perseverance in a harrowing time.
Rachael English's nostalgic whodunnit The Night of the Party (Hachette) kicked off with a cracking opening scene in which the body of the parish priest is discovered on the kitchen floor at a festive party - this wintry tale, set during the 'Big Snow' of 1982, is a great one to pick up for this time of year.
Promising Young Women, the debut novel by Cork-born Caroline O'Donoghue (Virago), is by turns glossy and gritty. O'Donoghue's tale follows the travails of an advertising executive who gets fast-tracked up the greasy career pole thanks to her fortysomething boss, Clem. If Phoebe-Waller Bridge, Nora Ephron or Lena Dunham appeal, there's much to like in O'Donoghue's promising debut.
Elsewhere, Caitlin Moran's How to be Famous (Ebury) tackles gender relations and sexual power dynamics with equal vim. With a toehold on Britpop-era London, Wolverhampton lass Dolly Wilde - now 19 - is learning plenty on matters of the heart (and loins). In all, a joyous romp through the 90s, albeit with a grounding streak of #MeToo vulnerability.
Romantics were treated to a promising debut in The Wedding Date (Headline Eternal). Jasmine Guillory breathes new life into the genre with her interracial leads, who pretend to be a fake couple after bumping into each other in a lift. A fresh, sexy read, and a name to keep an eye on.
Meadhbh McGrath & Tanya Sweeney
Along with new material from writers in their prime, 2018 saw the publication of three significant posthumous short story collections - including one by William Trevor (see Top Pick, p20). Even the vignettes in Helen Dunmore's Girl, Balancing (Hutchinson) resonate with telling details: spilling Ajax in a grim 1960s bedsit, banking up the fire in a borrowed house. The collection is full of classic Dunmore themes - the complexity of family bonds, the struggles and triumphs of women. In the excellent title story, a young woman uses her skating prowess to escape a sexual predator.
Revered in his native US, Denis Johnson, like Dunmore, died in 2017 and the five darkly comic stories that comprise The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Jonathan Cape) are befitting final testaments to his wild originality. In rehab, in prison, in their own troubled, tangled heads, his characters grapple with failure, desperation and their own mortality. His sentences, like his plots, are full of gorgeous little shocks.
Over the past 20 years, The Stinging Fly has been responsible for launching the careers of numerous talented writers and Stinging Fly Stories (The Stinging Fly), edited by Sarah Gilmartin and Declan Meade, celebrates two decades of the visionary magazine. This anthology represents Irish fiction at its best. There's a wealth of treasures from writers such as Colin Barrett, Kevin Barry, Mary Costello and Danielle McLaughlin. Wendy Erskine is also among them and Erskine's debut Sweet Home (The Stinging Fly) is one of the most powerful and distinctive short story collections of the year, depicting a contemporary East Belfast not often seen in fiction. From a bigoted teacher who objects to Celtic lettering, to a DIY enthusiast whose mother is just out of prison, her characters are memorable, funny and fully formed, and though the stories take place within a few streets, her themes are universal.
Another wonderful short story debut very much rooted in place, Shift (New Island) by Mia Gallagher, evokes a Dublin that is both familiar and alien, a haunted, haunting city where danger lurks in unexpected places: a puddle in Tallaght, the walls of an old terraced house. Identities are unstable here, the characters appropriately shifty and the voices - which include a kelpie, or Scottish water spirit - gratifyingly diverse.
All but one of the interconnected stories in Mary O'Donnell's thoughtful, thought-provoking collection Empire (Arlen House) are set in Ireland between 1915 and 1919. O'Donnell's focus is on colonialism, class and gender politics, but her themes are refracted through the prism of her characters' ambivalences and contradictions. The breadth of her historical imagination is impressive, particularly in the title story, which moves between Dublin and Burma, tracking a couple's relationship and the evolution of their individual consciousnesses.
In You Think It, I'll Say It (Doubleday), Curtis Sittenfeld exposes the angst and anxieties of contemporary middle-class America. Several of the stories in her first collection revolve around shifting power dynamics and the jaundiced eyes with which women can view each other. Politics is everywhere. 'The Nominee' features a familiar female presidential candidate grappling with the issue of likeability. 'Gender Studies' tracks a fraught sexual encounter between a Democrat and a Trump voter. Current, layered and hugely readable.
Finally, AM Homes' Days of Awe (Granta) is a more satiric, surreal take on contemporary America. With her trademark acerbic wit, Homes dissects the psychodramas of her characters, mostly raging narcissists who embody the worst of their society, its superficiality, rootlessness and disconnection. Set at a genocide conference, 'Days of Awe' is the standout story here - funny, outrageous, reflective and shot through with unexpected tenderness.
The beauty of William Trevor's Last Stories (Penguin) lies partly in their mystery. In these 10 masterfully controlled, quietly lyrical pieces of fiction, no one is ordinary and nothing is simple. Trevor's characters - a piano teacher with a gifted, kleptomaniac pupil, two brothers mistaken for Polish painters - are often wrong-footed by life, and by turning his forensic eye on them, he depicts entire worlds. Alive with muted strangeness, these stories cry out to be reread.
For drama, intrigue and the odd turn into the frankly unbelievable, look no further than a well-told true-life account.
There was no denying that Longford writer and farmer John Connell hit on something with the release of The Cow Book (Granta). Memoirs about the restorative qualities of fresh air and green spaces will never go out of fashion, but The Cow Book seems to particularly chime with a modern Ireland that finds itself both more mindful of mental health as well as those ways of life that are slipping from our increasingly urbanised view.
Katja Petrowskaja's Maybe Esther (4th Estate) is a most unusual breed of biog. The Ukrainian-born Berliner traces 200 years and seven generations of her family, and by extension tells a widescreen and occasionally dizzying tale of the horrors that have befallen the Jewry of this small, overheated continent. Language is an anchoring theme - her family on her mother's side were devoted to educating deaf and mute children - with Petrowskaja's memories and anecdotes told in translucent, intangible registers that may suit some readers more than others.
Easy to dip into and filled with nugget-sized profiles from someone who knows what they're talking about - respected arts critic Ciaran Carty - Writer to Writer: The Republic of Elsewhere (Lilliput) is essential for the bibliophile in your life. Featuring sit-downs with everyone from Ballard to O'Brien, Enright to Ishiguro, Carty has a reflective style that transcends mere micro-biographing and adds an extra layer of relatability to these lofty names.
If youthful decibel levels start to soar just a bit too high during festivities, run off and hide with a copy of Pops (4th Estate), Michael Chabon's slim collection of essays and articles about what is coming down the line when "little ones" start to look not so little any more. Fatherhood changes shape with the years, the celebrated US novelist reminds us, and requires much grace under pressure, but the headaches are there to be embraced.
Another type of unruliness is encountered in Rebel (William Morrow), the long-awaited tell-all (well, tell-most) from Hollywood's great latter-day mud wrestler and enfant terrible, Nick Nolte.
Both a smoky piece of possible self-mythologising and a wild carnival of Lear jets, leading ladies, and lorry-loads of drugs, this is a down-and-dirty page-turner, even if the whole thing is coated in something ultimately tragic.
Someone else who evidently played by their own rules is Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley, who naturally warrants revision these days given her proto-feminist credentials. While we await a big screen depiction - Jessica Chastain, anyone? - this 40th Anniversary edition of Grace O'Malley: The Biography of Ireland's Pirate Queen 1530-1603 (Gill), Anne Chambers' definitive biography of the Connacht swashbuckler, will do the job.
Had Rory Gallagher been around back then, O'Malley would surely have made room on board for him. Rory Gallagher: The Man Behind the Guitar (The Collins Press) is Julian Vignoles's tireless treatment of the life and times of the Ballyshannon guitar god who set fire to the blues-rock rulebook. Includes extensive interviews, discography, and a thorough distillation of the Taste years.
A ratcheting pace, a tight first-person immediacy, and utterly staggering to be a passenger over its entire warped course, Mind On Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery (Penguin Ireland) was a real achievement of 2018 that saw Arnold Thomas Fanning - the promising playwright who lost 10 years to serious mental illness - relate his terrifying decade. An indelible, ground-shaking account.
Hilary A White
At its best, sci-fl holds a mirror up to contemporary society and alerts the reader to the perils of what lies ahead. Perhaps the best example of that in recent years was 2017's American War by Omar El Akkad, which looked at a near-future America rendered unrecognisable by a second civil war and climate change.
This year's contender for the best near-future dystopian shock is Claire North's 84k (Orbit) which looks at an England which is both very different and disturbingly similar.
All law enforcement and civil interactions have been outsourced to The Company, a vast conglomerate which controls every aspect of a citizen's life and decides on punishments and tariffs based on your ability to pay and your standing in society.
The wealthy can pay a fine, the poor effectively become the indentured property of The Company. The inevitable echoes of current austerity measures and immigration are present and correct.
It was fitting that in the centenary of the end of the Great War, Stephen Palmer should release Tommy Catkins (Infinity Plus), which sees a soldier sent home from the front with shell shock. While recuperating in an experimental hospital, he begins to see glimpses of a parallel world. His fellow patients are strange and otherworldly and he's promised refuge in this alternate dimension - for, of course, a price. Tommy Catkins is a thoughtful look at the fraying of a battle-broken mind.
Richard 'Altered Carbon' Morgan's latest, Thin Air (Gollancz) sees a former mercenary stalk a colonised but now secessionist Mars and its 'paprika sky'. All citizens are implanted with trackers, the mood is mutinous and a local Mars politician is making a name for himself by running on a tough ticket with the slogan "bad conditions for bad hombres". Wherever do they get their ideas from?
African sci-fi has been enjoying a creative burst in the last few years and Tade Thompson's debut, Rosewater (Orbit) is set in Nigeria, 2066, following an alien invasion which left the UK, the US and most of the northern hemisphere mysteriously 'dark.'
If you're not intrigued by a novel described in one review as an "alien-encounter, cyberpunk, bio-punk, Afro thriller" then you probably don't like sci-fi in the first place.
Any new novel by the great Kim Stanley Robinson is always an event and Red Moon (Orbit) doesn't disappoint.
The author has written about the almost inevitable influence of China before, and in Red Moon a young tech geek delivers a new communication device to a large Chinese colony on the moon. Set a mere 60 years in the future, it features all of the author's usual ruminations on the human condition and while fans of sci-fi which involve lasers and hyperdrives might find his style rather dry, he is a master of his craft.
* Next week, we look at the best books of the year in politics, history, popular science, music and more...