Best Books 2015: Some of Ireland’s Best Writers Pick Their Favourite Books of the Year
2015 was indeed a bumper year for books, so when asked to compile a list of the best books of 2015 I went with the lovely tradition we started last year on HeadStuff and asked a broad selection of Ireland’s top writers and ‘bookish folk’ for their selections. This year, though, I’m going to put my own head on the line too as two books in particular stood out for me – Belinda McKeon’s Tender and a book I found to be truly un-putdownable The Long, Hot Summer by Kathleen McMahon. Hope you enjoy the list below and do tell us your own choices…
Liz Nugent has spent the last 20 years working in Irish film, theatre and television. For the last decade, she has been an award-winning writer of radio and television drama and has written short stories for children and adults. Her debut novel Unravelling Oliver won the hotly contested Crime Book of the Year in the 2014 Bord Gais Energy Book Awards and her hotly anticipated second novel, Lying in Wait, will be published in early 2016.
My book of the year for 2015 is About Sisterland by Martina Devlin
I thought this an extraordinary novel about a dystopian matriarchal society in which men are used for hard labour or to ’service’ women in order to propagate the human race. There is an awful lot in here. At various stages, I was thinking of Palestine/Israel (what happens when the oppressed become the oppressors), Apartheid, gender politics, sexual politics, 1916 and the foundation of the state, slavery, body dismorphia, how power corrupts, environmental conservation, the Magdalen laundries, religious cults, inter alia. I’m really in awe of how Devlin covered so many issues with such dexterity. It is a very clever and brave book on such a contentious subject.
Dave Rudden enjoys rum, cats and being cruel to fictional children. His first novel, Knights of the Borrowed Dark, will be published by Penguin on March 10th. www.daverudden.com
My pick of the year is the anthology Once Upon A Place, edited by Eoin Colfer and published by Little Island. It’s a road trip through some of Ireland’s best writers – Derek Landy, Sarah Webb, Oisin McGann, John Connolly, Roddy Doyle, and it’s gorgeously illustrated by P.J. Lynch.
Louise Phillips is an author of four bestselling psychological crime thrillers, all nominated for Best Irish Crime Novel of the Year. Her second novel, The Doll’s House, won the award. She teaches crime fiction writing at the Irish Writers’ Centre. This year, she was awarded a writers’ residency at the Cill Rialaig Artist retreat and she was also a judge on the Irish panel for the EU Literary Award. Her first two novels, Red Ribbons and The Doll’s House will be published in the United States in 2016 and 2017. Her latest novel, The Game Changer, is out now.
The Night Game by Frank Golden (Salmon Publications) is my pick for 2015. It’s a really unusual book. It is dark, dangerous, suspenseful and raw. The story pulls you in from a potentially safe mind-set and often makes you feel uncomfortable. They say the sign of a great thriller is a sense of dread on every page and this book delivers this and then some. The dread is paralleled with tempo, rhythm and utterly gripping language. You get the sense that you are on a road to something very disturbing indeed. In The Night Game, there are plenty of masks, and you are kept wondering until the very end. As well as high quality prose, it has an underlying darkness that is both suspenseful and, at times, surprising. Be prepared to be taken on a roller-coaster ride, one that isn’t afraid to explore human depravity and human fragility in a very different way.
Galway-based Alan McMonagle has published two collections of short stories, Liar Liar, (Wordsonthestreet, 2009) and Psychotic Episodes (Arlen House, 2013). Last year, his radio play, Oscar Night, was produced and broadcast as part of RTE’s Drama on One season. His stories have appeared in many journals including The Penny Dreadful, The Stinging Fly, Southword, Prairie Fire and Grain. He is also a contributor to the anthology Young Irelanders (New Island, 2015). Ithaca, his first novel, will be published by Picador early in 2017. www.alanmcmonagle.com
The Dirty Dust, Alan Titley’s scurrilous rendering of Máirtín O Cadhain’s classic saga of squabbling corpses Cré na Cille is a treat. I loved the mental wanderings in Jenny Offil’s fragmentary novel Dept. of Speculation. I also had a chance to re-read Michael Ondaatje’s amazing first novel (a long prose poem of a book) Coming through Slaughter, the New Orleans-set story of the jazzman Buddy Bolden.
Short story-wise, I enjoyed Alejandro Zambra’s collection My Documents; Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. And I even managed to twice enjoy the imaginative leaps and twisted fairytale atmospheres in Órfhlaith Foyle’s wonderfully titled Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin. I am forever catching up. Hassan Blasim’s collection of hell-zone fables The Iraqi Christ has sent me scurrying for everything else he has written. Likewise after reading Sidewalks, Valeria Luiselli’s slim volume of essays. Last night I started the Argentine Roberto Arlt’s anguish-laden saga The Seven Madmen. It is set in a Buenos Aires of hustlers, whores, dreamers, scoundrels and madmen – that should get me safely through the Christmas.
Margaret Bonass Madden
Margaret Madden is a book blogger at BleachHouseLibrary.ie. She also reviews for writing.ie and is a guest reviewer on TV3’s IrelandAM. A Mum of five, who also fosters, she is a full time BA student of English and History who sometimes forgets that the whole world does not revolve around books (and is horrified by this fact). You can follow her on twitter @margaretbmadden.
Choosing a book of the year is a little like choosing your favourite child! There are so many bits to love about them all. However, I decided to go for a thriller and once that decision was made, there was no difficulty picking a title. The best thriller, for me, this year was Normal by Graeme Cameron.
This is the story of a serial killer, but not in the traditional sense. He is not your typical serial killer. He has no swagger, no obvious darkness and is actually a really nice guy. Ironically, the reader finds themselves rooting for him, despite the fact that he keeps women in his cellar. He is a soft-hearted man, lonely and confused about his dangerous tendencies. Similar to the TV show, Dexter, it is hard not to feel something for this character. The author has managed to make him endearing while murderous. The writing is strong, sassy and bold. It flows along at a wonderful pace and lingers long after it’s finished. A cracking debut, with humour, wit and unusual warmth, considering the whole serial killer thing…
Paul Murray is the author of An Evening of Long Goodbyes, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2003, and Skippy Dies, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2010 and (in the United States) the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Mark and the Void is his third novel and was nominated for an Irish Book Award in 2015. He lives in Dublin.
Listen to Paul Murray on The HeadStuff Podcast.
I have just been reading Maggie Nelson’s moving, ingenious, uncategorizable book The Argonauts. Nelson takes her marriage to trans artist Harry Dodge and the birth of their first child as the springboard for a bravura meditation on gender identity, pregnancy, death, difference, and the ongoing difficulty of living truthfully and compassionately in the 21st Century. This might sound a bit like going to (liberal) church, but she is also incredibly funny and cool and the book is as entertaining as it is profound. Read it, it will change you.
Orla McAlinden is an emerging Irish writer. Her first, award-winning collection, The Accidental Wife, will be published in Spring 2016 by Sowilo Press in Philadelphia. In between reading hundreds of novels per year, she is working on her own debut novel, The Flight of the Wren, set in Kildare during the Irish Famine. She reviews for www.writing.ie and occasionally blogs at orlamcalindenwrites.wordpress.com.
My book of 2015 is Silence by Anthony J Quinn.
I have to hand it to Anthony J Quinn, stumbling across his first novel Disappeared by accident has reminded me that there is a whole genre of literary crime/thriller writing coming out of Ireland today that bears no relationship at all to the crime I read as a teenager. I am so glad to have opened myself up to this genre, which I was ignoring due to lack of time.
Silence is the third in a series of novels starring Celsius Daly, a war-weary, battle-scarred detective trying to drag the shiny, new Police Service of Northern Ireland out of the tarnished, sullied remnants of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
The novels are searingly true, brutally accurate, haunting and haunted. The ghosts of old atrocities dog the pages of all three books in the series, as they continue to do in Northern Ireland to this day, buried under the thinnest possible veneer of normality, eggshell thick. The “petty jealousies”, the shocking deeds of neighbours, the collusion, the cover-ups are only a blink of time behind us, in a country where the famine of 1845-49 and the sack of Drogheda in 1649 have not yet been forgiven, and certainly not forgotten.
Daly is a perfectly rounded three-dimensional character, I have described him in the past as the “distilled essence of nearly every Northern Irish man I have ever known.”
Silence returns me to my childhood in Armagh with chilling honesty, but Quinn’s huge international audience is proof that, even without detailed knowledge of The Troubles, the books repay reading.
A journalist and ghostwriter, Sue Leonard is co-author of Whispering Hope, The True Story of the Magdalene Women (Orion, 2015), and An Act of Love, with Marie Fleming (Hachette Ireland, 2014). She had ghosted three other books, and is author of Keys to the Cage (New Island, 2010). Sue writes the Beginner’s Pluck column in the Irish Examiner.
It’s been such a great year that my best book kept changing. And then I read Belinda McKeon’s Tender, and was totally blown away. I loved the setting, and adored the characters of Catherine and James, and the way the friendship between them developed, and then went so very badly wrong. But it was the pacing that impressed me so much. I don’t know how she did it, but Belinda managed to match my reading speed. You know how it normally is? As you reach the climax in a book, you read faster and faster, and inevitably end up skipping words, and have to reread them later. That didn’t happen with Tender. The words speeded up in exact tandem with my brain. It was probably the best reading experience I have ever had. Quite stunning.
David Butler’s most recent novel City of Dis (New Island) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, 2015. His short story ‘Taylor Keith’ won last year’s Fish Short Story Award. He gives creative writing courses at the IWC and with the Big Smoke Writing Factory.
I’d read the other entries in the run up to the 2015 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, and though it pipped my own City of Dis, I thought Eoin McNamee’s Blue is the Night a worthy winner. For the most part, the novels I read this year were published some time ago. I was bowled over by Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs and finally got round to reading John Williams’ haunting meditation Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics). Among this year’s publications, Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations and Nuala Ni Choncúir’s Miss Emily deserve a mention. It’s been a great year for the short story, with Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets and New Island’s anthology The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers the outstanding volumes, while in poetry, the most impressive collection was Breda Wall Ryan’s In a Hare’s Eye.
Tara Flynn is a writer and performer, most recently seen in Irish Pictorial Weekly on RTÉ. Best known for her own sketches such as Racist B&B, she has had two satirical books published by Hachette Books, Ireland, You’re Grand: the Irishwoman’s Secret Guide to Life and Giving Out Yards: the Art of Complaint, Irish Style. Both are in shops now. You can find her on Twitter @taraflynn
Listen to Tara Flynn on The HeadStuff Podcast.
This was a fantastic year for Irish books – can I have more than one? Please? I’ve picked these for the sheer balls-out writing of them. Like pretty much everyone else with a pulse, I loved Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It (Quercus). It comes under the YA umbrella but is a dark and essential read, regardless of your age or gender. Tender (Picador) by Belinda McKeon blew me away, too, with its exploration of a central relationship we haven’t really seen before. Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (John Murray) is a treat of a debut. Can’t wait to see what she does next. And Kate Beaufoy’s Another Heartbeat in the House (Transworld) is an absorbing visit to another time in both subject and style.
Nuala O’Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in East Galway. Already well-known under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, she has published four short story collections, three novels and three poetry collections. In summer 2015, Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. Miss Emily was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015 www.nualanoconnor.com
Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, a début novel by poet Jennifer Tseng, was my favourite read this year. Set on an unnamed island (probably a fictional Martha’s Vineyard), it’s about a 41 year old librarian’s obsession with a 17 year old boy. It’s hilarious, deep and beautifully written.
Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace (Scribner) won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Kerry Group Prize. Her second novel, Tender, was published in early 2015, and was also nominated for an Irish Book Award. She has published short fiction in a number of anthologies, most recently Dubliners 100 (Tramp Press, Dublin). As a journalist, she has written on literature and the arts for the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Guardian and the Irish Times. Her plays have been produced in Dublin and New York, and she is under commission to the Abbey Theatre.
My book of the year this year is Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It’s a wise, brave, uncompromising exploration of what being a person is about. Among other things, it’s about love, pregnancy, motherhood, gender, writing, philosophy and sex, but it’s a book that kind of defies the idea of “aboutness”. It made my brain fizz. My other favourites were Heidi Julavits’s memoir The Folded Clock and Chloe Caldwell’s novel Women. Oh, and Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index. There were a lot of brilliant books this year.
Colm Tobin is a comedy writer and TV producer with Kite Entertainment. He has almost 50,000 followers on Twitter. As well as writing for RTE Radio 1’s Irish Pictorial Weekly, he has written and produced the children’s science shows Science Fiction for RTE JNR and CBBC, and Brain Freeze for CBBC. He also wrote and produced the satirical RTE TV series Langerland, and writes a fortnightly column for The Times Ireland Edition. Originally from Clonakilty, West Cork, Colm now lives in Dublin.
I think my favourite book this year was The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. Linguistically inventive and laugh-your-face-off funny. I loved it.
Arthur Mathews has written for television since the early 1990s. Among the shows he has created and/or written (many with co-writer Graham Linehan) are PARIS, TOAST OF LONDON, FATHER TED, HIPPIES, BIG TRAIN, THE ALL NEW ALEXEI SAYLE SHOW, BRASS EYE, HARRY ENFIELD AND CHUMS, THE FAST SHOW, BLACK BOOKS, VAL FALVEY TD and the film WIDE OPEN SPACES. He has written a ‘bogus memoir’, WELL REMEMBERED DAYS, as well as THE CRAGGY ISLAND PARISH NEWSLETTERS, FATHER TED – THE COMPLETE SCRIPTS (with Graham Linehan), THE BOOK OF POOR OULD FELLAS (with Declan Lynch) ANGRY BABY, and TOAST ON TOAST. As a cartoonist he contributed DOCTOR CRAWSHAFT’S WORLD OF POP to the New Musical Express and THE CHAIRMAN to the Observer Sport Monthly. In the theatre, he created and co-wrote the long running musical I, KEANO. On radio he has created and written THE GOLDEN AGE and MEN ABOUT THE HOUSE for BBC Radio 4 and LUNEEN LIVE (co-written with Paul Woodfull) for RTE.
Listen to Arthur Mathews on The HeadStuff Podcast.
My book of the year is Vivid Faces by Roy Foster.
The 1916 revolution set in train a cataclysmic series of events which resulted in bloodshed, civil war, sectarianism, poverty, mass emigration, and, ultimately, a conservative sectarian state controlled by the Catholic Church. Roy Foster focuses on the pre-revolutionary idealists who, if they didn’t perish in the conflict themselves, were greatly dismayed and disillusioned at the new state which came into being post-independence. Women feature prominently, and his portraits of the likes of Muriel MacSwiney and Rosamund Jacob are fascinating and illuminating.
There will be over 500 books to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising. It’s a pity Foster won’t be writing all of them.
Mary Morrissy is the author of three novels and a collection of short stories. A second collection, Prosperity Drive, is forthcoming from Jonathan Cape in February 2016. She teaches creative writing at University College Cork.
Listen to Mary Morrissy on The HeadStuff Podcast.
I’m always about a year behind in my reading so my choices are two books that actually appeared in 2014 but that I only came to this year.
Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage) is a searing account of Australian POWs working for the Japanese as slave labourers on the Burmese railway during the Second World War. It’s also a love story, incongruous as that sounds. Flanagan is unflinching in looking at the savagery and cruelty of war – and peace – and sometimes, the reader is tempted to avert her eyes. But tough and all as the reading gets, the novel remains strangely uplifting.
Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (Penguin) is a charming and ultimately tragic tale of favouritism and culture clash in a Chinese-American family in 1970s Ohio – luminous writing and a great feel for the period.
Billy O’ Callaghan
Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork, and is the author of three short story collections: In Exile (2008) and In Too Deep (2009), both published by Mercier Press, and The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind (2013), published by New Island Press. Winner of the 2013 Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award for Story of the Year, he also reviews books for the Irish Examiner.
In Ireland, the vast majority of the books we read tend to come from the English-speaking world, and it is easy to get caught up in the notion that this is where literature begins and ends. So, particularly in recent years, I’ve made a real effort to open my reading habits to writing in translation, and it has been a thorough joy. The world is teeming with great literature, writers from every continent who are pouring their hearts and deepest dreams and concerns onto the page, and to ignore or overlook them is to miss out on some rich and at times spectacular colours.
This year we’ve been spoilt for choice, with Penguin continuing their torrent of Georges Simenon reissues and several novels from Patrick Modiano’s back catalogue hitting the shelves in the wake of his Nobel Prize. But three books that really caught my attention, and which have continued to shine most brightly for me, are worthy of particular mention:
Morning and Evening by John Fosse (Dalkey Archive Press, translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls). In focusing on the first and last days of a fisherman named Johannes, this short, dense novel by one of Europe’s great writers attempts to make sense of nothing less than the perpetual astonishment of life itself. Initially difficult, at least until the reader catches the rhythms of the language and accepts the gradually ever more hyper surrealism of the storytelling, the author’s stream-of-consciousness prose style builds in pages-long sentences to something hypnotic, hallucinatory, and utterly compelling. Dense with sense-awareness and full to brimming with small, essential truths, this is a haunting, melancholy meditation on the fleeting nature of life, but also its enduring majesty.
The Bear Whispers To Me by Chang Ying-Tai (Balestier Press, translated from Chinese by Darryl Sterk) tells of the coming-of-age of a young Taiwanese boy and is a striking and imaginative piece of storytelling, a kind of adult fairytale. The sensitive translation emphasises the ethereal quality of the language and allows the beautiful, descriptive prose to really shine. Fascinating in its folkloric sense of tribal ways, deeply spiritual in its philosophies and alert to ancient wisdom, this is a poignant and compelling story of lives approaching fullest bloom, a coming-of-age parable that contemplates love, loss, desire, familial bonds and, most pertinently, Man’s place in, and relationship with, the natural world.
This Should be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (Vintage, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken) is an impressive novel because of how it revels in life’s minutiae as a way of avoiding emotional engagement. This is a first-person account that attempts – with rare subtlety and ultimately, providing the reader has the patience to fully invest in the text, great success – to make sense of the chaos and the daunting dread that can accompany arrival into adulthood, of feeling inconsequential and ill-fitting for the wider world. Helle’s declarative sentences are a kind of cold steel, lacking all sentimentality, lacking even emotion, yet it is from this very lack that the psychological make-up and state of the narrator is revealed, or at least laid bare.
Writer and film producer Paul FitzSimons’ feature film The Gift premiered at the Kerry Film Festival in 2015 and will be released next year. Paul is currently developing his next film, writing a novel and is script editor with Courier Twelve Scripts.
My book of 2015, an excellent year for crime fiction, is Jax Miller’s Freedom’s Child.
Freedom’s Child, which tells the story of a mother abandoning her Federal Protection to search for her missing daughter, is written with a vitality, rawness and poetry rare in any writer, never mind a first-timer like Jax Miller. In her hero, Freedom Oliver, she has created a mean, funny and deeply-hurting woman who will sacrifice everything, including herself, to ensure the safety of her child. An epic read.
Jarlath Regan is an Irish comedian, writer, illustrator and lad (in a good way). He has performed at international comedy festivals across the world. Living in London, in 2013 he created the award winning Irishman Abroad podcast series. The collection of long form interviews with well-known Irish emigrants and people of Irish heritage has earned rave reviews from The Guardian, Telegraph and Irish Times, and has featured the likes of Chris O’Dowd, Boy George, Dylan Moran, Lisa Hannigan and Graham Linehan. It is listened to by more than one million people worldwide.
My favourite book of 2015 is A Book For Her by Bridget Christie. It’s the perfect mix of humour and inspiration. Bridget tells the true story of how a fart in a book started a sequence of events that would change her life and career forever. A must read for anyone with eyes and a brain.
Kathleen Mac Mahon is the author of the bestselling novels This Is How It Ends, and The Long, Hot Summer.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels loom large over 2015 for me. I read all four of them in a mad rush and haven’t been able to get them out of my head since. I can’t think of any better fictional account of a female friendship than this extraordinary saga that charts the lives of two women who started out as classmates in a poor suburb of Naples.
2015 was also the year I discovered some wonderful new short story writers. I throughly enjoyed Edith Pearlman’s wickedly good latest collection, Honeydew, and will now delve into her back catalogue. Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets was a great pleasure because of the beauty of her writing. And if I’m allowed to include something old, J.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (Penguin Modern Classics) is as perfect a novel as I’ve read in a long time, and was topical because of a gorgeous new BBC adaptation earlier this year.
Kate began her career as a professional actor – winning a Dublin Theatre Festival Best Actress award – before becoming a fulltime writer whose novels have been translated into French, German, Greek, Italian, Czech and Dutch. She has contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines in Ireland and the UK, written and broadcast for RTE, and is regularly invited to participate in literary events across the media. Her first novel – the critically acclaimed Liberty Silk
– spent four weeks on the Irish Times bestseller chart. Her latest novel – Another Heartbeat in the House – charted last summer and has been shortlisted in the popular fiction category in the Irish Book Awards 2015. Inspired by William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, it tells the story of the woman who became governess to his children and who may have been the prototype for literature’s most enduring and engaging heroine, Becky Sharp.
I am choosing The Daughterhood, by Irish Times columnist Róisín Ingle and communications expert Natasha Fennell as my book of 2015. It examines the mother/daughter dynamic as experienced by nine very different women. Funny, poignant and engaging, it’s an essential read for any woman still involved in this complex, frustrating, maddening, rewarding, joyous and most atavistic of relationships. I’m giving it to my daughter for Christmas.
Shane Breslin – Blackbird Books
With a background in digital media and publishing, in April 2015 Shane fulfilled a lifelong dream and opened the doors of Blackbird Books; an independent bookshop based in Navan, Co. Meath that he co-founded with his wife, Lorraine. When asked what kind of books they specialise in at Blackbird Books, Shane’s answer is simple: ‘Great Books’. Shane also co-hosts the Bookish podcast with fellow independent bookshop owner Bob Johnston, where they regularly look at the latest news from the world of publishing, book selling, writing, and beyond.
It has been a weird year. We opened our new bookshop at the start of the summer, and getting everything off the ground took up so much time that ever since we have struggled to keep up with the important bit: the actual reading. I usually have multiple favourite books every year. But to pick one from 2015: Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking. (The fact that the title comes from a Wallace Stevens poem about blackbirds has nothing to do with it – honest!) It’s a beautiful short novel/long short story/novella about ageing and grief, with a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. There are lines that stop you in your tracks: “The step from the lobby down into the street is high, and getting higher every day.”