Who knows what will get us through this Christmas? Books are surely (surely!) one uncancellable pleasure, though I know many readers lost all concentration during lockdown. Others say books kept them buoyant and some are keen to get “Jolabokaflod” going – an Icelandic tradition involving exchanging books on Christmas Eve, then sitting reading into the night.
It’s not the worst idea. Name your vice. A trip to Tudor England? A sojourn in 1990s Naples? Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (4th Estate, £25) and Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults (Europa Editions, £20) were two big hitters this year.
There’s no doubt literature feels different amid “all this”. Things written “before” feel tinged with nostalgia. Things written “during” feel close and distorted. This selection spans a range of genres and styles. Books to steal you away, or tether you down, or who knows. These days, as I read, I feel constantly on the lookout. For what, I don’t know. I’m picking up rocks to see the slimy underside. Things bore me, irritate me, perplex me.
But the books keep coming and I keep going. There’s always that. Turning the page.
Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (Tinder Press, £20) is a fictionalisation of the life of Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes, and son Hamnet, who died aged 11. It was a surprising omission from the Booker longlist, but has since won the Women’s Prize and the Books Are My Bag Readers’ Choice Award and will provide captivating reading for anyone who, well, anyone who’s ever heard of William Shakespeare.
Of the books that made the Booker dozen (though not the shortlist), Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age (Bloomsbury, £9.99), about a black babysitter accused of kidnapping the white child in her charge, is not only relevant and wise but extremely entertaining.
Kevin Barry’s third short story collection, That Old Country Music (Canongate, £14.99), is full of the signature dark humour of an author who thrives in the short form.
In a strong year for Irish debuts, Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times (W&N, £14.99), and Niamh Campbell’s This Happy (W&N, £14.99) stood out. Both deal with love triangles, but very differently. Dolan’s take on sexuality, colonialism and class from the point of view of expats in Hong Kong feels droll, spare, modern, while Campbell’s account of one woman’s life and the relationships that criss-cross through it feels ancient and lyrical.
Nick Hornby’s Just Like You (Viking, £9.99), turns around a relationship between a young working-class black man and a middle-aged, middle-class white mother. From its seething first sentence – “How could one say with certainty what one hated most in the world?” – we’re plunged into the pressure cooker of contemporary life.
Top pick: This Happy by Niamh Campbell
1950s Ireland. A Protestant garda arrives in Ballyglass, Co Wexford, to investigate the murder of a parish priest. John Banville’s Snow (Faber & Faber, £12.99) is a darkly beautiful whodunnit that sees the acclaimed author shake off his Benjamin Black nom-de-plume while writing in hard-boiled mystery mode.
Louise O’Neill’s first crime novel, After the Silence (riverrun, £12.99), is arguably her most accomplished book yet. It tells of an Australian film duo investigating a murder on a fictional west Cork island. O’Neill’s issue-led style here sees her confront the difficult topic of domestic violence.
In Tana French’s The Searcher (Viking, £14.99) the popular author explores the west of Ireland for the first time. Ex-cop Cal Hooper goes to restore a dilapidated house but ends up investigating the disappearance of a local boy. It’s a slow burner, full of dazzling nature writing.
In the week it was published, Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club (Viking, £14.99) became the fastest selling adult crime debut since records began. It’s as whimsical as accounts of brutal murders can be. Four friends in a retirement village investigate a killing on their doorstep.
Top pick: Snow by John Banville
The first of Barack Obama’s two-volume memoir A Promised Land (Viking, £35) covers the first term of his presidency, and records details from his personal life and education. High praise from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who describes the former president as “as fine a writer as they come”.
Jim Grant aka Lee Child has handed over the Reacher baton to his brother, but long-time fans will relish Heather Martin’s The Reacher Guy: The Authorised Biography of Lee Child (Constable, £20), a comprehensive portrait of the literary celebrity which brings into focus the point where Grant meets Child meets Reacher.
“As a young man, I felt I was out there in the wild, experiencing the untouched natural world, but it was an illusion. The tragedy of our time has been happening all around us, barely noticeable from day to day – the loss of our planet’s wild places, its biodiversity.” David Attenborough’s reflection on his extraordinary life meets reflections on the fate of Earth in A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future (Ebury Press, £20).
Top pick: A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough
The best sports books often aren’t about sport at all. Champagne Football: John Delaney and the Betrayal of Irish Football: The Inside Story (Penguin Ireland, £14.99), by award-winning journalists Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan, outlines the story of corruption in the FAI led by its former chief executive but also illuminates an attitude of greed and entitlement latent in certain cohorts of Irish society.
John Connell’s The Running Book (Picador, £14.99) takes the theme of running and opens it out into something much wider. The Cow Book author has a style that moves seamlessly across themes. Here, we get a history of Longford, a personal journey and a reflection on the limits of physical ability.
One Life (Penguin Press, £20) records key moments in the career of US soccer star, Megan Rapinoe. From her first kick of a football, to suing the US soccer federation over gender discrimination, to taking a knee in solidarity with Colin Kapernick, there’s no doubt this woman is a force.
Top pick: Champagne Football by Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan
During the first lockdown, photographer Ruth Medjber came up with the simple but effective idea to capture life through our windows. Twilight Together: Portraits of Ireland at Home (Doubleday Ireland, €28) collects these striking yet ordinary portraits and illuminates a moment in history.
In Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000 (Cork University Press, €39), Claudia Kinmonth illuminates a way of life in Ireland that has almost vanished by examining three centuries of farmhouse and cabin furniture from all over the island of Ireland.
Irish Air Spectacular (irishairspectacular.ie, €35) is not only a beautiful collection of aviation photography, but its proceeds go to the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
Ireland’s Rivers (UCD Press, €40), edited by Mary Kelly-Quinn and Julian D Reynolds, aims to raise awareness of Ireland’s often undervalued river resources. It captures the evolution of Irish rivers and interrogates how humans have depended on, used and abused our rivers through time.
Top pick: Twilight Together by Ruth Medjber
Zadie Smith is arguably at her best in essay mode. Intimations: Six Essays (Penguin, £5.99), logs “feelings and thoughts” that the year’s events provoked in the beloved author. It comes at everything sideways, leaning into the prevailing sensation of uncertainty and doubt.
Irish Times reviewer Mia Levitin’s The Future of Seduction (Unbound, £5.99) is part of the “Futures” essay series and explores the future of sex. In less than a hundred pages we go deep into the effects of changing technology on intimacy, consent after #MeToo and more.
For those not jaded with American politics, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham (Doubleday, £16.99) boldly reimagines the life of Hilary Rodham in a world where she didn’t marry Bill Clinton. This one’s Marmite. I adore Sittenfeld’s pacy, contemporary style, though I know others who hurled this across the room.
Top pick: Intimations by Zadie Smith
Truly funny prose is hard to find but David Sedaris never disappoints. His cheekily titled The Best of Me (Little, Brown and Company, £16.99) is a compendium of his best stories, including Me Talk Pretty One Day and Six to Eight Black Men.
Erin’s Diary (Orion, £16.99), from Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee, gives an inside take from the point of view of lead character Erin on all that’s happened so far in the bizarre 1990s Derry universe.
The internet conversations logged in Michael Cunningham aka Sir Michael’s How to (Almost) Make Friends on the Internet (Trapeze, £9.99), will have you in stitches. They start inconspicuously then descend into hilarious absurdity.
Channel your inner Aisling with Oh My God, What a Complete Diary 2021 (Gill, €14.99). Each month opens with an inspirational quote from the Emer McLysaght/Sara Breen creation and encourages the organisation-freak in us all.
Top pick: The Best of Me by David Sedaris
Books from independent publishers
Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp Press, €16) is hard to pitch but easy to love. In a memoir-come-poetry-translation, the author’s growing fascination with the poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire is interlaced with the ordinariness of daily female life. It sounds tedious, but you’ll just have to trust me when I say it’s dazzling.
Dara McAnulty this year became the youngest person nominated for an Irish Book Award, with Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller, £16). It chronicles a year in the 15-year old’s life, thorough a series of diary entries about his connection to wildlife and his way of seeing the world.
Oein DeBhairdúin’s Why the Moon Travels (Skein Press, €12.95) collects Traveller folk tales, and frames each with an author’s note delving into its meaning. It’s a unique creation, with beautiful illustrations by Leanne McDonagh.
Top pick: A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
The SHOp: An Anthology of Poetry (Liffey Press, €19.95), edited by Hilary Wakeman and Hilary Elfick, celebrates the legacy of the west Cork literary magazine the SHOp. It contains 285 poems from the likes of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Paula Meehan, and many more.
We don’t always think of Margaret Atwood as a poet, but in fact she started her career in the poetic form. Dearly (Chatto & Windus, €14.99), her first collection in over a decade, explores bodies and minds in flux.
Kathleen Watkins’s One for Everyone: More Poems I Love (Gill Books, €14.99) follows on from The Ordinary Woman and Other Poems I Love, with a collection of verses that have comforted and consoled Watkins over the past year, with poems from WB Yeats, Eavan Boland, Derek Walcott and more.
Top pick: One for Everyone by Kathleen Watkins
Oliver Jeffers’s picture books are funny, poetic, philosophical and visually brilliant. In What We’ll Build (Harper Collins, £14.99, 3+) a father and daughter start building plans for their life together.
Teacher, activist and Vogue contributing editor Sinéad Burke brings Break the Mould (Wren & Rook, €9.99), which encourages self-belief and embracing difference among young readers.
For middle-grades, Liz Pichon of Tom Gates fame brings the first in a new series, Shoe Wars (Scholastic, £12.99, 9-12), while at the older end, Catherine Doyle’s The Miracle on Ebenezer Street (Puffin, £12.99, 9-12) tells of a boy called George and his father trying to get through the third Christmas since George’s mother died. A mysterious snow globe provides magical assistance.
Top pick: Break the Mould by Sinéad Burke
A subscription to a literary journal is the gift that keeps on giving. Behemoths The Dublin Review and The Stinging Fly have long fostered the country’s best literary talent, while Banshee and The Tangerine, are younger, but seriously accomplished and handsome journals. All offer yearly subscriptions.
Winter Papers is a beautifully bound annual, edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith. It comprises new work from some of Ireland’s best writers and makes a really lovely Christmas gift. This year’s contributors include Elaine Feeney, Louise Kennedy, Roisín Kiberd and Tim MacGabhann.
Top pick: The Stinging Fly “Magazine and Books” package (€50 Ireland/€60 rest of world)