As it’s something I get asked at the end of every year this has now become a sort of annual thing. So if you’re looking for ideas for books to buy as presents or to get for yourself if Book Tokens are your drug of choice this Xmas here are quite a few ideas with shortened reviews to give you at least a few starting points for your trip to the book shop.
Also, before someone says X is missing (as they always do) this is far from a definitive list of the best books of the year, just the ones I read that I think you should too.
Most are from 2016 itself, a few might be from last year and at the end I have a short list of things to keep an eye out for in early 2017.
Jess Kidd – Himself
Jess Kidd’s debut novel is, varyingly, genuinely creepy, funny, warm, wryly real, smart and compelling. She tells a cracking story with bags of style, a great cast of characters and seemingly effortless ability. I read it in huge chunks. It’s so visual in places it immediately screams “movie” or TV Series” (I have it cast already!) Himself is one of my favourite reads of the year.
Julia Claiborne Johnson – Be Frank With Me
What a gorgeous, wonderful, whimsical, human book. One that I only really picked up on a recommendation from one of the reviewers in my book club. Frank is the 9-year-old son of a reclusive onetime million selling author who lives hidden away in an L.A. mansion. Alice works for her publisher and is sent to help her finish her long-awaited new novel. Thing is, Frank dresses like he’s Fred Astaire and it’s still 1930. A little gem.
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
Set in World War II the story of Mary North who starts by skiing down the side of a mountain almost James Bond-like(!) to enrol in the war effort the day hostilities break out. This is a story that illustrates just how cruel, random and arbitrary war is when it comes to giving and taking away. That takes guts. Hugely worth your time, a gorgeous, real book that both makes you read late into the night and illuminates some of the lesser known (for me anyway) corners of WWII with skill and bravery on the part of Cleave himself. Comes highly recommended.
Anakana Schofield – Martin John
Just brilliant. Seek it out. Martin John has been exiled to London by his mother for an initially unspecified event but quickly you come to realise that he likes to expose himself in public and rub himself up against strangers on the Tube… The world of fiction is full of forgettable characters. I forget ones from average books all the time. Martin John is not one of them and this is not one of those books. If you’re anything like me you’ll find it (and him) hard to shake off long after you’re finished the last page.
Seven Brief Lessons On Physics by Carlo Rovelli
Originally a series from an Italian Sunday newspaper, it’s 79 thin pages take you all the way from the very, very small of quantum physics to the very, very vast of the actual architecture of the Universe (explained in 8 pages, a third of which are pictures!). This is mind-boggling tales of reality for anyone who’s ever marvelled at a black hole or wondered just what in the name of Hawking that messing about in the Large Hadron Collider is all about.
Margaret Atwood – Hag-Seed
My second read in the Hogarth Shakespeare project after Anne Tyler’s disappointing Vinegar Girl; this couldn’t be more different. It’s The Tempest within a Tempest set in a world of people who know the play and are staging it(!) but yet never acknowledge, really, what’s going on here. Even aside from that her story of a failed brilliant artist looking for redemption or revenge or whatever by running Shakespeare productions in a prison is funny, smart and compelling. A brilliant, worthy adaptation.
Becky Chambers – A Closed And Common Orbit
The sequel to her wonderful A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet. If, like me, you loved the Firefly-influenced first part of this story then I am absolutely delighted to tell you that this, set with only a couple of the characters from the first book, is *much* better. There are almost no “bad guys”, no vast battles, no evil empires and no space opera plots here, just interpersonal drama that could happen, well, anywhere.
Graham Norton – Holding
I’m with John Boyne on this one – what on earth has he been doing all these years not being a bloody author! This is an observant, warm, clever story of skeletons (literally!) being dug up in a small Irish town. The plot is less important – this isn’t a whodunit; it’s more about Norton’s skills at picking characters told in seemingly broad strokes initially who are then peeled apart layer by layer proving that his real skill here is in people watching and people telling. Thought it was absolutely super. More please.
Lying In Wait by Liz Nugent
Did you like Unravelling Oliver? This is better. As much as I adored and pressed the first book into the hands of many in the months after I read it, Lying In Wait is a completely different beast. As I finished the last page I actually stood up and gave a round of applause to my empty sitting room. Simply the best Irish thriller this year by miles. Crafted, elegant, full of evil and human consequences. Buy it.
Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be The Place
I would like to say there was always one on my summer holidays this year that was going to make me cry at the end but I so rarely cry at books, heartless bastard that I am. This did. A story of people, relationships, moments that change whole lives and the (mostly) normal story of a group of interconnected people and families set over decades. I don’t want to tell you any more, find out for yourself.
Mike McComack – Solar Bones
I didn’t really know what to expect when I came to it, save some good things I’d heard, I only noticed that the entire 200+ page book was a single sentence about 15 pages in and this is one of the most surprising joys of my reading in 2016. One man, one simple, ordinary life, told in the most extraordinary way possible. I know the author and publishers would like you to read the blurb beforehand, but I suggest don’t. It was like being kicked in the gut when I finished. Full of craft, humanity and balls.
Hideo Yokoyama – Six Four
Don’t be put off by the size – this is a Japanese giant of a cop thriller. A seven-year-old girl disappears in 1989 never to be seen again, in 2002 a press officer finds an anomaly that leads back into the case and threatens to unravel far more that just one kidnapping. Very precise, gorgeously told, never ever boring and even a bit Nordic Noir, I ate this up on my week away in March. You should too.
Vertigo by Joanna Walsh
You know every now and then you get hypnotised by a writer’s style or a series of short stories? For me, Vertigo brings both of those to the table. It’s less a series of disconnected stories and more almost a continuous stream of vignettes from the internal narrative of what could easily be the same woman in different countries, situations, parts of what seem to be the same life. Vertigo is a little thing of hidden beauty, you should seek it out.
Knights Of The Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden
One for your kids or you if you still feel like one! A centuries old war between warriors, monsters, dimensions and worlds with genuinely gorgeous sweeps of words and sentence-stopping language to gape at and re-read, and it’s set in Ireland. The world of flashy new series-based YA is very, very crowded waters at the moment – Knights Of The Borrowed Dark is a great big vicious shark that leaps out of the water at you.
Donal Ryan – All We Shall Know
If you loved the universes of Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, The Thing About December and his criminally overlooked recent book of short stories A Slanting Of The Sun then you won’t be disappointed here. All We Shall Know pulls up the stones in the small town front garden rockery and shows us the wriggling worms of the poor choices adults make against their own better interests and the savagery that two people still in love can inflict on each other. I’m glad to say again what I’ve said in previous reviews – I believe that in decades to come we’ll look back on Donal’s work as the most authentic stories and voices from contemporary small-town Ireland in the early 21st century.
The Last Days Of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp
Top supernatural horror thriller with a lead who is a cross between Piers Morgan, Louis Theroux and Richard Dawkins in a remake of The Exorcist for the social media age with a touch of “directed by Christopher Nolan” thrown in. I wrote this just before it came out and I stick with that – “Should be lying on sun loungers everywhere this summer and flying off shelves when it comes out. But not in the poltergeist way. Don’t be silly. There’s no such thing as the supernatural…”
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
Beatlebone is the most fantastic work of whatiffery – John Lennon comes to Ireland in 1978 to try to escape from crushing fame, the expectation of the world and, conversely, the domesticity of New York fatherhood by trying to get to an island he bought and let lapse into abandonment off the west coast in the late 60s. His foil, driver, spirit guide, aide-de-camp and the one tasked with both getting him there and hiding him from the pursuing press is local man Cornelius O’Grady. Kevin Barry is, pretty much, the most nakedly talented writer Ireland has today. Long may that continue.
Nothing On Earth by Conor O’Callaghan
A total curveball, Conor O’Callaghan’s book is extraordinary. Even a couple of months after finishing it I’m nor exactly sure what happened. Is it a story of post-ghost estate Ireland? An actual ghost story? Are some of the things we witness supernatural or psychological? Can we believe anything we’ve been told? How reliable is our narrator? Very, very impressive stuff – one I think deserves a far, far wider audience that it has had so far.
And a few for early 2017 – keep an eye out for:
Michael Chabon – Moonglow
Ali Land – Good Me Bad Me
Sarah Pinborough – Behind Her Eyes
John Boyne – The Heart’s Invisible Furies
And don’t forget all the real action happens over on The Rick O’Shea Book Club where we’ll soon be announcing more events in 2017 to go along with our recently announced trip to the Ennis Book Club Festival to talk to John Boyne about the new one mentioned above: