Reading inspires writing, so we've rounded up a list from some of our best-known authors to find out which books stood out from the pack or inspired them - be it thriller, romance or memoir - over the past 12 months. Here are their top selections.
Joseph O'Connor's Shadowplay tells the story of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, and the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. It has an extraordinary sense of the period - late 19th century London - and, using shifting scenes and changing perspectives, displays a brilliant ear for tone and nuance, and a wonderful talent for evoking and creating drama.
Another book I enjoyed was Tessa Hadley's Late in the Day, a novel that deals with the lives of four characters in London over a number of decades.
Hadley is the most delicate chronicler of the intricacies of love, its delicate web. She writes beautifully also about solitude and middle age, and about regret and desire. Her novels and stories are psychologically acute and perceptive. Every detail is perfect.
She handles time and scene with the skill of a great 19th century novelist, but in other ways, such as her skill at dealing with relationships among family or friends or lovers, she is a great contemporary novelist.
The Lives of Lucien Freud: Youth 1922-1868 by William Feaver is a superb and engrossing book. Feaver writes well about Freud's paintings; also, he uses the many interviews that he did with Freud himself to great effect, and he is aware that this is a great story about a major figure in English art and in the life of London in the 20th century. Freud's personal wildness emerges in the book in sharp contrast to his discipline as an artist.
⬤ Colm Tóibín's latest book is Pale Sister
My reading this year was mostly non-fiction and fell largely into two categories: books about US politics, as I was researching my own book on Irish America and the relationship between Ireland and the US post-Brexit, and books about pregnancy and parenthood.
Many of this year's political books out of the US I couldn't really recommend as a light read over Christmas as they are heavy with agendas; people vehemently either pro or anti-Trump, dismissing the opposite belief out of hand. The divisive nature of the politics has spilled into the publishing world. However, Samantha Power's The Education of an Idealist is an interesting read. She is incredibly candid in this memoir and it is intriguing to chart her path from Dublin schoolgirl to US Ambassador to the UN, calling out some of the greatest atrocities of recent times.
I would also highly recommend Cribsheet by Emily Oster. She's an economist (and mother) who has written a data-based book on babies and toddlers. It's a follow-up to her 2013 bestseller on pregnancy (Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong and What You Really Need to Know). As a new parent, I'm struck by how often you hear "they say you shouldn't do this"… or "they say you should do that". Who are 'they'? And why do 'they' offer so much advice? Cribsheet is something of a myth buster as Oster sets out the science, economics, published studies and research behind many of those oft-quoted claims about feeding, sleeping, childcare, etc. A useful and entertaining read.
In terms of fiction, I'm only a couple of pages into Joseph O'Connor's Shadowplay, but I'm already loving that. I'm fascinated by the world of Bram Stoker and O'Connor is such a talented and creative writer that this story looks set to not disappoint.
⬤ Caitríona Perry's new book The Tribe: The Inside Story of Irish Power and Influence in US Politics is out now
George Packer's Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century is a portrait of one of the most fascinating and most self-destructive American public figures of 'the American Century'. Holbrooke was at once a cold warrior and a peace-maker, the man who at the outset of his career recognised that America could not win in Vietnam, and later went on to broker the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian war. A fascinating biography, and a new way of writing history.
John le Carré is still the supreme master of spy fiction, though novels such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and, especially, A Perfect Spy, entirely transcend the genre. His latest, Agent Running in the Field is as intricate and persuasive as anything he has written. And, of course, it's a great read.
Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, by Andrew S Curran, is a marvellous study of a marvellous man. Nothing that this great thinker of pre-Revolution France encountered failed to interest him, and Curran's book is exciting, engrossing and thoroughly entertaining.
⬤ John Banville's latest novel is Mrs Osmond
I missed seeing Jung Chang in Dublin - disaster. In Ireland to discuss her new book, the first since Mao: The Unknown Story, written with her husband Jon Halliday, this wonderful Chinese exile has a new, glorious book to rival the 25-year-old classic, Wild Swans. Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister - Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China is the tale of the three Soong sisters who each played a huge role during a century of China's revolutions and wars, becoming powerful but suffering from that power, too. She's a superb writer and brings history to life - and I got a signed copy!
Jojo Moyes is possibly best known for her book of the same name on which the film Me Before You is based, but this talented writer has written her first historical novel with The Giver of Stars. When British woman Alice Wright marries a wealthy Kentuckian in the late 1930s, she does not imagine his world to be so stultifyingly restricting, or for all movements to be controlled by his father. But gloriously, Alice breaks out of this world when she joins up with four spirited women who ride into eastern Kentucky's mountains to deliver books and learning to its poorest and most isolated residents. Based on a true story, it's marvellous.
Chasing Hillary, by New York Times journalist Amy Chozick, is a moment-by-thrilling-moment account of Chozick's time as part of 'the Travelers' (sic), the name given to the travelling pack of reporters on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Incredibly sharp and readable, it's as revealing about the fascinating reporter as about Hillary. Sadly, the only let-down is the deeply sexist New York Times front cover quote: "The Devil Wears Prada meets The Boys on the Bus."
⬤ Cathy Kelly's 20th novel The Family Gift is out now
Glenn Patterson's Backstop Land brings much insight, clarity and often piercing wit to explaining Northern Ireland. Sarah Moore Fitzgerald's latest Young Adult novel A Strange Kind of Brave is just wonderful on the general theme of being different in a world that demands conformity. It's also a brilliant lesson in structure, timing and pace.
This year I re-read the novels of the English writer Elizabeth Taylor, of which Angel is probably the best. She was a great favourite of my favourite writer, the late Kingsley Amis, and, like him, is considered unfashionable now. But her clever, funny, moving, convincing work is full of delights and surprises. My debut novel of the year is Sarah Davis-Goff's Last Ones Left Alive, a brilliantly written dystopian thriller set in and around Dublin, but also a sort of love story of striking originality. Patti Smith's Year of the Monkey is haunting, full of shimmering prose. A year late, I got to Derek Mahon's Against the Clock, and I've found myself coming back to the collection again and again throughout 2019. There are very beautiful, clear, gentle poems about the natural world, the senses, the miracles of everyday living, memory, poetry itself, love, family life.
⬤ Joseph O'Connor's novel Shadowplay won the 2019 Eason Irish Novel of the Year award and is shortlisted for the 2019 Costa Novel Award
My book of the year is Anne Boyer's The Undying which is, technically, the story of a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer - but because Boyer has always combined poetry, philosophy and politics in her work, it's a furious take-down of the world that orbits the disease itself: doctors, capitalism, the cost of treatment, and how medicine can be inherently gendered, to the detriment of female patients. It's a furious, brilliant book. I adored Grief is the Thing With Feathers and was eagerly awaiting Max Porter's second book Lanny, which doesn't disappoint. It's a strange and tender tale of a boy, a rural town and a strange earth beast in the English countryside.
Correspondences: An Anthology to Call for an End to Direct Provision is a powerful and deeply humane anthology featuring essay, poems and personal testimonies by Irish writers, and those who have come through the Direct Provision system. It's co-edited by poet Jessica Traynor and actor Stephen Rea.
I've long admired Robert Macfarlane's writing on nature and the environment, and in his latest book Underland, he does a deep dive - literally - into subterranean worlds.
⬤ Sinéad Gleeson's debut essay collection Constellations won the Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the 2019 Irish Book Awards
Although I often struggle with experimental fiction, two novels that challenge conventional storytelling methods were among my favourites of 2019.
The first was Max Porter's Lanny, which uses multiple voices in its terrific central section to comment upon events related to a couple and their son who have relocated to a small English village. The voices are never identified, some may be real and some imagined, but they take on a distinctive tone that elevates this short book into a hypnotic, surreal reading experience.
The second was Taylor Jenkins Reid's Daisy Jones and the Six, constructed as an oral history of a fictional rock band that bears no small resemblance to Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac. Written entirely through interviews with band members and their associates, the novel's central relationship between two songwriters stretches the thin line between love and hate ever tauter as their music grows more dependent upon each other.
Ann Patchett's The Dutch House was another favourite, as was Damian Barr's You Will Be Safe Here. The former describes the grief and emotional hardship experienced by siblings who have been left damaged by their father's decision to bequeath their beloved home to his new and much younger wife, while in the latter, 100 years of South African history are examined through the juxtaposition of a woman enduring the cruelties of a concentration camp during the Second Boer War and a fragile boy suffering similar indignities at a contemporary enclosure that promises to turn boys into men by whatever means necessary.
⬤ John Boyne's 12th novel A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom will be published in July 2020
Jan Carson I made a resolution to read more work in translation in 2019 and it's opened my eyes to some incredible work by writers I previously wasn't aware of. I particularly enjoyed the Argentinian writer, Samanta Schweblin's strange, haunting and stunningly beautiful collection of short stories, Mouthful of Birds.
The fantastical and the realist combine effortlessly in Schweblin's writing. Many of these stories got under my skin and lingered with me long after I'd put the book down.
I found Andrew Michael Hurley's third novel Starve Acre equally disturbing and wonderful. Falling somewhere between Max Porter's (also fantastic) Lanny, and the Turn of the Screw, this story fuses parental fear with Gothic horror and cements Hurley's place as one of the best contemporary writers of landscape. It's an absolute sucker punch of a book.
Lara William's debut novel Supper Club was another 2019 read which felt like it shook me out of my complacency. It uses food and the sheer enjoyment of eating as a kind of magnifying lens to explore themes around female friendship, toxic relationships and mental health. I don't think I've ever read a novel quite like it.
Finally, a shout-out to Valeria Luiselli's incredible Lost Children's Archive, which offers insight into the migrant situation unfolding on the Mexican-American border. It's rare I read a novel where I'm both captivated by the story and characters, and also educated about a topic. This is such a beautiful story, shot through with passion, warmth and empathy.
⬤ Jan Carson's novel The Fire Starters won the EU Prize for Literature for Ireland 2019
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
This year, I found myself drawn to reading more non-fiction. I just finished Caelainn Hogan's powerful Republic of Shame, and learned so much from her interrogation of the institutions and architectures in which "fallen" women were incarcerated and punished. In The Time of the Tans (Mercier), historian Tomás Mac Conmara draws on decades of conversations with those who survived the brutalities inflicted by the Black and Tans, creating a book that is unique, meticulous and deeply moving.
Spring saw the publication of Sinéad Gleeson's powerful Constellations, and it felt as though the whole country was talking about her extraordinary essays. The poetry anthology Writing Home deftly edited by talented poet Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi and Pat Boran, explores themes of belonging, loss, desire, fear, love and home, depicting contemporary Ireland in all its diversity.
Last summer, I saw Elske Rahill read from An Unravelling at West Cork Literary Festival and hurried to find a copy of my own. I wasn't disappointed - it's a raw, powerful and utterly unforgettable novel from one of the sharpest writers of our times. Another novel I enjoyed this year was Kevin Barry's Night Boat to Tangier - the audiobook (read by the author himself) is a treat.
⬤ Doireann Ní Ghríofa's prose debut, A Ghost in the Throat will be published by Tramp Press in April 2020
This has been a bumper year for books in general. Having read voraciously all year for the Eason's Sinéad & Rick Must Reads, I have had the pleasure of reading some utterly brilliant books.
You Will be Safe Here by Damian Barr was one of the books that blew me away this year. It's a jaw-dropping and hard-hitting novel that holds no punches. Inspired by real events, the story moves between South Africa in 1901 and 2014, as we follow the horrors of the concentration camps set up there by the British in 1901, through to the modern day hell of the New Dawn Training Camps for boys in 2014.
On a completely different note, I loved Live While You Can by Father Tony Coote, who I had the pleasure to know. He was one of life's truly good people. In this inspiring and moving book, he talks about how he learnt to come to terms with being diagnosed with motor neuron disease. In the book, Father Tony talks about how his faith has given him peace and acceptance of his fate. A very powerful story by one of Ireland's most exceptional human beings. He died not long after the book was published.
I also loved the debut novel by Anne Griffin, When All is Said. For something quirky and charming, I recommend Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam.
One to watch for in 2020 is the fantastic debut by Michelle Gallen, Big Girl, Small Town, which is a cross between The Milkman and Derry Girls.
⬤ Sinéad Moriarty's latest novel is Seven Letters
Beyond the Sea by Paul Lynch sees two ill-matched South American fishermen, lured by the prospect of a fast buck, ignore weather warnings to set out to sea on a rickety boat. A storm leads to disaster and they drift further from land, their hopes of rescue fading as time passes. This compressed, powerful and lyrical narrative takes the journey trope and turns it into something more nuanced and multi-layered. Read it slowly because it will be a pleasure, even when some scenes shock.
Lush, Gothic, funny and camp, Shadowplay by Joseph O'Connor retells the story of Dracula author Bram Stoker in a novel whose themes range from hidden desire to self-invention and the creation of cultural icons. Stoker is one edge of a triangle which also comprises actress Ellen Terry (her voice is memorable) and actor-manager Henry Irving - the latter as monstrous and charismatic as the vampire which Stoker's imagination bequeaths to posterity.
In Elsewhere, Rosita Boland - the Irish Times journalist with an inquiring mind, a pilgrim's soul and a rucksack - has compressed three decades of wandering into this gem of a travel book. From Peru to Pakistan, no destination too remote, the results are honest, witty and astute observations about far-flung lands.
But my favourite was closest to home - the London episode which reads like a Flannery O'Connor short story. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is a haunting story told from multiple viewpoints. It won the 2019 International Dublin Literary Award for a debut novelist who's no beginner. It's about transgression, violence, love and forgiveness. At its core is a woman who kills her child, with another woman piecing together her history. I was gripped from the first page.
Other books I enjoyed included The Narrow Land, by Christine Dwyer Hickey, about a Cape Cod summer when a boy is befriended by the artist Edward Hopper and his wife; Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, a collection of essays meditating on the human body; The Border by Diarmaid Ferriter, the UCD historian mulls over the past and considers the future - and never pulls his punches; The River Capture by Mary Costello, a Joyce-inspired tale (but not just for Joyceans) about how secrets from the past can poison the present.
⬤ Martina Devlin's latest book is Truth & Dare: Short Stories about Women who Shaped Ireland
Every year, I get asked the question and every year it causes a little skip in the heart because I'm afraid that my memory will betray me and that little pearl of a book that I loved is somehow forgotten temporarily. And every year I say the same thing: literature is not an Olympics.
For certain, nobody gets the bronze medal. I just try to think of the Irish books that worked for me this year and hope that there's none I've left out... Shadowplay is an absolutely magnificent book. It's not just a portrait of Bram Stoker, but a novel of the here and now: the time that was and the time that is. Sentence for sentence, pause for pause, meaning for meaning, this is one of the best books of the year, anywhere.
What is there to say about Edna O'Brien's Girl? All the images are still stuck between my eyelids.
Night Boat to Tangier kept knocking me off balance spectacularly as I read it. I would stop and close the book and wonder just how in the world Kevin Barry had come up with such a sentence. Dark and glorious and complete.
Christine Dwyer Hickey is always one of my favourites. Her latest novel, The Narrow Land, set in 1950 Cape Cod, is a beguiling portrait of the marriage between Edward and Jo Hopper. She writes with a deceptive simplicity, but nothing is ever simple, especially, indeed, the idea of simplicity. This is a Hopper portrait in language, with all the complexities making themselves heard as the waves crash in on shore.
And a special word for a book of non-fiction - Sinéad Gleeson's Constellations is a book that gave life to the Rumi line: The wound is the place where the light enters you.
⬤ Colum McCann's new novel, Apeirogon, will be published by Bloomsbury on February 29
The buoyant brilliance, the formidable control of her material, are qualities that make Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery a world-class debut of short stories.
Mary Costello, with the sharp spade of The River Capture, made Joyce turn in his grave in Zurich, in a good way.
Joseph O'Connor's Shadowplay rescued other old souls from their dark night and gave bright life back to Bram Stoker and Henry Irving. I also caught up with the fleet collection of stories by Danielle McLaughlin, Dinosaurs and Other Planets - surely a gift to rival Katherine Mansfield's, certainly offering extraordinary pleasures.
Paul Lynch with his masterly Beyond the Sea, Kevin Barry continuing his Bayeux tapestry of inimitable works with Night Boat to Tangier - what a time it is for Irish fiction.
⬤ Sebastian Barry's new novel A Thousand Moons will be published by Faber in March
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
This year, I found myself drawn to reading more non-fiction. I just finished Caelainn Hogan’s powerful Republic of Shame, and learned so much from her interrogation of the institutions and architectures in which “fallen” women were incarcerated and punished. In The Time of the Tans (Mercier), historian Tomás Mac Conmara draws on decades of conversations with those who survived the brutalities inflicted by the Black and Tans, creating a book that is unique, meticulous and deeply moving.
Spring saw the publication of Sinéad Gleeson’s powerful Constellations, and it felt as though the whole country was talking about her extraordinary essays. The poetry anthology Writing Home deftly edited by talented poet Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi and Pat Boran, explores themes of belonging, loss, desire, fear, love and home, depicting contemporary Ireland in all its diversity.
Last summer, I saw Elske Rahill read from An Unravelling at West Cork Literary Festival and hurried to find a copy of my own. I wasn’t disappointed — it’s a raw, powerful and utterly unforgettable novel from one of the sharpest writers of our times. Another novel I enjoyed this year was Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier — the audiobook (read by the author himself) is a treat.
⬤ Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s prose debut, A Ghost in the Throat will be published by Tramp Press in April 2020
Nearly a year after I’ve read it — and I’m still laughing at Nicole Flattery’s debut collection, Show Them a Good Time. It reads like it was written by a post-history, Irish Billy Wilder. Everyone and everything is coming apart at the seams under huge waves of banality; everyone’s dreams have been shattered, yet persist in a half-life of wonderful one-liners spat out in impossible conversations. A merciless joyride of a book.
In an era when most confessional writing implies a certain degree of unforgiving, ritualistic humiliation for everyone involved, it was with relief that I read Minor Monuments by Ian Maleney. Ostensibly about the death of Maleney’s grandfather, it reflects the dignity and privacy of not only its protagonists, but that whole fading generation of people most responsible for building this country. My favourite Irish book in I don’t know how long.
The other great plague novel of the year was To Calais in Ordinary Time by James Meek. It tells the story of a score of soldiers moving towards the pestilence in the south of England in 1348, but its achievement lies not so much in its plot as in its dexterous use of all the different patchwork languages English contains within it. One part is written in blunt peasant’s dialect, another in a type of scholastic and Latinate English, as well as a flurry of French-infected aristocratic rendering of romantic excess.
This confluence of languages, contemporaneously overlapping but utterly distinct, owes as much to the imaginary languages science fiction creates as it does to historical reconstructions.
⬤ Oisín Fagan’s debut novel Nobber is out now
One of my favourite books of the year was Tim MacGabhann’s debut Call Him Mine, an electrifying crime thriller that combined the best qualities of the genre — compulsiveness, gripping speed — with a genuine sensitivity. Educational, but never didactic, it’s a thriller that never loses pace or sight of human feeling.
Another memorable read was Nathalie Olah’s Steal As Much As You Can. I don’t think I’ve nodded so emphatically reading a book, underlined so heavily, felt so totally furious. Focusing on the UK, but equally applicable to Ireland, Olah outlines how our collective culture has become dominated by the wealthy and privately-educated. Her essay ‘The Problem with Tastefulness’ is one of the finest, and fiercest, pieces of critical thinking I’ve ever encountered.
Finally, one of my favourite books of the year was a reissue, Elizabeth Hardwick’s 1979 novel Sleepless Nights, beautifully repackaged by Faber&Faber with an introduction by Eimear McBride. Still as fresh, illuminating and strange as it was on its first release, this is a melancholic masterpiece. Hardwick’s formidable mind was one of a kind, and reading this is a form of rare, giddy intimacy, like finding a new friend — someone bright, brilliant and understanding — at a boring party.
⬤ Nicole Flattery’s short story collection Show Them a Good Time is out now
My local library in Maynooth stands across the road from the Maynooth Bookshop. During 2019, I shuttled between them for books old and new. Your Fathers, Where Are They?... by Dave Eggers is told entirely in dialogue, and is absorbingly good.
In Beyond the Sea, Paul Lynch pits two simple fishermen against nature in a gripping, existential contest. Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End follows a young, Sligo-born US Union Army soldier in the 1850s in a captivating first-person narrative. For good quality storytelling, The Crown Agent by Stephen O’Rourke — in the mode of Buchan and Robert Louis Stevenson — is hard to beat.
I loved the brave The River Capture by Mary Costello. Brave because the protagonist is a Ulysses addict, leading Costello to tell a great part of the book in the Socratic dialogue style employed by Joyce in Ulysses’ Ithaca section. Bravo!
Speaking of which, Ithaca by Alan McMonagle keeps its biggest secret to the end.
Hard to escape Joyce: NY-Irish wake scenes in Charming Billy by Alice McDermott are strongly reminiscent of ‘The Dead’. Finally, Patrick McCabe returns to chilling form with The Big Yaroo. No one does psychotic better than McCabe.
⬤ Peter Cunningham’s forthcoming novel, Freedom is a Land I Cannot See, will be published by Sandstone in 2020