Readers share their favourite books of 2017
We invited readers to talk about their best books of the year. Here’s what they had to say
My book of the year is Harvesting by Lisa Harding. It is a book that needed to be written about a subject that gets little attention, the trafficking of women and girls in the sex industry in Ireland. Despite the difficult subject matter, I found it hard to put down. It is beautifully written – careful, thoughtful and emotionally haunting as it chronicles the journey of the two young girls, the desperation of their situation and their utter vulnerability.
The interaction of the girls with the men paying for their services is devastatingly understated rather than graphic; their lifestyle becoming almost routine and mundane, which makes the storytelling all the more effective. The ending haunted me, as it should. Harvesting moved me in a way that very few books do.
This is a novel which challenges our preconceptions about the girls and women who work in the sex industry in Ireland and the men who pay for them. For those of us who are parents, it will make us want to hold our daughters more tightly and think very carefully about how we raise our sons – the values we give them, and the type of men we ultimately want them to be.
My secret vice-like: Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow. My surprise treat: Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignificance. The feast that is Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra;then there’s Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life and one that always worthy of a revisit – Italo Calvino’s Six Memos For the next Millennium. Friedrich Christian Delius’s Portrait of The Mother as a Young Woman. And, off the top of my head, Alois Hotschnig’s Maybe This Time.
I simply loved Harvesting by Lisa Harding. This book swallowed me whole just like the dark world it exposes swallows up Nico and Sammy. Beautifully written in clean, pure prose, you can drink the words off the page. Two girls, two lives, two stories merge in the harrowing reality of underage prostitution. Harding tackles the unsavoury world of human trafficking and teen prostitution with exceptional sensitivity.
By writing the dual narrative in the first person singular, from the opening line to the haunting close we see, breath, feel, smell, touch and taste the world through the girls’ senses. I was relieved and impressed by how artfully Harding manages to face the sordid subject matter head on without the need for graphic description to drive home the point.
I was also struck by the highly astute portrayal of the various relationships in the book both emotionally and politically. For instance, the helplessness of Nico’s brother Luca and Sammy’s friend Lucy is devastating. Yet it is through the most fragile relationships that the light shines through.
This is a brave, compelling and important read with an emotional and political hook.
My favourite book of 2017 was Lisa Harding’s debut novel Harvesting. Harding pulls no punches as she explores the murky world of sex trafficking through the point of view of two very different teenage girls. Sammy is a troubled, Irish 15-year-old with an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Nico is a 12-year-old Moldovan, sold off by her father into what he convinces himself will be “a better life”. It is anything but. Despite the harrowing nature of the two protagonists’ experiences, Harvesting is a gripping read – a genuine page turner. Harding wisely alludes to much of the horror and trauma the girls experience, letting the reader fill in the blanks.
The real strength of the novel, though, is how the author brings to life two vivid and depressingly realistic characters. Harding gets deep into the souls of Sammy and Nico, leaving the reader stunned and heartbroken as the reality of their horrific situation goes from bad to worse to truly tragic. There is much humour here too though and, mercifully, there is hope.
I consider Wounds by Fergal Keane one of the best books I read this year. It is interesting, focused, truthful and well written.
Coming home after years of living outside Ireland, I’ve been playing catch-up with a heap of Irish writers this year. Several of my favourite Irish books that I read in 2017 are actually from last year or earlier. I just finished Frankie Gaffney’s brilliant Dublin Seven.
My favourite Irish books published in 2017 are an eclectic bunch. In no particular order: June Caldwell’s Room Little Darker, Nuala O’Connor’s Joyride to Jupiter, Cat Hogan’s They All Fall Down, Martin Malone’s This Cruel Station, Carlo Gébler’s The Innocent of Falkland Road and Monica McInerney’s The Trip of a Lifetime.
Other highlights include The Silk Road by Peter Frankopan, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and Reservoir 13 by Jon MacGregor, as well as Pat Boran and Eugene O’Connell’s collection of “touchstone poetry” by Irish poets, The Deep Heart’s Core.
I found Martin Malone’s This Cruel Station a sobering though illuminating exploration of contemporary Irish society. These stories feature a cast of eclectic and compelling characters, snapshots of different lives, and include a novella, Isaiah’s Reach. Inspired by Malone’s observations while working with recently arrived refugees from Syria and Iraq, these narratives offer a glimpse into the worlds of the new Irish, carrying with them indigenous cultures, history and often times, great pain, and all explore the common and the uncommon through authentic voices.
I also loved Lisa Harding’s Harvesting, a tough but worthy read, moving between two compelling narratives on their treacherous and heartbreaking journeys. Harding has lifted a particularly shocking lid on the reality of sex trafficking in Ireland, of crimes against young children, writing an accomplished fictional account of a hidden world with meticulous research and respect for the very real, and often invisible victims of the sex trade.
John MacKenna’s Once We Sang Like Other Men is a slow burner, in the best sense, with 13 stories, glimpses of other lives on journeys through very human themes that connect contemporary narratives with something that just might be otherworldly, each fractured character allied historically through their pasts.
Patti Yumi Cottrell’s spiky, blunt and self-deprecatingly humorous Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, narrated by an American-raised Korean adoptee, Helen Moran, had this adoptive parent wincing, as she unforgivingly describes her navigation of the aftermath of her adoptive brother’s suicide. Adoption grief, though never alluded to or admitted, is evident throughout.
Reading June Caldwell’s anarchaic, enraged short story collection Room Little Darker was akin to watching a horror movie through my fingers as she led me to surreal situations such as a farmhouse in Leitrim where a couple encounter an S & M hook-up somewhat off the page – kidnapping, a cage and online streaming are just a hint of what Caldwell’s livewire writing provides.
A quieter read was Michael Harding’s Talking to Strangers, the author’s third memoir and an honest portrayal of a human wrestling with the deprivations of ageing, loneliness and self-doubt told in Harding’s inimitable seanchaí style.
Harvesting by Lisa Harding is a wonderful, haunting read. It has all the elements of a great novel – memorable characters, a gripping storyline and is really well written with beautiful prose throughout. It exposes the stories of the tragically real girls behind the crime of human trafficking in the sex industry in Europe and Ireland. The author does not flinch from presenting us with her heroines’ predicament, but there are no graphic descriptions here designed to shock for shock’s sake. Lisa Harding writes about her two heroines with great care and ultimately Harvesting is reassuring about the redemptive power of human relationships and the triumph of the spirit in the face of adversity.
The two heroines, Nico and Sammy, in particular are extremely well drawn, highly engaging and believable characters that will remain with you long after you finish reading – dreamy, precociously intelligent Moldovan Nico, who has seen so little of the world, and brash, unreliable, middle-class Sammy, who imagines herself to be worldly wise but in reality is vulnerable and troubled. The detail throughout is convincing and feels very authentic. This is a wonderful book which deserves a wide audience.
Kevin G Conroy
I’ve read some excellent books this year. The two best books I’ve read are Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin and All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai. I also read two brilliant Irish crime novels. Let the Dead Speak by Jane Casey and There was a Crooked Man by Cat Hogan.
My favourite book of 2017 was Angel Hill by Michael Longley. Lots of Nature poems along with others typical of Longley. Angel Hill or Cnoc na nAingeal is a burial ground near his daughter’s home in Scotland. Grief is the theme in some poems. Room to Rhyme remembers his good friend Seamus Heaney. Few poets can take us time and again to wild places filled with bird melody as in Corncrake on Inisbofin. The first World War, the Troubles and the wilderness are all celebrated in a very memorable book. His 11th collection of poems is as good as it gets.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne was such a wonderful reflection on how Ireland has shaped its citizens over the years through religious dogma and intolerance. How far we have come but the baggage remains ... already miss Cyril’s voice. He was a great companion on this reflective, historical journey.
My ‘Best Read’ this year has to be Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty. I don’t know if it is because of my Northern Irish background or the subtle humour used by the author to describe the relationship between two married retirees in their 60s but I was hooked from page one. So many themes to enjoy here, relationships, family, loneliness, over-indulgence, secrets, travel, retirement. A big hook to bring the varying themes together is the Troubles. Here is my only concern about the appeal of the novel: is this setting overused by Northern Irish writers? Midwinter Break is a gem of a book written by a man who knows his trade.
All We Shall Know, by Donal Ryan. Brilliantly written prose, stunning dialogue, and sweet, tender tale. Top book of the year.
Those of Us Who Must Die: Execution, Exile and Revival by Derek Molyneux & Darren Kelly. Brilliant research and well written. There are lots of books about the Easter Rising but this tells the largely unknown story of what happened immediately afterwards. It’s an essential book for anyone interested in Irish history. A lot of poignant moments in the book where we see the human side of the participants and how they faced the firing squads (which is often just a postscript to other Easter Rising books). Highly recommended and a perfect Christmas present for young and old. Definitely a worthy addition to the library to sit alongside When the Clock Struck in 1916, also by the same authors.
My four favourite books for 2017 were: (1) The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol IV, 1966-1989 (ed, Martha Dow, Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, George Craig & Lois More Overbeck; (2) Virgil and Joyce: Nationalism and Imperialism in the Aeneid and Ulysses, by Randall J Pogorzelski; (3) Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law by Adrian Hardiman; (4) After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present by Declan Kiberd.
Having read and loved the fabulous When the Clock Struck in 1916, I was a bit unsure about how the follow up, Those of us Who Must Die, could keep the same level of interest and pace. Needn’t have worried. Molyneux and Kelly know how to write a story that keeps the reader engaged from start to finish. Thoroughly enjoyed reading the follow-up and both books now have centre stage in my collection of Easter Rising related books.
I live in Newfoundland, but think that I may have a thing for Ireland, given that three out of my six favourite novels of 2017 have an Irish connection. They include a novel by an Irish writer (Days Without End by Sebastian Barry), a novel set in Ireland (The Good People by Hannah Kent) and a novel featuring Irish writers Samuel Beckett and James Joyce (A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker).