Tuesday 24 October 2017

Critics' top festive reads for your stocking fillers

Fellow writers, historians, journalists and commentators choose their favourite books from chick-lit to award-winners

Antonia Fraser

Writer; her next book, Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 (Orion), is out in May

It has been a rich year for royal biography. I have enjoyed two in particular: Anne Somerset's Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion (HarperPress) takes a monarch generally perceived as much less exciting than her Stuart forebears and, with a great deal of literary panache, demonstrates that something like the reverse was true.

Queen Anne emerges as intelligent and sympathetic despite the cruelty of her gynaecological history: 17 children born and only one surviving to a proper childhood (he then died).

Jane Ridley's Bertie (Chatto & Windus) paints the story of Edward VII and his long, hectic life as Prince of Wales in vivid colours: no scandal is left unturned, and yet the depth and authenticity of the research make it clear that this is a serious, even magisterial work.

Jan Morris

Writer, whose Pax Britannica trilogy has recently been reissued by Faber

Two 2012 works of non-fiction seemed to me potential classics in their respective genres. Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Hamish Hamilton) was a hauntingly beautiful addition to the school of visionary nature writing.

And Artemis Cooper's biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure (John Murray) proved magnificently that a somewhat over-eulogised hero could be well worth the eulogising after all.

Eoghan Harris


Two of my three crime selections for 2012 come from this parish. Luckily I can't be accused of favouritism in my first choice as the Crime Writers Association has already given Gene Kerrigan's The Rage the Gold Dagger they should have given him for The Midnight Choir.

Like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Det Sgt Bob Tidey goes down mean streets, including those in his mind, where the criminals are comparatively spotless compared with their political and financial delinquents who work the posher streets.

Any chance those who make mindless craic movies like The Guard would make a flinty film about a real guard like Bob Tidey?

There is no favouritism either in my second choice, Darragh McManus's Even Flow because I loathe the PC politics of his three protagonists who entertainingly practise "enforced karma" on homophobes and misogynists.

Although this is the kind of surreal story I normally hate, this blackly comic caper- which someone described as Dirty Harry crossed with Germaine Greer struck my funnybone. I suspect it might make a good cult movie.

My third choice, George V Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, first published in 1973, now re-issued by Orion, was long ago made into a cult movie of the same title.

Directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle at the peak of their powers, it sensibly stuck to Higgin's pitch-perfect dialogue. Elmore Leonard says it's his favourite crime thriller. No wonder.

After 38 years I can still recall the opening lines: "Jackie Brown at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns."

You can get all three choices at Raven Books, Blackrock, Dublin, which specialises in crime thrillers.

Anne Marie Scanlon


As far as sheer sales go we know that 2012 belonged to 'Mommy Porn' and once again we were told that chick-lit (now nearly 20 years old) has had its day. I beg to differ.

Yes, the genre has become overcrowded with trite and formulaic efforts, but there are still some absolute crackers being written by contemporary women writers.

While EL James probably made more money than every other published author combined in the past 12 months, to my mind the year really belonged to Jojo Moyes who produced two truly wonderful novels Me Before You and The Girl You Left Behind (Penguin).

The latter mixes chick-lit with history and mystery – which sounds like a recipe for muddle and mess but is instead a gripping and entertaining read.

India Knight's marvellous Mutton (Penguin) is a must- read for any woman over 40, especially those of us who pore over those 'Fabulous Forties' features in magazines and believe that all it takes for eternal youth is a little more yoga, a little less coffee and a healthy diet. Mutton is hilarious, intelligent, thought provoking and a jolly good read.

In Intentions (Hachette) it's easy to see why author Muriel Bolger is such a successful travel writer. Her descriptions of Mumbai and the slums, where people live and work as 'rag pickers', are so vivid you can almost smell the hum on the pages.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of chick-lit's demise have been very greatly exaggerated – the old bird is still full of life.

Michael Burleigh

Writer and historian

Christopher Buckley's They Eat Puppies, Don't They? (Corsair) is a brilliant satire on neo-cons and the American foreign policy "community" in general.

Arms manufacturers, an Institute for Continuing Conflict, the Dalai Lama and the Chinese politburo are among the targets. I also loved William Dobson's The Dictator's Learning Curve (Harvill Secker), which says something really fresh about the world we live in.

Eamon Delaney


The run-up to Christmas brought a bounty of political books, including Irish titles, both personal, historic and those (still) trying to make sense of our crisis. But many of these were disappointingly slight and one would wish that the authors has put in more time and effort.

By contrast, my highlights were three quite different reads. Firstly, the lively and informative Standing by the Republic, 50 Dail Debates that Shaped the Nation, by the witty John Drennan (Gill & Macmillan), which charts our political and economic development since 1949 through speeches in that Kildare Street chamber.

Equally interesting was the spirited A Kick Against the Pricks – The Autobiography by the irrepressible David Norris (Transworld), which is about much more than his Presidential controversy.

And finally, for a big, meaty but compelling read, we have Ambiguous Republic – Ireland in the 1970s by academic Diarmaid Ferriter (Profile Books), which charts that most tumultuous and 'modernising' of decades, and shed lights on many often forgotten aspects of our cultural and social history. It's also blessed with a intriguing collection of illustrations and photographs, an enhancing feature which publishers often neglect. Lastly, I have been re-reading Pat Leahy's devastating Showtime: The Inside Story of Fianna Fail in Power, which is a salutary reminder of just how irresponsible the previous Government were in their last decadent years in office.

Decentralisation, benchmarking, whopping salaries and and medical cards to buy votes. It is not nearly soon enough to forgive... or forget.

Andrew Roberts

Historian and author of The Storm of War (Penguin)

Martin Amis's Lionel Asbo (Jonathan Cape) is gloriously funny and incisive about Britain's feral under class.

Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 (Allen Lane) brilliantly exposes precisely how the Soviets extended their power eastwards in the period of supposed peace between the end of the Second World War and the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising.

James Stourton and Charles Sebag-Montefiore's The British as Art Collectors (Scala) is as learned and well-written as it is sumptuously illustrated.

Catherine Taylor

Critic and publisher

Sarah Manguso's slim memoir The Guardians (Granta) is a searing account of a college friend's suicide and an elegy for an entire generation.

Deborah Levy gives a masterclass in tension with the Man Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home (And Other Stories) (Hampstead) decamping to the blaze of the Riviera.

The eventual Booker winner, Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies (4th Estate), charts a dark, emotional journey through one of the bloodiest periods of English history.

Thomas Keneally brilliantly returns to form with his superbly involving The Daughters of Mars (Sceptre), based on the First World War journals of Australian nurses.

And finally, a word must be said for Anjali Joseph's second novel, Another Country, (4th Estate) – subtle and affecting.

Philip Hoare

Writer and critic; The Sea Inside (4th Estate) published in June

MY book of the year was already decided in February, when I read Kathleen Jamie's Sightlines (Sort of Books). It had the same effect on me as WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn. It is the single best work of 2012: spare, urgent, full of natural wonder.

I also loved Arthur Conan Doyle's whaling journal, Dangerous Work (British Library), an eye-opening account of his youthful (and nearly fatal) adventures in the Arctic.

And I thrilled to Sarah Wise's Inconvenient People (Bodley Head), an enthralling study of those who fell foul of Victorian mad-doctors and greedy relatives.

Judith Flanders

Historian; The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London (Atlantic) is out now

I like to have a fat novel to read over Christmas. Last year it was Neal Stephenson's Reamde (800-plus pages saw me well into the new year).

This year I'm anxiously awaiting Andrew Taylor's The Scent of Death (HarperCollins), not published until February, so I may have to move the holiday.

Two books that I plan to give as presents: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's exhilarating Becoming Dickens (Harvard University Press), on how the great novelist found his metier; and Charles Nicholl's Traces Remain (Allen Lane). I'd read Nicholl's shopping lists if that's all there were. Happily this collection of essays spreads its net wider, from Renaissance Rome to Sixties Malaysia.

Barry Egan


In his glam-rock star-man pomp, David Bowie, as Dylan Jones writes in his book When Ziggy Played Guitar, "caused a tectonic shift in pop culture", Bowie's culture-altering appearance as Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops on July 6, 1972, was a key moment.

"We didn't know it at the time," writes Jones, "but this was a moment that would be immediately enshrined in adolescent folklore, a moment that just popped out of the box, like a free plastic toy".

An entertaining and illuminating read. Pete Townshend's Who I Am is something a bit more powerful again: over 500 pages, The Who's charismatic, often tortured talisman bares his bruised soul almost from the get-go of this haunting memoir.

Townshend was sent at the age of six to live with his mentally ill granny Denny, who he describes as "a perfect wicked witch", and who he firmly believes allowed, if not facilitated, him to be sexually abused by men known to her.

"My memory just shut down," he writes of the consequences of that harrowing period of his life.

Best non-rock book of the year was HHhH by Laurent Binet. A post-modern-y novel about the complicated killing of SS general Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942 by Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis.

HHhH is a reference to "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich," translated as "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich." He was Hitler's favourite. Compelling.

Melissa Katsoulis

Writer and critic

Spoken straight from the golden heart of Canada's most famous hippie – and one of the world's finest songwriters – Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace (Viking) is a rock 'n' roll memoir like no other. A jumble of recollections, musings and paeans to model railways, dirty old cars and his beloved ranch, it has eccentricity, lyricism and loveliness on every page.

Whether remembering the hedonism of Buffalo Springfield or the woodland burial he gave his most cherished tour bus, Young – newly sober and wondering if he'll ever write a song again – evokes his odd and delightful world with endearing intimacy but also great literary panache.

Diarmuid Gavin

Landscape designer

Two of the foremost gardeners from these islands have very personal offerings out. In My Secret Garden Alan Titchmarsh gives us a peek at his surprisingly posh home garden while inspirational Joy Larkcom tells us of her life as queen of the veg beds in Just Vegetating, now of course happily growing in Cork.

Trevor Sargent, the former Green TD, has produced Trevor's Kitchen Garden: A Week-by-Week Guide to Growing Your Own Food.

Packed with tips, facts and history, it contains everything from planning a kitchen garden to preparing the soil, sowing, harvesting, pruning, tidying, slugs, pests and compost. Drawing on 30 years of gardening experience, he chats about the very best varieties to grow in an easy-to-read tome, illustrated with simple 'how to' diagrams.

Finally, our bee population has been going through a very rough patch what with disease and foul weather.

The Bee-Kind Garden by David Squire (published by Green Books) is a charming little stocking filler, packed with useful information on gardening for honey bees.

It includes lists of plants they love, a history of hives, a practical guide to bee keeping equipment, bee superstitions, the story of mead and there's even a selection of bee Limericks.

Beautifully produced and packed with enticing illustrations, it's my pick for bee book of the year.

Madeleine Keane,

Literary editor

Women dominated my reading year. I adored May We Be Forgiven, AM Homes' superb novel about a deeply dysfunctional American family.

It is a brilliantly sustained, very funny scream of despair about the ties that bind.

No one dazzles quite like our Edna. O'Brien's memoir Country Girl was one of the literary highlights of 2012 – her evocative account of her extraordinary life was lyrical, courageous and inspiring.

Tana French's Broken Harbour was a riveting, frightening story of how the mind can destroy us all, set on an Irish ghost estate. An exciting new talent emerged in Mary Costello's exquisitely wrought collection of short stories, The China Factory.

Most memorably of all of course, Hilary Mantel became the first woman to win the Booker Prize twice for Bring up the Bodies – hurrah!

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