Memorable reads from a good vintage

 

Daniel O'Connell, Oliver Cromwell, John Lennon, Connemara, the first World War - all made a fresh literary impression this year, along with some powerful fiction and poetry. Fiona McCannhears why from novelists, poets, historians and politicians

John Gormley

Ireland's Burning(Poolbeg, €15.95), by RTÉ's environment correspondent, Paul Cunningham, is a must-read for anybody with even a passing interest in the Irish environment. Cunningham manages to put people at the heart of the debate on climate change, and Ireland's role in causing and solving the problem. I'm also a Beatles fan, so the biography John Lennon: The Life(HarperCollins, £25), by Philip Norman, was a literary highlight this year. At more than 800 pages, the book is comprehensive, and Norman also enjoyed access to previously unheard diary tapes and co-operation from Yoko Ono. Finally, I couldn't contribute to an Irish Timesbook of the year list without mentioning Frank McDonald's and Kathy Sheridan's The Builders(Penguin Ireland, €19.99), which grew out of a series for this paper on Irish property developers and tells the tale of the rise and fall of our "brick" economy through the stories of the developers who built much of boom Ireland. The benefits and the mistakes of that era will be with us for generations and this book tells how they arose very well.

John Gormley TD is Minister for the Environment

Colm Tóibín

Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness, by Tim Robinson (Penguin Ireland, €24.99), is a masterpiece of travel and topographical writing and a miraculous, vivid and engrossing meditation on landscape and history and the sacred mood of places. In Tim Winton's Breath(Picador, £11.99), the sacred mood of the ocean off the west coast of Australia is captured in a dramatic story told with bravery and sensitivity. Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture(Faber, £12.99) is a fascinating and moving version of a lost history and a lost soul being brought into the light. In poetry, Harry Clifton's Secular Eden(Wake Forest, £15 ) makes it clear he is one of the best Irish poets working now. Brigit Pegeen Kelly has emerged as one of the most exciting North American poets. Her second and third volumes, Song and The Orchard, have been published by Carcanet (£9.95) in a single volume marking her first proper publication this side of the Atlantic.

Colm Tóibín's new novel, Brooklyn, will be published by Viking in May

Mary E Daly

Patrick M Geoghegan's King Dan: The Rise of Daniel O'Connell 1775-1829(Gill and Macmillan, €24.99) is a very readable and fresh look at one of the great figures in modern Irish history, and a fascinating insight into aspects of Irish life in the early 19th century. O'Connell's colourful early life - high spending, constant debt, duelling, womanising and involvement with the United Irishmen - is worthy of a historical novel. Margaret MacCurtain's Ariadne's Thread: Writing Women into Irish History(Arlen House, €25) is a very welcome compilation of her essays on Irish women's history, written over more than 40 years. Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe(Allen Lane, £30), which concentrates on how the occupied territories were governed, rather than on the military campaigns, exposes the demonic madness and racial contradictions at the heart of Hitler's vision for a New Order in a new and chilling way.

Mary E Daly's 1916 in 1966: Commemorating the Easter Rising, co-edited with Margaret O'Callaghan, was published last December

Declan Meade

It feels like 2008 was a good year for books. It was certainly a busy one, making it difficult to keep up, particularly with new novels. Short stories were a different matter: Anne Enright's Taking Pictures(Jonathan Cape, £11.99) was a great pleasure, containing 19 beguiling tales, all chiming with the author's usual lively wit and her playful delight in the language. Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth(Bloomsbury, £10.99), with just eight longer stories, offers a very different approach to the form. Her stories, three of which are interlinked, unfold slowly and serenely over 40 or 50 pages, and the best of them build up to a final knockout blow. It was also a good year for poetry. Patrick Deeley's The Bones of Creation(Dedalus, €12) and Alan Jude Moore's Lost Republics(Salmon, €12) are two of the collections from Irish poets that I'm still very much enjoying.

Declan Meade edits The Stinging Flymagazine. He also edited the short story anthology, Let's Be Alone Together, published by the Stinging Fly Press in September

Ronan Kelly

Frances Wilson's Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth(Faber, £18.99) is much more than the story of an unsung sister; it is also an intense psychodrama of collaboration, cohabitation and fierce competition. In Clare Wigfall's debut collection, The Loudest Sound and Nothing(Faber, £8.99), it's the range, almost as much as the pitch-perfect storytelling, that impresses and surprises: her characters are convincingly unhappy and at home in suburban England and New Mexico, on remote Scottish isles and in 19th-century Paris. Joseph O'Neill's beautifully written Netherland (Fourth Estate, £14.99) is a portrait of a very New York state of mind, yet it's also about how cities in general shape us - London is key in it too. Post-9/11, O'Neill's Manhattanite hero Hans is adrift, aloof, angry. But when he plunges into the unglamorous outer boroughs - and, specifically, the hidden realm of immigrant cricket - the whole world rises up to meet him.

Ronan Kelly's Bard of Erin: The Life of Thomas Moorewas published by Penguin Ireland in April

Gerald Dawe

Peter Martin's biography, Samuel Johnson(Weidenfeld Nicolson, £25), is an extraordinary tale of self-mastery as the barely surviving Lichfield child springs into intellectual life through all the torments of a troublesome body and troubled mind. Martin's fast-paced 3D vision of the great English writer, reporting back through contemporary accounts, is first-rate. Derek Mahon is also reporting back in his new collection, Life on Earth(Gallery Press, €11.95), with its homages to the natural world, warnings against our ecological delinquency in a timeless future and praises for the comforts of local replenishment (in India and in Ireland) as in the suitably Audenesque At Ursula's, where "we bow to our warm plates". Talking of time, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney(Faber, £22.50), mediated by Dennis O' Driscoll, looks like a fascinating review of various life stories, beginning where it all started for the Nobel laureate, bringing his readers right up to date. No such luck for Marcus Messner, narrator of Philip Roth's Indignation(Jonathan Cape, £16.99), whose posthumous tale reads like an envoi of all Roth's novels of neighbourhood watch. His 29th book is really a study of class as destiny in America; timely enough, I'd say.

Gerald Dawe had three books out this year: the poetry collection Points West(Gallery Press); Catching the Light: Views and Interviews( Salmon Poetry ), and the anthology of Irish war poetry, Earth Voices Whispering(Blackstaff)

Aifric Campbell

The best novels are the ones that linger long after the last page, such as Damon Galgut's The Impostor(Atlantic £12.99), in which Galgut, in beautifully spare prose, continues to chronicle the bleak story of contemporary South Africa. Strange Music, by Laura Fish (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), is a haunting tale of slavery inspired by the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose family owned a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Richard Ford, Colm Tóibín and Joyce Carol Oates are among those interviewed by Carole Burns in Off the Page, in skilfully edited extracts that cover "beginning and endings and everything in between" (Norton, £8.99). Unemployed bankers and insomniac investors will find comfort in the fascinating biography of the legendary Warren Buffett, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder (Bloomsbury, £25). This child of the Depression started out selling Juicy Fruit door to door and ended up as the richest man in the world.

Aifric Campbell's novel, The Semantics of Murder, was published in April

John Connolly

I never thought I would express deep feelings of fondness for a book with a surfing backdrop, but Don Winslow's The Dawn Patrol(Heinemann, £12.99) was a superb novel. Meanwhile, this was a good year for Irish crime fiction, with strong additions from Declan Hughes, Tana French, Paul Charles and Brian McGilloway, among others. I suspect, though, that one of the crime novels of the year in 2009 will be Stuart Neville's stunning debut, Twelve(Harvill Secker, £12.99), which is, I think, the best mystery to have emerged so far from the aftermath of the Troubles. I read it in a single sitting, and it marks a major step forward for the genre in this country.

Finally, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger(Atlantic , £10.99) was the first Booker winner in recent years that I can say I enjoyed unconditionally, and it whetted my taste for former Booker winners to the extent that I went back and read JG Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapurwhich, had there been any justice, should really have won this year's Booker of Bookers.

John Connolly's latest novel, The Reapers, was published in May by Hodder Stoughton

Micheál Ó Siochrú

Patrick M Geoghegan's King Dan: The Rise of Daniel O'Connell 1775-1829is a timely reassessment of one of the most important, yet strangely neglected, figures in modern Irish history. The story of his life, replete with monstrous egos, unfeasibly large personal debts and tangled love lives, would resonate with any observer of the current political scene. 2008 was not a vintage year for historical novels, with notable exceptions including CJ Sansom's Revelation(Macmillan, £11.99), the latest instalment in the Matthew Shardlake series. Set in Henry VIII's England, it is compulsive holiday reading, despite Sansom's increasingly fantastical story lines. More low-key, but equally compelling and atmospheric, is Alan Furst's espionage thriller The Spies of Warsaw(Weidenfeld Nicolson, £12.99), which charts the growing Nazi threat in the late 1930s. On a more contemporary note, the romance novel Playing Cards in Cairo(Abacus, £10.99), by Hugh Miles, is an inspiring and moving account of the many challenges faced by women living in Egypt today.

Micheál Ó Siochrú's God's Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Irelandwas published by Faber in August

Harry Clifton

If poetry, as was said of the Greek poet Seferis, is "the conversation of civilised men", then the wise, humorous Athenian poems of Paul Durcan in The Laughter of Mothers(Harvill, £12) mark the purest, most civilised extension of his art for years. Another storm-tossed Greek on extended shore-leave from Kinsale to Goa is Derek Mahon, whose magical Life on Earthis an act of thanksgiving, a re-rooting of the self in the biosphere. Besides hearing its inaugural reading in Paris, I was privileged to hear in Dublin the first reading of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's Selected Poems(Gallery/Faber €20), a long-awaited volume which consolidates the genius of this quiet heroine of Irish poetry.

Harry Clifton's Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004won the 2008 Irish Times Poetry Now award

Kevin Power

The Second Plane: September 11 2001-2007(Cape, £12.99), by Martin Amis, was, by turns, hysterical, misguided, informative, and sublime - a book from which it is continually possible to learn. The two best novels of the year were Born Yesterday, by Gordon Burn (Faber, £7.99), and Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill. Burn's novel is an essayistic meditation, written in impeccable prose, on the various ways in which the inner life collides with the mediated world of "the news".

Netherland is a work of luminous beauty, in which the subdued formality of the narrative voice abets a great deal of emotional power and observational authority. Finally, Swimming in a Sea of Death(Granta, £12.99), David Rieff's short, precisely recollected account of the death of his mother, Susan Sontag, was a clear-eyed contribution to the literature of mourning and mortality.

Kevin Power's first novel, Bad Day in Blackrock, was published by the Lilliput Press in October

Bertie Ahern

God's Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland(Faber, £14.99) is a masterful account of Anglo-Irish politics in the 17th century. Dr Ó Siochrú gets right to the core of a horrific period in our history and, with great skill, goes beyond the legends and the myths and explains exactly why and how Oliver Cromwell became one of the most reviled figures ever to darken the shores of this island. Manchester United: The Biography, by Jim White (Sphere, £12.99), is an all-encompassing yet very readable history of the biggest football club in the world. It charts Manchester United's evolution from its very humble roots to football superpower. I make no apologies for saying the best work of fiction I read this year is The Gift, by Cecelia Ahern (HarperCollins, £14.99). It has a seasonal theme and is a very clever story from a brilliant young writer. Another great Irish writer is Deirdre Purcell. Days We Remember(Hachette Books Ireland, £24.99) is a collection of essays which tell the story of some memorable events in Irish life from the perspective of the people involved.

Bertie Ahern is a Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin Central

Niamh Greene

Under a Blood Red Sky, by Kate Furnivall (Sphere, £6.99), is another sweeping historical novel from the author of The Russian Concubine. A gripping tale set in pre-second World War Soviet Russia, this compelling story of love, revenge and redemption had me glued to every page. Candace Bushnell's wry, witty style ensures that One Fifth Avenue (Little, Brown, £12.99) is laugh-out-loud funny, but the book is also deliciously astute and chockfull of the insightful analysis of the human condition that makes Bushnell such an acclaimed social commentator. Blue Sky July(Penguin, £5.99), by Nia Wyn, chronicles the profound journey one mother makes when her son is diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy. Beautifully written, this unforgettable true story of heartbreak and hope will stay with you long after you finish it.

Niamh Greene's Confessions of a Demented Housewife: The Celebrity Yearwas published in paperback in October by Penguin

Maurice Walsh

Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi?(Atlantic Books, £16.99) is the story of the investigation of the murder of human rights campaigner Bishop Juan Gerardi by members of the Guatemalan security forces, and brilliantly illuminates the corruption of a failed state in the backyard of the US. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust (Alfred A Knopf, $27.95), is a strikingly original and moving interpretation of the war through the prism of death. Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes(Jonathan Cape, London, £11.99) is a wonderful satire imagining events leading up to the mysterious death of Pakistan's military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in a plane crash in 1988. Finally, The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915—1918(Faber, £25) is Mark Thompson's beautifully written story of the forgotten Italian front and how the horrifically bloody battles in the fierce terrain of the Dolomite Alps led to the rise of Mussolini.

Maurice Walsh's The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolutionwas published by IB Taurus in September

Derek Mahon

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine(Penguin £8.99), now in paperback, is a frank history of recent "disaster capitalism" and an eye-opening exposure of the discredited neocon global agenda, which was even worse than we knew. (Ask us in and we take you over; keep us out and we ruin you.) This critique by the author of No Logohas been overtaken by events, but watch out for the sequel. Jeet Thayil's illuminating anthology, Contemporary Indian Poets (Bloodaxe, £12), brings us down to the present, with unfamiliar names besides those of Dom Moraes and Vikram Seth. Grey Gowrie's great Third Day: New and Selected Poems(Carcanet, £9.95) - a fine, stoical portrait of the age - fulfils all expectations. Closer to home, I've been reading Deirdre Madden's absorbing Molly Fox's Birthday(Faber £12.99) and Gerald Dawe's terrific book of Irish (anti-) war poetry, Earth Voices Whispering: An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-45(Blackstaff, £16.99).

Derek Mahon's Life on Earthwas published by the Gallery Press in October

Eunan O'Halpin

Two books by young Irish authors - Paul McMahon's British Spies and Irish Rebels(Boydell Press, £60) and Kate O'Malley's Ireland, India and Empire(Manchester University Press, £50) - were particularly impressive this year. These writers relate the sometimes arcane details of their research to the wider issue of challenges to British national and imperial interests. McMahon demonstrates the extent and limits of British knowledge and understanding of Irish affairs, and the amateurishness and prejudice which characterised attempts to assess the nature of the new Irish state. O'Malley shows how Indian nationalists were inspired by and interacted with Irish revolutionaries, engagements best recorded, ironically, by British security. On an even broader canvas, Karl E Meyer's and Shareen Brysac's Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East(Norton, £16.99) deals engagingly with an assortment of mainly European officials, dreamers, politicians and soldiers. The book veers towards oversimplification, but is a useful primer on the formation of the modern Middle East and a reminder of past, mainly European, follies.

Eunan O'Halpin's Spying on Ireland: British Intelligence and Irish Neutrality During the Second World Warwas published in April by Oxford University Press

Yvonne Farrell

"Someone once said that we consist of the pure, theoretical instant of awareness, and everything else is already memory." This is how AS Byatt leads us into Harriet Harvey Wood's vast collection of thoughts on the subject of memory, Memory: An Anthology(Chatto Windus, £25), which spans more than 2,000 years. Nine essays plus a further eight topics, each with up to 30 subsections, means it is the type of book that you savour in bits, choosing where you want to spend time. One of the pieces in "Childhood Memories" is from Gabriel García Márquez's wonderful book, Living to Tell the Tale: "Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it."

Yvonne Farrell is a director, with Shelley McNamara, of Grafton Architects, who won World Building of the Year this year for their design of the new Bocconi University in Milan

SJ Connolly

AC Hepburn's Catholic Belfast and Nationalist Ireland in the Era of Joe Devlin 1871-1934(Oxford, £55) combines a vivid slice of social history with a biography that at last does justice to the stature and vision of a man too often written off as a machine politician and "Green Tory". Elsewhere, Mary Beard's Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town(Profile Books, £25) is a masterclass in accessible academic writing, making the technicalities of interpreting long-buried remains every bit as compelling as the startlingly immediate glimpses that survive of the town and its inhabitants. In fiction, Ethan Canin's America, America(Bloomsbury, £17.99) sometimes strains too hard to give its central character a mythic stature, but remains a sobering lament for the decline of idealism in American political life. With more psychological depth, Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife(Doubleday, £11.99) turns what could have been a gossipy imagining of the emotional relationship at the heart of the outgoing US first family into a complex and enthralling exploration of love, guilt and compromise.

SJ Connolly's Divided Kingdom: Ireland 1630-1800was published by OUP in August

Sally Nicholls

This year, most of the recently published books I've read have been for children. My favourites were two very different takes on the adventure novel. Philip Pullman's atmospheric story, Once Upon a Time in the North(David Fickling Books, £9.99), is a work of art in more senses than one; a genuinely beautiful book, with black-and-white engravings and pieces of ephemera interspersed throughout. I also greatly enjoyed Frank Cotrell Boyce's Cosmic(Macmillan, £9.99), a much more modern adventure novel about five children who manage to get up into space. Some suspension of disbelief was obviously required when reading, but this didn't interfere with my appreciation of Cotrell Boyce's humour and his insights into growing up in the 21st century.

Sally Nicholls won the Glen Dimplex New Writer Award 2008 for her book, Ways to Live Forever, published by Scholastic Children's Books

Misha Glenny

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919, by Mark Thompson, discovers what for most Europeans is a lost but bloody corner of the Great War, with almost one and a half million soldiers killed. Thompson's meticulous research is matched by the fluency and tautness of his writing. The Gods that Failed: How Blind Faith in Markets Has Cost us our Future, by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson (The Bodley Head, £12.99), has a cumbersome title and the Olympian metaphors scattered throughout the book obscure rather than illuminate, but the content of this book is unimpeachable: superb timing, trenchant analysis and richly deserved criticism of an Anglo-American political culture that has turned the sober profession of banking into a supercasino where the house always wins. The Consequences of Love, by Sulaiman Addonia (Chatto and Windus, £7.99), is a beautiful love story set in Saudi Arabia. Rendered in crisp language, a simple plot develops into an acute political novel about one of the worst countries in the world.

Misha Glenny's McMafia: Crime without Frontiers, was published by The Bodley Head in April and was shortlisted for the FT/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award

Declan Kiberd

It's hard to write a compelling biography of a novelist who has recently written a brilliant memoir, but that's what Gerald Martin has achieved in Gabriel García Márquez: A Life(Bloomsbury, £25). Márquez's own impatience with the limits of art comes through, as does his robust socialism. Lyn Innes's Ned Kelly: Icon of Modern Culture(Helm Information, £38) is a kaleidoscope of letters, journalism, ballads and literary renditions of the bushranger. Innes is a fine critic and she explores the after-image of Ned Kelly on the Australian retina. Another brilliant critic is John Kerrigan. His Archipelagic English(OUP, £25) challenges narrowly anglocentric definitions of the literature of these islands in the 1600s and 1700s. It gives superb new readings of well-familiar works such as Macbeth.

The most enjoyable novel I read in 2008 was The Ghost, by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £18.99), a thriller which is a hilarious send-up of Tony and Cherie Blair by a smart but repentant journalist who was once a fan. Not any more.

Declan Kiberd's most recent book is The Irish Writer and the World(Cambridge University Press)

Claire Kilroy

The First Verse, by Barry McCrea (Brandon, €12.99) is an arresting take on surviving a turbulent period. The protagonist, a young Trinity student, finds himself in a literary cult which - using texts - accesses a quasi-mystical state. In one outstanding scene, the rooftop statues of Dublin come to life. It shouldn't work, yet the outcome is enthralling. Another exciting debut novel was London and the South-East, by David Szalay (Cape, £12.99). It is a forensic, almost balletic study of the Machiavellian politics at play in your average office.

The funniest novel of 2008 was yet another debut, A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz (Hamish Hamilton, £11.99). Chris Binchy's third novel, Open-handed(Penguin £12.99), demonstrates yet again that here is a writer who is urgently interested in the city and the times he lives in. Though he looks at the dark side, he does so with a lot of heart.

Claire Kilroy's third novel, All Names Have Been Changed, will be published in May

Declan Hughes

Literary biography is happily not the exclusive preserve of literary biographers. Diane Johnson's biography, Dashiell Hammett: A Life, remains the best thing anyone has written about him. Now another novelist, Judith Freeman, has tackled Hammett's great successor with equally bracing results. The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved(Pantheon, $25.95) is not just a love story, it's an intense, lyrical meditation on the art and craft of writing and on the city of Los Angeles.

"With every writer there is always something you have to put up with." Not so in Ferdinand Mount's memoir, Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes(Bloomsbury, £20), where this quote from Mount's uncle, Anthony Powell, appears. Mount seems to have known everyone in postwar English high and bohemian society and writes wittily and compassionately about them all. Shane Dunphy's Hush, Little Baby(Gill Macmillan, €14.99) is an artfully constructed selection of his real-life cases as a child protection worker: dark, terse, enraging and upsetting, it reads as compulsively as the best crime fiction.

Declan Hughes's latest novel, The Dying Breed,was published by John Murray in April

Barry McCrea

I am still reeling from the quiet but overwhelming force of Annie Ernaux's Les Années(The Years) (Gallimard, €17), an account of her life from the early 1940s to the present. Ernaux is a straightforward, unflashy writer, whose imaginative world is unsentimentally anchored in ordinary people. This book is built out of the local scraps of knowledge, language and experience fated to vanish with any individual (as Nuala O'Faolain lamented). Ernaux's breathtakingly vivid collage of these bits and pieces over more than 60 years gives a portrait both of the late 20th century itself, and of the shock of accumulating, without realising it, a lifetime's worth of living. Ronan Kelly's unfailingly witty and captivating Bard of Erin: The Life of Thomas Moore(Penguin, £25) also moves between an individual and his epoch, making Moore and his time feel both far away and very close.

Barry McCrea's debut novel, The First Verse,was published in Ireland by Brandon/Mount Eagle in May