Sunday 22 September 2019

Heroics of 1916 Centenary to highlights of TV drama - 2016 did us proud

Highlight: Gene Kerrigan's 'The Scrap'. Photo: David Conachy
Highlight: Gene Kerrigan's 'The Scrap'. Photo: David Conachy

The quality of non-fiction releases throughout 2016 was a thing to behold. The year got off to a very strong start with a plethora of titles to mark the 1916 Centenary, with Gene Kerrigan's reprint of The Scrap (Doubleday Ireland, €16.99) and the iconic 1916: Portraits & Lives (Royal Irish Academy, €30), edited by Lawrence White and James Quinn and illustrated with haunting poignancy by David Rooney, just two highlights.

A winner at the recent Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards, Paul Howard's Tara Browne biography I Read The News Today, Oh Boy (Picador, €19.99) was the result of a decade of research by the rugger-bugger satirist.

Another remarkable work that illuminated a hidden Irish life was Dr James Barry (Oneworld, €21.99), in which Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield detailed the life of a lauded British medical practitioner who spent her adult years disguised as a man. Like it, A Doctor's Sword (The Collins Press, €22.99), Bob Jackson's exemplary biography of Castletownbere war hero Aidan MacCarthy, is to be filed under the "couldn't make it up" category.

Former Secret Serviceman Clint Hill bared his soul about the years of demons that followed JFK's assassination in Five Presidents (Gallery Books, €23.99), while also giving US history fans behind-the-scenes insight into Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon and Ford.

More contemporary memoirs showed brilliant prose matched with a fresh worldview can make any subject compulsive reading. Olivia Laing's frankly astounding study on urban isolation and New York's artistic heritage in The Lonely City (Canongate, €21.99) was the one to beat in 2016.

Running a close runner-up was the imperious Bill Bryson with his new edition of The Road to Little Dribbling (Random House, €8.99). Here we found a slightly surlier Bryson on occasion pulling his hair out on a latitudinal jaunt through Britain, and it was all the more hilarious for it.

Alexander Armstrong adapted his well-received ITV Arctic travel series for print in Land of the Midnight Sun (Corgi Books, €11.99) with impeccable buoyancy and wit.

Food - exquisite, decadent, life-affirming food - became a brilliant prism through which to chart the tumult of modern living in Sophie White's Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown (Gill Books, €24.99). Told with an unflinching eye on mental health but also the LIFE magazine columnist's trademark alacrity, it very much stands out from the at-times cluttered cookery book market.

Superstar nature writer Helen Macdonald returned with a new edition of Falcon (Reaktion Books, €10.99) that saw the H Is For Hawk author feed echoes of that bestseller into a new preface. That painterly eye and sensory awareness that captivated the world are on show in this study of man's relationship with the falcon and all it has symbolised throughout history.

Pop-culture titles can get log-jammed at this time of year but there were plenty trickling out over the 12 months that were required reading. 2FM hero Dan Hegarty returned in the autumn with Buried Treasure Vol 2 (Liberties Press, €14.99). Featuring contributions from Glen Hansard, Candi Staton, Guy Garvey and Enda Walsh, Hegarty's compendium is a sumptuous stocking filler for musos that celebrates "overlooked, forgotten and uncrowned albums". Ex-Smash Hits and NME rock journalist Sylvia Patterson brought her usual exuberance to a biography every bit as rhythmic and entertaining as the music she was covering in I'm Not With The Band (Sphere, €23.99).

This also applies to Clive James's Play All (Yale University Press, €16.99), in which the Antipodean poet, author and wit essays the era of the boxset via references high-brow and low.

A leukaemia diagnosis afforded James time to watch hours of TV drama (and weave his own mortality into character studies of Tony Soprano, Cersei Lannister and Major Winters et al), giving these discussions a crushing edge at times.

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