Ten Great Books of 2012Thursday 20 Dec 2012
Paddy Kehoe considers ten books published in 2012, that are worth considering when you come to cash in those attractive book tokens. Or, alternatively, there is sure to be a gift among them for someone special...
Eat Like An Italian Catherine Fulvio (Gill & Macmillan)
Catherine Fulvio is the eternally effervescent TV chef, food writer and proprietor of Ballyknocken House and Cookery School, known to us all from her myriad appearances on RTÉ TV and radio (she has a regular spot these Fridays on Today With Pat Kenny). Her feel good positivism makes us feel we too could - with a bit of luck - do all this stuff with no attendant sturm und drang in the kitchen. Catherine’s latest cook book Eat Like an Italian – Recipes for the Good Life is the perfect route to La Dolce Vita culminating in a collection of Italain recipes with an Irish twist. Every recipe shows how to tweak Italian dishes using local produce in a Keeping it Local theme, something Catherine holds close to her heart.
Catherine believes the Italian-style Mediterranean diet is the answer to long-lasting health and happiness and Eat Like An Italian is organised around the Mediterranean food pyramid, with information and tips on how to adapt our daily lives to the healthy, leisurely Italian lifestyle. In fact, you will be kept going with it, as Eat Like an Italian offers a collection of over 100 recipes. And scattered throughout the book are great photographs – just look at that pancetta and pesto risotto, snug in neat bowls, yummy- as well as interesting anecdotes from Catherine’s frequent visits to her husband’s native Italy. Essential to have at the ready when all the Christmas fare is gone.
The China Factory Mary Costello (The Stinging Fly)
In her mostly rural, West of Ireland stories, Mary Costello has a way of skirting around serious illness, almost like the way country people used to avoid mention of the word cancer. She deals bravely and credibly with the way people might react to such disturbing diagnoses, as in the brilliant You Fill up My Senses and Little Disturbances. She has the knack of laying her finger on just the kind of detail that might attract a woman to a man, or vice versa, but she can also render the panicky disorientation when a relationship is threatened by an unhinged spouse, as in Insomniac.
Her characters are tempted, fragile, romantic dreamers, or, if they are not, they are worriers, who sense that something dreadful is going to happen. They may be confused and insecure, like the childless young wife in Room in Her Head: "She did not know what she felt. She did not know what was coming." Costello is outstanding in her ability to construct such sentences of plain-speaking simplicity. Spouses ultimately settle for each other, despite tensions and rows, as in Sleeping with a Stranger. "Mona would never know the depths of him. He would die a faithful husband. They were bound together by the flesh of three sons and the dread of loneliness." Mary Costello is a striking new voice in the busily-peopled choir stall of Irish fiction writing.
Maeve Binchy A Week in Winter (Orion)
News of the impending arrival of the late Maeve Binchy’s novel A Week in Winter was heartily welcomed by her loyal readership following her death earlier this year. This humorous, but moving 361-page story tells how one woman's failed love affair leads to a new life for herself and the elderly owner of the Stone House, in Stoneybridge in the West of Ireland. After years of neglect, the Stone House finally opens as a sumptuous winter guest house, with log fires, elegant bedrooms and a warm welcome for its first guests. They arrive with their tarnished pasts, their disappointments, living in hopes that a change of scenery will turn things around.
Henry and Nicola share an awful secret, while the upbeat nurse Winnie finds herself on the holiday from hell. John descends on the place after missing a flight at Shannon. The rather suspect Freda says she is a psychic and a part-time hairdresser. Maewnhile, Nora is the mysterious older woman, the perpetual observer, watching all the guests like a hawk.
Marian Keyes The Mystery of Mercy Close (Penguin)
"I employ this called the Shovel List." "A shovel . . .? No. A Shovel List. It’s more of a conceptual thing. It’s a list of all the people and things I hate so much that I want to hit them in the face with a shovel." How is that for a shovel-full of mordant humour, Marian Keyes style? That piquant slice of dialogue comes from her latest novel, The Mystery of Mercy Close, a thrilling, witty tale about the chaotic life of endearing private investigator Helen Walsh. But the poor woman’s case-load is gone very slim indeed and things aren’t great on the domestic front, as her flat has been taken away from her.
Indeed Helen has had to move back in with her parents, (which indeed may strike a topical note with many readers.) Back hovering on the margins of her dishevelled life also is her ex-boyfreind, the rather chancy Jay Parker. Problem is Jay has loads of money and, in a professional capacity, he he has asked Helen to try and track down Wayne Diffney, the wacky member from boyband Laddz. The hapless Wayne has disappeared from the house on Mercy Close and must be found as the Laddz (charming name no?) have a major come-back concert to perform in five days time. The clock is ticking and the dilemmas are coming hard and fast, not least for Helen Walsh. Chock full of impish humour and the story literally races along - not for nothing is Marian Keyes an avowed PG Wodehouse fan.
Ancient Light by John Banville (Penguin/Viking)
In John Banville's fifteenth novel, Ancient Light ageing actor Alexander Cleave remembers the passionate, tender affair he had with the mother of his best friend Billy Gray. As the story begins, the teenage Alexander is getting up to the usual boyish adventures with his friend. Then one day, he has a fragmented vision in a multi-sectioned mirror, of Billy's mother, Mrs Gray - unclothed - in her bedroom. This leads to their first intimate encounter in the laundry room of the family home. Further assignations between the young Cleave and Mrs Gray take place in the family station wagon and at an abandoned old cottage. The whole business is a kind of extravagant boyish fantasy - this is Catholic Ireland of the 1950s, yet Mrs Gray cannot resist her son's best friend. Banville is at the top of his game in this beautifully-painted scenario. It as all the Banville grandeur, the elegant sentences, all the light and shade of weather and the elements wonderfully and plaintively evoked. Like his Booker Prize winning 2005 novel, The Sea, Ancient Light could plausibly become the subject of a film treatment some time.
Kevin Powers The Yellow Birds (Sceptre )
This book recently won the Guardian First Book Award, in competition on the initial long-list with Mary Costello’s The China Factory (see above) when the nominations were first announced six months ago. The Yellow Birds is the story of 30-year old war veteran, John Bartle who recalls his traumatic year in Iraq, 12 years earlier, and his comrade-in-arms, 18-year old soldier Daniel Murphy. Murph was a sensitive soul, and Bartle’s sense of responsibility for his safety is at the core of the novel. Bartle made a rash promise to Murph’s mother to look after him at the departure ceremony.
Bartle's thoughful responses made this reader stop in his tracks, and think about war and human nature and the whole damn thing. Another memorable character is Sergeant Sterling who veers between intelligent hyper-efficiency and slowly-creeping psychosis. Bartle lives to tell the tale, about himself, about Murphy, about Sterling, about Iraq. With striking perception, he teases out the implications of what happened, the 'what ifs' of what didn't. Even if he never wrote another novel or short story, The Yellow Birds guarantees a lasting reputation for Powers. We eagerly await the next novel.
Gene Kerrigan The Big Lie (Transworld)
The lead-up to Christmas is not meant to be a time for doom and gloom, so recommending Gene Kerrigan’s new book seems mildly discomfiting. But given that most of are seriously discomfited about bank bail-outs, a sclerotic economy, and a bleak prognosis for 2013, maybe we will feel better after we find out who actually profits from our austerity. Then indeed we can direct all our bile with more intensity and accuracy.
The noted Sunday Independent journalist (and award-winning crime fiction writer) spreads his net far and wide in this lively 238-page account and the sordid depredations of the Tiger years do not escape his attention either. “Layers of underlings – lawyers, accountants, consultants of various stripes, PR mouthpieces- were paid appropriate gross premiums for servicing the elite. Their contemporaries in health, architecture and engineering insisted on being equally well rewarded.”
Kerrigan can lure one in deftly too in The Big Lie. “Franco Maria Malfatti was an Italian politician who traced his lineage back to Philip of France, a rather brutal and avaricious thirteenth-century king. Jim Tunney from Finglas was Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin North-West. When they met, around May 1971…” . . and so the story continues - and don’t you want to read on?
Robert MacFarlane The Old Ways - A Journey on Foot (Hamish Hamilton)
This book is being hailed as a masterpiece by many discerning readers, in those end-of-year lists that always make you feel vaguely guilty about what you missed. (You had better go out and get one or two of the chosen ones instantly, you think, as you get that, er, snowed under feeling.) MacFarlane’s account details his walk through the ancient tracks, holloways - there's a word for you now - drive-roads (boreens to us, I take it) and sea paths of England and Scotland. He is fascinated by all he sees, from the birds in the trees to the beauty of both Anglo Saxon and Gaelic phrases and words. He makes some interesting diversions abroad, walking in the disputed territories of Palestine, peregrinating through the Camino in Spain. The amiable young Cambridge academic treks in the Himalayas too (as you do). All the while, MacFarlane (born 1976) shares his seemingly boundless knowledge with us in a light, airy and refreshing fashion. Travel writing, but not as we know it, Jim.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez The Sound of Things Falling, (Bloomsbury)
Two years ago the brilliant young Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez (born 1973) declared that he was planning a novel that would "show how the drug trade affects somebody not involved in it; somebody who – like me – has never seen a gram of coke in his life". The Sound of Things Falling - which delivered what Vásquez promised - duly won Spain's Alfaguara prize last year.
Translated into English by Anne McLean, this almost 300-page thriller is a taut, sophisticated exploration of Colombian society in dark days. The novel begins with the fatal shooting of a hippo, which escapes from the private zoo owned by Pablo Escobar, the drug lord shot dead in Medellín some 16 years previoulsy. For the narrator, Antonio Yammara, a Bogotá law lecturer in his late 30s, the hippo’s demise is his unlikely reminder of the 1990s, when the country was exhausted after years of internecine strife between the drug cartels and the state.
He suddenly remembers Ricardo Laverde, an ex-pilot pal from the billiard halls they both frequented. Laverde had spent almost 20 years in jail, but was killed in a drive-by motorbike shooting, in which Yammara himself was also injured. The lawyer seeks to discover the true circumstances of the life and death of Laverde, which takes him into decidedly murky terrain, conjured with consummate narrative skill by Vásquez.
Andrew Motion The Customs House (Faber & Faber)
Andrew Motion was the Poet Laureate of England from 1999 until 2009, a task he took on with the declared aim of making poetry as high profile as possible – poetry should be everywhere, he argued, wherever people gather, including football stadia. His enthusiam for poetry is admirable and indeed his tireless efforts to take it out of any perceived ivory towers.
His latest collection, The Customs House bears as its wrap-around cover image Henri Rousseau’s lush, leafy painting of that title, painted circa 1890. There is tooa poem called The Customs House inside, loaded with suggestion at its tense finishing line. The poem that sets one thinking about baggage and the things we carry.
The collection opens with an impressive sequence of war poems. These are based on the vividly recounted experiences of ordinary soldiers, from The First World War, through World War Two, to Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. The poet’s late parents, who were recalled so vividly in his brilliant memoir, In the Blood (also available from Faber & Faber) are also celebrated in a number of very fine poems in The Customs House.Paddy Kehoe