BOOKS OF THE YEAR
A round-up of the year’s best literary releases.
Tempers flared, late night debates reigned and unruly scenes threatened to break out in the Hot Press literary salon – but we’ve finally settled on our choices for the best books of the year.
IRISH FICTION 1. THE BLOOD MIRACLES Lisa McInerney (John Murray Publishers)
As Lisa McInerney has alluded to in interviews, her mother might still be unimpressed by her career choice as a writer, but Irish readers and critics alike have taken a shine to this sometime short story writer and occasional “sweary lady”.
The Blood Miracles is McInerney’s follow up to her critically acclaimed debut, The Glorious Heresies, and is just as quick to grip the reader with its compelling prose. Telling the story of 20-year-old “businessman” Ryan Cusack, The Blood Miracles features a world of chaotic criminal enterprises, business deals gone sour and colossal fuck-ups, with the story moving at such speed that you’ll be 100 pages in before you take a second to look up.
Indeed, you’ll find yourself utterly invested in the central characters – and needing to know if they’ll navigate a way out of the mess they’ve made for themselves. A fantastic read and the second major triumph for Lisa McInerney.
2. THE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES John Boyne
Boyne’s superb latest effort looks at the story of Ireland from the ’40s to the present day through the eyes of Cyril Avery, who was born out of wedlock to a teenage girl cast out from her rural community. Growing up with adoptive parents in Dublin, he is adrift in the world and has only his glamorous friend Julian Woodbead to look to for guidance. As Cyril comes to understand himself and his country over the course of a lifetime, The Heart’s Invisible Furies proves to be powerful story of hope and redemption.
3. SKINTOWN Ciaran McMenamin (Doubleday)
Ciarán McMenamin’s debut novel Skintown is a hypnotic, alcohol-soaked, adrenaline-fuelled rush of a book. It is the 1990s and we are in Northern Ireland. In a fit of drunken chivalry, 18-yearold lapsed Catholic boy, Vincent Patrick Duffy, gets into a car with two Protestant heavies, Grant and Kyle, who have promised to drop a young woman home. The atmosphere in the vehicle quickly becomes menacing, although an accident makes unlikely comrades of the three.
When the lads offer Vinny the chance to earn £500 slinging ecstasy, he sees it as a way out of the confines of his small town. McMenamin’s language is colourful, inventive, and at times wonderfully vulgar and funny. He courses through issues like sectarian violence, unemployment, alcoholism and disaffection, and most importantly, the loved-up, pillpopping early rave scene. McMenamin is a gifted storyteller and Skintown is an impressive debut.
4. HOUSE OF NAMES Colm Toibin (Scribner)
Colm Toibin went properly mainstream with his period novel Brooklyn, but House Of Names sees the acclaimed Irish author delving even further into the past (as he did with his novella The Testament Of Mary). This time his quarry is ancient myth, and the Greek theatrical cycle of death and vengeance that culminated in the violent, vengeful and lustful crimes of Clytemnestra. In House Of Names, Toibin brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. He brilliantly inhabits the mind of one of Greek myth’s most powerful villains to reveal the love, lust and pain she feels.
5. CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber)
Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations With Friends is ironically titled. Frances and Bobbi are 21-year-old performance poets, as well as being best friends and former lovers. After a reading, they meet Melissa, a successful photographer and essayist. While Bobbi becomes entranced with Melissa, Frances embarks on an affair with her handsome actor husband Nick. These are Dublin’s elite – articulate, talented, and highly educated, but most importantly, largely privileged and blind to that fact.
Nick styles himself as a Marxist, but lives off family wealth; Frances calls herself a Communist, but is enchanted with Nick and Melissa’s Monkstown home. The book is not so much about conversations, but omissions, half-truths and the difficulty of communicating honestly and being vulnerable. In much the same way, the friendships are fraught with a good deal of unspoken anger. This is a very emotionally literate and perceptive debut.
INTERNATIONAL 1. FRESH COMPLAINT Jeffrey Eugenides (Fourth Estate)
Pulitzer Prize winner Eugenides’ latest book, Fresh Complaint, is a compelling collection of short stories drawn from all stages of his career. If there is an over-arching theme, it’s one of characters in the midst of personal and national emergencies. Though it doesn’t touch explicitly on life under the Trump administration, the atmosphere of contemporary America does permeate some of the stories. One story in particular, ‘Great Experiment’ – focusing on a poet who’s driven to embezzle, with echoes of Breaking Bad – explores the founding ideals of America and where they currently lie. Following on from previous triumphs in The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, Fresh Complaint confirms Eugenides as one of America’s foremost contemporary authors.
2. 4321 Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)
4 3 2 1 is Paul Auster’s first piece of fiction since 2010’s Sunset Park and clocks in at an impressive 866 pages. The protagonist of the novel is New Yorker Archie Ferguson and Auster explores his beloved themes of fate and chance by giving Archie four independent life stories. Archie comes into the world in 1947, so the book explores the world events of the following decades – as well as the hero’s own triumphs and failures. US history is familiar territory for Auster, recurring frequently in his work, as is casting the main character as a writer – in one strand here Archie is a novelist, while in another he is a journalist. As with all his works, this novel is a beautifully crafted and compelling exploration of the human condition and the cryptic nature of existence.
3. A BOOK OF AMERICAN MARTYRS Joyce Carol Oates (Harper Collins 4101)
In this striking, enormously affecting novel, the hugely prolific Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of two very different and yet intimately linked American families. Luther Dunphy is an ardent Evangelical who envisions himself as acting out God’s will when he assassinates an abortion provider in his small Ohio town, while Augustus Voorhees, the idealistic doctor who is killed, leaves behind a wife and children scarred and embittered by grief. In her moving, insightful portrait, Joyce Carol Oates fully inhabits the perspectives of two interwoven families whose destinies are defined by their warring convictions and squarely – but with great empathy – confronts an intractable, abiding rift in American society. A Book of American Martyrs is a stunning, timely depiction of an issue hotly debated on the national stage, but which makes itself felt most lastingly in communities torn apart by violence and hatred.
4. THE RUB OF TIME Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape 4101)
Martin Amis recently revealed that he is writing an autobiographical novel about three other writers who were personal friends and inspirations to him: poet Philip Larkin, novelist Saul Bellow and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens. The theme of the as yet untitled novel will apparently be death, although the date is still to be confirmed. Until that appears, Amis fans will have to content themselves with The Rub of Time, a collection of essays and reportage published between 1986 and 2017. Bellow, Larkin and Hitchens are covered, alongside pieces on subjects such as Nabokov, Donald Trump, Princess Diana, tennis, Diego Maradona and Jeremy Corbyn. As always, insightful and consummately stylish stuff.
5. MOONGLOW Michael Chabon (4th Estate 4102)
Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon’s eighth adult novel ostensibly recounts the life story of the author’s unnamed maternal grandfather from his deathbed; a rollicking tale involving attempted murder, stalking rocket scientist Werner Von Braun in the last days of WWII, and snake hunting in the Florida swamps. Yet in his acknowledgements, the writer describes it as both a “pack of lies” and a “monstrous stepchild” of his great-uncle’s memories, blurring the line between fact and fiction.
The book also reveals the heart-wrenching story of his grandmother, who escaped pre-war Germany haunted by the “Skinless Horse”, an apt metaphor for the horrific events that scarred her life. Always entertaining, it’s filled with Chabon’s incredible descriptions, wherein his grandfather demolishes a porch “with a ferocity that approximated hope".
NON FICTION SATIRE OPERATION TRUMPS FORMATION Paul Howard (Penguin)
Paul Howard once again resurrected one of the famous satirical characters in Irish literarture with Operation Trumps formation. The redoubtable Ross O’Carroll-Kelly was back in action for this another biting funny adventure, which addressed not just life in the Trump era, but the stresses and strains of modern Irish life and not being able to get tickets for Leinster home matches.
ESSAYS SOMEBODY WITH A LITTLE HAMMER Mary Gaitskill (Pantheon)
One of the most revered writers in contemporary American literature, Mary Gaitskill this year delivered a series of brilliant essays in Somebody
With A Little Hammer, addressing a varied array of social, cultural and personal issues, as well as offering her thoughts on authors like Gillian Flynn and John Updike, and musicians such as Bjork and Talking Heads.
PHOTOGRAPHY BLIND SPOT Teju Cole (Random House)
Combining Cole’s two great passions of art and photography, Blind Spot is a masterful mix of lyrical prose and striking images, with the latter including pictures as eclectic as the shadow of a tree in upstate New York, a hotel room in Switzerland and a young stranger in the Congo.
FOOD AT MY TABLE Nigella Lawson (Chatto & Windus)
Lawson’s latest effort is a celebration of homecooking and the meals she has shared with family and friends. The book lays out a selection of simple meals that as well as being convenient and delicious, are tailor-made for get-togethers with family and friends.
DRUGS WEED: THE USER’S GUIDE David Schmader (Sasquatch Books)
Doing exactly what it says on the tin, Weed comes complete with history, ways to enjoy, recipes, safety and legal tips, medical use information and much, much more. Written in a witty and informative manner, the book is perfect for both the novice and experienced user alike.
JOURNALISM KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON – David Grann (Doubleday)
Subtitled Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of
the FBI, New Yorker staff writer Grann’s book is fascinating look at the early days of the bureau. Examining greed, racial injustice and murder, it pulls no punches in its recounting a story that continues to resonate.
MAIL MEN Adrian Addison (Atlantic Books)
Mail Men a brilliantly gripping account of the story of The Daily Mail, which has become the self-proclaimed voice of middle England. Tracking the paper from its early days to its current incarnation under controverisial editor Paul Dacre, Mad Men is a key text for those looking to understand modern Britain.
MEMOIR I AM, I AM, I AM Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)
Acclaimed author O’Farrell turns to her own experiences in I Am…, which explores several of her near misses with death. Written with consummate style and filled with insights, it was described by Louise O’Neill as “O’Farrell’s greatest work to date.”
NEVERTHELESS: A MEMOIR Alec Baldwin (HarperCollins)
If anyone has earned a right to pen a memoir while still in middle age, it’s Alec Baldwin. Having had many career high points as a Hollywood actor – including memorable turns in Glengarry Glen Ross, 30 Rock and, of course, Saturday Night Live, where his Trump impersonations have passed into legend – the New York actor has also endured some serious upheaval in his personal life.
Following an acrimonious split from ex-wife Kim Basinger, the couple then entered into a notoriously bitter custody battle over their daughter, the strikingly named Ireland Baldwin. Baldwin is disarmingly honest about his personal failings in Nevertheless, even going into detail about the substance abuse issues that dogged his early career.
Tracing many of his problems to a lonely childhood – his father struggled to support the family while his mother was plagued by mental health problems – Baldwin’s emotional candour and wry humour make for a compelling read.
WHY CAN’T EVERYTHING JUST STAY THE SAME Stephanie Preissner (Hachette Ireland)
By the time you finish this heartfelt comingof-age reflection, you’ll understand why the plaudits Preissner has received from literary publications pale in comparison to the back-cover compliment from Nell Scovell.
The creator of Sabrina The Teenage Witch calls Why Can’t Everything... “inspiring and thoroughly enjoyable.”
Explaining how formative the show was in setting her on the path to working in TV, the Leesider’s book reflects on the events and personal eccentricities that have shaped her outlook on life. A lot of these stories will resonate with the generation that grew up alongside the author, while others simply stand out for their emotional power.
HOW NOT TO BE A BOY Robert Webb (Canongate)
Unsurprisingly filled with humorous flourishes,
Peep Show star Webb’s memoir also explores what it means to grow up male in the 21s century. As a result, the book also functions as a witty look at the changing face of British society as well as a glitzy showbiz memoir.