The HeadStuff Best Books of 2016
Every year I view this list as some kind of challenge – it would be so easy just to pick my ten best writing friends and cajole them into contributing but I really don’t think that that would represent the huge HUGE array of fantastic books that arrive on our shelves every year. So yet again this year I’ve tried to torment a diverse group of very accommodating people to bring you an interesting cross section of the great books that were published in 2016. And while I hate to pick favourites myself, I will say the three books that I devoured this year were Frankie Gaffney’s Dublin Seven, Caroline Grace Cassidy’s The Week I Ruined my Life and EM Reapy’s Red Dirt – two super, pacey reads that ticked all the good fiction boxes for me…
Thankfully though, it’s not all about me so without further ado, I present to you The HeadStuff Best Books of 2016…
Orla McAlinden is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the BGEIBA Irish Short Story of the Year 2016. Her debut short story collection, The Accidental Wife, won the Eludia Award in 2014 and was published in July 2016 by Sowilo Press, Philadelphia. The Accidental Wife has been chosen by Libraries NI as “The Armagh Big Read” for 2017. Keep an eye on Orla at www.orlamcalinden.com where she occasionally remembers to blog, in between juggling children, dogs, ponies, choirs and concerts. Oh yes, she also writes. The Accidental Wife is available here and to order in bookstores.
I spent this Autumn watching the hilarious Braggadocious by Randy Rainbow on YouTube, pondering his plaintive ‘Who the hell is really gonna vote for this guy?’ And yes I know he got it wrong, and I got it wrong, and we actually are faced with President-Elect Trump (eek!) but the question remains valid.
The more often people described Trump voters as ‘bloody rednecks’ and ‘hillbillies’ the more I realised how meaningless those terms were to me.
JD Vance’s excellent memoir Hillbilly Elegy helped me answer Randy’s question. Hillbilly Elegy is not even close to the best-written book I read this year, but it’s a timely and fascinating insight into the people, once described to me by Miss Genora, (a 70 year old black southern woman who taught me the arcane art of the chambermaid) as “no ‘ccount, lazy, po’ white trash”.
JD Vance, a hillbilly to the core, and a successful corporate lawyer, doesn’t shrink from agreeing with Miss Genora as he takes a warts-and-all, good hard look at the people he loves and despairs for.
My second choice of book won’t surprise anyone, and is probably mentioned elsewhere in greater detail in this list. But, If you are lucky, like me, and manage to read Vance’s coruscating reflection on the hillbilly, before reading the Man Booker long listed My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, you’ll find your enjoyment of this tiny masterpiece hugely enhanced. These two incredibly different books were simply made to be read together.
If there’s space I’ll just mention three interesting books all by Northern Irish writers: The Faerie Thorn – fabulous rich dark fairy tales for adults – by Jane Talbot, Trespass, the fourth instalment of the ever wonderful ‘Celcius Daly’ series by Anthony J Quinn, and A Good Hiding by Shirley Anne McMillan, not quite in the same league as the others, but chosen because YA fiction set in N. Ireland with strong female leads seems thin on the ground, I found it a refreshing change.
In 2013 Kildare born comedian Jarlath Regan began An Irishman Abroad, a series of weekly podcasts interviewing Irish (first and second generation) people about their lives and insights into the experiences of Irish people abroad in both success and failure. In 2014, The Daily Telegraph included the podcast amongst the “Best Comedy Podcasts”, and Niall Byrne of the Irish Independent included it in a list of “World’s Greatest Podcasts”. In 2014, Paul Campbell of The Guardian‘s Talking Sport blog wrote of the Jerry Flannery edition that “every single young person reading this should go download this podcast and listen to it every week for the rest of time”. Jarlath brings his hit standup show back home to Dublin’s Laughter Lounge on December 21st for one night only.
My book of the year is Don’t Hug Your Mother by JP & Brendan Byrne. You can only get it on Amazon but boy is it worth it. It’s an account of two men whose father forced their mother out of their lives as kids and then poisoned them against her. They wake up to the reality of how cruel their father had been 18 years later and the book details that journey. Not usually the kind of thing I read but trust me, you won’t be able to put it down either.
Ger Holland is a 25 year old freelance photographer based in south County Dublin. Originally from Galway, Ger moved to Dublin in 2011 where she studied Psychology before making a career move into the field of Photography. She has photographed many of the world’s greatest writers including Lee Child, Martin Amis, Donna Tartt, Edna O’ Brien, Armistead Maupin, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan to name but a few. She enjoys reading books and listening to Bruce Springsteen in her spare time.
My favourite book of 2016 is All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan. There is something so different and unconventional about Donal’s writing that always draws me towards his work. Coming from someone who always loved women’s fiction and crime fiction, All We Shall Know would be an unusual choice for me. Having read The Thing About December recently though, I knew that I was a Donal Ryan convert and a lifelong fan.
All We Shall Know is centred around the character, Melody Shee, who is pregnant with the baby of a member of the travelling community, a 17 year old boy called Martin Toppey. We follow the emotional upheaval Melody goes through as well as the physical and mental battles she endures along the way. She strikes up an unexpected friendship with another traveller called Mary Crothery who is, in my opinion, Melody’s guardian angel and saving grace. One of the main features of Donal’s books is that they are set in rural Irish villages or towns.
He portrays perfectly the sense of community within a small village, especially the downside of that. Neighbours will twitch their curtains and cast a judgmental eye over those they don’t see fit to be a part of their perfect world. This is particularly prevalent when the travelling community visit Melody Shee’s house and Melody’s inner thoughts are of what the neighbours will think of the caravans and trailers pulling up and encroaching upon their lives.
As I am a reader from a small, rural town in the west of Ireland, I can relate hugely to this community feel and to the negative and positive connotations it brings with it. In a similar vein, the language Donal uses is real to me. It is not written in the way you’d expect a literary work to be but instead, it is genuinely Irish. It is the language I grew up speaking with the slang and the “Oh my Gods” and “Holy Gods” all thrown in to nearly every sentence. I think overall this is what I love most about Donal’s work – the real Irish language as it is spoken. There are examples throughout All We Shall Know of this, especially with Melody’s father, who is from a very traditional generation of people who would look down on members of the travelling community yet still supports his daughter and her friend Mary in times of need.
There is sadness and humour in Donal’s latest book, both in equal measure, but what always makes them come out on top for me is how true to life and relatable the characters are to me. They are Irish to their core. I read All We Shall Know while on a working trip in Portugal and at home in Dublin but every time I opened the book and turned the pages, I was transported back to the rural landscape of my upbringing.
Dave Rudden is the author of the award-winning children’s novel Knights of the Borrowed Dark. He enjoys cats, adventure and being cruel to fictional children.
‘At least the books were good!’ the town criers wail as the lumbering monstrosity that was 2016 stumbles to a halt in the midst of our ruined lives. ‘At least the books were good…’
Riverkeep by Martin Stewart is a dark, poetic road-trip of a fantasy novel that’s quietly and gorgeously about grief. Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan is complex, painful and kind. I devoured All We Shall Know, my first Donal Ryan novel this year, (I am pathetically late to this and every other party) and fell deeply in love with Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga.
Remember folks – books aren’t just good company for the nightmare hellscape we have all been pitched into, they’re also excellent weapons in a pinch. Happy New Year!
E.M. Reapy’s debut novel Red Dirt was published by Head of Zeus in June and won The Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year in the 2016 Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards.
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack was exceptional and I connected to his non clichéd depiction of the West of Ireland. In the story, his narrator Marcus reflects on his life, his deep love for his family and place. It’s poignant, poetic and innovative.
Also, as a short story fan, I adored The Pier Falls, a collection by Mark Haddon. Each story is wildly entertaining and well written.
Martin Malone is the author of 10 books, several radio plays and a stage play. His debut novel Us won the John B Keane/Sunday Independent Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Kerry Irish Ingredients Fiction Award. Us was reprinted as a Modern Irish Classic in 2015. The Broken Cedar was nominated for an IMPAC and shortlisted for the Hughes & Hughes Irish Fiction Award. He is a former soldier with the Irish army and served six tours of duty in the Middle East: Lebanon and Iraq. Martin is currently teaching English to war refugees from Iraq and Syria and his latest novel is the literary crime novel, Black Rose Days.
So many excellent books out this year but for me this was an easy choice – Moonstone by Sjon, an Icelandic writer. This slim novel starts out in 1918 in Iceland, and concerns a social outcast dealing with harsh realities, imaginings, life and death, secrets and revelations. I loved the sparseness of the language, saying enough and yet plenty.
Tara Flynn is a writer and performer. She lives in Dublin with her husband, a dog and a cat and she appears regularly with Dublin Comedy Improv. You’re Grand: the Irishwoman’s Secret Guide to Life (Hachette Books Ireland) was an Irish bestseller. Giving Out Yards: the Art of Complaint, Irish Style was published October 15
Screw you, evil HeadStuff bosses, I’m doing three books, because I can’t choose just one without breaking my own heart. They are all YA with a strong hit of edge – even darkness – but more than a glint of hope in their eyes. They couldn’t be more different in tone and style but all are beautifully written. So, I choose Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan, The Making of Mollie by Anna Carey and Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Griffin. They all offer flawed but brilliant heroines I wish I’d had around when I was fourteen. I loved these girls and their very different worlds and I’m sorry, you’re going to have to read them all. I recommend buying them for a young pal and then sneakily borrowing them back for your own selfish adult reading pleasure.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor, critic and facilitator. Her most recent YA novel, Nothing Tastes As Good, was published in 2016 by Hot Key Books. Find her online at www.clairehennessy.com
One of the great joyful books of 2016 for me was Bryony Gordon’s Mad Girl, her second memoir and the first to explore the OCD that first kicked in when she was twelve and still plagues her. Mental illness is always a tricky topic to handle on the page, not least because the memoirs about it often come from celebrities who have been privileged enough to access all kinds of help without ever acknowledging the impact it had on their work. Gordon is a successful columnist who cheerfully notes that even though she was in a dark place psychologically, she was also in a work environment that facilitated the drug and alcohol dependency that let her escape the relentless terrifying thoughts in her brain. It’s a funny and smart book about being mentally ill and learning to live with it – without giving us a saccharine happy ending.
On the fiction front I fell in love with Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire, an intense depiction of teenage friendship in the early ‘90s; Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me, an elegant psychological thriller set in the world of competitive gymnastics; and Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, a historical mystery about a girl in post-Famine Ireland who appears to survive on nothing but air.
Claire Allan is an author of eight novels, mother of two, prolific Twitter user (to her detriment) and proud Derry woman.
Two books stood out for me this year. The first was a YA novel, which every parent should read before sharing with their (older) teen.
Nina is Not Okay, by comedian Shappi Khorsandi is a compelling read about one teenage girl who finds herself in an increasingly precarious position due to her over fondness for alcohol – and the questionable decisions she makes while under the influence. It strongly focuses on the extra pressures social media can have on young people – and how there is little ability to make mistakes privately any more.
I could not put this book down and found myself sneaking off to read a few extra chapters. It’s a book that should be on school curriculums everywhere.
The second book which stood out for me was The Fallout by Margaret Scott – which as a working mother really hit home to me. It’s no secret that office politics can be tricky at times – and for mothers trying to balance home and work life – it can be a minefield. Scott’s story was one which I’m sure will resonate with a lot of people – and with a natural flare for telling stories well, she is one to watch.
CATHERINE RYAN HOWARD
Catherine Ryan Howard was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1982. Prior to writing full-time, she worked as a campsite courier in France and a front desk agent in a hotel in Walt Disney World, Florida. Her debut thriller, Distress Signals, was shortlisted for Crime Novel of the Year at the 2016 Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards. She is currently studying for a BA in English at Trinity College Dublin and working on Book number two. Find out more on www.catherineryanhoward.com.
Choosing a book of the year this year feels like an impossible task, because it’s been such a hectic one I haven’t read a fraction of what I normally would. And out of what I did manage, my favourites were Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land, which isn’t out until January, and Tony & Susan by Austin Wright, which was originally published in 1993 and reissued in May as Nocturnal Animals to tie-in with its movie adaptation, which is cheating. (Right?) My love for Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent and The Trespasser by Tana French is a given, but both women are deservedly all over every ‘Best Books of 2016’ as it is, so I’m going to hand the title of my favourite book of 2016 to Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. It’s an absolute corker of a police procedural. The writing sings, the story manages to be both a chilling missing person mystery and a hilariously funny look at singledom (I know but, trust me, it works), and I was devastated to say goodbye to her detective, DS Manon Bradshaw, who I wanted to kidnap and force to be my best friend. I hear there’s another Manon book coming, and I am counting down the days…
Lisa Coen of Tramp Press worked for ‘Hot Press’ magazine for three years before doing an MA and a PhD thesis in TCD on the Abbey Theatre’s tours from 1975 to 2005.
There were so many brilliant books this year. I loved Joe Hill’s Locke & Key (IDW) comics, I Will Find You by Joanna Connors (Grove Atlantic), Shrill by Lindy West (Quercus), and it’s a beast, but the Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Theatre. Some of the best reading for me this year was revisiting It and the unabridged edition of The Stand by Stephen King (wondering what they cut out of it? It’s something terrible!).
Lighting the Shadows by Rachel Eliza Griffiths (Four Ways Books) really knocked my socks off. Griffiths is also a visual artist, and that’s evident in the vivid, violent fragments of imagery in this poetry collection. She writes with intense insight about the body, particularly the African-American female body, and her poems read to me as deeply personal but thoughtfully outward-looking.
The language is electrifying. How about this for a line: “Memory is a burnt child / I carry on my back”. That can speak to a terrible personal insight, but also of the trauma of many. She takes this role on with nuance though: in ‘Another Woman’s Coat’ she writes ‘These seams do not belong to me’, which is just the most elegant way of disclaiming a sort of generic ownership of other women’s experiences in the form of a pun. It makes you think too, about life lived in margins, experience accruing in the cracks.
The light/shadow of the collection is a moving target. Sometimes it’s big picture, sometimes it’s in Griffiths’s own voice. For a slim volume, there’s so much going on, you could read it all year and keep finding something new in it.
Before becoming a full-time writer Liz Nugent worked in Irish film, theatre and television. In 2014 her first novel, Unravelling Oliver, was a No.1 bestseller and won the Crime Fiction prize in the 2014 Irish Book Awards. Her second novel, Lying in Wait, went straight to No 1 in the Irish bestseller charts, remained there for nearly two months and won her a second IBA.
It is no wonder that multi-award winning writer Liz Nugent finds herself insanely busy at the moment but, as a regular contributor to this annual HeadStuff list, she didn’t want this year to be any different – so as she literally hopped on a plane she kindly gave me her top four books of 2016 – Days Without End by Sebastián Barry, All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Many thanks Liz!
Frankie Gaffney came of age in Dublin’s North-Inner City. His debut novel, Dublin Seven (described by the Irish Times as “Ulysses meets Love/Hate”) charts the descent of a working-class teenager into the criminal underworld of the city.
My book of 2016 The Blocks by Karl Parkinson needs to be on the “Books of the Year” list, not least because it was so conspicuously absent from some other inventories of great literature in Ireland 2016. There is a shocking imbalance in the attention paid and respect given to working-class literature in this country. But this book can survive on its own merits. It’s a relentlessly inventive treasure trove, switching seamlessly from tragedy to hilarity, all the while exploiting every dimension of meaning available on the page (orthography, punctuation, lexicon, grammar, typography, etc.) to deliver content in a truly creative way.
One of my favourite things about The Blocks is how Parkinson confidently shuns the received wisdom offered by courses and books on creative writing. For example, he doesn’t shy away from using big words: “rage buried far in iz mind, iz Da dead from self-defenestration.” The Blocks is such an utterly unique and important book that it deserves to be fast-tracked into the canon of Irish literature.
Caroline Finnerty is the author of bestselling books In a Moment, The Last Goodbye, Into The Night Sky and My Sister’s Child. She has also had the pleasure of compiling ‘If I was A Child Again’, a non-fiction collection of stories from some of Ireland’s best writers, journalists and TV personalties, with all royalties being donated to Barnardos.
My book of 2016 would have to be A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. At over 700 pages long, this is definitely not a quick read and I will admit to thinking twice before ‘going in’. The story of four friends is a slow burner and seems to wander aimlessly for a while but somehow Yanagihara’s characters draw you in and weave their way into your head so that you can’t stop thinking about them. If you like character driven books, then this is definitely a book that will stay with you for a long time afterwards.
MARGARET BONASS MADDEN
Margaret Madden is a book blogger/reviewer at BleachHouseLibrary.ie and contributor to writing.ie, The Sunday Independent, Irish Times Books and nudgebook.com. She can be found, ignoring real life in favour of fiction, on twitter @margaretbmadden.
This is always a difficult choice, especially when I read an average of 200 books per year. Some are top-class, award winning, literary fiction, some are tense crime-thrillers and others are weepies requiring tissues or heartbreaking non-fiction titles. But when someone asks what your favourite book was, there should be a title that pops straight in to your head, regardless of its genre or whether it is ‘cool’ to recommend it or not.
This year, one book had this effect on me. Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson is the story of a ridiculously charming ten-year-old boy who lives with his reclusive writer mother. She has only written one book but it was a timeless classic (think Harper Lee). When she decides to write book two, she is assigned an assistant to ensure she keeps on track. What unfolds is a truly heart-warming story of how friendship can be found in the most surprising circumstances. Frank is completely delightful, with all his quirky ways and straight-talking honesty. You are guaranteed to think of him, long after turning the last page. Being a book reviewer can mean discovering some real gems. This is one of my all-time, buy tons of copies and force into people’s hands, general fiction books. Read Be Frank With Me and prepare to fall in love with one of the most memorable kids in fiction.
Caroline Busher graduated with a first Class Honours MA in Creative Writing (UCD) and is represented by Trace Literary Agency (USA). She is an Irish Times best selling author and was recently appointed the Reader in Residence with Wexford County Council Library Services. Caroline teaches creative writing courses to adults and children and is a curator for Wexford Literary Festival. Her debut novel “The Ghosts of Magnificent Children” (Poolbeg Press) is out now. You can learn more about Caroline on her website www.carolinebusher.wordpress.com or on twitter
My favourite book of 2016 is The Book of Shadows by E.R. Murray (Mercier Press)
The Book of Shadows is an exciting, fast paced follow up to The Book of Learning which was the Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide Read 2016. Once more Ebony Smart and her pet rat Winston are catapulted into a world of adventure. There is a peculiar silver box, a race against time and a powerful ancient demon. The Book of Shadows is a beautifully written book and perfect for children aged 8-12. This book can be read alone or as part of the amazing nine lives trilogy, and has all the hallmarks of being a classic novel for children.
Writer and film producer Paul FitzSimons’s feature film The Gift will soon screen in Dublin and Cork, having debuted in Killarney in 2015. Paul is currently developing his next film Complicit with OC Productions and a TV drama for Tile Films.
With another epic year for crime fiction behind us, deciding on a best-of was, once again, a tad tricky. But I had to pick Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris, mostly as it left me both excited and freaked out every time I picked it up.
Behind Closed Doors tells the story of the perfect couple. Or Not. In reality, Grace is a woman held captive in her home – by Jack, her own husband. Using a terrifying blend of physical and psychological restraint, Jack puts his new wife through a year of torture.
Paris’s ability to create a completely addictive narrative, I-know-a-guy-like-that characters and fresh storytelling devices kept me flicking the pages of Behind Closed Doors late into the night (with the lights on full).
Mary Morrissy is the author of three novels and two collections of short fiction. Her latest book, Prosperity Drive, is shortlisted for the Irish Times Favourite Art Work of 2016 and will appear in paperback in February 2017.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Viking) was the read of 2016 for me. After her Pulitzer Prize-wining Olive Kitteridge, I didn’t think Strout could get much better but Lucy Barton is a slow-burning masterpiece. A young mother is hospitalised for nine weeks with a dangerous illness that isolates her from the normal run of life. Her mother appears mysteriously and the novel charts their unsatisfactory reconciliation as Lucy trawls through her memories trying to make sense of her life. It sounds confessional but, in fact, the novel is tentative and almost deferential in the way it approaches memory. Most of what Lucy lets slip is incomplete, fragmentary and insubstantial, yet it’s a fascinating trawl through her interior world that is both gripping and hypnotic.
On the short story front, I admired Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes (Faber), a collection of first person stories which reads like a cubist novel. The nameless narrators could well be the same person even if their external circumstances differ but the tone is admirably sustained, capturing the absolute loneliness of the adolescent world. The title story is a real tour de force, an affecting but controlled account of a sick baby and its parents’ bedside vigil.
A Journalist and Ghostwriter, Sue is the co-author of two recent number one bestsellers: Whispering Hope, the True Story of the Magdalene Women, (Orion 2015,) and An Act of Love with Marie Fleming, recounting Marie’s extraordinary life, and fight for the right to die with dignity.(Hachette Ireland, 2014)
As a journalist, Sue has written for The Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Irish Examiner, The Evening Herald, Image Magazine, and numerous other publications. A former columnist with the Evening Herald she currently writes the ‘Beginner’s Pluck’ book column for the Irish Examiner, and the Debut Roundup Column for Books Ireland.
Two books really stood out for me in 2016. The first is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack, the worthy winner of the Goldsmith Prize and the overall BGEIBA. I was swept along by his ideas and wondrous prose.
The second, Commonwealth by Ann Pachett had everything I love in a book. I read it in one sitting; lying on a rug in the garden on one of our rare days of summer. It’s possibly, my favourite book of all time. Sheer perfection!
MICHAEL NAUGHTON SHANKS
Michael Naghten Shanks lives in Dublin. New poems are forthcoming in ‘gorse’. He was shortlisted for the inaugural Listowel Writers’ Week Irish Poem of the Year at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards 2016. Year of the Ingénue (Eyewear Publishing, 2015) is his debut poetry pamphlet.
My favourite book published in 2016 was Luke Kennard’s Cain. Smart, inventive, funny and meta; this is a collection from a poet at the top of his game.
Isabelle Darcy is very nearly ten years old and a frequent reviewer for HeadStuff.org
I read loads of good books this year but my two favourites that were actually published in 2016 and not fifty years ago were The Ghosts of Magnificent Children by Caroline Busher and the other was a sequel to The Book of Learning by ER Murray called The Book of Shadows. It’s hard to find books for my age group (that my Mum will actually let me read) that aren’t about princesses and unicorns (though I kind of like unicorns) and these two books were just great. The Ghosts of Magnificent Children is set in England and was full of super good characters and what I liked about both it and The Book of Shadows is that these characters were all a little bit strange/weird and fun to get to know. Not a princess in sight! The Book of Shadows also really lives up to its name and is full of darkness and shadows, and I really can’t wait to read the last in the series next year. Both books suitable for boys or girls (aged around 10 or so) which is also kind of cool. I also really enjoyed David O’Doherty’s Danger Really is Everywhere which I told you already about here.