The year in books: what have the writers been reading in 2015?
Anne Enright’s The Green Road and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life were among this year’s most popular books with our writers, Anna Carey reports
Books of the Year 2015. Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly
Of the lamentably few new novels I read this year, the finest by far was Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy (Jonathan Cape), a darkly funny and disturbing meditation on the intricacies and insubstantiality of our technology-ridden times. McCarthy is one of the most daring, most ambitious and most subtle of what at my age I can call the younger generation of writers.
Of Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke, by Richard Bourke (Princeton University Press), it is hard to avoid the word “magisterial”. Burke is a fascinating thinker, at once a conservative and a radical, and this beautifully written, scholarly study will be the last word on him for a long time to come.
The Prince of Minor Writers: The Selected Essays of Max Beerbohm, edited and with an introduction by Philip Lopate (NYRB Classics) is a delight throughout. Beerbohm’s name is not so well known these days, but it should be. A superb stylist.
The Blue Guitar, by John Banville, is published by Viking
Edna O’Brien’s profound and haunting novel The Little Red Chairs (Faber) tells an engrossing story, while getting to grips, judiciously and dispassionately, with the enormities and exigencies of the modern world.
Colm Tóibín’s masterly study, On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton University Press), takes a subtle but robust approach to the poet’s themes, traits and practices, her tough-mindedness and reticence, and manages to strike a personal note alongside its critical illuminations and idiosyncrasies.
Goat’s Milk: New and Selected Poems, by Frank Ormsby (Bloodaxe), reminds us why we missed this poet’s wry and concise voice during the 14-year gap in his writing life; and the new poems extend and ratify his unique angle of vision.
Finally, it is good to see Mervyn Wall’s 1946 novel The Unfortunate Fursey, and its sequel, The Return of Fursey, back in print (Swan River Press). These exercises in deflected social criticism have a thing or two to say about mid-20th-century Ireland, and at the same time make a hilarious business of the Wall version of mediaeval/monastic sorcery and jiggery-pokery.
Bookworm, by Patricia Craig, is published by Somerville Press
Amid the mounting centenary tide, Frances Flanagan’s Remembering the Revolution: Dissent, Culture, and Nationalism in the Irish Free State (Oxford University Press) stands alone: a beautifully written exploration of disillusionment and self-examination among key writers and intellectuals, illuminating the mechanisms of memory and suppression.
Richard Bourke’s magisterial Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke (Princeton University Press) authoritatively restores a key figure to his proper context, and Andrew Gailey’s The Lost Imperialist: Lord Dufferin, Memory and Mythmaking in an Age of Celebrity (John Murray) brilliantly places the glamorous but forgotten Irish proconsul Lord Dufferin in a world of contemporary celebrity politics.
The Dirty Dust (Yale University Press), Alan Titley’s all-stops-out translation of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, is a joy. So is the third volume of The Letters of Samuel Beckett (Cambridge University Press), covering 1957-1965, edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck. Technically, only letters to do with his work are included, but (as the gestation of Happy Days indicates) everything in this volume shows the impossibility of separating life and art.
Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, by Roy Foster, is published by Penguin
Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton University Press), which came out in March, is a wonderfully open-hearted, patient study, using Tóibín’s own processes as a writer to shine a light into a reticent and exemplary practice. It is likely to remain a critical model for years to come.
And years are usually what an anthology has its eye on, yet most last only a moment. All the more credit to Niall MacMonagle, then, for his beautifully judged and meticulously edited Windharp: Poems of Ireland Since 1916 (Penguin). It has just the right elements of surprise and context-setting, and is poised perfectly between the canon and the tradition, with a generous inclusiveness.
Finally, The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, by Joy Williams (Knopf), an American master of the short story who is capable of a dark and perfect irony, is considered essential by many readers. Now, at last, her work is more generally available in a single volume.
A Woman Without a Country, by Eavan Boland, is published by Carcanet Press
The book I got most pleasure from in 2015 was Paul Durcan’s Days of Surprise (Harvill Secker). Durcan deals with fear, fate and foreboding with grim comic originality in wonderful displays of energy, wisdom and a zealous refusal to be dull.
I also enjoyed Anne Enright’s The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) for the dialogue, the clever narrative structure, and the gnarled, contemporary sense of family values.
Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone (Canongate) has a shining wit. Its Cornelius O’Grady is one of the most memorable characters in contemporary fiction.
The best history book I read was Gene Kerrigan’s The Scrap (Doubleday Ireland). It has always been clear that if Kerrigan applied his genius to history, then something very special would emerge. Using archival sources, his book tells the story of a group of ordinary volunteers in the 1916 Rising. It is as brilliantly paced as one of his thrillers.
On Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín, is published by Princeton
I have the privilege on my radio show, Sunday With Miriam, of interviewing lots of fine writers, so two of the books I have chosen this year were by writers I had on recently talking about their new books. First up: Anne Enright. I loved her latest novel, The Green Road (Jonathan Cape). I took it away on holidays with me this summer to Portugal and I could not put it down. Chapter two is a masterpiece.
I also interviewed Edna O’Brien recently about her new novel, The Little Red Chairs (Faber). It is an extraordinarily good book, full of O’Brien’s incredible ability to create complex characters you care about. It is wonderful also that 55 years on from her seminal novel The Country Girls, she is still writing so beautifully.
My third choice is Natasha Fennell and Róisín Ingle’s The Daughterhood (Simon and Schuster). I launched the title for them, so I have a connection to it. It is a superb, honest, and at times very moving book about mothers and daughters.
Miriam O’Callaghan presents Prime Time on RTÉ1 and Sunday With Miriam on RTÉ Radio 1
Anyone will tell you that the best book they read was the last one. The others they‘ve forgotten already. So many books, so little time, and then there’s the television and the iPad, and how is anybody supposed to keep up? I mean, the thing that’s just won the Booker Prize . . . murder, mayhem and slang from the mean streets of Kingston. Only readable if you’re a Yardie.
Still, there is Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (Doubleday), riveting, original, full of tension, but a bestseller. So there you go – not serious.
Leaping brilliantly between the 15th century and today, Into the Fire, by Manda Scott (Bantam), is an extraordinary blending of the past and present, as we follow a modern murder hunt in the city of Orléans and the campaign of France’s great heroine, Joan of Arc, who was burned there at the stake in the Hundred Years War between England and France.
Set in late 17th-century Amsterdam when Holland was a major colonial power, thanks to the all-powerful Dutch East India Company, The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton (Picador), is a compelling tale of romance and tragedy, interwoven with the fascination of the wealthy with the art of the miniaturist. Both books combine impeccable historical research with wonderful ease of storytelling.
Those Were the Days, by Terry Wogan, is published by Macmillan
I’m so sick of old white guys writing women all wrong, and Single, Carefree, Mellow, by Katherine Heiny (Fourth Estate), is the perfect antidote. This collection is really fun to read. Heiny’s characters are multifaceted and human, and her stories are shot through with insight and pathos but still made me laugh out loud.
A giant book about four college friends growing up did not appeal to me, yet a third of the way through Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Picador), I ignored my phone, I couldn’t do my work, I just had to read on and find out what would happen to Jude St Francis. Yanagihara’s depiction of suffering and the possibility, or perhaps impossibility, of overcoming it is beautifully humane and feels very truthful.
Vivid prose, spot-on dialogue and a fantastic plot swirl around a brilliantly drawn hero, a teenage artist named Sierra Santiago, to make Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper (Arthur A Levine Books) a dynamic read that captures Brooklyn as it is right now; a place in flux deciding who and what to value. Stunning.
Off You Go, by Maeve Higgins, is published by Hachette Books Ireland
Highlights of my reading year include the very beautiful On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton University Press), in which Colm Tóibín describes the impact on his own life and work of Bishop’s writings on loss, exile and the power of silence; how “the smallest word, or the holding of breath, could have a fierce, stony power”.
At a time when nature and landscape writing is more widely read than ever, Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (John Murray) offers a necessary corrective. There is indeed delight in nature here, but also desolation, as McCarthy assesses a world from which wildlife is vanishing at a terrifying rate.
As the decade of commemorations rolls on, Maurice Walsh’s Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, 1918-1923 (Faber) sets Ireland’s post-1916 history in its global and human context, to brilliant effect.
Finally, my prize for the year’s Most Surreptitious Read goes to Robin Stevens’s Wells and Wong murder mystery series. I bought First Class Murder (Corgi), the third in the series, for my nine-year-old niece, and ended by sneakily reading it myself, in a single sitting.
Neil Hegarty’s novel Inch Levels will be published by Head of Zeus in 2016
A new Anne Tyler is always a book of the year for me and A Spool of Blue Thread (Vintage) is classic Tyler, by turns funny and brutally frank in its portrayal of an averagely messy family and the degree to which accident and carelessness contribute to the formation of its history. I have always felt that one can tell Tyler, like Tóibín, is a master technician precisely because of the degree to which she keeps that technique hidden beneath what appears to be pure, unshowy narrative.
Another of my favourite narrative mistresses delivered a significant treat this year. Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance (Bloomsbury) is a naughtily subversive tour de force in which Duncker plays with the tropes of historical and romantic fiction to cock a snook at the likes of John Fowles and satirise the business of literary celebrity. It’s a funny, steamy tale of love, obsession and power games, in which the anti-heroine, and other woman, just happens to be George Eliot at the height of her narrative and commercial powers. Delicious!
Patrick Gale’s novel A Place Called Winter has been shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Novel Award
Jon Ronson’s whimsical, entertaining So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador) examines how public shaming is – and always has been – a more powerful reprimand than imprisonment or corporal punishment. It also acknowledges how public shaming has changed in the age of social media: nowadays, the court of public opinion is the one that really matters. Fascinating, thought-provoking, and more than a little scary.
In Asking for It, a brilliant novel from Irish writer Louise O’Neill (Quercus), a young woman is raped, photos of the event appear on social media and the woman – not the rapist – is pilloried. These events hint at several real-life cases, reminding us that we’re deluded to think we’ve made progress in the area of women’s rights.
After You, by Jojo Moyes (Michael Joseph), is the sequel to the tour de force of Me Before You and one of the publishing events of the year. It’s a huge challenge to write a sequel to a book that’s so universally loved, but this gorgeous, funny, sad story, which starts two years after the end of Me Before You, is just as wonderful.
The Woman Who Stole My Life, by Marian Keyes, is published by Penguin
I’m haunted by Sandy Denny’s voice. Farewell, Farewell, which she sang with Fairport Convention, evokes the late 1960s more achingly than any song I know. So I’m indebted to Mick Houghton for piecing together this gifted artist’s all-too-brief and troubled life in I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny (Faber).
Charles Baxter is a writer’s writer whose craftsmanship rivals that of anyone at work today. This year he published a collection as powerful as his celebrated novel, The Feast of Love; a series of subtly interlinked and dark stories set in Minneapolis, There’s Something I Want You to Do: Stories (Pantheon).
The most accomplished poetry collection I read this year is Paul Muldoon’s One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Faber). The Pillar alone is worth the price of the volume.
1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, by James Shapiro, is published by Faber
Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (John Murray) is, to lift a delicious Corkonian colloquialism from the novel itself, “the f**king berries”. The prose bramble twists around council estates and old Magdalene laundries, seeking the sweet heart of thorny places, while a cast of anti-heroes and not-quite-villains scramble to save themselves and struggle to love each other.
Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It (Quercus) is more than a book; it’s an event. Beautiful, bitchy Emma takes drugs and is gang-raped. Her fictional unravelling is built from the hard stuff of reality, from the bricks of Steubenville, Slane, Maryville, Listowel. It’s a difficult read, but it gave me hope: we are talking about rape now.
In Miranda July’s The First Bad Man (Canongate), Cheryl is a solitary eccentric, whose narration reveals, in ordinary tones, a bizarre interior world. Enter Clee, an unwanted house guest, whose fantasies collide with Cheryl’s own. A novel about belief and reality, about sexuality and sex, so strange you’ll double-blink, yet oddly familiar.
Girls Will Be Girls: Dressing Up, Playing Parts and Daring to Act Differently, by Emer O’Toole, is published by Orion
Much of my favourite reading this year came in the form of non-fiction. I had expected to dislike Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory (Canongate), and it was a little glib at the start, but by the end I was enthralled and moved, although I could safely have lived without knowing precisely what a trocar is, and what it does to one’s viscera.
The only time I’ve ever been truly starstruck was when I queued to have a book signed by the actor Peter O’Toole at Hodges Figgis back in 1997. Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, by Robert Sellers (Sidgwick and Jackson), occasionally falters because of Sellers’s inability to resist an amusing anecdote, but I finished it with my admiration and fondness for O’Toole undiminished.
Finally, in fiction, a round of applause to Swan River Press for its beautiful reissues of Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey and The Return of Fursey, two neglected gems of Irish comic fantasy that really should be read by all; and I’m still recovering from the experience of reading Don Winslow’s epic, gruelling, impassioned novel of the drug wars, The Cartel (William Heinemann).
A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly, is published by Hodder and Stoughton
So many of my female friends were raving about Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Child (Europa Editions) that I read all four of her Neapolitan novels in a month. I was swallowed up whole by Ferrante’s writing: the intensity of it, the unapologetic focus on every rendered nuance of a lifelong female friendship. I’ve never read anything quite like it. It is so, so good on women: the ones trapped by men and violence, and the ones who break free, with all the associated costs.
Hot Feminist, by Polly Vernon (Hodder and Stoughton), is bold, brilliant, sharp and funny, tackling big issues (rape, abortion, equal pay) in fizzing prose. Part-memoir, part-polemic, it urges women to be less judgmental, of each other and of themselves. It’s an idea that shouldn’t be revolutionary, but is.
I loved Curtain Call, by Anthony Quinn (Vintage). Ostensibly a murder mystery set in 1930s London, it is also a multiple character study of wonderful depth and wit. I cannot wait for the sequel, Freya, out in March 2016.
Paradise City, by Elizabeth Day, is published by Bloomsbury
This year has seen an abundant crop of books on the Irish revolutionary period, of varying quality. One that stands out is Brian Heffernan’s Freedom and the Fifth Commandment (Manchester University Press), which expertly chronicles the relationship between Catholic priests and violence in Ireland from 1919 to 1921. Heffernan has vividly filled a large gap in historical knowledge about how priests navigated exceptionally difficult circumstances and volatile times.
Ronan Fanning brings a stylish clarity and authority to a long and complex career in the succinct Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power (Faber).
Paul Rouse’s Sport and Ireland: A History (Oxford University Press) is a brilliantly researched survey that does justice to political, social and cultural contexts, and sets the bar high for historical writing on sport.
Belinda McKeon’s novel Tender (Picador) is an absorbing, authentic and gripping portrait of a love that becomes a destructive obsession in 1990s Dublin.
A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-23, by Diarmaid Ferriter, is published by Profile Books
The book which gave me most pleasure this year was Donegal-born poet Moya Cannon’s latest collection, Keats Lives (Carcanet). Her work is as fresh as a walk in the country – read November Snow, Primavera and Almond Blossom. She tackles the hard stuff too. Lament bows to the full weight of grief and begs to be put to music.
I learned so much from Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 (Penguin) about the generation who took part in the 1916 Rising. He puts flesh and blood on historic figureheads, such as Pearse and Plunkett, McDonagh and Clarke. More importantly, he brings the women of 1916 out of the shadows. It is fascinating to see how advanced the views of the Ryan and Gifford girls were, and how much more radical a life they envisaged for themselves than the stay-at-home role women were given in the new state.
John Banville’s Blue Guitar (Viking) was a Christmas present to myself.I couldn’t resist opening it and, halfway through, I’m not disappointed. It’s a tale of lost and stolen things, richly told.
Olivia O’Leary is a writer and broadcaster
It was a year of exciting debuts, many by women. I loved Sara Baume’s enthralling novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Tramp Press) and Lisa McInerney’s hilarious The Glorious Heresies (John Murray). Claire-Louise Bennett’s collection of short stories, Pond (Stinging Fly) was outstanding, as was Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets (Stinging Fly)
Two collections from more established names did thrilling things with the short-story form: Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking (Bloomsbury) and Donal Ryan’s A Slanting of the Sun (Doubleday Ireland).
Alastair Bruce’s masterful novel Boy on the Wire (Clerkenwell) deserved more attention that it received. Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It (Quercus) is important and beautifully written.
Ada Calhoun’s St Mark’s is Dead: the Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street (WW Norton) offers itself as the story of one New York thoroughfare, but soon becomes a blissful saunter through the countercultural history of lower Manhattan, a neighbourhood that means a lot to me.
Patti Smith’s M Train (Bloomsbury) opens in a Greenwich Village cafe. It’s a wonderful memoir, often poignant, sometimes bleakly funny. (She recounts her late husband’s idea for a cable-TV chatshow called Drunk in the Afternoon, in which guests would be offered “fine cognac from a brown paper bag”.)
My tip for 2016 is Vanessa Ronan’s forthcoming novel, The Last Days of Summer, a seriously gripping debut from a major talent.
Joseph O’Connor is professor of creative writing at the University of Limerick. His novel The Thrill of it All is nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award
The epic tome A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador), is an extraordinary book. Fifty pages in, you wonder what it’s about and whether it’s going to be worth your while staying around for another 670 pages, but while answers are slow in coming, this book pulls you into the tragic, deeply disturbing story of Jude’s life against the backdrop of the complex relationships built between four college friends.
The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) is a book you don’t put down until it is finished, dragging you right into the heart of another Irish family as only Anne Enright can.
Then there is A Whole Life (Picador), Robert Seethaler’s almost hypnotic story of its protagonist, Andreas Egger. It’s a quiet, calm and utterly absorbing book that was a huge hit in its original German.
And finally, The Long Gaze Back (New Island), Sinéad Gleeson’s anthology of short stories by Irish women writers, is a literary treat, a pick-and-mix of great writers, some of whom you’ll know, some you won’t. It is also an important book, a reminder of just how rich, and at times how uncelebrated, our female literary heritage is.
Keelin Shanley presented the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards on RTÉ TV and is a presenter on RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland
Undermajordomo Minor (Granta) is very different from Patrick deWitt’s previous book, The Sisters Brothers. That novel was a picaresque piece of cowboy noir delivered with cinematic sweep and Tarantino-esque set pieces. Undermajordomo Minor is equally cinematic and similarly picaresque, but utterly different. Told as a fairytale (with nods to Wes Anderson), it is surreal, absurdist, kinky, hilarious and very touching. A joy to read.
The Green Road, by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape), is a family saga, beginning with intense and beautifully detailed character studies that eventually lead to a set-piece Christmas reunion which is forensically observed and uncomfortably familiar. It is unsentimental, yet compassionate and deeply moving.
I read Georges Simenon for the first time this year and was utterly blown away. Penguin are currently republishing, in new translations, a series of novels by the author of the Maigret detective stories and the darker roman durs books. Titles such as The Blue Room, Cecile is Dead and Lock No 1 were all released this year.
Mark O’Halloran is an actor and writer. His Spanish-language feature film, Viva, is Ireland’s entry for the foreign-language category at this year’s Oscars and will be released in 2016
I loved Tara Flynn’s first book and her sophomore effort, Giving Out Yards: The Art of Complaint (Hachette Books Ireland), is even better. Funny, biting, and very, very true, this is a perfect stocking filler for Christmas.
I’m sure I won’t be the only person to choose Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Picador). It’s a polarising read, with some of my friends loving it and others finding it over-indulgent and in need of a good edit. It is slightly relentless in its portrayal of abuse, but I found it to be one of the most compelling books I read in 2015.
Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun (Walker Books) is targeted at young adults, but I thought it was the most beautifully written book I read in 2015, regardless of age category. It’s a moving exploration of first love, family, art and betrayal.
A couple of months after reading Sarai Walker’s Dietland (Atlantic), I still can’t decide if it’s brilliant or insane. It begins as an interesting commentary on how overweight people are viewed in our society and quickly descends into a subversive feminist-revenge fantasy.
Asking for It, by Louise O’Neill, is published by Quercus
Danielle McLaughlin’s varied, assured, impressive story collection, Dinosaurs on Other Planets (Stinging Fly), convincingly and vividly captures life’s tensions and disappointments: things said, things never said, what cannot be said. You see and hear and believe and trust this exceptionally talented writer.
On holidays, we all enjoyed Eggshells, by Caitriona Lally (Liberties Press), talked about it for days, and laughed, knowing too that it’s desperately sad. First-person narrator Vivian, a quirkily intelligent, idiosyncratic voice with a logic all her own, maps Dublin memorably and uniquely.
The finely stitched poems in Moya Cannon’s new, beautiful and moving collection, Keats Lives (Carcanet), not only open up with an elegantly quiet intelligence to say “Oh, look, look!” but these companionable, marvellous poems also colour and deepen our understanding. An enriching, wide-ranging, nourishing book.
I’ve read Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton University Press) twice, and will reread. Between those covers are two extraordinary minds. It’s a deceptively little, sharp, brilliant book, in which Tóibín’s understanding and excellent analysis are profound, up close and personal.
Niall MacMonagle’s Windharp: Poems of Ireland Since 1916 is published by Penguin Ireland
This has been a standout year for Irish writing, but it would only be proper to highlight Gavin Corbett’s Green Glowing Skull (Fourth Estate), an elegant, intense, and gleefully weird tale about an Irishman who runs off to Manhattan to become a tenor, where he’s soon hopelessly lost between myth and technology.
Rachel B Glaser’s Paulina and Fran (Granta) tracks the toxic friendship of a pair of art-school miscreants, as savagely in love with themselves as they are with each other. Glaser’s style is one of blithe irreverence, a kind of moreish sardonic drawl perfect for concealing occasional, blind-siding emotional wallops.
And I continue to devour each instalment of the continuing Saga epic by Brian K Vaughan, with Fiona Staples illustrating (Image Comics). A comic book might seem an insolent addition to this list, but Vaughan’s feel for character is astonishing, and he and Staples have built a world of depth and brutal heart in which to set their breakneck space-opera plot.
The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney, is published by John Murray
Remember a few years ago, when clever, greedy people took real money, bluffed it up into teetering stalagmites of risk that they called “securities” and then skipped out just before it all fell down? Paul Murray does, and he has written the novel about it, the one that will endure. The Mark and the Void (Hamish Hamilton) is trenchant and utterly original and wickedly funny. To read it is to fall into it.
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (Graywolf Press)is another kind of brilliant, engaged with a different kind of politics. It could be called a memoir of motherhood, but that phrase connotes something more sentimental than what Nelson delivers. She is a poet and a critic, and her book reflects both: her prose is spare and beautiful; her examination of culture is rigorous, informative and illuminating. It would make a great stocking stuffer for those interested in challenging the binary, or who want to know what “queer” is all about.
David Shafer’s novel Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is published by Penguin
A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman (Sceptre), is sweet and funny, and moved me to tears.
The Peculiar Life of the Lonely Postman, by Denis Thériault (Hesperus Press), will go down as one of the most memorable stories I’ve read this year, and not just for its clever premise. Its fable-like story is quirky, and on reaching the end you’ll want to start all over again.
Freedom’s Child, by Jax Miller (Harper Collins), brings a unique strong female voice to the crime-thriller genre. I found Freedom Oliver’s voice to be powerful and a breath of fresh air.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter (Faber), is his debut and it is a book to cherish. It has the perfect balance of being very sad and very funny, full of darkness and full of light.
The Marble Collector, by Cecelia Ahern, is published by Harper Collins
I loved Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber). After the death of their mother, two young boys and their Ted Hughes-scholar father are visited by Crow, who moves into the flat, takes the boys under his mischievous wing, and refuses to leave until he is no longer needed. Part prose, part poetry, the book is a lyrical exploration of grief and healing; exquisite passages of brilliance and beauty abound throughout.
Dorthe Nors’s story collection, Karate Chop, also blew me away. Published by Pushkin Press in an attractive back-to-back edition (the innovative novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space is on the flipside), these are some of the best five-page stories I’ve ever read.
Looking to 2016, I can’t wait for the publication of Sam Coll’s The Abode of Fancy (Lilliput Press). It’s an extraordinary 600-page novel of bravura, baroque prose, mixing myth, fable and beautifully grubby realism. Coll is the real deal, and he’s here to stay.
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, by Thomas Morris, is published by Faber
The more I read of contemporary writing, the more I am interested not in novels or essays, not in poetry, nor short stories, but works that defy easy categorisation. I read Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (Stinging Fly) and was immediately certain that this was an entirely original encounter with language. It is a book that converses with itself (for who else is there to talk to in a remote cottage in rural Ireland?). It lays the hands of its words over everything it encounters there, and, in the gaps between, creates spaces for living.
Bringing up her daughter while working low-pay jobs “at the edge of economies”, the poet Anne Boyer spent her spare time sewing Garments Against Women (Ahsahta Press), clothes that create the desire for something always held a little out of reach by the society in which she finds herself. This is an essential lyrical essay about survival as an artist and a mother in contemporary America.
Hotel, by Joanna Walsh, is published by Bloomsbury; Vertigo will be published by Tramp Press in March 2016
In fiction, I greatly enjoyed Dennis Lehane’s World Gone By (Little, Brown), the concluding part of a rattling trilogy about an Irish-American family, the Coughlins. It is very violent, but was a thrilling poolside summer read.
I’m ploughing through Jonathan Franzen’s Purity (Fourth Estate)at present, and enjoying it greatly. I know it’s fashionable to denigrate Franzen as overblown and pretentious, but I find his writing and storytelling engrossing. Colum McCann’s new work, Thirteen Ways of Looking, is next on my list to read.
Two of the most interesting and readable autobiographies came from Steve Coogan (Easily Distracted, published by Century) and Max Mosley (Formula One and Beyond, published by Simon and Schuster). Both men suffered from excessive tabloid-press intrusion, particularly at the hands of the Murdoch media, but were brave enough to confront it head-on. There is much more to both their books, entertainingly told, with their strong Irish connections important to both stories, though more so with Coogan, of course.
I read lots of sports books for work, but the standout was Tom English’s oral history of Irish rugby after the second World War, No Borders: Playing Rugby for Ireland (Arena Sport).
Today FM broadcaster Matt Cooper’s The Maximalist: The Rise and Fall of Tony O’Reilly is published by Gill and Macmillan
I’ve already raved on these pages about Anne Enright’s superb The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) so I won’t add more, except to say it’s probably an even better reading experience at this time of year.
Another fine novel about families, and the madness they bring with them, was Ann Packer’s absorbing, underrated third novel, The Children’s Crusade (Scribner).
I devoured Paulina and Fran (Granta), Rachel B Glaser’s sharp, funny take on art and friendship. I was thrilled to see Lisa McInerney’s huge talent on display in The Glorious Heresies (John Murray) and I was impressed by the sheer guts, as well as the sheer excellence, of Thomas Morris’s debut collection, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber).
In non-fiction, I greatly admired Visions and Revisions, by Dale Peck (Soho), and Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Text); powerful, unsettling narratives both.
Meanwhile, The Folded Clock (Doubleday), Heidi Julavits’s memoir of diary-keeping, is the kind of book I’ve always wanted to read.
Tender, by Belinda McKeon, is published by Picador. She edited A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance, published by Tramp Press