Thursday 22 March 2018

Books: Sentences like brush strokes -- and treasures in the unexpected

‘Lovingly written’: Cecelia Ahern chose ‘Glaciers’. Photo: Steve Humphreys
‘Lovingly written’: Cecelia Ahern chose ‘Glaciers’. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Literary titan: Colm Tóibín loved Sheila Hale’s intimate study of Titan’s work. Photo: COR
Out of this world: Cathy Kelly. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Mantel piece: Hilary Mantel chose 'Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. Photo: AP

Ireland's top writers look back on the books that stood out for them in 2013

Cecelia Ahern


Glaciers by Alexis M Smith: Among the many themes in this novel is the idea you can find treasure in the most unexpected places and in reading Glaciers I found a treasure of my own. About a young librarian who searches for treasures in thriftshops, it is written lovingly; each sentence is like a brush stroke.

Born Weird by Andrew Kaufman: From one of my favourite authors who wrote The Tiny Wife, Kaufman has written a clever and hilarious story about the Weird family who realise they were cursed by their grandmother on their birth.

They must reunite to gather around their grandmother to undo the curse before she dies. His dialogue is fast and funny and his characters are always so lively and full.

The Colour Master by Aimee Bender: Another of my favourite authors -- I loved The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake -- has published a collection of short stories. They are quirky, strange and wonderful and I adore how she views the world.

Cecelia Ahern's 10th novel 'How To Fall In Love' was published this year.

John Banville

Al Kennedy is one of the most talented writers around, and On Writing (Cape, £18.99) shows her at her best, her wisest and her funniest. Here is her blog from the Guardian, plus a clutch of superb essays, and the transcript of her one-person stage show, Words.

A treat, and a treatise. To choose The Power of Ideas, by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy (Princeton, $24.95), is to cheat a little, since it was first published in 2000, but as this handsome new edition shows, the essays contained here are as fresh, stimulating and exciting as when they were first written.

John Banville won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for his novel 'The Sea'. Writing as Benjamin Black, his Philip Marlowe novel 'The Black Eyed Blonde', commissioned by the Chandler estate, will appear next year.

Eleanor Catton

My discovery of the year was Eimear McBride's debut novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press): in style, very similar to Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, but the broken ellipses never feel like a gimmick or a game.

I was utterly devastated by Colin McAdam's A Beautiful Truth (Granta), and utterly delighted by Elizabeth Knox's sly and ingenious Mortal Fire (Farrar Straus Giroux). My favourite novel for children published this year was the marvellously funny and inventive Heap House (Hot Key), written and illustrated by Edward Carey.

Eleanor Catton's novel 'The Luminaries' won the Man Booker Prize this year.

Cathy Kelly

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel -- a marvellous factual account of the lives of the wives of the Mercury Seven US astronauts, the first Americans sent into space. These seven women became US royalty. The glamorous side was meeting Jackie Kennedy but the hell was waiting for their men to come home.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer -- her 10th novel tells the tale of a group of people who bond as teenagers in a rich-kids summer camp and who remain friends over decades.

The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly -- another Mickey Haller (of Lincoln Lawyer fame) in which the criminal defence lawyer tries to find out who killed a former client, an addict called Gloria.

Cathy Kelly's 15th novel A Woman's Heart will be published next year.

Colum McCann

Alice McDermott's Someone is for me one of the most beautiful novels of the year. It's the perfectly calibrated portrait of the life of an ordinary woman, pointing out along the way that nothing is ever essentially ordinary. It's also the story of a woman looking back on her life, from pre-war Brooklyn through to her old age in a nursing home. The prose is crisp, unadorned, purposeful and just about as good as it ever gets.

Roddy Doyle's new novel The Guts is definitely one of my favourites for Christmas. I'd walk a hundred miles for a new Roddy Doyle novel at any time: the advantage with The Guts is that it also walks me back into the past and helps awaken all those good days I spent with his earlier work. Was it really that long ago when I saw Roddy selling The Commitments outside the SFX Centre in Dublin?

Bill Cheng's Southern Cross the Dog is one of the best debut American novels this year. It's a novel steeped in the blues of 1920s Mississippi, written by a first generation Chinese New Yorker. The world always offers its surprises.

Colum McCann's novel Transatlantic was published this year.

Ryan Tubridy

Donal Ryan continues to capture the mood of a country in his Spinning Heart prequel, The Thing About December. I love the depth of his character studies served up with plenty of humour along the way. Colm Tóibín's

Testament of Mary was a joy. To see the story of Jesus (whose name is never mentioned) through the prism of what reads like a caring Irish mother was quite the feat.

I raced through Bill Bryson's One Summer, an absorbing account of what was happening in America during the summer of 1927. Every page is peppered with fascinating facts and tales that include Mount Rushmore, silent movies, Al Capone, Babe Ruth and one of that country's greatest anti-heroes, Charles Lindbergh.

Ryan Tubridy's second book, The Irish Are Coming was published this year.

Belinda McKeon

Kate Zambreno's Heroines weaves literary scholarship and diary/memoir to consider and reclaim the biographies of 20th Century women writers including Virginia Woolf, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys and several others. It's intelligent, uncompromising and stylistically thrilling.

In Irish fiction, I admired Elske Rahill's debut Between Dog and Wolf, a vivid and inventive novel about friendship and sexuality, and I was glad to see the year bring great success to Donal Ryan, whose new novel The Thing About December is clear-eyed and moving.

Other books I loved were Kate Clanchy's novel Meeting The English, about a young man who becomes the carer for a famous playwright; psychoanalyst Ross Skelton's memoir Eden Halt; and Craig Teicher's poetry collection To Keep Love Blurry, which interrogates the whole business of confessional writing.

Belinda McKeon's new novel Tender will be published next year.

Sinead Moriarty

Dear Maeve -- a collection of articles by Maeve Binchy. As always with Maeve's writing, these articles made me laugh out loud and also moved me. She has that incredible gift of making you feel enveloped in warmth and comfort and yet always manages to be thought-provoking at the same time.

The articles cover all areas of life from the hilarious -- how do you tell someone that their skirt is tucked into their knickers, to what to say to a friend who is dying.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I loved her previous book Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah is as good if not better. Two teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze, fall in love. But things in Nigeria are difficult under military dictatorship, and those who can are leaving the country for a better life.

Ifemelu heads for America to study. She does well, although she finds the Americans obsessed by race.

Meanwhile, Obinze who had hoped to join her now cannot, as post-9/11 America will not let him in. So he goes to London where he finds himself living a very difficult life as an illegal immigrant with no papers.

Eventually, fate will bring them together. It's a fascinating insight into the lives of immigrants and a love story.

When You Were Born by Benji Bennett. This is a gorgeous book for young children. It's beautifully illustrated and has a very sweet message about the baby boy (Adam) choosing his parents.

He travels around the world on a cloud, trying out different parents from the animal kingdom until he finally figures out who his real parents should be. My kids loved it.

Sinead Moriarty's novel Mad about you was published this year.

Colm Tóibín

Titian: His Life by Sheila Hale (HarperPress) manages an intimate study of Titian's body of work plus an intricate knowledge of politics and art in 16th-Century Venice and in the Europe from which Titian received his commissions. She captures Titian's vast ambition and does justice to his achievement, but also creates a portrait of an age.

Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight (Princeton University Press) are the second and third volumes of a three-volume biography. Stach reads the work and the life with minute care and sympathy.

He has a deep understanding of the world that Kafka came from and this is matched by an intelligence and tact about the impulse behind the work itself.

Colm Tóibín's novel The Testament of Mary was published in paperback this year.

Dermot Keogh

I liked Eamon Dunphy's Rocky Road because it is cheeky, honest and iconoclastic. You won't read a better account anywhere of growing up poor on Dublin's north side in the 1950s and how football in England was the only escape. A tour de force!

I think Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary shatters the portrait of the plaster-cast Our Lady as a suffering mother reconciled to the inevitable fate of her son. I like the brilliant way she is shown to be flesh and blood and bone, wanting what happened to her son not to have happened. A real human being, in other words!

What makes Donal Corcoran's The Freedom to Achieve Freedom -- The Irish Free State 1922-1932 so attractive to me is how it shows the difficulty of state-building and that William T Cosgrave and his colleagues got little reward for their heroic efforts. Academic history at its best.

Dermot Keogh, Emeritus Professor of History, UCC, was one of the editors of Ireland Through European Eyes: Economic Community And Ireland, 1945-73 published by CUP this year.

Hilary Mantel

Indulge in a big and richly satisfying literary biography, from an artist in the form: Hermione Lee's Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. It will send you back to the subject's own piquant and elusive novels. But perhaps a book of the year should be a mirror of the times?

If so, feed righteous indignation on Damian McBride's Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin (Backbite). Bankrupt of morals and bankrupt of style, it is a nonpareil of peevishness, and self-delusion shines from it like a Christmas star.

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2012, was published in paperback this year

Edna O'Brien

La Folie Baudelaire by Roberto Galasso (Allen Lane) is a kaleidoscopic rendering of the tormented poet, his times and the city of Paris that "breathes" in his prose and poetry. We meet Baudelaire the dandy, his indecorous mistress Jeanne, both muse and vampire, his mother Caroline and his hated stepfather General Aupick. It is one of the most satisfying biographies I have ever read.

Sylvia Plath: Drawings (Faber), lovingly compiled by her daughter Frieda Hughes, shows Plath's observation of everyday things -- a thistle, a horse chestnut. It is also salutary to compare the austerity of her poetry with the rapture in her letters to her husband (included here), in which she envisages his presence "come day, come night, come hurricane and holocaust . . ."

Dear Boy by Emily Berry (Faber): from the evidence here, this poet's imagination is rich, playful and restless, with the occasional note of anguish, which Plath would surely approve of, like a glimpse of the first crocus.

Last, but by no means least, Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland) is funny, moving and beautifully written.

The Love Object: The Selected Stories of Edna O'Brien was published this year.

Irish Independent

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