Irish writers’ best of 2018 – John Boyne, Wendy Erskine, Colm Tóibín and more share top picks
The country's best-loved authors share their favourite reads of the year, from weighty historical tomes to tales of Brexit and the Troubles, to twisty thrillers and moving memoirs
Jonathan Coe's Middle England is the first novel to study the events that led up to the Brexit referendum and the reasons why the Leave campaign won. Coe, an ardent Remainer, is politically engaged on Twitter with his views on the subject and translates them into savage satire here, using characters from some of his earlier novels to examine the bewildering political climate across the water. The unashamed racism of his most malevolent creations is as shocking as it is credible.
Perhaps it's in response to the anti-immigrant stance of the current US president that more and more novels are being published from the perspective of those whose families arrived in America when it still embraced the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Fatima Farheen Mirza's A Place For Us is one such book, exploring the lives of an Indian family in the States over several decades and the bonds that connect and divide them from their community. Mirza is a gifted storyteller and this moving novel was one of the highlights of my reading year.
In non-fiction, I greatly enjoyed Toby Litt's Wrestliana. One of Litt's ancestors wrote a book about wrestling which forms the basis for this examination of family history and a study of what it means to be a man, both in the 19th century and today. There's a great deal of humour as Litt prepares to enter the ring himself in order to recreate the experiences of his forebear but a lot of soul-searching, too, as he examines notions of success and failure. John Boyne's novel A Ladder to the Sky is published by Doubleday
Maya certainly has quite a lot of problems. Heroin addiction is only one of them. Frank, at times very sad, and hilarious, Problems by Jade Sharma gave me my favourite character of the year. I read the book almost in one go in a café at a retail park after an abortive attempt to get a new bin and it was a great experience.
Emer Martin's The Cruelty Men, epic in ambition and scope, deals with the forces of church and state and how they impact on the lives of the O Conaill family in Co Meath, over the course of 40 years. Unsentimental and humane, it was more gripping and immersive than binge-watching a fantastic box set.
I wasn't too sure if I wanted to read a verse novel but when I saw the dedication to the sadly departed Jason Molina in The Long Take, that clinched it for me. Robin Robertson traces the journey of a traumatised World War II veteran as he moves around Los Angeles, San Francisco and Los Angeles. It's melancholy noir magnificence. Wendy Erskine's Sweet Home is published by The Stinging Fly Press
Margaret Kelleher's The Maamtrasna Murders is not merely a definitive account of the notorious murder of the Joyce family in the west of Ireland in 1882 and the subsequent hanging of men who were innocent of the crime. It is a deft and cogent account of the complex ways in which questions of language and linguistic identity maimed Irish society in the late 19th century.
Like Kelleher, Fintan O'Toole in Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain displays an amazing command of the facts, but what distinguishes his book (and hers) is the quality of the mind at work, the sharpness of the analysis, the style. O'Toole even makes you feel sorry for the Brexit leaders and that is no small achievement.
Volume V of The Collected Letters of WB Yeats, edited by John Kelly and Ronald Schuchard, takes us from 1908 to 1910. At almost 1,200 pages, it is an astonishing feat of scholarship and offers an invaluable insight into the life and work of the great poet.
Tara Westover's Educated is a one-sitting read. It's a jaw-dropping and extraordinary memoir of a childhood growing up as the youngest of seven children born to Mormon fundamentalist parents in Idaho. Westover fell through a huge crack in society - her father never registered her birth and she was given no education. It is shocking to think that she didn't set foot in a classroom until she was 17. Yet, through her sheer grit and determination, a decade later she ends up with a PhD from Cambridge University.
Matchstick Man by Julia Kelly is an intensely honest and, at times, almost painful to read memoir by the Irish novelist. Kelly writes with a complete lack of sentimentality about her partner artist Charlie Whisker's disintegration into a world of confusion, distress and amnesia as Alzheimer's takes control of his once sharp and brilliant mind. The book doesn't shy away from the devastating effect the disease has on the couple's relationship and on their young daughter. Kelly doesn't hide any of the pain or destruction that the breakdown of her once beloved Charlie has on her life. A beautifully written, achingly honest memoir that stayed with me long after I finished it.
I have recommended Notes to Self by Emilie Pine to everyone. This series of essays covers everything from her difficult relationship with an absent father to alcoholism, miscarriage, sexual violence, depression, and remaining silent. But it is also about digging deep, being resilient, finding humour in darkness, working hard and learning to speak up for yourself. It is unflinching and yet heartening and tender, too. Sinead Moriarty's Our Secrets and Lies is published by Penguin
David Park, the quiet man of Irish writing, has deftly built a remarkable oeuvre of superbly crafted novels, constructed without pyrotechnics or any dilution of his sparse, lyrical prose. His latest novel, Travelling in a Strange Land, is a superb further distillation of his style: just 165 pages describing a car journey undertaken in thick snow by a father who has promised his wife he will bring their son home for Christmas. It is a remarkably raw tour-de-force: the work of a masterful prose stylist, concealing devastating emotional insights behind sparse sentences.
Every city needs those unique places where nobody can question your right to linger. For Dubliners, Dun Laoghaire Pier is one such public space. Now the photographs, memories and stories of those who walk it regularly are captured in the beautifully illustrated People on the Pier by Betty Stenson and Marian Thérése Keyes.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's Twelve Thousand Days: A Memoir of Love and Loss is a moving meditation not just on the death but, equally importantly, on the full life of her late husband, the distinguished folklorist Bo Almqvist. It is a love story in all its human complications and shared moments of quietude; a tender account of two private lives that might have remained hidden had her husband not died in a Dublin hospital in circumstances that gave rise to fury. The journey of loss it charts will chime with many readers who known the double-edged price of love: where one partner is left behind to make sense of it all. Dermot Bolger's novel An Ark of Light is published by New Island
The stunning Her Bodies and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado must have something to do with the upswing short stories have experienced in sales lately. It is a joy, creative and totally fresh. My favourites are those that nod at sci-fi and horror but there's something here for everyone and it's compulsively readable throughout.
Is it fair to pick a book published by Tramp Press? I don't care. I promise you that Problems by Jade Sharma will be one of the best things you read in 2018, even in this year of Anna Burns and Sally Rooney. It should possibly also come with a health warning. New York based-Sharma is not interested in leaving anything on the field, and her protagonist Maya describes her life about as honestly as a life can be described, in all its gruesomeness, pettiness and beauty.
We all know there are terrible things happening in Ireland. In five years and 10 years and 20 years, we won't be able to deny we knew about Direct Provision. Telling the stories of migrant women in Ireland, This Hostel Life by Melatu Uche Okorie is beautifully written as well as being absolutely necessary, and huge props to newcomer Skein Press for publishing it. Sarah Davis-Goff is a founder of Tramp Press. Her first novel, Last Ones Left Alive, is published in March by Tinder Press
The Stinging Fly is a barometer of all that is exciting in Irish writing. This year, celebrating 20 years of edginess and excellence, it published a beautifully designed anthology of the best of that period, modestly titled Stinging Fly Stories and edited by Sarah Gilmartin. All the names are there - a short list would be invidious. If you want a guided tour of Irish fiction since 1998, look no further.
The Archipelago: Italy Since 1945 is a fascinating overview of Italian history since World War II. John Foot's approach is to provide brief but detailed summaries of all the many events of that fateful period - from the growth and collapse of the Communist Party to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, taking in film, literature, personalities and much else. An indispensable guide to the history and culture of the Bel Paese.
Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey - strictly speaking published in 2017 in the USA but only really reaching Ireland in 2018 - has taken the world by storm. Scholarly and readable, this is an up-to-the-minute translation that sets some records straight. For anyone interested in the text that underpins so much of western literature (including, of course, Ulysses), this is a must. William Wall's Grace's Day is published by Apollo
Caoilinn Hughes' debut novel, Orchid & The Wasp, about a Dublin girl who grows up fast and cynical and becomes embroiled in shenanigans on the New York art scene, is a sharp delight.
A new collection from Deborah Eisenberg, an American master of the short story, is rare and exciting, and Your Duck Is My Duck thrillingly exhibits her phenomenal insight and imagination.
I've long admired Alexander Chee for his non-fiction, and his essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a beautiful and rich exploration of what it takes, and what it costs, to write fiction of any kind - not just that which is openly "from life".
In brief, other novels I enjoyed this year included Gary Shteyngart's novel Lake Success, a very funny and yet utterly serious portrayal of the divided place that America has truly revealed itself to be, Rebecca Makkai's epic, generation-mourning The Great Believers, about the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago, and Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry, which seems at first to be a scorching of Philip Roth, and turns out to be something much more subtle, thought-provoking and intense.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe, is a harrowing but absorbing account of the murder of Jean McConville by the IRA in 1972, and of its intricate aftermath, by a staff writer at The New Yorker. Keefe's meticulously researched and finely written book reminds us of the horrors of our very own Thirty Years War, and of the sacrifices that had to be made to end it.
Symphonic in form but written with classical simplicity, Grace's Day, by William Wall, is a novel about love and loss, the natural world, and the violent complications of family life. As the great John McGahern used to say, there's verse, and there's prose, and then there's poetry; William Wall is a poet in both mediums.
It was an exceptional year for 'wee' books so my first pick is simply 'The Short Novel' - with notable shout outs to Carys Davies' West, Sue Rainsford's Follow Me to Ground and Sarah Moss's Ghost Wall. At just over 100 pages a pop, they have stayed with me far longer than many a weighty tome.
I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but Emilie Pine's Notes to Self completely rocked my core. With essays about filial dynamics, fertility and female (academic) identity, they felt uncannily relevant and uncomfortably honest. Another belter from the unstoppable Tramp Press. The very top of my 2018 list came in January. The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow by Danny Denton combines a gritty dystopian Irish gangster saga with a relentlessly inventive exploration of storytelling and myth. Kevin Barry meets Blade Runner meets, dare I say it, Joyce. Pure genius. Ruth Gilligan is an author and senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham
Sometimes when you finish a book, you want to tell everyone you know to rush out and buy it. That's Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. A story about the family of a jihadi who are doing their best to live normal lives but who find blameless children often have to pay the price for the sins of the father. It's a clever reworking of Antigone and, as in all Greek tragedy, it's never a straightforward choice between right and wrong. It's a choice between two rights.
Carmel Harrington's A Thousand Roads Home took my heart, smashed it to smithereens, then skilfully rebuilt it again. An important book about homelessness and an ordinary family trying to get by. A timely reminder that under every sleeping bag and every cardboard box you see on the street, there's a story.
My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal gives the reader a little boy's view of the foster-care system, set in the 1980s. A story of human kindness that I re-read every time I'm in a bad humour and that reaffirms your faith in the goodness of people.
Reading the Future: New Writing From Ireland was published this year to celebrate 250 years of bookseller Hodges Figgis. It's a treasure trove of a book containing the work of 250 authors, a feast for any literature lover.
Ciaran Carty's book The Republic of Elsewhere is a compelling and often very revealing anthology of his conversations with writers.
Emilie Pine's extraordinary Notes to Self radically extends the ambition and range of Irish non-fiction, as does Arnold Thomas Fanning's powerful memoir of mental illness and recovery, Mind on Fire.
Melatu Uche Okorie's This Hostel Life is the work of an immensely skilled storyteller emerging from the hidden Ireland of the Direct Provision system. In poetry, I found myself really taken by Doireann Ní Ghríofa's wonderful collection, Lies. And Donal Ryan's From a Low and Quiet Sea I found compelling, beautiful and haunting.
I love the work of the English novelist and short-story writer Elizabeth Taylor, who died in 1975. This year I gave myself the treat of reading her entire body of work, in chronological order of publication - a wonderful thing to do with any great writer. Readers who admire Elizabeth Bowen or Jane Austen would find much to like in Taylor's work. Joseph O'Connor is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. His novel Shadowplay will be published in June
Éilís Ní Duibhne mesmerises in her finely-judged and frank reflections on widowhood in Twelve Thousand Days: A Memoir of Love and Loss, minutely describing the physical and mental manifestation of grief - the rawness and unreality of it. But her memoir also acts as a love song to Bo, her husband of 30 years, showing readers how and why the couple fell in love, and the work celebrates their life together even as she attempts to chart a path without him.
I read every book by David Park with a mounting sense of admiration and Travelling In A Strange Land is no exception. Its tone is meditative and contains wisdom, yet this is a taut novel with no extraneous sentences. Park takes an ordinary man and reimagines him as someone extraordinary.
Anna Burns has created art to outlive her in Milkman, the best Troubles novel I've read. Its black humour is a joy, while its vibrant use of dialect prompted me to read passages aloud for the sheer pleasure of the speech patterns. The protagonist is an 18-year-old girl being stalked by the local IRA commander, but where the book really shines is in the evocation of a community under unnatural and prolonged stress.
Other books I enjoyed this year included some excellent short-story collections, all of which showcase their writers as astute observers of human nature: Rosemary Jenkinson's Catholic Boy, Mary O'Donnell's Empire, Sophia Hillan's The Cocktail Hour and Mia Gallagher's Shift. Elsewhere, cracking thrillers from Nessa O'Mahony with The Branchman, inspired by her Garda grandfather, and Skin Deep from the justly-acclaimed Liz Nugent, earned their space on my bookshelves, along with a timely memoir about the fragility of mental health from Arnold Fanning's Mind on Fire and Emilie Pine's Notes to Self. Honourable mention goes, too, to Nuala O'Connor's historical novel Becoming Belle and Claudia Carroll's The Secrets of Primrose Square, an uplifting story which marks a new direction for the author. Martina Devlin's short-story collection Truth & Dare: Stories About Women Who Shaped Ireland is published by Poolbeg Press
Almost Love by Louise O'Neill was a really strong story of a doomed secret affair between a misguided young woman and her unsuitable older lover. O'Neill does obsession exceptionally well.
In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin shows Edinburgh detective John Rebus refusing to retire disgracefully and remaining one step ahead of the game at all times. Rankin's dry humour shines through a most intriguing and clever plot.
Rage-In by Tara Flynn came out immediately after the Eighth Amendment referendum. She brilliantly, honestly, hilariously and angrily taps into the emotions that a lot of us were feeling. We owe her pints like Jackie Charlton got after Italia '90. Liz Nugent's novel Skin Deep is published by Penguin
The Cambridge History of Ireland in four volumes, edited by Tom Bartlett, is a collective scholarly endeavour by 100 contributors to be applauded and stocked by any library that takes Irish history seriously, covering the Irish experience from the year 600 to the present and bursting with provocative, intelligent analysis and accessible narratives. The volumes continue a tradition of historians collectively stocktaking, distilling and pronouncing on the current state of their areas of expertise.
Donal Ryan's From a Low and Quiet Sea is beautifully bleak and characterised by his remarkable ability to write about grief, common humanities and how a diverse cast of characters respond to difficult situations. What is so clever about Ryan's approach is his ability to convincingly draw strands of his narratives into devastating conclusions and the precision of his prose is exemplary.
There is still plenty to learn about the life and legacy of Michael Collins as underlined in Anne Dolan and William Murphy's Michael Collins: The Man and the Revolution. The authors have unpacked him through the exploration of key themes: his administrative and military methods; his practice of politics; his beliefs and celebrity and then his death and afterlives. This book is strikingly original, powerfully written and includes a great range of contemporary documents and photographs. Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD. His book On the Edge: Ireland's offshore Islands: A Modern History is published by Profile Books
In Karen Perry's Your Closest Friend, amid the chaos of a terrorist attack in London, a stranger pulls Cara to safety. Over the next few hours, Cara tells her secrets she's never told anyone. But when the attack is over and they should both be safe, the stranger comes looking for Cara. This is a deeply unsettling book about the fragility of identity and the destructive power of obsession.
Conan Doyle for the Defence, by Margalit Fox, tells the 100-year-old true story of an innocent man convicted of a Glasgow murder who managed to smuggle a message to the one man he thought could help him: Arthur Conan Doyle. And Conan Doyle didn't let him down.
The detective methods he used to free Oscar Slater were worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself. Like all the best historical true-crime books, this one is about so much more than the crime. It opens a window into Victorian England - both the ways in which it differed from our society, and the ways in which it didn't differ that much at all.
In Imran Mahmood's You Don't Know Me a young man is in the dock, accused of murder. He's telling you, the jury, his side of the story. I opened this book to a random page, read five lines and finished it at three that morning. It's the voice that does it: edgy, conflicted, desperately urgent, the voice of a young man who's both too smart and (if you believe him) not quite smart enough for the inexorable spiral of events into which he's dragged. Tana French's The Wych Elm is published in February by Viking
I read a lot of non-fiction when I am writing, and this year I simply loved Becoming by Michelle Obama. It's a wise and moving memoir, dealing with the former First Lady's life and her truths about sisterhood and mentorship. The sheer humility and yet strength of this woman is staggering, and when she talks bout being a woman of colour in The White House, you see, yet again, the huge battle of racism being daily waged in America.
Another woman of great substance was my darling friend Emma Hannigan, and her novel, Letters to my Daughters, is the story of a woman who dies and leaves messages for her three daughters, messages that have gone missing. As a woman who fought a 12-year battle against cancer, Emma's legacy is strong but her writing shines with wisdom and humour.
I'm a science nerd and adored Professor Luke O'Neill's Humanology: A Scientist's Guide To Our Amazing Existence. Wildly humorous, like the man himself - I met him recently and he suggested I buy four more books, although I said it doesn't really work like that - if you want to know things like are the robots coming to save us or enslave us, this is your book. Clever and funny. The Year that Changed Everything by Cathy Kelly is published by Orion
Set in 1950s Morocco, Christine Mangan's Tangerine is a tense psychological drama where the suffocating heat of Tangiers reflects the uneasy relationship between American-born Alice and her husband, and their old friend Lucy who has unexpectedly turned up on their doorstep. The novel switches from one unreliable narrator to another as past secrets weigh heavily on their current lives. Mangan's evocative descriptions and atmosphere of impending doom hook the reader from the first page.
Cecilia Ahern's collection of short stories for adults, Roar, reflects on women and their place in society. With titles like 'The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared' and 'The Woman Who Was Swallowed Up by the Floor and Who Met Lots of Other Women Down There Too', the individual stories are modern fairy tales where women often reach their lowest point before facing their fears and starting to roar. This is an ambitious and original collection, written with humour and lightness of touch, while at the same time containing strong and sometimes dark messages.
A New Year's Eve party at a restored lodge in the remote Scottish Highlands is the atmospheric setting for Lucy Foley's twisty and sophisticated murder mystery The Hunting Party. Nine friends revisit their pasts with devastating consequences for all of them, and a deadly outcome for one. Deftly written and cleverly constructed, this is a proper page turner. Sheila O'Flanagan's novel The Hideaway is published by Headline
Having read only for research purposes for almost a year, it was a treat to arrive at the beach last summer with a pile of novels. My favourite was Amy Bloom's White Houses, which re-imagines the story of the secret relationship between journalist Lorena Hick and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The reader is brought inside the White House as a poignant love story unfolds.
Different lives in a different era in Washington feature in Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. As a political junkie, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. Wolff's gossipy but effective approach lays bare the chaotic early months of Donald Trump's presidency.
I've long admired Robert Ballagh's art so I turned to A Reluctant Memoir to learn more about the man. I wasn't disappointed with this fascinating read of a life well-lived. There's an added bonus as his paintings feature in full glory and colour throughout the book. RTÉ's Martina Fitzgerald is the author of Madam Politician: The women at the table of Irish political power, which is published by Gill Books
My debut of the year was Danny Denton's The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow, a turbulent, torrential and tender look at a sodden post-apocalyptic Ireland. It showcased the talents of a writer who is generous and reckless, unafraid of thematic or formal risk, and who possesses dramatic gifts and energy to burn.
Jack Fennell has done us all some service with A Brilliant Void, his brilliant and playful anthology of Irish science-fiction from the late 19th century up to the 1960s. It draws to our attention those isolated pioneers who attempted something different with their storytelling gifts. This anthology is an invaluable primer to a genre that has recently begun to show signs of shooting for the stars once more.
Maylis De Kerangal's Mend the Living was translated from the French two years ago but I only got around to reading it earlier this year and it has stayed in my mind since like some wondrous song. The hero of the book is the process by which a human heart is lifted out of the chest of a comatose young man and shepherded across France to its final destination in the chest of the waiting recipient.
The book is a song of praise to surfers, parents, medical administrators and surgeons and you finish it knowing something new of what it is to be generous and what it is to be human. Technically wondrous - those rolling waves of prose - it is a novel full of heartbreak and courage and ultimately optimism. Mike McCormack's award-winning novel Solar Bones is published by Tramp Press
I loved the wisecrackery and nuanced wisdom of Bangor-based Ian Sansom's December Stories 1 - small digestible short stories, one for each day of December. A great idea for replacing the advent calendar and it's also the perfect stocking filler. We're introduced to a cast of funny, complex and slightly bizarre characters who show us the real difficulties and frolics of being human. Nice illustrations peppered throughout, too.
Arnold Fanning's extraordinary memoir Mind on Fire boasts wild pacing, searing honesty and self scrutiny. If you like being tantalised and terrified at the same time, this book is unputdownable. Fanning suffered for many years from intense - and often life-threatening bouts of manic depression - and becomes the traumatised detective of his own life story as he travels back in time piecing the shrapnel together.
Few writers have the balls or integrity to write about unlikeable female characters, such are the times of attack and counter-attack we live in. They are either bad women who get punished for not meeting the usual customary expectations or else something horrible happens to them that requires a strong(er) man to step in.
In Caoilinn Hughes' Orchid & The Wasp the main protagonist, Gael Foess, is not at all amiable, even as a pre-teen involved in an virginity scam. She is caught from childhood to adulthood in a kind of left-field between the vagaries of capitalism and art. In her bid to protect those she loves, like her brother Guthrie, she behaves in incredibly cringy ways that are ironically perceived as hateful. It's a beautifully written, character-rich poetic book, smart and relentless in its message: don't blame the product but the faulty oil in the machine. June Caldwell's short-story collection Room Little Darker is published by New Island Books