With Christmas fast approaching, we asked our reviewers for their recommendations for the leading characters in your life
From the pop professor to the Covid naturalist, from the political anorak to the hopeless romantic, every family has someone who fits into one — and many more — of these categories. Here’s our handy guide to ensure that you get your loved ones their new favourite books this Christmas.
by Tanya Sweeney
Fans of spirited yet astute commercial fiction have enjoyed a plum year: back in February, Marian Keyes’ tome Grown-Ups (Penguin/Michael Joseph) charted the various trials and issues within the dysfunctional Casey family. In true Keyes fashion, it blends weighty topics such as eating disorders and body image with sparkling prose and zingy one-liners.
Emma Gannon’s debut novel Olive (HarperCollins) asks an important and pertinent question: what does life without children look like for a woman in her 30s? Flying high in her career as a journalist, Gannon’s titular heroine is more than aware that her “child-free by choice” position marks her out as a bit of an outlier. A brilliant and astute study of the complexities and challenges of the child-free existence.
‘Lad-lit’ king Nick Hornby has tried his hand at romance with Just Like You (Viking), a contemporary love story set against the backdrop of Brexit Britain. With more than 20 years between them, Joseph and Lucy make an unlikely pairing, and have to negotiate more than just their age difference as they embark on a friends-with-benefits situation.
There’s a strong sense of place, not to mention a huge dollop of glamour, in Emily Hourican’s The Glorious Guinness Girls (Hachette Ireland). The story of the Guinness heiresses Oonagh, Maureen and Aileen is told from the vantage point of Fliss, who stays with the family as a young girl. Hourican delivers an enchanting story, set amid the great political unrest of Ireland in the 1910s, and later, against the backdrop of London’s glittering social scene in the 1920s.
Dolly Alderton has made her move from confessional journalism into fiction with Ghosts (Penguin/Fig Tree). Nina is a food writer who is celebrating her 32nd birthday; shortly afterwards she becomes romantically involved/intoxicated with Max, who tells her on their first date that he is going to marry her. His hot-cold routine is just one of many complications in Nina’s life. Salty, witty and packed with observations about dating and friendship, this debut novel shows Alderton at the top of her game.
There’s a reason why Sheila O’Flanagan is considered one of the grande dames of Irish fiction, and Her Husband’s Mistake (Headline Review) is a prime example of her famous storytelling in full flight. One afternoon, Roxy arrives home to find her husband of 20 years in bed with their attractive neighbour, signalling the end of their perfect marriage and the start of an entirely new chapter for the scorned wife. A feel-good read that’s the perfect foil for uncertain times.
by John Meagher
Is there anything left to be said about the Beatles, the most written about band in music history? Well, yes, actually. Craig Brown’s wonderfully enjoyable One Two Three Four — The Beatles in Time (Fourth Estate) offers more than 100 vignettes that somehow captures the band anew. Half a century after their split, the veteran biographer manages to locate all that’s quirky in the Beatles story, and his doorstopper is as much a social history as it is a musical one. It is especially good on the myriad characters who were tangential to the success of the Fab Four.
There has been no shortage of engaging autobiographies this year. Chris Frantz’s Remain in Love (White Rabbit) offers an intriguing insight into life in Talking Heads and his sometimes fractious relationship with the band’s brilliant frontman, David Byrne. Singer-songwriter Mark Lanegan’s Sing Backwards and Weep (White Rabbit) settles scores — not least with Liam Gallagher. Elsewhere, Tori Amos’s spirited Resistance (Hodder & Stoughton) looks back on an off-kilter career and her uncompromising political stance in a US that seems to be collapsing all around her.
The most unexpectedly compelling memoir came from an unexpected source — Judas Priest mainman Rob Halford. Metal fans will need no introduction to a figure who has been a stalwart of the scene for 50 years, but for the rest of us, his story is endlessly fascinating. In Confess (Headline), he writes with searing honesty about the self-loathing he felt about having to hide his sexuality and the liberation that arrived when he finally came out.
Several titles succeeded in doing what good music books should do: driving the reader back to the music itself. That was certainly the case with Kraftwerk (Penguin), Uwe Schütte’s scholarly history of the great German electronica pioneers. In an economical book, he artfully captures their fastidious approach to reinventing music in the studio.
Meanwhile, the ever-opinionated Paul Morley swaps pop for classical in the exhaustive A Sound Mind (Bloomsbury). The former NME critic set out to demystify classical music for those more interested in Moby than Mozart. His passion for centuries of music — both celebrated and obscure — is infectious.
by Bairbre Power
Our culinary world has recalibrated in 2020 and we are joyfully discovering a new purpose in the kitchen. Forget big party excesses and presentation-led nouvelle cuisine; nowadays we are craving comfort and rediscovering rusty baking skills, and if that means adding scented geranium leaves to a blackberry and apple upside-down cake, so be it.
I discovered this treat in my absolute favourite cookery book of the year. The publishers of Rory O’Connell’s The Joy of Food, (Gill Books) said it was the book the Ballymaloe Cookery School teacher was “born to write” and it was the one that I was fated to find in this difficult year.
It’s about recipe-sharing rather than big, showy photographs. In fact, there are no photographs at all, which may freak out some people, but when you dive into the words, you will be there, enjoying what Rory describes as “a celebration of good things to eat”. His illustrations are very cute too.
Oh how I’ve missed my visits to Yotam Ottolenghi’s café in Notting Hill, my squeeze-in-at-all-costs pilgrimage en route back to Heathrow Airport. That loss explains my utter enthusiasm to dive into Flavours (Ebury), his latest vegetable-based book, co-written with Ixta Belfrage. They break down the factors that create flavour, and what I enjoyed most was how low effort delivered high impact. It was Ottolenghi who single-handedly opened my eyes to the chameleon that is cauliflower and I’m loving what he is now doing with beetroot.
I could listen to Nigella Lawson’s sultry voice forever, with its seductive, aural blend of chocolate infused with chilli. Recently I’ve been testing out her latest book, Cook, Eat, Repeat (Chatto & Windus). Just like a good wine ‘drinks well’, this comprehensive 344-pager ‘reads well’. You get a good sense of Nigella who inspires and also takes a nice, anti-establishment line. From the woman who once described a very beige chicken fricassée as having a face that only a mother could love, she devotes a chapter to ‘”a loving defence of brown food”.
She is so right when she says comforting brown food, “it gently beckons us with a whisper, not a shout”.
by Hilary A White
As we run out of pandemic TV streaming content to consume, pictorial and coffee-table books are due to have a moment this winter. Twilight Together (Doubleday Ireland) is a perfect tapestry of resilience in such times. Dublin rock photographer Ruth Medjber portrays a nation in lockdown with this gorgeous array of smiles shining out through living room windows.
We’ve been through a lot and made it out the other side, a fact you are gently reminded of in Old Ireland in Colour (Merrion Press). This engrossing portfolio from John Breslin and Sarah-Anne Buckley restores archive photography of Irish life in vivid, colourised splendour.
With a self-proclaimed Irishman en route back to the White House, the timing is perfect for Art, Ireland, and the Irish Diaspora (Irish Academic Press), Dr Éimear O’Connor’s examination of cultural representations of Ireland in the US between 1893 and 1939.
The Dublin Art Book (UIT Cambridge) is a delightful pocket-sized tour of the capital by its artists. Deeper in time, there is The Skelligs (Peter Cox Photography), a haunting photo essay from the enigmatic Kerry rocks, and Treasures of World History (Welbeck), a 4,000-year jog through civilisation by Peter Snow and Ann MacMillan.
Nature has been our great friend through all this. Granting it deserved prestige is William Collins’ fifth edition of Bird Photographer of the Year, which exhibits the jaw-dropping fruits of this international competition, with Astronomy Photographer of the Year (Collins) the celestial equivalent. Inspiration for spring regrowth is to be found in American Gardens (Prestel), a resplendent photographic accompaniment to Monty Don’s BBC series.
For younger readers, be sure to get The Lost Spells (Hamish Hamilton) by writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris. This follow-up to the equally brilliant The Lost Words casts nature-themed word-magic directly into hearts young and old at a time when it is most needed.
Pop culture fans will want a copy of Chris Welch’s David Bowie: Changes (Welbeck), a career-spanning photo portrait of the Thin White Duke in the lead-up to the five-year anniversary of his death. There is also an irresistible quality to Accidental Wes Anderson (Trapeze), as the US film-maker’s bemusing aesthetic is juxtaposed with real-world locations.
by Myles McWeeney
This has been a bumper year for legal thrillers, including A Time for Mercy by John Grisham and The Last Trial by Scott Turow, both highly recommended. However, topping the list is The Law of Innocence (Orion) by Michael Connelly. Top defence attorney Mickey Haller, the so-called Lincoln Lawyer, takes on his most important case because the client is… himself. Framed on what appears to be an open-and-shut homicide charge, he must fight as never before to clear himself despite the handicap of being incarcerated in a violent prison. A wonderfully serpentine plot with fist-clenchingly tense and dramatic courtroom scenes.
An honourable second has to be Fifty Fifty (Orion) by Steve Cavanagh, in which career conman turned ace defence lawyer Eddie Flynn takes on the case of psychologically damaged Sofia Avellino, accused with her elder sister Alexandra of murdering their father Frank, the mayor of New York. At stake is a $40m estate, and Eddie must use all his hard-won legal skills to exonerate Sofia in this gripping thriller as the murder count rises.
The Goodbye Man by Jeffery Deaver (HarperCollins) is an immersive read featuring the bestselling author’s newest central character, professional reward-seeker Colter Shaw. Raised off the grid by a survivalist father, Shaw criss-crosses America in his Winnebago tracking people who have disappeared. In this case, he runs up against a dangerous religious cult called the Osiris Foundation and its ruthless but charismatic leader Master Eli, a dangerous Trump-like deceiver.
The sordid reality of the Costa del Crime, set just a few streets back from southern Spain’s glitzy marinas, features in A Silent Death (Riverrun) by Peter May. John Mackenzie, an English policeman on the autistic spectrum with an off-the-scale IQ but no social filters, is sent to Spain to extradite British drugs boss Jack Cleland. When Cleland is sprung by his gang on the way to Malaga airport, Mackenzie teams up with Spanish policewoman Christina, whom Cleland irrationally blames for his accidentally killing of his pregnant girlfriend, to track him down. Can they capture him before he extracts a terrible revenge on Christina’s family, including her deaf and blind aunt Ana, who communicates with the world through a Braille-generating computer. An unusual and fascinating read.
by Hilary A White
Politics might have felt like a sideshow to the microbial drama of 2020, but recent weeks have reminded us of its impact.
Where this island is concerned, there was Saving the State (Gill), Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan’s in-depth history of the undulating fortunes of Fine Gael, from Michael Collins (yes, he wasn’t actually a member) to Leo Varadkar.
Former president Mary McAleese delivered Here’s the Story (Sandycove), her memoir of growing up amid the Troubles before embarking on an extraordinary career in public service.
With a return to calm statesmanship looking likely in the White House, might it be time to look back and weep at the madness of the last four years? If so, seek out Rage (Simon and Schuster), legendary Watergate journalist Bob Woodward’s in-the-flesh experience of Donald Trump. If you’d rather forget, there’s always A Promised Land (Crown), a new autobiography by one Barack Obama.
The Black Lives Matter movement was one of the most resounding political eruptions of the year. British broadcaster June Sarpong rallies for change with The Power of Privilege: How White People Can Challenge Racism (HQ), while Otegha Uwagba reflects on the toll that systematic racism and whiteness has on black people in Whites (Fourth Estate).
Given what’s at stake, the discourse surrounding our global environmental crisis has become as political as it is existential. As an accompaniment to the staggering Netflix documentary A Life on Our Planet (Ebury) is a rallying call by David Attenborough.
What Can I Do: The Truth About Climate Change and How to Fix it (HQ) found film icon and activist Jane Fonda charting her personal journey in the climate justice movement, before laying out the science and solutions.
Conflict, both political and cultural, has attached itself to Kevin Myers throughout his career. In typically animated fashion, Burning Heresies (Merrion Press) saw him reflect on his years reporting from warzones as well as the controversy that ended his career as a columnist.
Meanwhile, the blisteringly good Olivia Laing dropped Funny Weather (Picador), a collection of essays and articles arguing for the importance of art in a time of political unrest.
by Tanya Sweeney
From Maggie Farrell, the winner for the Women’s Prize For Fiction, Hamnet by (Tinder Press) is a searing fictional account of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, who died aged 11 in 1596. The youngster’s death sends shockwaves through the entire family, particularly his free-spirited mother, Agnes. Focusing on the family’s domestic life, Farrell delivers a profoundly affecting historical novel.
Bernardine Evaristo may have had to share last year’s Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood, but it’s the former whose career has soared in 2020. Girl, Woman, Other (Penguin) is Evaristo’s eighth novel, and comprises interconnecting stories of a dozen black British women; from Winsome, who has arrived from Barbados into a miserable marriage, to Amma, a feisty playwright.
It’s an ambitious book, full of complex and flawed characters, but packed with love and energy. An absolute joy.
This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction was Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (Fleet), which judges called “a spare and devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption”. The novel follows Elwood Curtis into juvenile prison, where he befriends Jack, who thwarts any hope that Elwood had of serving his time peacefully. With his lyrical prose, it’s easy to see why Whitehead has won the prize for fiction twice.
As an International Dublin Literary Award 2020 nominee, John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky (Black Swan) from 2018 is one of the Irish writer’s most deliciously dark works to date. He has created unforgettable characters in Maurice Swift and Erich Ackermann — the former is a 65-year-old gay man, and a novelist of serious renown, who decides to take the younger Erich on his book tour. A Molotov cocktail of ambition and seduction: a modern-day All About Eve.
by Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh
If Champagne Football (Penguin) by Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan isn’t already on your shelf, get yourself a copy for Christmas. Subtitled John Delaney and the Betrayal of Irish Football, this is too good to put into somebody else’s stocking.
The authors, through good old-fashioned journalism, popped the former FAI chief executive’s bubble, and the stories are breathtaking. The transgressions are too many to count, the numbers involved are mind-boggling. It’s a deep dive into Delaney’s time at the association, and into the excesses he enjoyed while it was slipping deeper and deeper into the red. You’ll find yourself sometimes admiring the brass neck on display, like the description of Delaney’s 50th birthday party. That admiration soon turns to rage when you realise that the FAI had to pay for a large chunk of the shindig held at the Mount Juliet Estate. Even worse, the government had to step in to stop the FAI from falling off the financial cliff so actually, you paid for it. But, hey, we all partied.
As a sport psychologist, I’ve long known how retirement can be catastrophic for athletes. Damian Lawlor is one of Ireland’s best sports writers, and When the World Stops Watching: Life After the Game (Black & White) is a testament to his skills. Lawlor manages to explain the psychological wrestling that athletes must do to cope with retirement, using their own voices. It is both empathetic and hard-hitting. The opening lines alone, as he depicts former footballer Paul McGee’s internal suffering, are hauntingly compelling and will draw you in. It’s an essential read for all aspiring athletes and coaches to remind them that it’s not always rosy, even if you make it to the top, and also that support is available.
I’m often wary of autobiographies as you tend to get a myopic version of the subject. Not so with The Hill (Reach Sport) by Bernard Brogan with Kieran Shannon. Brogan is very honest as he catalogues his journey from a fun-loving Dub who was whipped into shape by Pat Gilroy to becoming Footballer of the Year to finally scrapping it out after a cruciate injury to earn his place on the team bus. He also gives us an insight into how Dublin turned into a high-performance machine. His journey shows there are no overnight success stories in sport.
According to Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp, football is the most important of the least important things in the world, so it’s fitting that he wrote the foreword to With Hope in Your Heart (Gill) by Martina Cox with Susan Keogh. It tells the story of Liverpool fan Seán Cox, who travelled to Anfield for a match but he never made it after a vicious, unprovoked attack. His wife Martina tells their story as they had to learn to live with injuries that have left him unable to walk or talk. It’s not strictly a sports book, but it is a story of a fan overcoming impossible hurdles and it shows the support the sporting community can give each other.
by Hilary A White
A welcome by-product of the first lockdown was a quieter, slower world that allowed us to notice nature getting on with things in its own splendid way. This was reflected in a surge of nature writing.
Man of the moment is unquestionably Dara McAnulty, the Ulster teenager whose Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller) won the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing en route to nabbing an unprecedented three An Post Irish Book Awards nominations.
The journal/daybook format also worked wonders for other Irish nature writers. Every home could benefit from a copy of another Book Awards nominee, Jane Powers’ An Irish Nature Year (William Collins), which serves bitesize morsels of rich natural insight for each day of the year. Mayo nature-writing supremo Sean Lysaght gave us the excellent Wild Nephin (Stonechat), while cinema legend John Boorman delicately logged the arboreal beauty of his lockdown in Annamoe, Co Wicklow, with his nature diary, One Eye, One Finger (Lilliput).
Like Boorman, Richard Nairn sought to champion the splendour of our native woodlands with his authoritative portrait Wildwoods (Gill).
Ireland’s Rivers (UCD Press), edited by Mary Kelly-Quinn and Julian Reynolds, gives these veins of the Irish landscape a detailed and fully illustrated historical and ecological analysis.
We were treated to new releases by two of the UK’s greatest nature writers. Six years after swooping to glory with her raptor-themed grief memoir H is For Hawk, Helen Macdonald returned with Vesper Flights (Jonathan Cape), a collection of essays and articles. Meanwhile, Tim Dee’s Greenery (Jonathan Cape) was a deeply personal memoir channelled through the theme of bird migration.
With his Syd Barrett looks and magical name, mycologist Merlin Sheldrake took us inside the astounding world of fungi with Entangled Life (Bodley Head).
Part travelogue, part wild exploration, Owls of the Eastern Ice (Allen Lane) was Jonathan C Slaght’s rollicking journey deep into the Russian forests to find the largest and rarest owl in the world. As if to confirm that 2020 has been the year of Luke O’Neill, the amiable boffin brought his wit and colour to human nature and the big challenges facing us in Never Mind the B#ll*cks, Here’s the Science (Gill).
by Myles McWeeney
Since Agatha Christie’s death, many writers have tried their hand at recreating her Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. In The Killings at Kingfisher Hill (HarperCollins), Sophie Hannah demonstrates she has captured Christie’s voice quite perfectly. Here, Poirot and his friend Inspector Catchpool have been invited by the estate’s owner, Richard Devonport, to prove that his fiancée Helen, awaiting her execution in Holloway Jail for the killing of his brother, is innocent of the crime. A delightful, twisted tale of murder, mayhem and multiple suspects elegantly solved by the great detective’s little grey cells.
Equally absorbing, if slightly more serious, is Seven Lies (Sphere) by Elizabeth Kay. It is the story of 20-somethings Jane Baxter and Marnie Gregory, inseparable friends since they were 11. Plain Jane marries first but is tragically widowed, but when beautiful Marnie is swept off her feet by wealthy Charles, Jane instinctively distrusts him and that’s when the lies begin. A gripping and scary tale of obsessive love, with an intriguingly novel plot device.
Set in Dublin in 1982, A Famished Heart (Viper) by Nicola White opens with the harrowing discovery of the bodies of the unmarried Macnamara sisters in the house they shared. They had apparently starved themselves to death; one found in a chair in the hall, the other underneath a bed upstairs. They had apparently only communicated by letter, and, before death, had donated a large sum of money to a local charity to the dismay of their down-on-her-luck actress sister in America. An atmospheric and well-written mystery.
Cut to the Bone (HQ) by Roz Watkins propels Detective Inspector Meg Dalton and her partner Jai Sanghera into an isolated fairytale-like village in England’s beautiful Peak District to investigate the disappearance of an 18-year-old social media star who has become famous by barbecuing pork while wearing a bikini. The village, however, is anything but fairytale-like, and the engaging pair are soon besieged by animal rights activists and a privileged family with terrible secrets.
by Hilary A White
Some extraordinary memoirs came our way this year, suggesting that “the self” is now one of the biggest shows in non-fiction. Most striking, where these shores are concerned, were Rob Doyle’s Threshhold (Bloomsbury) and A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp) by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. The former was a thinly veiled autofiction filled with youthful decadence. The latter was an acrobatic journal of prose-poetry as our author waded into the life of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an 18th century noblewoman and poet. In a similar vein was Belfast writer Darren Anderson’s excellent Inventory: A River, A City, A Memoir (Chatto & Windus).
John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours (Picador) finds the punk poet lurching hilariously around the shambolic corners of his life (“It’s a tough call, but somebody’s gotta do it. Thank God it’s me”).
As the title suggests, Walking With Ghosts (Picador) is an unflinching account of trauma and fame by Hollywood star Gabriel Byrne.
Famed in Ireland for different reasons, former-State Pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy recalled her challenging career to bestselling effect in Beyond The Tape (Hachette).
From darkness to luminescence, courtesy of the much-missed Keelin Shanley. A Light That Never Goes Out (Gill) is the late broadcaster’s courageous bow to her family, written while undergoing treatment for cancer.
Nine years after How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran redefined feminism in middle-age with More Than a Woman (Ebury).
On Seamus Heaney (Princeton University Press), Roy Foster’s extended essay charting the life, career and legacy of the Nobel Laureate, is a masterful dissertation.
For a booze-soaked collision of Wild Atlantic elements and Hollywood excess, look no further than Making Ryan’s Daughter (New Island), Paul Benedict Rowan’s romp through the demented set of David Lean’s film.
An Irish Book Award nominee and a one-stop shop for a stunning array of voices and stories is Winging It (Sandycove), a compendium of the most memorable interview transcriptions from The Tommy Tiernan Show.
New Talent Tracker
by Tanya Sweeney
Naoise Dolan has been somewhat unfairly tarred with the “new Sally Rooney” brush, and her debut Exciting Times (W&N) certainly crackles with the vim and energy of Rooney’s acclaimed work. Packed with ice-cool observations and finished with a dollop of deadpan wit, this tale of twentysomething expats in Hong Kong is a seriously zippy read.
Still in her 20s, Brit Bennett published the follow-up to her debut The Mothers, and is enjoying serious career traction as a result. The Vanishing Half (Dialogue Books) centres on two sisters who come of age in 1960s Louisiana but manage to separate explosively when they run away as young women to New Orleans. The novel is absolutely exquisite. Whether Bennett is writing about Brentwood in Los Angeles or Mallard, Louisiana, atmosphere seeps from the page. Amid luscious descriptors and giddy, muscular dialogue, there is somehow still plenty of room left for emotions.
Michelle Gallen’s Big Girl, Small Town (John Murray Press) is a blackly funny tale set in post-Troubles Northern Ireland. Majella (27) has a fractious relationship with her mother and has a somewhat ordinary life working in the local chip-shop A Salt & Battered. But now that her grandmother has been violently murdered, Majella must get used to the scrutiny and attention, however well-meaning, from the whole town. Gallen has nailed the intricacies of small-town life in this hugely charming read.
You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here (OneWorld) by Frances Macken is also set in small-town Ireland, and is a powerful debut bursting with heart. As Katie, Evelyn and Maeve grow and, in time, make plans to leave their small town, Macken turns their bizarre friendship triangle inside out to reveal a satisfying and compelling dynamic.
Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age (Bloomsbury) absolutely fizzes with energy. It has been deemed a literary sensation time and time again, and with good reason. The action kicks off when Emira, a broke college student, is apprehended in a supermarket for ‘kidnapping’ the toddler she is babysitting. Reid, a graduate of the world-famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop, is truly one of the year’s biggest breakout talents.
by Hilary A White
Like the natural world, history is something that is ready and waiting on our doorstep to be discovered. This year saw some deeply fascinating excursions through the layers of time.
No Irish household should be without a copy of Thirty-Two Words for Field (Gill). Manchán Magan’s mind-expanding (and An Post Irish Books Awards-nominated) compendium of lost Gaelige illustrates the role of language in telling us about ourselves. A trove of information is also to be found in Daragh Smyth’s Earthing the Myths (Irish Academic Press), which maps out the ancient lore of this island in county-by-county format. Turtle Bunbury is an Irish historian always worth keeping an eye out for. Ireland’s Forgotten Past (Thames & Hudson) is, like the above, a cornucopia of wonder from the neglected corners of our heritage.
Following the success of The Cow Book, Longford memoirist and Irish Independent columnist John Connell swaps the pasture for the pathway in The Running Book (Picador), his meditation on the art of running that locates a rich seam of local colonial history. Ideal for the thinking runner in your life. Another history-themed memoir that achieves a widescreen effect is Short Life in a Strange World (4th Estate), Toby Ferris’s global adventure in search of the works of Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Building on the success of Mythos and Heroes, Stephen Fry completes the hat-trick with Troy (Michael Joseph), the latest instalment in his mission to introduce new generations to classical mythology. Key to the brilliance of Fry’s retellings is that they never assume the reader has any background knowledge of these epics.
There is macabre fun to be had in The Darkness Echoing (Doubleday), Dr Gillian O’Brien’s historical delve into the darker corners of the Irish map, while Peter Ross blended history, poignancy and humour in A Tomb With a View (Headline), his bemusing journey through the realm of six-feet under.
We might be staycationing for a while yet, so those with a Shannon cruise in their crosshairs should track down Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time (Lilliput), Paul Clements’ travelogue along our mightiest and most storied river.
by Darragh McManus
Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (Penguin Random House) is undoubtedly the pop science book of the year, and one of the best I’ve ever read. Physicist Brian Greene takes us on an extraordinary journey through deep space and deeper time, from the Big Bang to an unimaginably distant future — trillions upon trillions of years — and asks the ultimate question about our universe: is everything destined to fall into entropic chaos, including consciousness? The science is mind-blowing but made comprehensible to the lay reader in beautiful prose. Greene’s reflections on finding purpose and meaning in a meaningless void are moving and will linger in your mind for a long time.
Science writer Christopher Wanjek explores the nuts and bolts of space exploration in his lively and entertaining Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond (Harvard University Press). How do we get out of this planet’s “gravity well” in a cost-effective way? What impact will different gravities have on our bodies “out there”? Is there any point in humanity colonising the far-distant reaches of the solar system, when it would take so long to get there or even communicate? And how exactly does one go about turning an asteroid into a super-fast spaceship? Sign us up, please.
It sounds like a sort of paradox, but breathing — that most autonomic of physiological functions — is actually a much more active thing than we think. Or at least, it should be. In Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (Penguin Life), James Nestor draws on everything from modern-day scientific research to ancient cultural practices to examine why so many of us breathe wrongly — and how we can change that, with untold benefits for our bodies and minds.
Ecologist and conservation scientist Hannah Mumby uses her own decades of field-work to write a stirring cri de cœur in Elephants: Birth, Life and Death in the Last Days of the Giants (William Collins). They’re far more intelligent, empathetic and contemplative than we assume, with a social complexity that comes close to rivalling our own. A book worthy of these magnificent animals.
by Tanya Sweeney
Dawn O’Porter’s Life in Pieces (HarperCollins) began as a lockdown blog, and finds the broadcaster/influencer/novelist in typically conversational and charming form. In offering an insight into her life in LA with actor husband Chris O’Dowd and their two young sons, O’Porter has delivered one of the most relatable and likeable accounts of the year that has been 2020 that you’re likely to read.
Relatability is also writ large in Elizabeth Day’s popular-psychology book Failosophy (Fourth Estate). At 160 pages, it’s a slim volume, but nonetheless stuffed to the seams with comforting wisdom and Day’s warm charm. The wisdom on how to turn life’s failings into lemonade is distilled from the experiences of Day’s readers, and the celebrity guests on her podcast How to Fail, including Nigel Slater and Andrew Scott.
With one of the best covers of the year, Rachel Bloom (creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) delivers her first collection of hilarious personal essays, I Want To Be Where The Normal People Are (Hachette). As you might expect, her riffs on everything from fame to impostor syndrome are laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the book even includes various amusement park maps as a bonus.
Adam Buxton is similarly candid in Ramble Book: Musings on Childhood, Friendship, Family and 80s Pop Culture (Mudlark). The popular podcaster mixes delicious slabs of nostalgia with melancholy passages about his family. He leaves few stones unturned as he lurches from boarding school misadventures to confrontations on trains and the quiet struggle of wanting to fit in. A beautiful book that’s as personal as it is personable.
With 3.8 million followers on Instagram alone, Sophie Hinchliffe (better known as Mrs Hinch) has made a multimillion-pound career out of imparting her household-related wisdom. In This is Me (Penguin/Michael Joseph), she tells readers exactly how she did it. Essential for her many die-hard fans, and for everyone else merely curious about Mrs Hinch’s seismic success, it’s an intriguing look at the grit behind the Instagram gloss.
Don’t miss Sarah Webb’s gift guide to children’s books in Review on December 12