Monday 23 September 2019

Feast your eyes on the best festive book guide

Spoilt for choice: This year’s favourites include some brilliant children’s books
Spoilt for choice: This year’s favourites include some brilliant children’s books
Donal Ryan
sebastian Barry's 'Days Without End' is one of this year's best novels . Photo: David Conachy

The world may have rocked on its axis in 2016 but literature proved as enduring and uplifting as ever, Anne Marie Scanlon asked some well-known book lovers to select their best reads of the year.

Donal Ryan,


Billy Keane's columns are the best thing about Mondays and now there's a book of them it's like having a bunch of letters from an old friend, full of humour and humanity and joyful, unsneering irreverence, reminding me of what's really important in this life. Billy lifts people, even in the saddest of times. The Best of Billy Keane (Ballpoint Press Limited) should be in every home in Ireland.

A Last Loving: Collected Poems by Maeve Kelly (Syracuse University Press) and Playing The Octopus, (Carcanet Press) Mary O'Malley's sublime new collection, were two of the poetry events of the year, and are works to be savoured and cherished.

I read some amazing memoirs this year, including poet Patrick Deeley's achingly beautiful The Hurley Maker's Son (Doubleday Ireland) and Paul O'Connell's brilliant, bruising The Battle .

I've started to catch up on contemporary crime and thrillers: Liz Nugent's Lying in Wait is genius; Alex Barclay's The Drowning Child (Harper Collins) is mesmerising; Tana French continues to wow her huge global audience with The Trespasser (Hodder & Stoughton); and Sam Blake's debut Little Bones (Twenty7) is a truly engrossing read.

Sebastian Barry's Days Without End (Faber & Faber) is a magnificent novel, one of the best I've ever read. Sam Coll's towering debut The Abode of Fancy (The Lilliput Press) is a staggering display of linguistic gymnastics and a tall and enthralling tale to boot. Colm O'Regan's Bolloxology (Transworld Ireland) is a scream, a howl, a pure joy.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan (Transworld) is on sale now.

Cathy Kelly,

best-selling author

If more people had read Jodi Picoult's Small Great Things, (Hodder & Stoughton) then racist Mr Trump might not have got in.

In this novel, Picoult writes from the point of view of a gifted African-American nurse/midwife who cares for a white supremacist's baby in a small hospital. After the baby dies, she is put on trial for the child's murder and race - what it means to be black in the US - is centre stage. Utterly compelling.

Dr Harry Barry, who is one of Ireland's foremost experts in depression and anxiety in people of all ages, deals with our modern bugbears in Flagging Anxiety and Panic, (Liberties Press) his fifth book dealing with stress.Dr Barry gives readers workable solutions. A must-have for all homes, like his brilliant Flagging the Screenager which is for both parents and teenagers.

Jilly Cooper is a legend; like the glorious horses she writes about in Mount! (Transworld) her latest blockbuster to feature the fabulous Rupert Campbell-Black, his darling wife Taggie, and a whole host of people - some vulnerable, some behaving very badly indeed. Give this to someone for Christmas and they will love you for it. Just don't expect any cooking done. Fabulous, sexy and written with Jilly's customary brilliance.

Cathy Kelly's current book, Secrets of a Happy Marriage (Orion) is out now.

David Murphy,

RTE's business editor and co-author of Banksters

Nutshell, Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape) is a novella narrated by a foetus who overhears his mother and her lover plotting the murder of the unborn's father. I was hooked from the first page - it came from a unique perspective. There are echoes of Hamlet but it's done with subtlety.

Family Life, Akhil Sharma (Faber & Faber) is the story of a family tragedy, which shaped the upbringing of a boy from India whose family relocate to the US; it deservedly won the International Dublin Literary Award whose long-list is nominated by libraries worldwide.

You knew you were reading the real thing - it's fiction solidly grounded in personal experience.

Finally, The Wolf Wilder, Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury) is a book aimed at 9-12 year olds which I looked at because I was on the board of Children's Books Ireland.

I found the story quite gripping: it centres on a young girl in Russia whose mother trains pet wolves - all the rage among aristocrats - to acclimatise to the wild. It has a strong female heroine and a kind-to-animals theme, what's not to like?

Alex Barclay,

crime writer

All We Shall Know, Donal Ryan (Doubleday Ireland) will forever be a special book to me; I was miserable, stressed, and unwilling to give myself a break, literal or otherwise, when the proof arrived. But I braked for Donal Ryan. I started reading. It was just so stunning, and so melancholic.

The happiness I felt - which I really needed to feel at the time - was in being reminded of the power and beauty of words in the right hands.

And as the story unfolded, there was further joy to be found in the quiet humanity and heart that is this gorgeous, shining thread through all of Donal's work.

With Little Bones, (Twenty7) Sam Blake had me at the premise: "Baby bones found in the hem of a wedding dress". Grim, intriguing, inspired.

Little Bones is also a lesson in how to create a really likeable crime fiction heroine, and match her to a clever, layered plot. Add to that a superb, shocking ending, and this one has everything.

More recently, for research, I picked up It Didn't Start With You, Mark Wolynn (Viking) - it's a fascinating insight into epigenetics, and how family trauma can impact on later generations.

Alex Barclay's latest book The Drowning Child (Harper Collins) is currently in bookshops.

Mike McCormack,


I loved EM Reapy's Red Dirt (Head of Zeus). This is the book which spills the beans on the young Irish emigrant experience in Australia. Her tale of drink and drugs and fatal mischance is driven along by crackling energy and a brilliant ear for dialogue. The pages keep turning and it is only when the book is completed that the reader gets to sit back and marvel at how skilfully the author has told her tale. A terrific debut.

Nothing came near Mia Gallagher's Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island Books) for bravery and ambition this year. A skilful and fearless exploration of place, time and identity - it grapples the big themes to its heart. This is the Irish novel whose reputation will grow in the coming years. A new generation of Irish writers may well take their lead from it. Finally, something about the dry, cagey intimacy of Rachel Cusk's Transit (Jonathan Cape) kept me riveted on a long flight to San Francisco....beautiful and curious and compelling.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press) is currently on sale.

Keelin Shanley,


My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout (Viking) is a really interesting study of a mother/daughter relationship. Very simply written but a complex story with abuse and hints of a very dark past. It also deals with memory and the difficulty of looking back and understanding a past that the protagonist has escaped.

Operation Thunderbolt - Flight 139 and the raid on Entebbe, Saul David (Hodder) is an intriguing account of the hijacking of an Air France jet en route from Tel Aviv to Paris in 1976. The plane landed at Entebbe airport in Uganda where Idi Amin facilitated the hostage takers. David has gone back to original sources and writes an almost novelistic account of the audacious operation launched by Israeli security forces which rescued most of the hostages. There are fascinating insights into Israeli politics especially around the role of Benjamin Netanyahu's older brother Yonatan who was killed during the operation. Hailed as a hero his legacy was instrumental in the rise to power of his younger brother. David details how rather than being a military hero, he very nearly destroyed the mission.

Another extraordinary novel from Donal Ryan. As soon as you pick up All We Shall Know (Doubleday Ireland) you're pulled into an intense story of a failed marriage and a relationship between a teacher and a teenage Traveller.

EM Reapy, author and winner of The Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year book award 2016 for her debut Red Dirt

Solar Bones, Mike McCormack (Tramp Press) is poetic, poignant and innovative. In this love story between a man and his wife, his family, his place, McCormack makes the ordinary extraordinary.

The Pier Falls, Mark Haddon (Jonathan Cape) is an enthralling short story collection; dark, immersive stories with lots of action. The writing is tight and inspiring.

I loved Sofia's narrative voice in Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton) and the scene-stealing side characters. An eccentric, well crafted story.

Red Dirt (Head of Zeus) is available in paperback.

Journalist and

author Martina Devlin  

The Years That Followed, Catherine Dunne (Macmillan). There’s an intensity to this novel that draws in the reader: seduction, betrayal and revenge — themes don’t come much more primal. Inspired by Greek myth, this is a modern retelling of a classic revenge story set against Cyprus, Spain and Ireland. It follows the fortunes of two women escaping from difficult home lives, but vulnerable in their new surroundings. You can smell the Mediterranean as you read.

Any new Jennifer Johnston book is a cause for celebration in my view. Her latest Naming The Stars (Tinder Press) is a novella about festering secrets and keeping up appearances. Two elderly ladies — employer and employee, although their relationship is characterised by long-standing affection — live in an imposing period house which has seen better days and “have a row over their dinner one night,” as Jennifer describes it. That argument ventilates a hurt from the past. The novella is published in conjunction with one of my favourite earlier novels, Two Moons.

I’ve bought half a dozen copies of Lying In Wait, by Liz Nugent because any time someone drops by, takes it off my shelves and reads a few lines, they’re hooked instantly and beg to borrow it. This is a taut, gripping, psychological thriller, with vivid storytelling — no wonder I swallowed it in one gulp. Obsessional mother love is the disturbing motif at its core.

Martina’s latest novel About Sisterland (Poolbeg) is currently on sale.

Liz Nugent,

author and winner of RTE Radio 1 The Ryan Tubridy Show Listeners’ Choice Award 2016 for Lying in Wait

Two similarly titled and wonderful but totally different books by women caught my attention this year. My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout (Viking) examines the life of a woman as she is visited in a New York hospital by her estranged mother.

Our unreliable narrator tells her story with such subtlety and emotional disconnection that the result is compelling. A short, one-day read, more of the story here is in what is not written.

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal (Viking) will tear the heart out of you. Our eponymous hero is a mixed-race nine-year-old boy whose white brother is adopted when their mother goes off the rails.

Leon is placed in foster care but cannot forget his attachment to his baby brother. Set in 1980s England with the backdrop of race riots and a royal wedding, this debut novel reads as the work of a much more experienced hand.

Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) is the story of Irish boy Thomas McNulty and his lover John Cole forced into army life by poverty in 1850s America (after a short bout as cross-dressing entertainers).

It is extremely brutal in places with descriptions of violence that still haunt me, but the sweet naivety of these young men who barely know nor care for what they are fighting has us rooting for them and their surrogate Indian child as the tension racks up to the final page.

Lying in Wait is currently on sale.

John Connolly,


Two of the most interesting books I read this year will be published in January 2017 but each is worthy of a post-Yule book token. Defender, GX Todd (Headline) is quite a remarkable debut novel, a violent dystopian fantasy set in a near-future America driven to its knees by violence incited by mysterious voices in people’s heads. After the recent election, it suddenly starts to seem somewhat prescient. 

Meanwhile, I predict that the twist to Sarah Pinborough’s thriller Behind Her Eyes, (Harper Collins) is likely to be one of 2017’s best-sellers, will divide mystery fans, and is therefore all the more fun for it. 

Finally, some words in defence of The Pigeon Tunnel, John le Carre’s anecdotal memoir (Viking) which appears to have underwhelmed critics who were expecting the author to spill the beans on his espionage career.

I found The Pigeon Tunnel to be the literary equivalent of sharing a good lunch with a raconteur, and was quite happy to have Le Carre offer his memories of Alec Guinness and Richard Burton, and the unmasking of the traitor Kim Philby, as though over a glass of sherry. If we finish the book knowing little more of Le Carre himself than we did going in, then so be it. Writers, like spies, should have their secrets.

John Connolly’s latest book A Game of Ghosts will be published in April 2017.

Zig & Zag, aliens from the planet Zog

Historopedia, Fatti and John Burke (Gill Books)

We are big fans of Fatti’s coo-el drawings and John’s boffin stuff. It’s a big book full of facts, figures and illustrations. If you liked their mega Irelandopedia, you’ll love this one too! It’s funny and you actually learn stuff. However, we would like to point out our one gripe; we don’t get a mention! What’s up with that Fatti? We’re much easier to draw than Bosco, who gets two mentions!

Santa Claude, Alex T Smith (Hodder Children’s Books)

We love all the Claude books — the beret- wearing dog and his sidekick Sir Bobblysock are barking bonkers!

This is a great one for this Christmas (and every other Christmas to come!) It’s all about Claude and Sir Bobblysock thinking they’ve caught a burglar when in fact they’ve handcuffed Santa and now they’ve lost the key. So they have to save Christmas! Oh, Claude you’ve done it again!

 The Darkest Dark, Astronaut Chris Hadfield (Macmillan Children’s Books)

We kinda feel sorry for Chris Hadfield as he only ever got as far as a space station, not even to the moon, let alone Mars or our home planet Zog.

But we do like his new book about Chris when he was little and dreamed of one day going to space…which he did.

It’s a book about following your dreams, which is kinda what we did when we left our home planet to travel to Earth in search of jokes back in 1987.

FYI — still the best Earth joke ever — What’s red and invisible? No Tomato! Ha!

Zig & Zag can be seen on CBBC.

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