Lazy days reading by the pool or passing the time on a long-haul flight will not be an option for many of us this year, but that does not mean we cannot escape into some fantastic reads for our summer holidays. Here are our recommendations...
Having accepted that our holidays will this year be confined to an island prone to variable weather, here are some engrossing reads recommended by our team of reviewers to enjoy in the garden when the sun does come out — or curl up with on the sofa on those rainy days.
* Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent * Grown Ups by Marian Keyes * Unfiltered by Sophie White * Threshold by Rob Doyle * Freedom is a Land I Cannot See by Peter Cunningham
* A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry
* The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes
by Hilary A White
With the mighty year we’ve had in Irish writing and fine literary fiction, you’d be forgiven for willing the arrival of cloud cover.
We thought there could be no singing and dancing about book releases during this suspended spring, but we hadn’t reckoned on Our Little Cruelties (Penguin Ireland). Our love of Liz Nugent’s finger-licking domestic noir shows no signs of easing, with her fourth novel firmly settled in the bestseller charts months later. Besides the excruciating psychological vice it squeezes you in, this tale of three brothers (one in a coffin) has the added bonus of allowing us to feel a bit better about our own familial dysfunctions.
Marian Keyes also decided that three brothers was the route to take for a good night in, albeit with a slightly gentler colour scheme to Nugent. Grown Ups (Penguin) comes with a family tree diagram so that you can keep track of the various scandalous ins and outs (of which, we quickly learn, there are plenty) going on beneath the dignified façade of the Casey clan. Someone bumps their head at a gathering, cats are let out of bags, skeletons rattle from cupboards.
Sophie White returned with Unfiltered (Hachette), her follow-up to 2019’s Filter This. White’s shameless array of characters also operate in a world where veneer is what counts, this time via handheld screens with “like” buttons. After faking pregnancy to nab more Instagram followers, Ali is licking her wounds while baking a real bun in her oven. Things could be on the up for her but you’ll have to tune in to find out. Wise, witty and on-the-money in how it prods this bizarre world.
There was a case for Rob Doyle’s Threshold (Bloomsbury) being among the memoir selections, such is its fast and loose way with the first person. Doyle, quite rightly, won’t be pinned down on the verisimilitude of this hedonistic odyssey involving a young buck called Rob. What really matters is the charged, streamlined prose that sucks you into its current. One of the most strangely thrilling reads of the year so far.
1924. The tense residue of the fledgling Free State. Loose lips sink ships, and all that. But Peter Cunningham has another key ingredient that binds Freedom is a Land I Cannot See (Sandstone Press) together — romance and longing. Between its short, page-turning chapters and richly painted protagonist (beautiful, blind Rose Raven), Cunningham’s latest manages that rare trick of being both exciting and reflective.
Another silverback flexing their muscle was Sebastian Barry whose A Thousand Moons (Faber) picked up the story from his all-conquering Days Without End. Winona, the native American girl adopted by Thomas McNulty and John Cole is now our narrator as the trio try to forge a new start out of the harrowing bloodshed of the first novel. A delicacy.
The Wild Laughter (Oneworld), Caoilinn Hughes’ second novel, does what it says on the tin. After the widespread critical acclaim of her debut The Orchid and the Wasp, Hughes’ firecracker language and unruly wit returns with a bedraggled family saga set during the financial crash.
* Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan * The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett * Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner * Weather by Jenny Offill
* The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
l* Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh
* A Talented Man by Henrietta McKervey * Ann Devine: Handle With Care by Colm O’Regan
by Tanya Sweeney
In a season packed to the rafters with compelling reads, the best place to start is with the hottest title of the year so far. Leaving aside the exhausted ‘new Sally Rooney’ comparison, Naoise Dolan’s witty and muscular debut Exciting Times (W&N) has already won legions of fans. The book details the journey of Ava, a young Irish expat teaching English to rich kids in Hong Kong. Entranced by a new friend, the British banker Julian, she ends up in a love triangle with him and Edith, an accomplished and worldly lawyer.
Already topping the New York Times bestseller list, Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (Dialogue Books) is an ambitious tale that straddles decades and generations. Two twin sisters, Stella and Desiree, leave their small Louisiana town at 16 for New Orleans. Stella ups and leaves Desiree in their 20s, and the two forge very different paths in life. Written in lush prose, The Vanishing Half is a meaty mediation on race, family, belonging and survival.
Described as the “beach read to end all beach reads”, Jennifer Weiner’s Big Summer (Simon & Schuster) is a fun and companionable book set against the sun-soaked backdrop of Cape Cod. Old pals Daphne and Drue are reunited, six years after the vicious fight that ended their friendship. Yet Drue has a favour to ask — she wants Daphne to be her maid of honour at the society wedding of the year. Expect a witty dollop of summery escapism.
It may be small in stature — 205 pages to be exact — but Jenny Offill’s Weather (Granta) packs quite a punch. Lizzie Benson is a librarian with plenty on her plate: a child in the ‘bright’ programme at school, a drug-addicted brother, a husband who has let his ambitions fall by the wayside. Lizzie takes on a job with her old college professor, now a futurologist, and soon her own frets about the future begin to mount up. Offill’s neat portrait of family life is among the finest and most charming you’ll read all read.
The Pull of the Stars is the highly anticipated new book by Room author Emma Donoghue (Pan Macmillan, out on July 23, full review next week). Set over three days in 1918 in a Dublin maternity ward, Donoghue’s novel, set during the height of the Great Flu, reads as remarkably prescient. Within this hospital, expectant mums are quarantined together. Between saving life, bringing new life into the world and losing patients, the three women staffing this ward end up going through huge transformations of their own.
After the fantastic My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh returns to the roots of her macabre debut Eileen with Death in Her Hands (Penguin Books, out in August). Here, a 72-year-widow moves to a large plot of land, and finds a handwritten note that implies that a murder has taken place on her property. All in all, it’s a rip-roaring and grim ride in the hands of an unreliable narrator, shot through with Moshfegh’s trademark audaciousness.
A literary thriller that might put readers in mind of Patricia Highsmith, Henrietta McKervey has fashioned A Talented Man (Hachette Ireland), a tale about Ellis Spender, a master forger who ‘discovers’ the lost sequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in pre-war London. The book brings the riches and fame to Ellis that he has always wanted, but things fall apart as the scheme begins to gather pace.
A quintessential Irish Mammy, Ann Devine is one of our most endearing literary figures, and author Colm O’Regan gives her plenty to get through in Ann Devine: Handle With Care (Transworld, out on Thursday). There’s her mother, who moves in after a fall, her ‘woke’ niece, Freya, and her daughter Jennifer, dealing with issues of her own. Things get even more complicated when Ann finds herself front and centre in a fight to save the local post office from closure.
* No Escape by Arlene Hunt * He Started It by Samantha Downing * The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black * The Stranger by Simon Conway * Why She Ran by SA Dunphy
by Myles McWeeney
Arlene Hunt’s No Escape (Hachette Ireland)sees Leo Kennedy escape his gangland family to become a chef in London. Years later he returns to open a restaurant, but is dragged back into a vicious gang turf war. Fast paced and highly entertaining, at its core this a sensitive exploration of the increasing international problem of human trafficking.
Dysfunctional family dynamics are also the starting point of He Started It (Michael Joseph), Samantha Downing’s smartly structured and highly original take on a road trip from hell through the western states of the US. Siblings Beth, Portia and Eddie haven’t seen much of each other as adults, When their grandfather’s will forces them to recreate a journey he had taken them on as teenagers, all sorts of terrible memories are revived and violence ensues.
BW Black’s The Secret Guests (Penguin) is set in 1940 in Co Tipperary. It suggests that Britain’s two young princesses are secretly brought to Clonmillis Hall, the home of the Duke of Edenmore, a distant relative. Looking after them is MI5 agent Celia Nashe and Garda Sergeant Strafford, the only Protestant garda in the force, and a detachment of the Irish Army led by Major Vivion De Valera. In no time flat, the local IRA unit know who these guests are. Elegantly written and full of amusingly deft characterisations, this makes a hugely entertaining summer read.
Hardcore espionage fans will get huge value from Simon Conway’s The Stranger (Hodder & Stoughton). When a terrorist is liberated from a Syrian jail, MI6 agent Jude Lyon must hunt him down before he can carry out a deadly attack on London. Pitted against Jude is the ultimate killing machine known as The Stranger. A breathlessly exciting foray into the world of clandestine operations. Finally, SA Dunphy’s adrenalin-pumping Why She Ran (Hachette Ireland) features his regular lead character, Irish criminologist David Dunnigan, in a helter-skelter chase that starts in the Scottish Highlands and takes him, his accused murderer niece Beth and a number of oddly talented colleagues on a mission to prove Beth’s innocence that ends in the bleak Nevada desert via Hamburg and Prague. Huge fun.
* Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty *Handiwork by Sara Baume
* Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan * Notes From an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell *Inventory: A River, A City, A Family by Darren Anderson * Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me by Deirdre Bair * Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit
by Hilary A White
Bright, clear and resounding voices, speaking their truths directly to you, or a look back at other lives in another time. Real-life stories can surpass the bounds of fiction, as these fine recent examples have reminded us.
One of the biggest talking points of the year should be Dara McAnulty, the Ulster teenager who released Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller). Something of a celebrity already through his campaigning work, not only for the environment but also autism awareness, McAnulty came of age as a writer of stunning lyricism with this debut. As much a transportive work of nature writing as a poignant account of negotiating teenage years with the added burden of autism.
Nature, particularly birds and migration, was folded into the batter of Handiwork (Tramp Press), a meditation on the creative process by writer and visual artist Sara Baume. Distilled, eloquent and ringing clear as a bell, this slim edition has the ability to envelop its reader without lecturing them. At a time when the arts sector is facing massive uncertainty, Handiwork has also evolved through this pandemic into a paean to the creative bent.
From Baume’s leafy West Cork studio to US drug dens and grubby hotels. Sing Backwards and Weep (Orion) is the only rock autobiography you need investigate. Like some nicotine-stained amalgam of Tom Waits and Kurt Cobain, Mark Lanegan gives another meaning to “warts and all” as he recounts his near obliteration during the Seattle grunge boom of the 1990s, of which he is one of the few survivors. A brazen and bleakly comic saga about the needle and the damage done.
More self-aware in his comedic registers is Mark O’Connell, whose Notes From an Apocalypse (Granta) reports back from the frontlines of the end of the world. Before you baulk, this memoir-style investigation is less a finger wag about how we’re all doomed than a spirited jaunt around our obsession with our demise. Funny and weirdly life-affirming.
Another memoir that refused to follow convention was Inventory: A River, A City, A Family (Chatto & Windus). Darren Anderson’s multi-generational family portrait maps the psychogeography of his Derry upbringing and the layers of history that he and his kin have walked through. A deeply sensual and poignant item of creative non-fiction that is so much more than a simple love letter to the city and its struggles.
The recent death of Deirdre Bair gives added poignancy to Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me (Atlantic Books). Bair’s 1978 biography of Beckett is lauded by many as definitive, but it is in the pages of this memoir that we see the true extent of her achievement given the array of headaches she faced. These included rife sexism, academic snootiness, and the changing weather patterns of the great absurdist himself. And that’s all before she had a stab at Simone de Beauvoir.
Rebecca Solnit disciples will be aware of Recollections of My Non-Existence (Granta). Those wishing to become acquainted might try this memoir about her germination in 1980s San Francisco into one of the most resounding feminist writers of her generation.
* The Murder of Mr Moonlight by Catherine Fegan * A Dream of Death by Ralph Riegel
* A Rip in Heaven by Jeanine Cummins
* The Five by Hallie Rubenhold * Flash Crash by Liam Vaughan
by Darragh McManus
Alongside thrillers, romance and sports books, true-crime is an enduring staple of publishing. And if it’s an irresistible drug for readers, here in Ireland we love a bit of home-grown. Two domestic true-crime works address a pair of the most infamous cases in recent history: one solved, the other unsolved.
The Murder of Mr Moonlight (Penguin) by Catherine Fegan tells “the definitive story behind the trial that gripped the nation”, and for once, the blurb doesn’t exaggerate. Tipperary DJ Bobby Ryan — AKA the eponymous Mr Moonlight — was killed in 2011; eight years later local farmer Pat Quirke was charged with the crime. His murder trial, the longest-running in our history, was a mad carnival of violence, infidelity, jealousy, dirty tricks and all sorts chicanery.
In A Dream of Death (Gill), Ralph Riegel — well-respected southern correspondent for this newspaper — delves into the notorious killing of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in December 1996. We know most of the details: how the French film-maker had found an idyll in West Cork that was shattered by brutal murder, and how Ian Bailey became a suspect. He was later found guilty in absentia by a French court. Bailey has consistently denied any involvement in the killing. The case has never officially been closed.
There’s a Hibernian angle also to A Rip in Heaven (Tinder Press): author Jeanine Cummins is of mixed Puetro Rican-Irish stock. This “memoir of a murder and its aftermath” recalls the horrific rape and murder of Cummins’ two cousins in 1991, and subsequent harassment of her brother Tom as a suspect. First published in 2004, this reissue from the bestselling author of American Dirt will be huge.
The Five (Black Swan) by Hallie Rubenhold examines “the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper”. Here too are Irish links: Mary Kelly, final victim, was said to have been from Limerick, while one of many men suspected was Francis Tumblety, Irish-born American snake-oil salesman. Rubenhold reinvents the titular five, from mere victims to real people who led singular, disparate lives in a tough environment for women.
Finally, financial journalist Liam Vaughan may be British, but with that name, we’ll claim him. Flash Crash (Doubleday) tells the weirder-than-fiction story of how a rogue genius financial trader caused the fastest drop in share prices in history.
* My Autobiography by Rory Best * The Russian Affair: The True Story of the Couple who Uncovered the Greatest Sporting Scandal by David Walsh * Diane Crump: A Horse-Racing Pioneer’s Life in the Saddle by Mark Shrager * Sport, the Media and Ireland: Interdisciplinary Perspectives by Neil O’Boyle and Marcus Free * Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui
by Hilary A White
The first third of the year is traditionally a quiet time for sporting titles and biographies, a situation not helped by the upset to the publishing world caused by the pandemic. Some books have materialised as planned, however, and they may just have played a role in keeping fans sated until normal match-play resumes.
Arguably Ireland’s most successful rugby captain, Rory Best certainly has plenty to unpack in My Autobiography (Hachette). But besides the Grand Slams, the routed Kiwis, and other glories on the field, there is his rural Armagh upbringing, his wild journeyman years in the game, as well as the small matter of his appearance as a character witness at the Belfast Rape Trial.
Having blown the whistle on Lance Armstrong, Irish sports journalist David Walsh continues to delve into the world of doping. The Russian Affair: The True Story of the Couple who Uncovered the Greatest Sporting Scandal (Simon & Schuster) tells the story of Vitaly Stepanov and Yuliya Rusanova, the anti-doping agent and athlete who fell in love and decided to crack open the extent of institutionalised performance-enhancing drug use in Russian athletics.
US jockey Diane Crump is the subject of a new biography, and you quickly see why. Women were prohibited from jockey licences in the 1960s and she had to fight hard to finally be allowed to compete. So much ire greeted her before her first race that she needed a police escort to the saddling enclosure. Mark Shrager tells her remarkable story in Diane Crump: A Horse-Racing Pioneer’s Life in the Saddle (Rowman & Littlefield).
Our relationship with sport on this island is deep and complex, as much to do with how we consume it as the community ties that link us to it. Sport, the Media and Ireland: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Cork University Press) sees Neil O’Boyle and Marcus Free look into these interwoven strands with scholarly detail.
With sea swimming becoming increasingly popular, even in the depths of winter, the therapeutic values of a dip are worth looking at a bit more closely. Why We Swim (Ebury, out in August) is Bonnie Tsui’s deep dive (sorry) into what brings us back repeatedly to the water and why its immersive element is one of our most loved forms of exercise.
By Tanya Sweeney
The Guest List by Lucy Foley (read by Olivia Dowd, Aoife McMahon, Chloe Massey, Sarah Ovens, Rich Keeble, Jot Davies)
A tale that is this eerie and atmospheric benefits greatly from the audiobook treatment. Set on an island off the coast of Ireland, friends gather for a lavish society wedding. It doesn't take long for the drinking games to start up, and the festivities to take a dark turn. When an attendee dies, it's up to everyone else to figure out who didn't want to wish the happy couple well.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (read by Cassandra Campbell)
A smash hit and with very good reason, Delia Owens' 'Marsh Girl' lingers long in the mind. Abandoned at 10, Kya Clark, is a figure of suspicion in her North Carolina hometown, and even more so when a handsome local is found dead. A descriptive and emotive coming-of-age journey.
28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand (read by Erin Bennett)
From the undisputed queen of the summer read comes the tale of Mallory Blessing, who is dying and asks her 19-year-old son to contact a man, Jake McCloud, that she knew 28 summers ago. The plot thickens somewhat when Jake's wife Ursula is the frontrunner in the upcoming presidential election.
Actress by Anne Enright (read by Anne Enright)
In an ambitious and unforgettable tale, an Irish woman recounts the life of her mother, the Irish theatre legend Katherine O'Dell. Theirs is a complex relationship and both women have no shortage of emotional baggage. And, when Katherine's fame turns into infamy, Norah sets off on a journey for the truth.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (read by Grace Gummer)
Meryl Streep's actress daughter offers a narration that gives Russell's must-read debut even more heft than before. Set originally in 2001, 15-year-old Vanessa, adrift in a prestigious boarding school, starts an affair with her English teacher Jacob Strane, aged 42. In 2017, with the #MeToo movement gathering pace, Strane is accused of underage abuse by a fellow pupil, forcing Vanessa to evaluate their 'romance' anew.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (read by Carrington MacDuffie)
MacDuffie offers a solid narration of a novel that has reimagined Hillary (Rodham) Clinton's personal and political life, had she never married her husband, Bill Clinton. After a whirlwind romance, Hillary is heartbroken when Bill is unfaithful, and she sets off on a different path to the one we are familiar with. Utterly gripping stuff, and a fine portrait of a woman that the world thinks they already know.