Books of the Year Part 1 - our fave reads of 2017 to suit every type of bookworm...
...from short-story lovers to fantasy fans and biography addicts
In the first of a two-part guide to the books of the year, our writers pick their favourite reads of 2017 to suit every type of bookworm - from short-story lovers to fantasy fans and biography addicts
Even if we look beyond the big talking points in literary fiction this year — Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking (Tramp Press), Lincoln In The Bardo (Bloomsbury) by George Saunders, Tóibín’s House of Names (Viking), Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) — there was a heap of treasure littering the fringes.
Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language (Harvill Secker) was a hoot from start to finish. It saw the HHhH author take the esoterism of France’s critical-theory elite and plonk it in a tongue-in-cheek conspiracy thriller. Plumbing a similar tone was Salman Rushdie, who it was good see back on the shelves. The 70-year-old was in rude — Rushdie-rude — health with The Golden House (Jonathan Cape), a plotty family saga set in Manhattan against a backdrop of social-media hysteria, identity politics getting out of hand and a political usurper who is nothing more than a “crook pointing a crooked finger at his rival and calling her crooked”.
Rushdie wasn’t the only novelist using their superpowers to take aim at He Who Shall Not Ruin Christmas. Howard Jacobson basked in the novel as a tool for ridicule and disrespect with Pussy (Jonathan Cape), probably the most scathing and thinly veiled satire ever published about an incumbent world leader. At times, it is too close to the bone to be properly chucklesome, which some say is the hallmark of great satire.
Ireland turned out to be a good place for darker tones yet again. Some feral filth and fury was served up under the guise of childlike innocence in Alan McMonagle’s Ithaca (Picador). Its 11-year-old protagonist Jason was armed with a tragi-comedic internal monologue that was a highlight of Irish literary fiction in 2017.
Molly McCloskey also delivered a character rich with interiority in When Light Is Like Water (Penguin). Irish-American McCloskey has the observational eye of both the outsider and insider, able at once to pinpoint the intricacies and mannerisms of the Irish people and landscape. This isn’t a misty-eyed love letter to the land; rather, it’s a delightful fish-out-of-water account, stitched together with gentle yet wondrous prose.
There is a case to be made for sticking Lisa McInerney in the crime-fiction genre but until that day, her lofty skills preclude her from easy categorisation. The Blood Miracles (John Murray), a drugged-up Cork caper, is a rollicking night in from a writer at the peak of her powers.
Unfurling at a less hectic pace, though delivering characters no less forgettable, was Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible (Viking). Much like her Pulitzer Award-winning title Olive Kitteridge, her latest offering is a portmanteau feast, set in the intoxicating badlands of smalltown Illinois. From sex workers and adulterers to rapists, Strout has dug deep to create ever more confrontational, audacious snapshots of claustrophobic rural life. But Anything is Possible is positively soaked in beauty, and Strout, as ever, captures the gore and the glory of the human condition better than most.
Speaking of Pulitzer winners, Jennifer Egan’s follow-up to 2011’s A Visit from the Good Squad has been feverishly anticipated, and boy, has she delivered with Manhattan Beach (Scribner). In this evocative tale, an 11-year-old girl visits the titular Brooklyn shoreline with her father and a shadowy underworld figure, Dexter. Circumstances send the three characters scattering in different directions, their fates deliciously intertwining as the tale unfolds. A complex tale of family in wartime America, Egan also delivers up a fascinating meditation on the role of women in a changing society.
Of course, the old pros weren’t going to be shown up by young upstarts. Wise Waterford owl Peter Cunningham does Haughey-baiting Hiberno-espionage with aplomb in Acts of Allegiance (Sandstone Press) and, annoyingly, makes it look rather easy at that.
Another homegrown tormentor was Paul Lynch. Like a handsome Donegal vampire, Lynch emerged from the shadows with his third novel, Grace (Oneworld), a transfixing work that took Famine Ireland and reimagined it as a McCarthy-esque survival nightmare. Lynch can sometimes over-ice the cake, but when he does find his natural gait, his gothic prose-poetry really pulls you under.
Greyer of hue but inhabiting a dimension where the laws of nature carry the same cold edge as Lynch was Reservoir 13 (4th Estate), which won author Jon McGregor no shortage of acclaim and awards longlists. The novel twitched a curtain and eavesdropped near the kitchen sink as a small village came to terms with the disappearance of a local girl. It is a beautiful and haunting work, but perhaps a little sombre for January when more vigorous fare might be wiser to make it through the post-Christmas drear.
Debuts delivered in 2017. The unstoppable march of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends (Faber & Faber) continues. Newcomer Ronan Ryan announced himself with his ambitious, incident-laced yarn The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice (Tinder Press). Another new kid on the Irish block was Andrew Meehan, who put his years as a script doctor to good use in the beautiful and slippery One Star Awake (New Island).
Elsewhere, Elif Batuman delivered The Idiot (Vintage), a first novel that was both idiosyncratic and indelible. Selin, describing herself as “the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person” arrives at Harvard and tries to find her sea legs in this competitive, intellectual new terrain. Selin is as delightful and witty a teenage character as you’re likely to have encountered all year.
Hilary A White and Tanya Sweeney
Published in January, JericHo’s War by Gerald Seymour (Hodder & Stoughton) got the 2017 thriller year off to a flying start. This tense drama pits a duo of British army snipers against the Emir, an elderly Al Qaeda mastermind and his deadly technical genius known as the Ghost, before they can put into train an appalling act of terror.
Equally gripping is The Spy’s Daughter by Adam Brookes (Sphere), the third nail-bitingly tense adventure featuring journalist turned MI6 agent Philip Mangan, who this time attempts to protect geeky maths genius Pearl Tao, an American teenager, from the clutches of Chinese intelligence who want to kidnap her.
Still on espionage, the final quarter of the year saw the publication of A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré (Viking), a masterful and quite unputdownable return to the events of the 1960s Cold War and the death of doomed British spy Alec Leamas detailed in Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) as seen from the viewpoint of George Smiley’s then deputy, octogenarian Franco-British spy Peter Guillam.
The Burial Hour by Jeffery Deaver (Hodder & Stoughton) has paraplegic forensic investigator Lincoln Rhyme and his lover and investigator Amelia Sachs up against a cruel killer called the Composer; they have to travel to Italy to unmask him. As always in a Deaver mystery, nothing is as it appears to be.
Don’t dismiss Dan Brown’s Origin (Doubleday), the latest Robert Langford adventure, because whatever its literary merits, it is an imaginative and rattling good tale that delivers thrills and good science in spades. Perhaps the most searing thriller of the year was The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne (Sphere), in which Helena Pelletier, living in rural upper Michigan, must slough her veneer of civilisation and become the hunter-killer her disturbed child-abducting father trained her to be if she is to protect her husband and two little girls when he escapes from prison. A stunningly good debut that grips like a vice and spits out the shredded reader half a day later.
Finally, three outstanding Irish crime novels. The Well of Ice by Andrea Carter sees Inishowen peninsula-based country solicitor and amateur sleuth Benedicta Kirby in deadly danger as her sister’s killer turns up on her patch seeking revenge, while in the excellent Sleeping Beauties by Jo Spain (Quercus), Detective Inspector Tom Reynolds has to attempt to capture a serial killer responsible for the death of five young women whose bodies are discovered in Glendalough, all the while having to defend his actions to his incompetent new supervisor.
In Blood Tide by Claire McGowan (Headline) police forensic psychologist Paula Maguire is asked to travel the length of Ireland from her home in the Northern Ireland border town of Ballyterrin to storm-bound Bone Island, a small community of less than 400 people off the coast of Kerry, where an English couple have seemingly vanished under suspicious circumstances. An excellent read.
When Blindboy Boatclub was given free rein by a publisher to write whatever he wanted, he turned his sharp take on modern Ireland into an uproarious, surreal collection of short stories entitled The Gospel According To Blindboy Boatclub (Gill Books). Much in keeping with the Rubberbandits’ humour, BB’s collection is as subversive, demented and anarchic as you might expect. Arguably one of the Irish debuts of the year. Elsewhere, Nuala O’Connor’s Joyride To Jupiter (New Island books) trots at a different, albeit much more intimate clip. All of humanity is bound in this original collection, from a young girl who has recently become an orphan, to the man who decides to find a boy conceived through his donor sperm by going to questionable lengths. Proving O’Connor’s scope and ambition, there’s also a Ukrainian mother who Skypes her child from a far off land, where she works as a cleaner. Thanks to O’Connor’s effortless way with words, each tale becomes more gorgeous and thought-provoking than the last.
Jeffrey Eugenides turned his famously keen ability to find beauty in the everyday in his short-story collection, Fresh Complaint (4th Estate). Most of them have been written between 1988 and 2017, and of the 10 stories in the collection, two may be already familiar to fans. ‘Air Mail’, a young traveller’s journey on the road to himself, featured in Annie Proulx’s 1997 edition of The Best American Short Stories; ‘Baster’, a story about Tomasina, a woman whose donor insemination party goes slightly awry and kick-starts a series of unfortunate events, was published in the New Yorker as far back as 1996. Certainly, Eugenides’ collection is cleaner and more classic than some others on this list, but each story bears the writer’s hallmark of charm and timelessness.
American Ottessa Moshfegh was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, thanks to his brilliantly dark novel Eileen. His short-story collection, Homesick For Another World (Jonathan Cape), follows in a similar misanthropic vein. Here, the characters find themselves trapped in their hometowns, relationships and neuroses. Bleak, certainly, but Moshfegh’s literary sleight of hand makes each one a joy to read.
This year’s big story, in both senses, for fantasy was Philip Pullman’s return with La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Vol 1. If you’re a fan of the His Dark Materials novels (and there are millions of Pullman devotees out there), you’ll know this, the first in a new series, is a prequel to those seminal works. Published 17 years after the last Dark Materials book, and set 10 years before the events depicted in that trilogy — if you follow — La Belle Sauvage introduces us to a kid called Malcolm, a sinister Spanish Inquisition-style government group and a baby who will grow up to be Lyra Belacqua. Our review summarised La Belle Sauvage as being “well worth the wait.”
Neil Jordan also returned — in the sense of swapping his movie-making hat for that of fiction-writer — with Carnivalesque, a fantasy set in the magical surrounds of a travelling circus and funfair. Dublin lad Andy gets trapped inside a mirror; his reflection/doppelganger walks out into ours. It has a fantastic set-up and a lot of good writing, though the ending feels rushed and muddled. In The Power, Naomi Alderman’s award-winning sci-fi set in the near future, women around the world discover that they possess the ability to shoot out electricity, strong enough to injure or even kill. Naturally (or, perhaps, unnaturally), this sets in train a huge revolution around the world as women rise up against their male oppressors, everywhere from hideous Islamic hell-holes to the corridors of Western, ahem, power. A fascinating concept, expertly explored by Alderman. By the way, if you’re feeling lazy, this is now being turned into a TV series.
In New York 2140, veteran sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson offers a dystopia with a difference. Much of NYC has been submerged beneath the briny consequences of global warming, but instead of taking the easy way out – “we have created hell on earth!” — Robinson offers a more complex, nuanced and plausible extrapolation of what this would be like. And the cover’s a real beauty.
Meanwhile, Stephen King may be the paterfamilias in literary terms, but son Joe Hill is carving out a stellar reputation for himself. After bestselling and award-winning novels such as The Fireman and NOS4A2, Hill delivered a fine collection of four short novels in October. Strange Weather skips gleefully between genres — finishing with a brilliant bit of climate-themed sci-fi — and packs in enough thrills and good writing for four full-length works.
POPULAR FICTION BY WOMEN
Scottish writer Gail Honeyman’s debut, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (HarperCollins), is easily one of the most charming books of the year. I’ve never felt so completely on a character’s side than I did reading this heart-rending (and very funny) story about the socially awkward Eleanor, a loner who spends her evenings eating frozen pizzas, drinking vodka and enduring nasty calls from her mother — until she and the office IT man stumble upon an ailing elderly man. Reese Witherspoon has already signed on to executive produce the film adaptation.
There are few events as exciting for popular fiction fans than a new book from Marian Keyes, and her latest novel The Break (Penguin) did not disappoint. It has a fantastic opening: our heroine Amy’s husband Hugh announces he is running away for six months to ‘find himself’ in south-east Asia. Can a ‘break’ from a marriage really work? No one writes the Irish family as well as Keyes, and readers will absolutely devour this.
I’ll Eat When I’m Dead by Barbara Bourland (Quercus) offers a Devil Wears Prada for the Instagram generation, and it’s a real page-turner. When the editor of the Vogue-like Rage Fashion Book is found dead in the magazine’s workroom, her assistant editor Cat teams up with NYPD Detective Sutton to solve her suspected murder. As well as being a gripping whodunnit, Bourland delivers a razor-sharp satire on the fashion industry, modern feminism and digital media.
Sophie Kinsella’s signature humour and wry observations are as keen as ever in My Not So Perfect Life (Bantam Press). Katie is a 26-year-old arrived in London from Somerset, eager to rise above her hometown and fashion a glamorous life in the city. When she loses her job at a trendy branding agency, she has to return to the family farm and help her dad set up a ‘glamping’ business. It’s light, vibrant and frequently hilarious — a terrifically fun read.
Little Fires Everywhere (Little Brown), the second novel by Asian-American writer Celeste Ng, has garnered rapturous reviews since it was released last month. A psychological mystery about two families in a quiet Ohio town in the 1990s, it explores complicated family dynamics, simmering racial tensions and the pains of motherhood, and looks set to be the big book club read for 2018. You can’t really go wrong with the doyennes of Irish women’s fiction — Patricia Scanlan, Sheila O’Flanagan and Deirdre Purcell. Scanlan’s warm and wonderful Orange Blossom Days (Simon & Schuster) follows the fortunes of a diverse group who bought Spanish holiday homes before the recession. A moment changes everything in What Happened That Night (Headline Review), O’Flanagan’s brilliant family saga page-turner.
Along with Maeve Binchy, these grande dames of popular fiction paved the way for a host of new Irish women writers, who provided much variety in 2017.
Two excellent Irish debuts were The Last Lost Girl (Poolbeg Crimson) by Maria Hoey: if you remember the hot summer of 1976, you will love the nostalgia wrapped around the mystery of a missing girl, with a surprising twist.
The second is a dark psychological thriller by Andrea Mara, The Other Side of the Wall (Poolbeg Crimson). Not for the faint-hearted and definitely not for your maiden aunt might prefer nostalgia from Gemma Jackson’s Ha’Penny Schemes (Poolbeg), a sequel to Through Streets Broad and Narrow, where the plucky Ivy overcomes adversity in Dublin tenements.
Another Irish debut that impressed was Eithne Shortall’s Love in Row 27 (Corvus), which has a winning premise at its core and follows the adventures of a matchmaking airline check-in agent. When the self-service check-in at Heathrow Airport is temporarily suspended, Aer Lingus worker Cora decides to seize the opportunity to seat unsuspecting solo travellers together in the hopes of finding love. The journalist-turned-author assembles an engaging cast of characters and the witty romance breezes along enjoyably.
For those who love historical novels like Wide Sargasso Sea, Olive Collins takes us from 1821 and the slave trade in Jamaica to the present, in her epic tale of passion and loss, The Tide
Between Us (Poolbeg Crimson). Murder, infidelity and secrets are the ingredients of Bernie McGill’s haunting novel The Watch House (Tinder) set on Rathlin Island in 1898, when Marconi conducts experiments in wireless telegraphy.
Taking us back to present times, Keep You Safe (HarperCollins) by Melissa Hill is riveting on a mother’s dilemma around the controversial approach to vaccination.
A psychopath and a drug ring bring terror from Marrakech to a small Irish fishing village in Cat Hogan’s There Was A Crooked Man (Poolbeg Crimson). If you fancy a Christmas ghost story, look no further than Helen Moorhouse’s Ever This Day (Poolbeg Crimson).
Meadhbh McGrath and Ann Dunne
When it starts to feel like it’s all been done in the fiction universe, we reach for the incredulity of real-life stories.
For humour (and a bolthole for the family-ravaged brain), Stefanie Preissner is probably the best company you could hope for this Christmas. Why Can’t Everything Just Stay The Same (Hachette) bottles the worldview and millennial moxie of the Mallow writer and “woman of the moment”. More substantial than mere stocking filler.
Homan Potterton, the former director of the National Gallery, returns with another memoir after 2002’s bestselling Rathcormick: A Childhood Recalled. Although largely taking place in the starkly different landscape of 1980s, Potterton’s lively and gossip-laced style makes him gas company within the pages of Who Do I Think I Am? (Merrion Press).
Ruth Fitzmaurice’s recent Bord Gáis Energy Book award for I Found My Tribe (Chatto & Windus) carries with it extra poignancy this Christmas following the recent death of her husband Simon. In it, she muses on her sea-swimming club that provided release following Simon’s diagnosis in 2008 with motor neurone disease. It comes highly recommended, as does Michael Harding’s On Tuesdays I’m A Buddhist (Hachette), in which the columnist and thinker muses in his own inimitable way about therapy, religion and the meaning of life.
We just can’t get enough David Attenborough, can we? With the exceptional Blue Planet II having concluded on BBC, The Zoo Quest Expeditions will keep the wildlife institution’s fans — everyone, basically — occupied until his godly tones return to the small screen. This covers his early years searching the tropics for rare species during a 1954 expedition. Fans of WWII history are advised to seek out Sacha Batthyany’s excellent A Crime in the Family (Quercus) where the Hungarian writer rakes over old coals of a Nazi atrocity his family was directly linked to. It is similar territory to Wounds: A Memoir Of Love And War (William Collins) by Fergal Keane. Here, the BBC correspondent and Sunday Independent columnist takes an unflinching look at a hushed-up Civil War murder that took place outside his grandmother’s house in Listowel. Biographies are also prime locations for revealing secret histories. Take My House of Sky: The Life and Work of JA Baker (Little Toller), where Hetty Saunders’ sheds light on this mysterious and much mythologised author whose masterwork The Peregrine has become a cult-classic over its 50 years. As long as there is an Ireland, there will be analysis of Éamon de Valera. RTÉ’s David McCullagh updated the conversation with the first of two extensive revisions of that long shadow in De Valera Volume 1: Rise 1882-1932 (Gill Books), with a follow-up, Rule: 1932-1975, arriving next year.
For sheer heroism, none compare with Mary Elmes, whose incredible story was finally told in A Time To Risk All (Gill Books). Journalist Clodagh Finn biographies the Cork woman who over 1942 smuggled 200 Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied France to safety in the boot of her car. A fitting tribute to an Irish figure we should be very proud of.
Hilary A White
Described somewhat astutely by Colm O’Regan as “sharp, funny, touching, thinky”, Rob Stears’ In My Day Ireland Then and Now (Hachette Ireland) has illustrated the Ireland of yesteryear, where instant coffee was a thing and Google maps wasn’t. Putting pen to changes in politics, entertainment and fashion, In My Day is perfect for fans not just of nostalgia, but a decent belly laugh.
Another illustrator who made her name online before landing a book deal is sometimes stand-up Aoife Dooley. Her mission this time around is to call out Ireland’s poxes and buzz-wreckers (in case you’re wondering what a pox is, think the guy who opens a chicken fillet roll next to you in the bus at 8am). In How To Deal With Poxes (On A Daily Basis) (Gill Books), Dooley has come up with a clever solution on how to deal with almost every type of pox: as close to a survival guide for 2017 as you can get.
And, where the Ladybird and Famous Five ‘grown-up’ books have proved a game-changer in years past, this year it’s the time for the Mr Men franchise to shine. Roger Hargreaves’ Little Miss Busy Surviving Motherhood (Edgmont) should make for interesting reading for anyone who misses a lie-in and has to juggle work, home and being the perfect mum.
Elsewhere, nostalgia looms large in Ciara King’s debut book Ciara’s Diary: Sense & Shiftability: 1999-2002 (Gill Books). The girl who grew up to be a 2fm presenter documents the trials and tribulations of being a youngster in Galway at the turn of the century. Highly relatable and heartwarming, expect plenty of pushy parents, crushes and plays of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’.
And no Christmas would be complete without a bit of turkey: Dustin the Turkey’s debut Wikibeaks (Penguin Ireland) sees the irreverent former Eurovision contender stick his beak into various pockets of Irish society (he’s convinced it will eventually end up on the Leaving Cert syllabus, and he might have a point). From his exposé on the KipAdvisor site, to an item entitled ‘Beach Yoga With Van Morrison, this is a love letter to Ireland, but not as we know it.
Top pick: Waterford Whispers news: Newsageddon
Few do on-the-nose topical humour like the crew behind satirical site Waterford Whispers, and their latest book, Waterford Whispers News: Newsageddon (Gill Books), their fourth annual, is a lookback on the year that was. Garda scandals, Trump, Brexit, Leo Varadkar, Conor McGregor… no headline is left unturned as WWN staffer Colin Williamson blends knowing social commentary with the website’s trademark humour.
Sporting books that pack a punch
He may not have added to his All-Ireland medal collection, or even played in the final, but it was hard to escape Kerry football legend Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper this year.
His testimonial dinner was hugely contentious but few would have denied him the opportunity to put cash into his bank balance with his frank autobiography, Gooch (Transworld Ireland). Ghostwritten by Irish Independent chief sports writer Vincent Hogan, it was one of several no-holds-barred memoirs published by GAA royalty this year.
Another recently retired Irish sporting giant, Kilkenny hurler Jackie Tyrrell, also offered a window into one of the game’s strongholds and The Warrior’s Code (Trinity Mirror) gave an insight into the modus operandi of manager Brian Cody that few have glimpsed to date.
Philly McMahon is still very much in his playing pomp, and the Dublin footballer added another All-Ireland medal to his haul in September. His book, The Choice (Gill) — a winner at last week’s Bord Gáis Energy Book Awards — was less about the intricacies of sport and more about his tough upbringing and the pain of seeing his brother lost to drugs.
It was a disappointing year for Irish football, a Danish pasting putting paid to our aspirations to make next year’s World Cup. A man who knows more than most about shattered dreams, former international manager Eoin Hand, delivered one of the most compelling sporting memoirs.
First Hand: My Life and Irish Football (Collins Press) captured the remarkable life and times of a player-turned-manager who plied his trade in an era unrecognisable to today’s loadsamoney jamboree.
Hand had some wonderful players at his disposal as Ireland manager and few would argue that today’s crop are cut from similar cloth. Kevin O’Neill’s Where Have All the Irish Gone (Pitch Publishing) looked at how the advent of the Premier League and its influx of overseas talent has stymied the development of new generations of Irish footballers.
There’s no sign of an end to this country’s ability to produce exceptional jockeys and one of the all-time greats of flat racing, Kieran Fallon, was brutally honest about his gifts — and demons — in Form: My Autobiography (Simon & Schuster).
Elsewhere, Barry Ryan’s The Ascent (Gill) captured a golden era in Irish cycling as both Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche conquered a sport that had long been the preserve of continental riders.
On the international front, Andy McGrath’s biography of doomed British cyclist Tom Simpson, Bird On The Wire (Rapha Editions) won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, and there was widespread acclaim for Tom English and Peter Burns and their entertaining account of the legendary Lions tour of New Zealand in 1971, When Lions Roared (Polaris).
There was also praise for Judy Murray’s book on her son Andy, Knowing the Score (Penguin), and for Quiet Genius (Bloomsbury), Ian Herbert’s portrait of Bob Paisley, Liverpool manager during the club’s all-conquering late 70s/early 80s period.
Top pick: Ali: a life
Muhammad Ali has been the subject of innumerable biographies — and little wonder considering his impact on both boxing and the wider world. This exhaustive book — running to over 600 pages — offers a look at the man behind the legend. And it wasn’t always pretty — he could be cruel and vindictive and he treated an ex-wife disgracefully. Eig spent five years on this book, published by Simon & Schuster, conducting interviews with 200 people.