Books: hits and misses in 2016
From writers to politicians, the highs and lows of books they read
Up all night with a page-turner?
Sinéad Gleeson, arts journalist
Sarah Crossan, author
Stefanie Preissner, playwright, director and writer of RTÉ2’S Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope
Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform
John Connolly, author
Elizabeth Reapy, author
Donal Ryan, author
Colm Tóibín, author. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times
Doireann Ní Ghríofa, poet
John Connolly, Author
I loved DJ Taylor’s The Prose Factory: Literary Life in Britain Since 1918, a colourful and thoughtful study of the writer’s lot over the last century. My inner music fan delighted in 1971 – Never A Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year, in which David Hepworth makes the case for that year as the greatest in recorded music, spoiled only slightly by his tolerance for the prog noodlings of Yes.
My disappointment of the year was Jenny Erpenbeck’s airless, joyless novel The End of Days, which stole time from me that I might otherwise have more profitably spent sticking pins in my eyes.
Stefanie Preissner, playwright, director and writer of RTE2’s Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope
I picked up a book this year that was covered in dust, Racing the Moon by Terry Prone. The way these endearing twin girls navigate their adolescence with all the awkwardness and insecurities that go with it made me wish I had read it when I was 16. Sophie White’s Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown broke my heart and opened my mind. Holding by Graham Norton is far more than just another Norton memoir. Norton proves himself a striking fiction writer with his quirky and dark suspense story.
I was not so impressed with Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial by Rabia Chaudry. I devoured the true-crime story when it was on the podcast Serial. Perhaps I was saturated with detail of the case so I found it a bit tedious and repetitive.
Sinéad Gleeson, Arts Journalist
The sparse and affecting My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is a near-perfect novel told in pithy, beautiful language. Mayo’s Mike McCormack’s ruminative, experimental Solar Bones stopped me in my tracks - he’s a tremendous writer. In non-fiction, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Little Labors by Rivka Galchen, and The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. Finally, Maggie Nelson’s uncategorisably brilliant The Argonauts, is a gorgeous Frankenstein hybrid of memoir, novel, poetry, philosophical manifesto and art critique.
As an antidote to all this positivity, I really tried with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, which is too busy and polemical.
Colm Tóibín, Author
Sebastian Barry brings to the novel a poet’s sense of rhythm and linguistic risk with a dramatist’s energy and pace. His Days Without End, set in a violent American 19th century, shows him also as a true novelist, with a command of dark psychological detail and complex historical background. Ruadhan Mac Cormaic’s The Supreme Court combines painstaking research with acute analysis and intelligence. I also enjoyed Ben Ehlenreich’s The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine, which manages to capture events unfolding on the West Bank with sympathy and restraint.
Francis Bacon: A Catalogue Raisonné is disappointing only because of the price. It is a magnificent work of scholarship, the reproductions are good. It is a great monument to a heroic life.
Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform
My favourite novel of the year was the outstanding All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan. His style is gossamer light, with a grasp of dialect that brings a breadth of character vividly alive. My expectations of this book were high, as I loved his earlier works, but my hopes were exceeded.
My most disappointing book was The Rise and Fall of Nations – Ten Rules of Change in the Post-Crisis World by Ruchir Sharma. It reminded me of the dictum that for every complicated question there is a simple answer that is usually wrong. Emphasising the benefits of governments investing wisely, remaining competitive and keeping public debt low was helpful, but the number of new insights was too low.
Donal Ryan, Author
Some novels you want never to end and so it is with Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, a beautiful, thrilling story of two men in love in 19th century America. I read some amazing debut novels this year: Vanessa Ronan’s Last Days of Summer, Conor O’Callaghan’s Nothing on Earth and Sam Coll’s The Abode of Fancy.
Jan Carson’s Children’s Children is an aching, pitch-perfect, sometimes hilarious exploration of love and loss. I was blown away by Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones. Liz Nugent kept me up all night with her unputdownable Lying in Wait. In poetry, Mary O’Malley’s luminous new collection Playing the Octopus reconfirms her place among the greats.
I reread Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees thinking I wouldn’t be as bored as I was when I first read it 25 years ago. But I was.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Poet
A favourite literary journal this year was Granta 135: New Irish Writing, where I savoured Kevin Barry’s witty essay on Cork and Sara Baume’s beautiful and eerie Green, Mud, Gold.
In fiction, Lucy Caldwell’s nuanced collection Multitudes was a highlight, and in memoir, I adored Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Winter Papers is a handsome hardback anthology brimming with the best of Irish writing.
Poetry-wise, Leabhar na hAthghabhála, edited by Louis de Paor, is a treasure. It cheered me to see Biddy Jenkinson at the heart of the canon at last, a major poet whose work has been under-sung too long.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I lost patience with its unremitting bleakness.
Sarah Crossan, YA Author
I’ve read some great poetry collections this year, but nothing as startlingly visceral and beautiful as Andrew McMillan’s Physical. I also loved Kate Tempest’s urban and honest collection Hold Your Own.
In adult fiction I devoured Ian McEwan’s latest very funny spin on Hamlet, Nutshell. Many young adult novels had an impact on me, but my favourites were Needlework by Deirdre O’Sullivan, a finely written and sparse novel about abuse, as well as The Bombs that Brought Us Together by Brian Conaghan.
I so wanted to be inspired by Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay, but after having read Sarah Pascoe’s Animal and Female Chauvinist Pig earlier in 2016, it simply didn’t cut the feminist mustard for me.
Elizabeth Reapy, Author
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack: exceptional. I savoured all of the atmospheric short stories in The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy is eccentric and well-crafted fiction. Vertigo by Joanna Walsh: intriguing, one I return to and discover more layers in each time.
I found Now in November by Josephine Johnson, a reissued classic from 1934, lyrical and unrelenting. This is the Ritual by Rob Doyle is intense but executed with elegant prose and dark humour. Even the Daybreak – 35 Years of Salmon Poetry is a vibrant anthology charting Salmon’s innovative lifespan in Irish publishing.
I wasn’t too keen on The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer. Despite some good moments, the essays felt a bit shallow overall.
Colm Williamson, Editor of Waterford Whispers News
If, like me, you’re a fan of Chris Morris’ work, Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris [by Lucian Randall] goes into stunning detail about his early career and life as a BBC radio presenter. There’s not much in the way of reading in Zonzo, but this collection of single-page comic strips by Spanish cartoonist Joan Cornellà hits all aspects of modern culture, from racism to murder. It’s as shocking as it is inspiring. Not one to be shown to little Fiachra or Saoirse before bed. Fingerprints of The Gods by Graham Handcock is a very interesting read, with detailed evidence to back up his theories on alternative histories, ancient civilisations and lost cities.
The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coehlo. The story itself is a sort of parable and I felt like it was a little forced and intellectually condescending.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, author
I’m excluding books written by my friends and past students from my selection, even though some of them were among those I enjoyed very much. I liked many novels but there’s a biographical flavour to my selection. Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time is about the composer Shostakovich, about whom I knew nothing till I read this novel. The composer survived in Stalinist Russia, unlike many of his artist compatriots, due to compromises which some might judge harshly. Barnes is largely compassionate, but the novel asks serious questions about the relationship of art and politics and is far from hagiographic. Another book I enjoyed tremendously was Ita Daly’s memoir of her late husband, David Marcus, I’ll Drop you a Line. It is an honest and witty account of their marriage, and includes many great insights into his editorial method – instinctive: “He had a nose for a voice”. Finally, Claire Harman, Charlotte Bronte: A Life is a very readable account of the eternally fascinating novelist which shortened a long flight for me.
A book that missed the mark for me is Chris Cleve's Everyone Brave is Forgiven – disappointingly wooden writing although the subject matter was interesting.