Best books for Christmas 2021: Fiction, biography, sport and children’s books

Something for everyone from sport fans and literary types to politics nerds in this list

Getting your hands on that festive must-read may be harder than usual this year – just when bookstores thought they were over the worst of it, worldwide paper shortages, Brexit-related delays and supply chain issues put a spanner in the works. Buy early, is the message, to which I would add, buy local and be patient. Like the rest of us, booksellers are trying their best in less-than-ideal conditions. But there’s nonetheless plenty of literary fare to get excited about this Christmas, whether you’re looking for a sumptuous gift book, a stocking filler, or a page-turner to stave off the winter blues.

Fiction

Elizabeth Strout's Oh William! (Penguin, £14.99) plunges us back into the world of Lucy Barton, and it will be no surprise to fans of the Maine author that this was the best book I read all year. Recounting the story of Lucy's first husband, William, and his as-of-yet unexplored past, it's everything we've come to expect: spare, profound, subtle, heart-breaking.

Closer to home, Colm Tóibín is on top form with The Magician (Penguin, £18.99), a novelisation of the life of Thomas Mann, while Claire Keegan's Small Things Like These (Faber, £10), is a slim, skilfully told novel about a coal merchant whose family is struggling to get by in the run up to Christmas 1985, and a Magdalene laundry that casts a shadow over the community.

In lighter fare, the Aisling books are only getting more charming. In the latest, Aisling and the City by Emer MyLysaght and Sarah Breen (Gill, €14.99), our beloved heroine takes on New York, with hilarious results.

Genre fiction fans will enjoy Shadow Voices: 300 Years of Irish Genre Fiction: A History in Stories (Hodder & Stoughton, £25). Edited by John Connolly, it takes the lives of more than 60 writers – from Swift to Stoker to Jane Casey and Liz Nugent – and sets them alongside the stories they have written.

Crime/Thriller

It didn't take long for Covid-19 to find its way into fiction. Beginning in a supermarket queue the week the pandemic reaches Ireland, Catherine Ryan Howard's 56 Days (Corvus, £14.99) asks whether lockdown has created an opportunity for someone to commit a perfect crime.

Going back in time, Colson Whitehead's Harlem Shuffle (Fleet, £16.99) is a lively crime caper set in 1960s Harlem. As the rumblings of social change and upward mobility hum, a half-crooked furniture salesman gets sucked downward into crime.

Silverview by John le Carré (Viking, £20), is a cat-and-mouse chase from an East Anglian seaside town to the Eastern Bloc. Published 10 months after he passed away, it marks a fitting final work by the master of spy fiction.

Poetry

Two particularly handsome anthologies this year are Tomorrow is Beautiful by Sarah Crossan (ed.) (Bloomsbury, £12.99) and Local Wonders: Poems of our Immediate Surrounds by Pat Boran (ed.) (Dedalus, €25). The former cleaves to Crossan's belief that "poetry should serve everyone" and comprises "poems to comfort, uplift and delight" from Langston Hughes, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou and more, while the latter celebrates a rediscovery of precious places, with new poems from all over the island and beyond.

Songwriter Imelda May's debut poetry collection, A Lick and a Promise (Faber & Faber, £22) contains 100 poems, including You Don't Get to be Racist and Irish, written in support of Black Lives Matter. Derek Mahon fans will delight in The Poems (1961-2020) (Gallery Press, €35). It gives a wide-spanning vision of the Belfast poet's career, bringing together the poems he wished to be read from that 40-year period.

Memoir/Biography

It probably says something about Irish humour that the funniest book I read all year was Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? (Fleet, £16.99). Séamas O'Reilly's memoir about growing up among 10 siblings in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of his mother's death is witty and warm, and a book I'd as likely give to my dad as my best friend.

Catherine Corless has written a landmark memoir in Belonging: A Memoir of Place, Beginnings and One Woman's Search for Truth and Justice for the Tuam Babies (Hachette Ireland, £15.99). It recounts her personal story, as well as the individual accounts of some of the many survivors of the Tuam mother and baby home.

For politics obsessives, Gary Murphy's Haughey (Gill, €27.99) presents a reassessment of the former taoiseach's life and legacy, while the lives of performers are explored in autobiographies from musician Martin Hayes – Shared Notes: A Musical Journey (Transworld, £20) – and comedian Billy Connolly – Windswept & Interesting: My Autobiography (Two Roads, £25).

History

In We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland (Head of Zeus, £25), Fintan O'Toole takes, as his starting point, the year he was born (1958), and records and reflects on the changes this country has seen since then.

Frank McDonald's A Little History of the Future of Dublin (Martello, £12.99) charts the development of our capital, from its Viking origins, through to "Abercrombie's Dublin of the Future", and the failures, successes, and potential of Dublin today.

Following on from the success of Old Ireland in Colour, John Breslin and Sarah-Anne Buckley's Old Ireland in Colour 2 (Merrion Press, €24.95), delves further into our historical archives, colourising more than 150 images and bringing old Ireland vibrantly to life.

And an uplifting approach to a history book is Mark Henry's In Fact: An Optimist's Guide to Ireland at 100 (Gill, €24.99). It charts 100 years of the Irish State through facts and stats, and is perfect for flicking through by the fire.

Sport

Fans of sporting biographies have plenty to look forward to this year, with Kerry footballer, Aidan O'Mahony, taking us through his personal and sporting journey in Unbroken: A Journey of Adversity, Mental Strength and Physical Fitness (Hachette Ireland, £14.99), while Peter Schmeichel charts his exceptionally successful goalkeeping career alongside the remarkable story of his family in One: My Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, £20).

And from Liam Brady to Robbie Keane, Anne O'Brien, Stephanie Roche and more, Barry Landy follows the fortunes of Irish footballers and managers making their mark outside of Ireland and Britain, in Emerald Exiles: How the Irish Made their Mark on the World (New Island, €17.95).

High End/Big Spend

Anyone looking to splash out on a special treat might consider The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney and Paul Muldoon (ed.) (Allen Lane, €80). A two-volume book complete with slip case, it collects never-before seen drafts, letters and photographs, and charts McCartney's life through song.

Bigger than a doorstopper, The Coastal Atlas of Ireland by Robert Devoy, Val Cummins, Barry Brunt, Darius Bartlett and Sarah Kandrot (ed.s) (Cork University Press, €59) mixes history and geology to give a comprehensive portrait of Irish coastlines, while Irish Work (RRB Photobooks, £75) centres upon photographer Tom Wood's relationship with Ireland, containing more than 200 images, taken between 1972 and 2019.

A beautiful biography is Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture by Justine Picardie (Faber & Faber, £25). It explores "how the polished surface of fashion conceals hidden depths" through the story of Catherine Dior, member of the prosperous Dior family and unlikely resistance hero.

Stocking Filler

Dinosaur Therapy by James Stewart and K Romey (ill.) (Harper Collins, £8.99) is a humorous and uplifting comic about dinosaurs navigating the complexities of life. It grew out of the successful web comic @dinosandcomics.

For presentation-phobics, Everything I Know About Life I Learned from PowerPoint by Russell Davies (Profile Books, £14.99) is an easy-to-thumb-through book about the art of the PowerPoint presentation. Divided into sections such as PowerPoint Saved My Life, PowerPoint Rules the World and PowerPoint is Easy, it's colourful and uncomplicated.

A bit on the glossier side are: In Kiltumper: A Year in an Irish Garden by Niall Williams and Christine Breen (Bloomsbury, £18.99), and Décor Galore: The Essential Guide to Styling Your Home by Laura de Barra (£16.99). The former is a celebration of life in rural Ireland, by a pair who left New York for Kiltumper 34 years ago. And after reading the latter, not only do I want the gaff goddess's help restyling my home, I want her to run my life.

Graphic Novels

Will McPhail has been drawing cartoons for the New Yorker since 2014, and his debut graphic novel, In (Sceptre, £18.99), features a young illustrator who can't connect with people. It's stylish, funny, fresh and compassionate.

Scarenthood, by Nick Roche (IDW Publishing, €18.19), is a folk-horror set in modern Ireland. Illustrated by Chris O'Halloran, it reflects on parenthood through the story of a group of parents who accidentally free a malevolent entity from beneath their children's pre-school.

For Avengers fans, William Shakespeare's Avengers: The Complete Works by Ian Doescher, Danny Schlitz (ill.) (Quirk Books, £27.99), presents all four Avengers films as Shakespearean plays. Containing authentic meter and verse, stage directions, and entertaining Easter eggs, it's how the bard would have wanted it, methinks.

Children’s/Teen

The classic poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement C Moore (Walker Books, £12.99), is brought to life with artwork from one of Ireland's most beloved illustrators, PJ Lynch, and would suit kids aged 4+.

For children aged 7-9, a new translation of Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Olga Tokarczuk's first children's book, The Lost Soul (Antonia Lloyd-Jones, tr., Joanna Concejo, ill.) (Seven Stories Press, £16.99) would make an attractive gift. It tells the story of a man "who worked very hard and very quickly and who had left his soul behind him long ago".

For children aged 9+, The Great Irish Politics Book by David McCullagh, Graham Corcoran (ill.) (Gill, €24.99) is the latest in Gill's "Great Irish…" series. It looks at political systems, elections, voting and government, human rights, freedom of speech and fake news.

The New Girl by Sinéad Moriarty (Gill, €12.99), about a friendship between an Irish girl and a Syrian girl who joins her class, will keep younger teens (12-14) reading, while older teens (15+) will warm to Precious Catastrophe by Deirdre Sullivan (Hot Key Books, £7.99). The second in the Perfectly Preventable Deaths series, this supernatural mystery revisits twins Caitlin and Madeline, whose lives have been changed forever by the horrors they've encountered.

For readers of all ages, Manchán Magan, author of the bestseller Thirty-Two Words for Field, together with illustrator, Steve Doogan, has put together a collection of Irish words for the natural world, in Tree Dogs, Banshee Fingers and Other Irish Words for Nature (Gill, €19.99).

Charity Books

Books published in aid of charity make great gifts, and two stand out this year. Lights on the Horizon (€24.95), and Irish Air Spectacular (€35). The former is a collection of prose, poetry and photography created during lockdown. It raises funds for the HSE and the NHS across the island of Ireland. The latter is a collection of spectacular aviation photography captured over Ireland, created in aid of St Vincent de Paul. More information can be found on lightsonthehorizon.com and irishairspectacular.ie, respectively.

Journals

Now on its seventh volume, Winter Papers (Curlew Editions, €40) is an annual arts anthology, edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith. As gorgeous on the outside as it is on the inside, it can be purchased singly or as part of a multi-volume package on winterpapers.com.

For the gift that keeps on giving, a literary journal subscription is ideal. A one-year gift subscription to The Dublin Review costs €34 and comprises four issues, while The Stinging Fly offers magazine-only subscriptions from €28, or magazine and book packages from €55.

Banshee, a journal of exciting, accessible, contemporary writing publishes twice a year, and a subscription costs €23, while Tolka, a new biannual journal of "formally promiscuous non-fiction", costs €20, with the added benefit of nabbing a high-class journal early in its conception.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic