Lost in a dream of literature: authors pick their top books of 2018
It has been a year of rich pickings for both fiction and creative non-fiction. Seven Irish authors at the top of their game nominate their outstanding reads of the last 12 months, resulting in a long list that's sure to satisfy the book lover in your life, writes Claire Coughlan.
Interleaved with reflections on anatomy and medical imaging, the extraordinary Sight by Jessie Greengrass (John Murray, €20.99) was an early standout, balancing forensic and visceral insights as its unnamed narrator contemplates the deep bodily transformations wrought by her mother's recent death and her own pregnancy.
It was followed by Amy Sackville's Painter to the King (Granta, €21), which observes the rise of Velazquez at the court of Philip IV, conjuring both his masterpieces and their subjects in meticulous and suitably ravishing prose.
Unless we're going to leave it vacant, now that we have run out of male octogenarians, the office of greatest living American novelist ought surely to be assumed by Elizabeth Strout. A sequel of sorts to the quietly magnificent My Name is Lucy Barton (Penguin, €12.60), Anything is Possible (Penguin, €12.60) manages to surpass it and makes her claim uncontestable.
A particular highlight was Melissa Harrison's All Among the Barley (Bloomsbury, €18.20), a beautiful eulogy to a lost England that subverts its own seductiveness to warn of the dark potency of an illusory past in times of turmoil.
Paraic O'Donnell is the author of 'The House on Vesper Sands' (W&N, €17.99).
The Book of Love (HarperCollins, €16.99) by Irish author Fionnuala Kearney is my 'must read' of 2018. Perfect for fans of Jojo Moyes, this is a beautifully written story charting more than 20 years of the relationship between Dom and Erin. Kearney writes the intricacies of a long-term relationship with such warmth and honesty that this is a truly unforgettable read.
I also loved The Lion Tamer Who Lost (Orenda Books, €10.15) by UK writer Louise Beech. Again it's a love story, this time between two men whose relationship is life-changing and life-affirming. This book really got under my skin as a beautiful portrait of love, loss and longing.
In a completely different genre, Skin Deep (Penguin, €10.99) by Liz Nugent was the most gripping book I read this year. Main character Delia is a brilliantly written irredeemable character. Deeply disturbing in places, this book was one I absolutely could not put down.
Claire Allan is the author of 'Her Name Was Rose' (Avon, €11.20).
Arnold Thomas Fanning
Crudo by Olivia Laing (Picador, €18.20): I enjoyed this playful, evocative, daring work of auto-fictional writing immensely, the blending of the real and the created in the here-and-now of the newsfeed of the summer of 2017 is terrifically executed.
Notes to Self (Tramp Press, €15) by Emilie Pine is simply essential reading, I read this and re-read it in single sittings, riveted, moved, challenged, enlightened, and, ultimately, uplifted. Break.Up (Tuskar Rock, €14.65) by Joanna Walsh, is the latest from this wonderful and enigmatic writer. It's an auto-fictional odyssey across Europe, a haunting dissection of a love affair gone wrong.
A Ladder to the Sky (Doubleday, €20.99) by John Boyne is a pure pleasure from start to finish, an often hilarious, frequently startling satire on the literary world, a captivating and chilling blend of Patricia Highsmith and Evelyn Waugh.
Arnold Thomas Fanning is the author of 'Mind on Fire, A Memoir of Madness and Recovery' (Penguin Ireland, €18).
As 2018 wasn't the most glorious year for us Mayo football fans, I burrowed myself in the hurling instead. Paul Rouse's The Hurlers (Penguin Ireland, €24.99) was the perfect read for a brilliant hurling year - the history of hurling told as intriguing stories that has stayed with me. The descriptions of Michael Cusack as a Dickens-type character are particularly strong. Joanna Walsh's Break. Up (Tuskar Rock, €14.65) is an intense, beautifully written book about the end of a mostly online relationship. I parcelled it out to myself in small doses because every sentence was a keeper. It's one of those fiction/non-fiction hybrids that's impossible to categorise and equally impossible to forget.
Alicia Kopf's Brother In Ice (And Other Stories, €11.30) is another hard-to-label book that I loved. The narrator manages to weave together her obsession with exploratory expeditions to the North and South Poles, the difficulty of getting a diagnosis for her autistic brother, and thoughts about her own creativity.
Caitriona Lally is the author of 'Eggshells' (Borough Press, €12.59) which won this year's Rooney Prize.
I've chosen three very different novels from 2018 written from the perspective of four very different female characters. Private investigator Nora Watts, the heroine of Sheena Kamal's second novel, It All Falls Down (Zaffre, €21.40), is troubled, to say the least.
In Kamal's first novel, Eyes Like Mine (Zaffre, €9), Nora searched for the missing daughter she had to give up for adoption when she was herself a teenager whereas here she attempts to uncover the secrets of her dead father's past. The search takes Nora from Vancouver to Detroit and via some very dark places along the way - but Nora's bone-dry, understated wit and casual fearlessness carry her, and us, through the novel with an irresistible momentum. Highly recommended.
Edward Carey's Little (Aardvark Bureau, €12.40) features another beguiling female protagonist in Anne Marie Groschaultz (nicknamed 'Little' by reason of her size, and the future Madame Tussaud of waxwork fame). Carey's tale takes us from Little's birth in Alsace to Bern and then on to pre-revolutionary Versailles and its post-revolutionary terrors. It's a gripping novel of shy wit and darkly humorous occurrences and is mesmerising in its virtuosity. On top of which the author's own illustrations are wonderfully bizarre, as indeed is the story he tells.
Laura Purcell's The Corset (Bloomsbury, €18.19) tells the entwined story of Dorothea Truelove, an independent young woman with an interest in phrenology, and Ruth Butterham, a young seamstress who has been accused of a mysterious murder.
Readers of The Silent Companions (Bloomsbury, €11.20) will know Purcell as a purveyor of gripping Gothic tales of the highest quality and The Corset does not disappoint. As Ruth's story is revealed and their relationship develops, we are swept along by a chilling, intelligent narrative that ends in the most satisfying way.
William Ryan wrote (as WC Ryan) 'A House of Ghosts' (Zaffre, €18.19).
In The Adulterants (Hamish Hamilton, €14.65) Joe Dunthorne delivers some fantastic laugh-out-loud moments. Ray Morris is a know-it-all who has cheated on his pregnant girlfriend. Set during the 2011 London riots, there is something satisfyingly tragic about watching Ray walk himself from one disaster to another.
Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists (Tinder Press, €10.15) is an addictive read. In 1969, the Gold siblings sneak out of their New York home to visit a psychic who can predict when they will die. Over the next 40 years, we observe how each deals with the weight of their destinies.
In John Boyne's A Ladder to the Sky (Doubleday, €20.99), we meet Maurice Swift, an ambitious, inept writer. His talent lies elsewhere, specifically in the cruelty he can unleash on others for selfish gain. For pitch perfect writing, indulge yourself in the sharp wit of Part II when we meet Gore Vidal.
Andrew Miller's Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (Sceptre, €21.40) is a gripping historical novel. With prose that is at times breath-taking, it examines what war does to reasonable men. Set in 1809 after Britain's Spanish campaign in the Peninsular war, we are immersed in the hunt for a British officer over war crimes.
Anne Griffin's debut novel 'When All Is Said' (Sceptre, €14.65) will be out in January 2019.
The most unexpected literary delight of my year was Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers (Black Inc, (€11.25) by Ryan O'Neill. The twist is that none of the writers in question will be familiar even to the most learned of readers, because all are fictitious. From this unlikely premise, O'Neill creates something funny, clever, and often moving. I particularly liked the entry about the poet whose broadsides earned him the ire of his peers, including "more than 50 death threats, in both free and regular verse".
Lucy Mangan's Bookworm (Square Peg, €16.90) was a witty, evocative account of childhood reading, and made me want to return to some of the books I read as a boy.
Finally, I'm in awe of Becky Chambers, whose thrilling and deeply humane novels - including this year's Record of a Spaceborn Few (Hodder, €16.90) - have caused me fall in love with science fiction all over again.
John Connolly's latest Charlie Parker thriller, 'The Woman in the Woods' (Hodder, €19.15), is out now.
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