Books of 2020: Max Porter, Emilie Pine, Sara Baume and more pick the best reads of the year so far

Emilie Pine

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey’

Over the past weeks, I have valued Samantha Harvey’s company through her memoir of insomnia, The Shapeless Unease. Harvey’s description of not sleeping as a kind of assault feels utterly true. Also in non-fiction, I’m looking forward to the publication later this summer of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, a lyrical memoir about motherhood and poetic connections.

In fiction, I recently re-devoured an old favourite, Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, while in new books I’ve enjoyed Anne Enright’s Actress, and I can’t wait to read Jenny Offill’s Weather.

Finally, on my poetry reading list is The New Irish Poets, edited by Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi and Pat Boran, an anthology of writing from Ireland that celebrates the contribution of those whose roots lie outside of the country. 

Emilie Pine’s latest collection of personal essays is Notes to Self 

Wendy Erskine

I loved Dark Satellites by Clemens Meyer (Fitzcarraldo), translated by Katy Derbyshire. These short stories set in contemporary Germany consider aspects of the lives of ordinary (if anyone can truly be described as such) individuals. Artful, quiet, dark and unsentimental, they are beautiful and totally memorable. I’m looking forward to reading Coming Undone by Terri White (Canongate). It’s a memoir about how her childhood experiences shaped her, a chronicle of how things fall apart.

Wendy Erskine is the author of Sweet Home (Stinging Fly)

Colm Tóibín

Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye is an account of the making of the movie Chinatown, using a detailed knowledge of the studio system, archive material (including an account of each draft of Robert Towne’s superb script) and interviews with some of the main players, including director Roman Polanski. The book shows that the film’s abiding beauty came from hard work but that luck was also on its side.

I am looking forward to Stephen Johnson’s The Eighth, which tells the story of the first performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in Munich in 1910, the year before Mahler’s death, and the writing of this huge and unwieldy work.

Colm Tóibín’s latest work is Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

Mark O’Connell

Of the very few books published this year that I’ve actually read, one I particularly enjoyed was Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley. A memoir about her time working in tech startups in San Francisco in the early to mid 2010s, Wiener’s book is a compulsively readable and intellectually rich exploration of the culture of that time and place. She is deeply critical of the naivety and myopia of the tech world, but she does not hold herself aloof from that criticism, and there are moments of real sympathy and intimacy in her portrait of a milieu she – and in some ways the culture more broadly – has since left behind. It could also just about pass as a “beach read”, if you squint. (And let’s be honest, none of us are likely to be spending much time on beaches this summer.)

As for my own “holiday reading” – an increasingly abstract concept, it has to be said – I’ve got my eye on Yuko Tsushima’s 1979 novel Territory of Light, recently published as a Penguin Modern classic.

I’m also very excited about the new book by Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence, which I was lucky enough to get an early copy of. Dillon is a writer who I would read on any topic he might care to write on, but to read an entire book by him on the art of the sentence is a particularly enticing prospect.

Mark O’Connell’s latest book is Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back

Sara Baume

Oona by Alice Lyons
Oona by Alice Lyons

During the sunny afternoons of spring, I read two brilliant novels both by visual artists: Oona by Alice Lyons and A Sabbatical in Leipzig by Adrian Duncan. Around the same time a friend sent me Em by yet another artist, Erica Van Horn. Em is a little book of extracts collected from the author’s journal, charting the life of her late dog. It sounds very sweet, but was in fact understated and profound. Later in the summer, I am looking forward to books by poets instead of artists, most of all, A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa.

Sara Baume’s latest book is Handiwork

Nicole Flattery

The best book I’ve read so far this year is James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work. There is a seemingly endless (and deeply boring) argument about the purpose of criticism, and this book effectively ends that argument. Baldwin’s seven-page review of The Exorcist is better than most novels.

My beach read – and by this I mean the book I read while walking to a usually cold and empty Galway beach – is Niamh Campbell’s This Happy. A debut full of exquisite sentences and strange imagery, this novel is not unlike diving cheerfully into freezing-cold water.

Nicole Flattery’s debut collection is Show Them a Good Time

Jan Carson

Caoilinn Hughes’s The Wild Laughter

I’ve been raving about Caoilinn Hughes’s The Wild Laughter for months now. Steeped in dark, Irish humour, it’s the story of a rural family coming apart at the seams. It made me laugh a lot. I also entertained feelings of utter devastation.

It left me seethingly jealous of Hughes’s wonderful way with language and story. Reading her writing is like excavating an archaeological site. Every reading reveals another layer of wit, wisdom and acidic observation. I’m already deep into my second excavation.

As a lifelong Curtis Sittenfeld fan, I’m also dying to read her forthcoming novel Rodham, a what-might-have-been exploration of Hillary Clinton’s life if she’d never married Bill.

Jan Carson’s latest work is The Fire Starters

Diarmaid Ferriter

As if things were not bad enough, I read Michel Houellebecq’s Seretonin. Houellebecq is a misanthropic brat of a novelist but also compelling, satirical and darkly funny. The protagonist, Florent Claude Labrouste, is a cerebral, sex-obsessed champion of voluntary solitude, a French agricultural engineer who is “dying of sadness” and quits his job to head off on a booze- and nicotine-filled journey out of which he weaves a tapestry of commentary on sexuality, addiction, depression, global economics, the destruction of rural life and social isolation. So it was ideal lockdown reading.

Next on my summer list is Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, hopefully to be read outside of a house.

Diarmaid Ferriter’s latest book is The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics

John Banville

The boatman by Billy O’Callaghan

The best fiction I have read this year is Billy O’Callaghan’s short-story collection The Boatman. The book is old-fashioned in the best sense, in that it is written by a grown-up for grown-up persons, as Virginia Woolf said of Middlemarch. The stories are taut, subtle and moving, and brought off beautifully.

No doubt there are many good books still to come in 2020, but I shall be taking Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed to the virtual beach. I have already read the opening pages, which contain a wonderfully witty and unforgivably spiteful caricature of Turgenev. Lots more fun to follow, I’m sure.

John Banville’s latest book, writing as BW Black, is The Secret Guests

Max Porter

The noise and hurt of the world has got in between me and reading, recently. I can’t concentrate. I didn’t want to start Seán Hewitt’s debut collection Tongues of Fire while I was in this mood. But then I fell into it one morning and read the whole book through and it truly warmed my soul. He’s an exquisitely calm and insightful lyric poet, reverential in nature and gorgeously wise in the field of human drama. It’s a stunning collection of poems. This summer I intend to finish the riveting Frieda Klein series by Nicci French. Unrivalled psychological crime brilliance.

Max Porter’s latest book is Lanny

Sheila O’Flanagan

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

My favourite book this year has been Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, her imagined account of the death of Shakespeare’s son during the plague. Maggie’s writing is always elegant; in this novel she also brings exceptional emotional depth. Given our current situation, there’s extra resonance in a novel that has a highly contagious disease and the stress it places on the community at its core. Despite the claustrophobic backdrop, it’s an uplifting book of love and forgiveness, of being different and trying to fit in, of a family divided and united. A fabulous read.

I’m also looking forward to reading Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell, whose books are always complex and inventive. On my list, too, is Irish author Michelle Gallen, whose Big Girl Small Town debut has been shortlisted for the CWIP prize. Finally I’ll be reading another historical novel set in plague years, James Meek’s To Calais in Ordinary Time, following an eclectic mix of characters who travel from England to Calais in the 14th century.

Sheila O’Flanagan’s latest novel, The Women Who Ran Away, is published by Hachette on July 16th

Rónán Hession

My book of the year so far is Breasts and Eggs by Japanese writer Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, a very human and insightful novel about what it means to live in a female body in modern Japan.

August is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) so I usually build my holiday reading stack around that. This year I’m looking forward to Catherine the Great and the Small by Montenegrin writer Olja Kneževic, translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursac; Arid Dreams by Thai writer Duanwad Pimwana, translated by Mui Poopoksakul; and Minor Detail by Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.

Rónán Hession is the author of Leonard and Hungry Paul

John Boyne

Threshold by Rob Doyle

My favourite book so far this year is Threshold by Rob Doyle. A very modern take on memoir, there are scenes that made me think, please God, let him have made this up, let it not have happened. But most of it did. It made me laugh out loud, wince, take lengthy showers and feel that I’ve barely lived.

I’m looking forward to Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. A great novel starts with a great idea and “What if Hillary never married Bill?” is such a brilliant premise. Sittenfeld is one of my favourite writers and this is sure to be engrossing.

John Boyne’s latest novel, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom, is out next month.

Declan Kiberd

The Mandarins, by Simone De Beauvoir
The Mandarins, by Simone De Beauvoir

Old books for new times! Inspired by a reread of Camus’s The Plague (1947), I went back to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins (1954), which is a marvellous novel, narrated in different voices, about how the French intellectuals coped with the bleakness of freedom at the close of the second World War. Though close to Sartre and his Marxism, she depicted Camus as a deeply attractive personality, who really was trying “to be a saint without God”.

Forty years ago, on my first reading, I thought the book cool, even satirical – in fact it’s deeply moving, proving that the novel is a form that does justice to many disparate characters and voices. I was so mesmerised that I have just bought her feminist classic, The Second Sex (1949). Not your obvious beach material – but the Vintage cover makes it look like a bodice-ripper (rather than a ferocious critique of all that). So it may just “pass” among the sun-cream and sandal brigade!

Declan Kiberd’s latest book, England and Eternity: A Book of Cricket, will be published next year

Martin Doyle

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

The year began with Inventory, Darran Anderson’s bleakly 
brilliant Derry memoir. The same description applies to Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse, with bonus points for biting wit. Family and nature interplayed beautifully too in Sara Baume’s Handiwork, a wholesome shot of artistic goodness, and in Dara McAnulty’s  precociously articulate Diary of a Young Naturalist. 

Actress by Anne Enright was a joy to read; The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes an impressive Celtic Tiger tragedy; but the year so far is defined for me 
by a sweep of powerful love stories: the ferociously funny and sharp Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan; the cerebral but heartbreaking This Happy by Niamh Campbell; the profoundly moving The Weight of Love by Hilary Fannin; and July’s tender, touching Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon. Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, both out in August, will be joining these on the best of 2020 list.

Martin Doyle is Books Editor