From Banville to Enright, Ireland's best-loved authors choose their books of the year
Some of Ireland's best-loved authors choose their favourite reads of 2017, which cover everything from love and infidelity, to the Holocaust and 1916, neurosurgery and Greek tragedy...
Martin Amis is not only a wonderful novelist but also an extremely fine critic and essayist. The Rub of Time (Cape) contains some of his liveliest and most acute pieces written in the period 1994 to 2016. They range from an uneasy consideration of paedophilia in the work of Vladimir Nabokov, to appreciations of his friends Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens. A perfect Christmas hamper of a book, packed with toothsome items.
Amis figures in Claire Tomalin's bracingly plain-spoken autobiography, A Life of My Own (Viking). Tomalin, who has written lives of, among others, Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen, here chronicles her own past, rich in achievement and afflicted with numerous tragedies. Despite the quiet tone, the book is fascinating throughout.
Georges Simenon is not a name one would readily associate with Christmas, but A Maigret Christmas and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) contains three stories set squarely in the festive season. The tinsel is tarnished and the snow somewhat soiled, but Maigret is... well, Maigret. And this edition is a beauty.
John Banville's most recent novel is Mrs Osmond, a continuation of the story of Isabel Archer, the heroine of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady
I was the last person on the planet to discover George Saunders, and he has enriched my reading life this year. He is a deeply restorative writer - you feel better and more hopeful after reading his work than you did before. Lincoln in the Bardo is a one-off. I should have taken a punt on this for the Man Booker. I was delighted it won.
Molly McCloskey's When Light is Like Water is a beautiful novel about the heart's stupidity - how we get love wrong before we get it right. The infidelity at the centre of the book is told from a distance of some years, so this is a wise book.
The affair in Sally Rooney's Conversation With Friends seems more glamorous, with fewer pints and hotter locations, but the ache of it really tugs at the reader. Rooney's prose has such precision and balance, she is like a young tightrope walker - beautiful to watch her dance here on the heart's high wire.
The Green Road, Anne Enright's last novel, is now available in paperback
I've hugely admired the assuredness of Bernard MacLaverty's writing since his debut in 1977. While Ireland is now producing a welcome stream of young virtuosos, it was wonderful to see an old master at work when this year MacLaverty produced his first novel in 16 years, the superb Midwinter Break (Cape): understated, unhurried and emotionally devastating.
It was also wonderful, too, in poetry to see Michael O'Loughlin's full achievement revealed in his masterly new collection, Poems 1980-2015 (New Island), revealing an Irish poet with a cosmopolitan European voice deftly exploring the fault lines in Irish history in the broader context of 20th- century Europe.
Novelists are magpies, loving books that reveal hidden worlds. Eighty-seven miles of small streams lie forgotten under Dublin's streets. I treasure the new edition of the late Clair L Sweeney's labour of love, The Rivers of Dublin, (Irish Academic Press) for bringing this world to life.
Dermot Bolger's latest play, Bang Bang, based on Dublin's legendary street character, runs at lunch time in Bewley's Café Theatre until December 23
Irish female crime writers are killing it (!) at the moment, and while I haven't yet gotten to read their most recent work, I must mention Andrea Carter, Jo Spain, Catherine Ryan Howard, Sam Blake and Cat Hogan in addition to my three choices here.
Let the Dead Speak by Jane Casey is a wonderful read in which the intrepid Maeve Kerrigan and her awful/sexy/irritating colleague Josh Derwent try to get to the bottom of a case involving a missing girl, and a blood-soaked crime scene.
One Bad Turn by Sinéad Crowley sees two old friends face off in a doctor's surgery and the kidnap of an over-privileged southside girl. Detective Claire Boyle and her year-old baby are caught up in the ensuing mayhem.
The Therapy House by Julie Parsons is also set in Dublin's southside with private detective Michael McLouglin seeking answers about the murder of a neighbouring judge, while he has scores to settle over the IRA murder of his own father.
Skin Deep, Liz Nugent's new crime novel, will be published by Penguin Ireland in April
I can remember, as a young teenager, finding the novels and historical writings of Dorothy MacArdle on my maternal grandmother's bookshelves and being entranced by the power of the storytelling. (I have some vague notion that my grandmother or grandfather might have met or slightly known MacArdle and I wish I had asked them more about that.) Last year it was wonderful to see Tramp Press republish MacArdle's immensely assured and genuinely frightening gothic-tinged ghost story The Uninvited, first published in 1941. This year they followed up with her spellbinding novel The Unforeseen, a novel of great power and sustained readability and skill, with a hugely interesting central character, set in 1930s Dublin and north Wicklow. I think she's a magnificent writer.
In February, I was in Cuba with my wife Anne Marie and our son Marcus. One hot evening we went to hear Colm Tóibín give a reading from his then new novel, House of Names. The prose was forceful, supple, inviting, so vivid and poised, all the things Tóibín's legions of readers would expect, from a writer at the top of his powers. To hear it read aloud in that extraordinary setting, a 17th-century palacio in Havana, made it an experience I will never forget.
I enjoyed a number of impressive recent Irish debut novels this year. The one that blew me away was Barry McKinley's A TON of Malice, which is the often laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes disconcerting story of a young Irishman in late 1970s punk London. McKinley writes with fierce energy and it's this rocket fuel that drives the sentences. It's a book that won't appeal to everyone, no doubt about that, but gentlemen of a certain age and emigration history similar to my own will recognise and enjoy much in the seething metropolis McKinley's virtuosic gift conjures up.
Joseph O'Connor is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. He is working on a novel about Bram Stoker's friendships with the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. On January 19 he will conduct a public interview with the novelist Peter Carey at the Pepper Canister Church, Mount St, Dublin 2, as a prelude to the International Literature Festival Dublin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Helena Molony: A Radical Life 1883-1967 by Nell Regan published by Arlen House (sponsored by SIPTU): A feminist, a trade unionist, an actor, a journalist, an Easter Rising participant - Helena Molony filled multiple roles during the heady days of the Irish State's formation. She campaigned for women's, prisoners' and workers' rights, but her contribution was sidelined, as were the efforts of so many other radical women. This first biography, by the poet Nell Regan, is long overdue, and includes what the writer and historian Padraig Yeats describes as her consciously feminist testimony from the Bureau of Military History - she challenged the view that only men should be entitled to pensions. Nell Regan has performed important work in helping to rescue this remarkable woman from obscurity.
When Light Is like Water by Molly McCloskey, published by Penguin Ireland, is set in Sligo and Dublin before the Celtic Tiger years. This insightful novel with a seam of raw poetry at its core is a meditation on love, duplicity, self-destruction and the moral force of acknowledging one's mistakes. The story is told in flashback, returning us to an era of dismal pubs, sexual fumbles in bedsits and feeding 50p pieces into the electricity meter. The central character is an American woman who says of the devastating affair she embarks on with an Irish writer: "So much clarity and consequence - it was like enlightenment, it was like being in the truth, which is a funny thing to say about deceit." It's McCloskey's second novel and showcases her understanding of the human heart.
Best European Fiction 2018, edited by Alex Andriesse and published by Dalkey Archive Press, is an intriguing collection of short stories from across Europe, this is a voyage of discovery for the curious reader. Some have a meditative quality, some a sly humour, others burn against the dying of the light. Among standout pieces is Welshman Thomas Morris's 'Where We All Belong'. Morris, formerly editor of the Stinging Fly literary magazine (a valuable addition to Ireland's artistic community), takes us into a brutal world of survival of the fittest in the classroom: fitness designated at birth by class. "I knew where I belonged," says the narrator - with the chosen ones from affluent backgrounds. Through his eyes we see Ryan, from a council estate, attempt to negotiate this stratified world.
And if I may mention another novel - Benedict Kiely's Dogs Enjoy The Morning, first published in 1968, was republished by New Island this year (I wrote the foreword) and it remains a joy. Glinting with mischief, the novel contains much goading of Ireland's morality police in this story set in a sex-obsessed small town in Ireland whose inhabitants include a Peeping Tom and a shell-shocked chaplain.
Martina Devlin's latest novel is About Sisterland. Her first collection of short stories will be published in autumn 2018 by Poolbeg's Ward River Press imprint
The Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Cork University Press) magnificently dissects the Irish revolution of 1913-23, layer by layer by layer. The words "landmark" and "groundbreaking" are much overused by publishers, but Cork University Press is much justified in employing those descriptions to trumpet this mammoth production, in all its glory, amounting to 5kg and 1,000 pages of enlightened essays, chapters and case studies by more than 100 scholars with accompanying maps, tables, statistics, photographs and documents. It is also very fairly priced, given the extent of what it offers.
Bernard MacLaverty's Midwinter Break (Jonathan Cape) has been long in the making and was worth the wait; an exquisitely detailed and authentic portrait of an older couple and all their foibles, baggage, humour and deep bonds and is by far the best novel I've read this year. What do you do after decades of marriage, when the children are reared and you have retired and are plagued by a lack of fulfilment? This book achingly explores this dilemma and the personal pasts that constantly impinge on the present.
Helen Smith's The Uncommon Reader (Cape) is a brilliant biography of Edward Garnett (1868-1937) who devoured and improved countless book manuscripts and was literary midwife to numerous writers who went on to great heights. Proud to have an Irish mother, he was also a great champion of Irish writers. This book is a very rounded and humane portrait, including in relation to his sometimes-poison pen and open marriage. He thought nothing of awards and commercialism; what mattered to him most was literary quality.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD
Neurosurgeon Professor Henry Marsh followed up his brilliant Do No Harm with Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery, another thoughtful look at working at the forefront of neurosurgery and what it means, philosophically and medically, to wield a scalpel that can both end and enhance a life. Like the great Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee - geneticist, oncologist and author of The Gene - Professor Marsh looks at medicine and humanity as a whole rather than separately.
Marian Keyes is simply one of Ireland's greatest writers and her glorious The Break combines her crackshot wit, empathy and huge human and social understanding in this tale of Amy, whose husband, Hugh, wants "a break" from their marriage. With not a word out of place, The Break is to be savoured slowly but I promise, you will be unable to read slowly.
Journalist Clodagh Finn uncovered the story of Mary Elmes, Ireland's Oskar Schindler, a Corkwoman who personally saved hundreds of Jewish children from the gas chambers and endured six months' detention by the Gestapo. In A Time To Risk All, Clodagh tells Mary's incredible story of courage, a woman who is largely unknown in this country, despite receiving one of Israel's highest honours in Yad Vashem, the only Irish person to ever be so honoured. An amazing, life-affirming book.
Cathy Kelly's Secrets of a Happy Marriage is now out in paperback; her new novel, The Year That Changed Everything, will be out in February
There is no worse time of year than the "Best Books Time", simply because it racks my heart with guilt, and I begin to remember all the books I can and should have mentioned, and I end up apologising to writers everywhere. But I'm trying to work on a project that includes Palestine and Israel and I am trying to occupy my imagination in that territory, so my reading has been limited.
First of all I adore Raja Shehadeh's Where the Line is Drawn, an examination of the friendship that Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer, has with Henry, a Canadian-Israeli. What a gorgeous evocation of the line between the personal and the political. Shehadeh is word-for-word, beat-for-beat, heart-for-heart, one of the most important writers in the Middle East, if not the world. He brings clarity and decency and a proper amount of rage to the reality on the ground.
Another book that takes place in Israel (and New York) is Nicole Krauss's Forest dark. It's a double-helix novel, twinning the stories of a philanthropist and a novelist while also managing to draw a wonderful story about Kafka into the mix. Krauss is a genius in the mould of WG Sebald. To paraphrase her, she presses these lives into bright existence.
And then there is the work of my friend Nathan Englander whose novel Dinner at the Center of the Universe is another marvel. It has been hailed as a literary spy story, but it's so much more than this. Englander summons the spirits of DeLillo and Ondaatje to craft a riveting tale that is deeply political, moral and human at the same time. A really fine accomplishment.
Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer was published by Bloomsbury in May
Home Fire, the seventh novel by Kamila Shamsie, is a reimagining of Sophocles's Antigone in a modern-day setting. The backdrop to the novel is the rising prejudice that Muslims in the west now face. The novel is skilfully told via five viewpoints: sisters Isma and Aneeka, their brother Parvaiz (Aneeka's twin), British Home Secretary Karamat Lone and his son Eamonn.
This is a classic Greek tragedy in a modern setting. It will stay with you long after you finish it. I found it extremely eye-opening and thought provoking.
The Choice is a must read. It's a powerful and moving memoir written by Dr Edith Eva Eger, an eminent psychologist whose own experiences as a Holocaust survivor helps her treat patients. Edith was 16 years old when the Nazis came to her hometown in Hungary and sent her family to Auschwitz. One of the few living Holocaust survivors, Edith shares with the reader how she managed to go on living after it happened and forgive her captors. Despite the horrors she suffered at the hands of the Nazis, Edith has found joy and love. The book is incredibly uplifting and life affirming.
As a 20-year subscriber to Vanity Fair I have just started Tina Brown's the Vanity Fair diaries and so far am enjoying it. She doesn't hold back on giving us a revealing behind-the-scenes insight into how she got the job as editor, aged just 30, and what went on as she picked the failing magazine off the floor and reinvented it. From 1984-1992 she transformed Vanity Fair into a magazine with top-class contributors and iconic covers - who can ever forget the cover with the naked pregnant Demi Moore shot by Annie Leibovitz.
Sinéad Moriarty's new novel Our Secrets and Lies will be published by Penguin Ireland in March
Ross Raisin's third novel, A Natural (Jonathan Cape), is his best yet. It follows the journey of Tom, a professional footballer who, despite a promising start, has not quite made it to the big leagues. A quiet, introverted figure, he's also gay in a sport not known for embracing minorities. Raisin creates a deeply moving portrait of fear and acceptance and also of the struggles that the not-quite-good-enough have in recognising that their dreams might not be realised.
Having worked for seven years in a bookshop, I couldn't resist Shaun Bythell's The Diary of a Bookseller (Profile). Bythell runs Scotland's biggest second-hand bookshop in Wigtown, which also plays hosts to a literary festival every September. Describing his day-to-day run-ins with customers, the search for missing books and his ongoing staff feuds, it's an utterly hilarious account of the struggles involved in keeping a business afloat. And surely the best moment of all is when Bythell takes a Kindle to his family farm and shoots it.
Francesca Segal's The Awkward Age (Chatto & Windus) is a terrific novel, elegantly written with a plot that makes one unable to stop reading. In late middle-age, Julia and James have fallen in love with each other but her teenage daughter and his teenage son are making their lives a nightmare. The children are unconscionably cruel at times, selfish and utterly spoilt, and the effect they have on their loving parents is heart-breaking.
John Boyne's latest novel is The Heart's Invisible Furies (Doubleday)
The Power by Naomi Alderman was my book of the year, both for the concept and how well it's executed. After a growth within their bodies is discovered, young girls suddenly find they have an electrical power which makes them physically superior to men. As this power develops among more and more women, they use their physical attributes to achieve superiority in all walks of life. When women take control of local institutions and ultimately become rulers of individual states, their relationships with each other and with the men around them undergo profound changes. This study of power and how it affects those who possess it is a compelling read, with some clever structural devices in that keep the reader on their toes. A modern classic.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant is the badly-dressed woman on the bus, the office worker who doesn't get involved with her colleagues, the person you talk about in undertones. She lives alone and leads a very structured life which includes a chilling weekly phone call with her mother followed by weekends drinking vodka. There's clearly more to her and her situation but initially the reader is kept in the dark about Eleanor's personal life and why it is the way it is. This book is a brilliant study of loneliness and self-containment, of despair and hope, and of the need we all have for human contact and emotional engagement. When a chance event causes Eleanor to modify her behaviour, the reasons for her isolation become clear. With a tragic backstory, this book could have been depressing, but despite its undercurrent of sadness it is warm and humorous, and challenges our views about people who seem different.
The Girl Before by JP Delaney is a psychological thriller that delivers on its promise. An exclusive apartment, packed with the latest in technology, is available to rent at a surprisingly reasonable price but only if the owner can meet certain conditions. These include paring down possessions to a minimum so that there is nothing personal on display in any room of the ultra-modern building. As the newest tenant, Jane, moves in, she begins to learn more about Emma, the previous tenant, who died while living in the apartment. Jane begins to discover more about Emma, but her own life and choices begin to mirror those of the girl who was the tenant before. The novel moves between both women's stories and the author ramps up the tension, making this a great page tuner if not exactly a relaxing read, particularly if you live on your own.
Sheila O'Flanagan's latest novel , What Happened That Night, was published by Headline Review in June. Her most recent collection of short stories, Christmas With You, was reissued by Hachette Ireland in October
GRACE by Paul Lynch (One World) is a hugely brave and accomplished feat of imagination in which a year of the Great Famine is brought to life in all its chilling darkness through the eyes of an adolescent girl as she criss-crosses Ireland in search of salvation. Lynch uses his considerable literary gifts to realise the near pagan Irish landscape of the time in all its rampant pishoguery. Superb, unflinching literary fiction.
THE THERAPY HOUSE by Julie Parsons (New Island Books). Irish crime fiction is in good hands here. Michael McLoughlin, ex-cop turned private investigator, relocates to a new home in Dún Laoghaire and is soon knee-deep in the aftermath of a gruesome murder involving a supreme court judge. Parsons deftly prises open the lid of middle-class Dublin and discovers a writhing nest of blackmail, perversity, insanity and death. With insightful skill she adds croutons from the Troubles and from Venice to serve up a meaty, addictive stew.
With the exception of spook writer, Mick Herron, no one can touch John le Carré when it comes to writing about the venality of UK spy and undercover agencies. Although now in his late eighties, le Carré returns in A LEGACY OF SPIES (Viking) to the divided Berlin - his favourite locality - before the wall went up for what may well be the novel that signs off a stellar career. His ability to milk tension and propulsive narrative from seemingly bland inter-agency memos is the key to this gripping spy thriller.
If you have ever recently wondered how a small, backward, famine-stricken country like North Korea can pose a real threat to the most affluent and powerful country in the world - the US - read A WAR LIKE NO OTHER by Victor Davis Hanson (Random House). Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Greek historian Thucydides forecast that the Peloponnesian War in which he was embroiled would be a template for human behaviour for all time. He was right. Utterly absorbing.
Act of Allegiance, Peter Cunningham's latest novel, is published by Sandstone
I'm constantly pushing copies of Elske Rahill's Ink White Ink (Head of Zeus) on everyone. Rahill is extraordinarily talented. She writes in a way that is both intellectual and intuitive. The stories fly along, and you feel like she knows you intimately.
Andrew Michael Hurley's Devil's Day (John Murray) is like British folk horror told with beautiful prose and lengthy meditations on responsibility to family and home, it's a dark and moody treat.
Darach Ó Séaghdha's Motherfoclóir (Head of Zeus) is a lot of fun if you're a bit of a nerd for etymology. It sneakily teaches you Irish in a big-hearted way. The popularity of O Séaghdha's Twitter account and podcast is kind of remarkable; he may single-handedly revive the language for the mainstream yet.
Mark O'Connell's To Be A Machine evoked a more complex class of anxiety in me than I'd normally be able to muster. He raises a lot of questions about what it means to be human, but in a hilariously humane way. Angie Thomas's The Hate You Give (Walker Books) is an incredible debut YA novel about police brutality. The subject is tough, and the prose is electric.
Nicholas Grene's excellent The Theatre of Tom Murphy (Bloomsbury) describes Murphy as a playwright who operates between the 'formula method' and the 'adventurer method' of playwriting. The risks didn't always pay off, but when they do, the results are extraordinary. This is the dilemma we in the arts have to interrogate all the time.
Do you take a risk on something strange and challenging, in the hopes that people will meet you halfway when the house lights go down, or do you plot a sensible, likeable and familiar experience to pay to keep those lights on?
I did a lot of comfort reading this year, including revisiting Nora Ephron's Heartburn and I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Stephen King's The Dead Zone (I listened to the audiobook read by James Franco), a novel about premonitions that predicted Donald Trump. Stephen King and Owen King's new novel Sleeping Beauties (Hodder & Stoughton) is a supernatural story about a mysterious spell that causes only women to fall into a deep sleep inside a cocoon. If you wake them, they react with homicidal fury. It's a nice analogy for the revelations of 2017, if you ask me; the awakening is brutal.
Lisa Coen is a co-founder of independent Irish publisher Tramp Press