What to buy with your book voucher: May we recommend...
Olivia O’Leary, Anne Enright, Roy Foster, Ardal O’Hanlon, Roddy Doyle and others choose their favourite fiction and non-fiction titles of the past year
Best books of 2016: Dennis Potter, Emily Dickinson, Bruce Springsteen, Tsar Nicholas II and his daughters, and Elizabeth Strout. Photographs: BBC, Amherst College via NYT, Sony Music, Heritage/Getty, Todd Heisler/NYT
In The Return Hisham Matar describes his search for the truth about the disappearance of his father from one of Gadafy’s prisons in Libya. This is a story full of anguish, told with clarity and pride. Matar has what might be called a noble style, and this is a terrible and lovely book. Each poem in Paula Meehan’s new collection, Geomantic, is perfectly pitched and weighed. It is a book to be savoured. Everything in it feels familiar and new. She is working at the height of her powers. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a philosophical memoir about love, gender and children. I knew there was a postqueer theorist out there who could describe how a straight Irish married lady like I felt, all along, about the whole business of living in one kind of body, or another (mostly indifferent, sometimes enthralled). Nelson’s voice spoke so clearly to me, it was as though she was in the room.
Anne Enright is the Laureate of Irish Fiction
It is surely a reproach to generations of Irish historians and legal scholars that we had to wait until this year for Ruadháin Mac Cormaic’s The Supreme Court, the first serious examination of one of the most significant yet impenetrable institutions in the country. Mac Cormaic exploits what primary and secondary sources are available but adds the insights gleaned from hundreds of interviews to present a compelling account that lives up to the publisher’s claim: “The judges, the decisions, the rifts and the rivalries that have shaped Ireland”. Brendan Rooney’s lavishly illustrated Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art is the National Gallery of Ireland’s response to the Decade of Centenaries. Wisely it has chosen to span 1,500 years of Irish history as painted by artists working from the 17th to the 20th century. Finally, I have been reading Documents on Irish Foreign Policy: Volume X. Impeccably edited, it includes as many as 557 original documents in its 800 pages, and although it covers what one might think would be the dull period of 1951 to 1957 the texts are laced with the sort of details that constantly surprise and inform the reader. Of special interest in this volume is Conor Cruise O’Brien during his period as an ardent anti-Partitionist and the astute insights of our ambassador to Britain, FH Boland.
John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. His latest book is Ireland: The Autobiography
I’ve had hauntings on my mind. Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is a richly satisfying biography: capacious, incisive, and full of surprising insights into the legacy of this “Virginia Werewolf among the séance-fiction writers” (as a short-sighted midcentury writer once dubbed her). It even includes the late author’s never-before-published cartoons. Charlotte Gordon’s latest deep-dive is a wholly original dual biography. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley investigates the singular phenomenon of maternal haunting: the life-size influence that the mother of feminism had on the daughter she never met (herself the mother of Frankenstein). Finally, Katie Roiphe’s brilliant and lyrical The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End explores the many ways in which the likes of Maurice Sendak, Susan Sontag and Dylan Thomas were haunted by their own inevitable and too-soon exits.
Kate Bolick is the author of the New York Times bestseller Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own
Thrilled to learn that, thanks to my paternal grandfather’s being born in Newry, I and my siblings are eligible for Irish citizenship, I am reacquainting myself with my identity by reading The Princeton History of Modern Ireland, edited by Richard Bourke and Ian McBride. I’m loving it. Equally, earlier this year I found particularly illuminating James Barr’s A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East. My knowledge of the Sykes-Picot agreement was always pretty vague, and this book is helping me hugely to understand the tragedy being played out in Syria, Iraq and beyond. Kim Zetter, who writes for Wired magazine in the US, is one of the top journalists working on cybersecurity issues. Her book Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon is very engaging but also incredibly important in separating myth from truth in one of the pivotal incidents in cybersecurity over the past few years. And finally, given that we can no longer separate reality from fantasy, I can recommend Five on Brexit Island, one of the Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups series, by Bruno Vincent. I’m still trying to work out whether this entertaining work is fact or fiction.
Misha Glenny’s latest work is Nemesis: The Hunt for Brazil’s Most Wanted Criminal
One of the most overlooked treasures of 2016 is Yelena Moskovitch’s The Natashas, a dark contemporary fable about sex and gender, all the more disturbing because it’s so playful. In poetry I’ve been excited to discover Sam Riviere’s micropress If A Leaf Falls, which is approaching its first birthday. Each tiny chapbook, produced in strictly limited edition, features a contemporary poet playing with found material. My favourite minititle so far is Amy Key’s surprisingly sexy History, which charts all the Uber rides she took for a year. After judging the Goldsmiths Prize I’d like to mention two titles I thoroughly enjoyed that didn’t quite make the shortlist: Adam Biles’s riotous Feeding Time and Martin MacInnes’s sublimely tricksy Infinite Ground. What would I like in 2017? To see Lina Wolff’s new novel, The Polyglot Lovers (the story of a student and an obese, Houellebecq-obsessed critic), translated into English.
Joanna Walsh is the author of Hotel, Vertigo and Grow a Pair
This year I discovered (belatedly) the writings of Charles Baxter, whose short story collection There’s Something I Want You to Do is set in an ostensibly spacious, ordered Minneapolis. Requests are made in each of these 10 connected stories, choices are forced, destinies set: “We have these obligations to our human ruins,” says one of Baxter’s characters, in a book shining with empathy and insight. Three absorbing, beautifully produced titles: AS Byatt’s Peacock and Vine, which opens a window on to the glowing, complex worlds of William Morris and the Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny; Kirsty Gunn’s My Katherine Mansfield Project, a genre-bending exploration of identity, memory and place; and John Banville’s arresting, evocative Dublin memoir Time Pieces. I admired Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist, set in Vienna as Anschluss and war loom; and Conor O’Callaghan’s Gothic-tinged and chilling Nothing on Earth. I love Jane Austen’s writing, and I’ve never thought of her as a creator of reactionary novels, so I found Helena Kelly’s The Secret Radical perplexing. Austen’s heady, radical intent should be plain for all to read.
Neil Hegarty’s novel Inch Levels is published by Head of Zeus
The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966-1989, edited by George Craig and others, and Edwin Curley’s translation of The Collected Works of Spinoza, Volume II, were astonishing works of scholarship. I am in awe of them. As for memoirs, my favourites: Charles Foster’s Being a Beast and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. Short stories, magnificent: Diane Williams’s Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine and Thomas Morris’s We Don’t Know What We’re Doing. Poetry, the most strange: Denise Riley’s Say Something Back. Novels, troubling and fine: David Grossman’s A Horse Walks i nto a Bar and Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones. Edward Dusinberre’s Beethoven for a Later Age made me wish I played in a string quartet. And William Empson’s The Face of the Buddha made me wish – not for the first time, but perhaps for the last – that I was William Empson. But my book of the year is a cookbook. A great cookbook is a friend for life. The publication of Regula Ysewijn’s Pride and Pudding: The History of British Puddings Savoury and Sweet marks the beginning of what I know will be a long and very happy relationship.
Ian Sansom is an author and director of the Oscar Wilde Centre at Trinity College Dublin
My two choices of books are both by women, chroniclers and dissenters of their time. Both are separated by cultures and genres. Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in 2015 as a nonfiction writer. This year Random House brought out Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets, a searing, unswerving account of lives touched by the Soviet collapse. As an oral history it is powerful and memorable. Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems came out in the middle of the year, published by WW Norton. The book is a fascinating document of shifts in style, swerves in perspective that never, for all that, touch or compromise the integrity of an essential poet. Volumes such as Diving into the Wreck read with all the freshness they showed in 1975.
Eavan Boland: A Poet’s Dublin was published last month by WW Norton
The best book I read all year was Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia. The title translates literally as “Fragments”; the book is a collection of her essays and interviews. Ferrante, the author of the Neapolitan quartet of novels, has insisted on anonymity throughout her career. Reading these snippets of thought and discussion gives an enlightening insight into the thought processes that lie behind her writing. She has a brilliant mind and a visceral turn of phrase that gets straight to the heart of everything. I found myself startled by new ideas, challenged by old ones and invigorated by Ferrante’s devotion to creating a new voice in fiction that, neither male nor female, stands simply on its own merits. It was cruel and unnecessary for an Italian journalist to unmask her shortly before Frantumaglia’s publication. I can only hope it doesn’t stop her writing more. It would be such a loss to the world.
Elizabeth Day’s latest novel is Paradise City
“Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is in the frame,” said GK Chesterton. I have always been interested in frames: the frames our bodies are for us; the frames we build around our lives. As for paintings, some keep their statement within a frame whereas others overflow the frame, indicating that there’s much more going on outside it. Poets understand all about frames because they are either using the frame of form or else escaping from it. That’s why Vona Groarke’s Four Sides Full is such an intriguing read. Part autobiography, part essay, it explores life and art in the way that only a poet can. A new edition of Maeve Brennan’s short stories The Springs of Affection was issued this year. I hadn’t read them before and realised after a few days that I was carrying around in my head the Ranelagh home she describes so well, right down to the linoleum and the coal bucket. Disappointment and resentment hang around the marriages she describes – just like the smog that was part of a Dublin winter. There was no getting away from it.
Olivia O’Leary is a journalist and broadcaster
I am reading nonfiction and poetry. The year began in February with Spain. Paul Preston’s The Last D ays of the Spanish Republic, a tale of how a negotiated peace was lost and the ensuing slaughter. Then in May the astonishing providence of Paul Muldoon’s Rising to the Rising. Two poems stake out the territory. In 1916: The Eoghan Rua Variations, on Easter Monday a meadow pipit building its nest in history filches a thread from the volunteers. In the second poem, July 1st, 1916: With the Ulster Division, in the trenches named Royal Avenue and Sandy Row, the amorous Giselle lends a hand. In November a brilliant collection of essays by Irish writers, Beyond the Centre, edited by Declan Meade: from Evelyn Conlon at home with Bosian refugees – “There’s a party going on all the time and it’s called Memory” – to Belinda McKeon’s The Visitor, after Maeve Brennan. McKeon composed a New York diary, around the body and consciousness, that reveals the true price one pays for a line of language.
Anne Devlin is a playwright and short-story writer. She recently contributed to The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, edited by Sinéad Gleeson
The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England since 1918 by DJ Taylor. It is encyclopaedic and chastening, and no literary Hibernian could fail to find it instructive. This Is the Ritual by Rob Doyle is a collection of stories. The work is wholly original, invigorating and savage. It also contains the wittiest deconstruction of Bloomsday and our relationship to James Joyce and Ulysses that I’ve read. Memory and Desire: Stories by Val Mulkerns is another collection of stories. Its contents have been produced by the writer over a long life of literary activity. They are scrupulous, quiet, unpretentious. In this mad world we need more literature in this register. Outer Space: Selected Poems by Cathal McCabe. These poems are clear, unshowy, sharp and funny – and they are actually about something other than the poet and the poet’s preoccupations. They are about the world. All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan does what novels ought. It shows us people we would rather not know and by so doing helps us to be slightly kinder. The prose is also exquisite. Finally, Beatlebone by Kevin Barry. Published 2015 but only read by me in 2016. Brilliant.
Carlo Gébler teaches creative writing at the Oscar Wilde Centre at Trinity College Dublin. He is a writer
Having already declared for Mike McCormack in this very newspaper, I’ll simply repeat my contention that Solar Bones is a work of some genius by one of our finest writers. I’ve just started The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams, and only a few stories in I’m content enough to include it here. Praise from James Salter and Raymond Carver can only confirm my deep suspicion that here lies greatness. Born t o Run by Bruce Springsteen, a powerful autobiography from the Boss, is a fascinating account of someone following a road carved out by talent and self-belief. It’s at its best when he takes a hard look at his own character, flaws and all – the author delivers a brave account of his struggles with depression. Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid Book VI is everything you would expect – but with the added sad pleasure of it feeling like an unexpected gift. Aeneas journeys to the underworld to meet the shade of his father, one of the most moving of those great mythical tales that Heaney says “ease you towards the end, towards a destination and a transition”. Finally, a short novel picked up simply because it was short: Moonstone by Sjón was first published in Iceland three years ago and is the story of a misfit in Reykjavik in 1918. A perfect gem of a book.
From Out of the City by John Kelly is published by Dalkey Archive Press
Ferenji is the debut short-story collection from Helena Mulkerns, a former press officer with the United Nations. The stories concern both aid workers’ and locals’ experiences and are humane and graphic. Beautifully written and topical, this book is a heartbreaking look at the realities of postwar lives. Scary Old Sex by Arlene Heyman is a bold, hilarious and intelligent debut collection of stories featuring the peaks and troughs in the (sex) lives of older characters, mostly in New York. Expect illness, decay and belly laughs but also to be moved. Heyman is upfront – no body part or function is shied from – and her characters are richly internal. For anyone who has ever worked in the claustrophobic world of restaurants, Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter is a must-read. Tess, a sensitive junior waiter in a top New York restaurant, struggles to fit in with an eccentric crowd. It’s all here: the passion for food, the politics and the sex, drugs and warped personalities.
Nuala O’Connor’s latest novel, Miss Emily, is longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2017
In the centenary year, the inimitable Paul Muldoon’s Rising to the Rising tackles decisions and revisions, emblems and ideas, areas of integrity or disintegration, with the author’s customary aplomb. The pungent centrepiece, The Eoghan Rua Variations, with its epigraph from Ó Súilleabháin, draws together its images and allusions as miraculously as the meadow pipit’s nest specified in one verse, fashioned, among other things, from “strands of linen spun by Henry Joy”. Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, set in an Irish townland after the Famine, is an account of an apparent “miracle”: a young girl subsisting for more than two months on nothing but piety and plain air. A stark and compelling story, beautifully told. Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, which makes a mockery of mortality, has resisted translation for a good many years. Now, however, not one but two exhilarating English versions have appeared, Alan Titley’s The Dirty Dust and Liam Mac An Iomaire and Tim Robinson’s Graveyard Clay, both from Yale.
Patricia Craig’s most recent book is Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading
Adrian Frazier wittily and subversively reconstructs Maud Gonne’s life in France and Ireland up to 1916 in The Adulterous Muse: Maud Gonne, Lucien Millevoye and WB Yeats. Frazier’s Jamesian insights and impressive research skills illuminate a heroine who comes across as magnetic, self-deluding and frequently appalling. Rory Stewart’s beguiling The Marches: Border Walks with My Father explores the “debatable lands” on the Scots-English border, through walks and conversations with his nonagenarian father, ex-spymaster, soldier and author of books with titles such as You Know More Chinese Than You Think. Vexed questions of Scottish identity, imperial adventurism and the atmosphere of Britain when the Roman legions left are thrashed out, with sidelights from the author’s own experiences of walking across Afghanistan and administering bits of Iraq. City of Lions combines two penetrating essays on the (now) Ukrainian city of Lviv, previously Lvov, Lwow and Lemburg, by Josef Wittlin and Philippe Sands. A characteristically incisive introduction by Eva Hoffman completes an elegiac microhistory of this tangled part of Europe, and of what people do to each other in the cause of national identity.
Roy Foster is emeritus professor of Irish history at Oxford. His most recent book is Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923
Ruadhán MacCormaic’s The Supreme Court skilfully uncovers a complex institution, its workings, history and the individuals who sat there. His analysis is mature, balanced and adroit and underpinned by excellent research; he creates the intimacy necessary but never loses sight of the wider context. Inevitably there was an abundance of 1916- and Irish revolution-related books this year; one that stands out is Terry Moylan’s The Indignant Muse: Poetry and Songs of the Irish Revolution, 1887-1926, which, over 700 pages, surpasses in scale and variety anything that has been attempted in this field to date. The poems and songs document the importance of the oral and musical traditions; Moylan highlights the original creations but also the degree to which ballads and verse were adapted, subverted and updated.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s most recent book is A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923
This was a bumper year for books. Asking me to pick my “best of” is a bit like asking a mother to choose her favourite child. But here goes. Holding, by Graham Norton – beautifully written, twisty, turny and based on his telly persona – is 100 per cent not the kind of book I’d have expected Graham Norton to write. The Girl from the Savoy by Hazel Gaynor is a great read for anyone who needs something to fill that period-drama gap on a Sunday night, ever since Downton Abbey finished. Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent is a proper psychological thriller that will have you on edge till the very last page. You’ll also drive past big old houses, shiver, then wonder what’s going on behind closed doors. I’m a fan of the rebooted Enid Blytons for grown-ups: Five Give u p t he Booze was a particular joy. Five on Brexit Island by Bruno Vincent was the one thing that actually made me smile after the UK referendum.
Claudia Carroll is an actor and author. Her latest novel is All She Ever Wished For
Silly Lady Novelists? by Michèle Roberts investigates the debate around sex and literature, gender and sexual identity. Taking for its starting point George Eliot’s original 1856 article of the same name, it sweeps wittily through the history of women’s writing. It is very funny, especially in its analysis of “the porno-romance, Fifty Shades of Beige”. Have things changed for women? Yes and no: “the sexual double standard has not been magicked away”. It’s an enormous, punchy argument condensed into 50 pages as only a poet knows how. Playing the Octopus by Mary O’Malley is a fine selection of poems that grows every time I return to it, like the trees in the second part whose eerie anthropomorphism is reflected in her haunting translations of Seán Ó Ríordáin and Lorca. Nicholas Murray unleashed his inner poet for his greatest nonfiction book, Crossings. An examination of borders of all kinds – cultural, political, linguistic – it is particularly poignant when he approaches liminal borders such as old age. A final mention for two outstanding books: Tongulish by Rita Ann Higgins and Children of Las Vegas by Timothy O’Grady, with photographs by Steve Pyke.
The Windows of Graceland by Martina Evans is published by Carcanet
Kerrie O’Brien’s gorgeous poems in Illuminate are full of light and colour but also of powerful silences. The pieces engaging with painters have a sort of touching delicacy in the face of grandeur. I adored this book. It’s like carrying Paris around in your pocket. Mary O’Malley’s Playing the Octopus has everything we go to this wonderful poet for: truthfulness, seriousness, playfulness, then a sense of hesitating and hard-won wisdom, the bliss of her musicality. I spent time in New York this year, teaching on our UL McCourt Creative Writing Summer School at NYU. One of the loveliest things about teaching is that you learn so much. A student, Rachael Kealy, recommended Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, Sweetbitter, set in and around my favourite New York restaurant. The storytelling is grand, but the writing about food is breathtaking, as is the exquisiteness of the evocation of downtown Manhattan. Oisín Fagan’s Hostages is a book I’ll never forget. Think Flann O’Brien on rocket fuel. It’s funny, disconcerting, weird, shocking, a jaw-dropping flashmob of brilliantly written characters dressed as a full-scale riot. And EM Reapy’s debut novel, Red Dirt, blew me away. What a magnificent writer she is.
Joseph O’Connor is McCourt professor of creative writing at the University of Limerick
A bad year by almost any other standard, 2016 was a good year for books, poetry books in particular. These are a few that will last me long into the year, and years to come: Ocean Vuong’s intensely poignant Night Sky with Exit Wounds; Vahni Capildeo’s timely, wrenching and apt but unusual Measures of Expatriation; Solmaz Sharif’s fiery, strident Look; Max Ritvo’s heartbreaking but heartening Four Reincarnations; and Timothy Yu’s furiously wry 100 Chinese Silences – each so impressively absorbing and resonant that they resist characterisations such as those I’ve given, as the best books must. Cristanne Miller’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them is surely the best poetry book of all this past year. Who’d have expected such a surprising, new and fruitful way to read the great poet? And the final volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters turns out to be the best one yet. A welcome reissue of Pieces of Soap: Essays by Stanley Elkin may lighten the end-of-year darkness – somewhat. For sheer pleasure, though, I’ve read and will reread delightful, accomplished books by two Ians: Ian Duhig’s The Blind Roadmaker and Ian McMillan’s To Fold the Evening Star.
Don Share is editor of Poetry magazine, in Chicago
Anakana Schofield’s Martin John, about the inner lives of a sexual predator, at large on the London Underground, and his mother is funny, threatening and mesmerising. “They always responded. That was the point in taking it out. It was guaranteed, where words could fail you.” Cynan Jones’s Cove, about a young man and the sea, is less than 100 pages long but carries more weight than most novels I read this year. It’s both exciting and intense, and written with a care for each word that I suppose is more manageable when there aren’t that many of them. Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years, written in 1934, has just been translated into English by Phillip Ó Ceallaigh. It’s the best book I read all year, a fluid diaristic account of life in anti-Semitic Romania in the 1920s and 30s. It’s oddly prescient in other ways too: “The abundance of beards in periods of social unrest, times of revolt or upheaval, should be noted. It’s the handiest way people have of making themselves mysterious.”
John Self is a book reviewer. He lives in Belfast
A list such as this has been made in haste and is liable to imminent change. Anyway, for what it’s worth, among the novels I enjoyed most in 2016 were the strange and beautiful Beatlebone by Kevin Barry, a brilliantly sustained comedy by Ireland’s greatest living anthropologist; another unfettered tragicomic mindfeck, A Fraction of the Whole, by the Aussie writer Steve Toltz; and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which is just great: elegant, wise and illuminating about a war, a country and possibly a whole continent that have been hitherto misunderstood. Mind you, the novel I relished most was probably Cakes and Ale by William Somerset Maugham, which was part of the set dressing on a drama I was shooting during the summer. As for nonfiction, I found Sport and Ireland: A History by Paul Rouse, a book I leaned on in researching a More4 documentary, to be both fascinating and invaluable.
Ardal O’Hanlon is a comedian, actor and writer
It makes sense that in a dark year I was floored by a dark novel: Han Kang’s beautiful and brutal Human Acts, about the lives of those swept up in or affected by the Gwangju student demonstrations of 1980. It is a fearless examination of the state of humanity, and the diagnosis isn’t good. This is the pitiless kind of novel that burrows into its reader. Also dazzling, but for very different reasons, is the playful but profound Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra. It’s one to be experienced rather than read, a tricksy, pointed poetry crossover. And then there’s Winter Papers 2, that beautiful arts annual (in which I have to admit I have an essay). It’s as wild and wonderful as it was in 2015, but this year it has the advantage of including heart-stopping poems by Martin Dyer and Doireann Ní Ghríofa, among other utter delights.
Lisa McInerney’s debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, won the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliott Prize
One of my favourite books this year was Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. I loved its humour and savagery as one poignant young fellow struggles to find his feet in Cork’s underworld. Mike McCormack’s magnificent Solar Bones involves a dead man who returns on All Souls’ Day and provides a highly original account of the Irish recession. I was gripped by Sarah Perry’s imaginative clash between science and superstition in The Essex Serpent and found it inexplicable that the book didn’t make the Booker longlist. Also impressive were New York Review Books’ reissue of Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert, set in war-weary Paris, and Peter Cunningham’s The Trout. Poetry has to soak, so I’m rotating four assured and brilliant collections: Jean O’Brien’s Fish on a Bicycle; Peter Sirr’s Sway, poems from the troubadour tradition; Patrick Chapman’s compelling Slow Clocks of Decay; and Adam Wyeth’s The Art of Dying .
Mary O’Donnell’s most recent novel is Where They Lie
Katherine A Powers
I took great, if depraved, pleasure in The Romanovs, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s fast-paced and deeply informed biography of a family of despots, dwarf-tossers and loonies. I also thoroughly enjoyed Candace Millard’s Hero of the Empire, a brisk, suspenseful account of Winston Churchill’s adventures during the Boer War – of his courage, recklessness, astounding vanity and peerless gift for self-promotion. Two of my favourite books of 2016 may never make it across the Atlantic, as both concern themselves with American Indians: Joe Jackson’s Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary and Paulette Jiles’s News of the World. On the other hand, American Indians abound, though in diminishing numbers, in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, a splendid novel of eight generations of two families, linked in blood, ill feeling and the despoliation of the great forests of North America.
Katherine A Powers reviews books widely and is the editor of Suitable Accommodations – An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of JF Powers, 1942-1963
The most impressive and the most enjoyably stylish book I read this year was Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. Lilla is a superb commentator on politics and society, and in this study, which could not be more apposite to the Age of Trumpery, he collects essays on such figures as Leo Strauss, the guru of the neocons, and various other old- and new-right zealots. “Reactionaries are not conservatives,” he notes, a thing many liberals forget or ignore. A wise and cautionary volume. And if you think today’s politics weird, try A Very English Scandal, by John Preston, the story of the irresistible rise and calamitous fall of Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberal Party in Britain in the 1970s. Thorpe was a deeply strange creature – he commissioned the attempted murder of a troublesome former male lover – and Preston has written a racy account of him, and of one of the more bizarre episodes in modern British politics. In fiction, I greatly admired Conor O’Callaghan’s Nothing on Earth, as fine as it is frightening.
John Banville’s latest book is Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir
My favourite novel this year was My Name I s Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. It’s what Strout does with the language: in creating Lucy she seems have to created a new form of English. Lucy is terrific enough – and then we meet her mother! Sebastian Barry also does great things with the grammar. In Days w ithout End he cracks it and bends it and delivers a vivid, shocking, unpredictable story and a wonderful narrator, Thomas McNulty, who drags us back and forth across mid-19th century America. Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth: A Novel is a sprawling, but very precise, depiction of two families exploding and coming together, exploding and coming together. It’s hugely entertaining and an unsettling joy to read. The author of my favourite nonfiction book, Paul Kalanithi, was a neurosurgeon who discovered he had inoperable lung cancer; the doctor became the patient. He died, at 36, the father of a new baby, while he was writing When Breath Becomes Air. It sounds heartbreaking, and it is – but it isn’t. The writing is so good, the man is so wise, it’s actually exhilarating.
Roddy Doyle’s latest adult novel is The Guts
Shakespeare’s Binding Language by John Kerrigan was magnificent. It made all the familiar plays glow with a new strangeness, as the critic located them in the context of law, contract and agreement as understood in the age of Elizabeth and James. The commentaries are sardonic, wry and muscular – full of intellectual audacity and of practical wisdom. A bit like the writings of the Bard himself. I read Small Town Gossip by Barney Hoskyns while Bob Dylan was agonising about whether to recognise his Nobel Prize in Literature. This account of how Dylan, The Band and many others lived for a time in Woodstock became in effect a biography of their manager Albert Grossman. It portrayed him as a man who discovered American greats and then went on alternately to pamper and exploit them, feeding them with health food when he wasn’t fixing a drug for them. The idealism and cynicism of all parties are marvellously rendered. Best novel was Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day. Cricket never fails to bring out the best in novelists – remember Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland – and this is a fine study of the very different fates of two Indian boys blessed with supreme talent. Everything (the dialogue, psychological analysis, social portrayal) is done in a wonderful, pacy narrative style. The fourth volume of The Letters of Samuel Beckett had much less of interest than the earlier ones, which captured better his struggle to become and remain an artist, despite a constant media blitz.
Declan Kiberd’s After Ireland, a study of writing from Beckett to the present, is due to be published by Head of Zeus next year
It was wonderful to see a new edition of The Springs of Affection, Maeve Brennan’s magnificent Dublin stories, published this year by the Stinging Fly Press, with an introduction by Anne Enright. Staying with short stories, I was captivated by Roisín O’Donnell’s vibrant writing in Wild Quiet, her inventive and diverse debut collection. My Name I s Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is structured around five days when the narrator’s mother, whom she hasn’t seen in years, visits her in hospital. Strout’s portrayal of their relationship is unsentimental, unsparing and hugely compassionate. Another standout was Anakana Schofield’s superb Martin John, where the form of the novel, with its loops, circuits and refrains, mirrors the disturbed mind and compulsions of its sex-offender protagonist. Schofield does dark humour brilliantly. Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty vividly evokes the wild beauty of the coastal landscape around Lough Swilly and reeled me in with its gradual revelation of family secrets. Also on that coast, I loved Treacherous Strand by Andrea Carter, her second crime novel set on the Inishowen peninsula.
Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin is published by the Stinging Fly Press
One of the most interesting, thought-provoking books of the year was Geoff Dyer’s White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World. He is quite open about leaping between fact and fiction, and his fluid, jazz-riffing prose and frequently hilarious self-deprecation are addictive. I can’t think of another writer who could so easily persuade me to spend several hours immersed in the misery of his trip to Polynesia, the misery of his trip to Norway, the disappointment of his trip to the Spiral Jetty or his pilgrimage to a house in Los Angeles where the intellectual man badge Theodore Adorno once lived. Particularly wonderful is his essay about visiting The Lightning Field. It’s rare to experience your approach to art being changed by a book about approaching art, but White Sands does just that, and I love Geoff Dyer for it.
Eimear McBride’s latest novel is The Lesser Bohemians
In The Art of Invective: Selected Non -Fiction 1953-94 Dennis Potter, son of a miner, father of innovative TV, takes the chip from his shoulder, dips it in the blood of his own brilliant bloody-mindedness, and writes devastatingly on his journey to the heart of the British class system. Through interviews, reviews, essays and autobigraphical pieces, this is by turns wise, human, clever and sharp. Invective has never been so enjoyable. Bardo or N ot Bardo by Antoine Volodine is unique, beautifully playful, often hilarious and ultimately serious in its intent and impressive achievement. Paul Howard’s Game of Throw -Ins hides a heart of darkness beneath the layers of craic and great gags and great storytelling and human warmth. Ross O’Carroll-Kelly is Ireland! I’m enjoying the crazily imaginative novels of two Irish writers, Gavin Corbett and Sam Coll, the former with Green Glowing Skull and the latter with The Abode of Fancy, which reads like The Unfortunate Fursey written by Flann O’Brien. Finally a book I got as a present last Christmas that I’m only reading now: A Manual f or Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin – great, odd characters breathed effortlessly into life in this excellent collection of short stories.
Kevin Gildea is a comedian, writer and reader
I always make a special effort to read new Irish books – a point of politics rather than parochialism. What have my countrymen and -women to say about the world we have come from, the world we are living in, the world yet to come? Mia Gallagher’s remarkable Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland offers a flavour of past and potential lives. The story, which ostensibly centres on a transgendered film editor, takes the form of a montage, splicing together narratives from different periods to create a complex story about the binaries and doubleness of identity. Sebastian Barry’s Days w ithout End positions a similarly complex coming-of-age tale against a historic backdrop, charting the adventures of Thomas (Thomasina) McNulty as he embarks on a new life on the great American frontier. McNulty invokes the Native American idea of berdache (the “two-spirit”) to explain his shifting sexual and gender identity. The juxtaposition of Barry’s sensuous description and the violence of the war showcases the writer at his best. Mary Morrissy’s Prosperity Drive has no dramatic storyline. Its stories follow the residents of a suburban street over decades, with the drama in the everyday. It is masterful storytelling: moving without being sentimental, poetic without being pretentious, and emotionally resonant in its minute dissection of ordinary life.
Sara Keating is a critic
Animals have long been recurrent themes – and characters – in fiction for younger readers, and a couple of excellent novels this year continued the tradition. Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder is a beautiful story of a girl, wolves and pre-revolutionary Russia, while MG Leonard’s thoroughly engaging and imaginative Beetle Boy takes the fantastical approach to what could have been a familiar mystery of a missing dad. Elsewhere, I found Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones a fine novel, whose quirk – an interior monologue comprising a single sentence – should in no way suggest inaccessibility. Instead it sweeps along on the strength of great writing and emotional depth. On the sci-fi front, I discovered Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life and Others thanks to Arrival, the film adaptation of the title story. The stories are profound, gripping and mind widening – and deliver exactly what every reader yearns for: a surprise. On the nonfiction front, James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History was a great cultural, scientific and literary history of a topic I’m endlessly fascinated by.
Shane Hegarty is the author of the Darkmouth series
My literary fiction highlights were sans doubt Eimear McBride's The Lesser Bohemians and Thalia Field's Experimental Animals. Both books are extraordinary and ambitious works that poke and provoke theatrical form and in Field's case includes a Walter Benjamin-esque collage of historical French literary artefacts. The Lesser Bohemians finally amends much of the crap and cauterized sex women have been permitted in Irish fiction. McBride takes a needed hammer to language, rids us of the festishisation of landscape and alters what that stale canvas can comprise. For my Christmas reading: I am going to bed with Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc The Image of Female Heroism along with The Glass Shore anthology.
Anakana Schofield is the author of Malarky and Martin John