It’s been a while, sorry all. I'm busy with reading, and this new job…
Glad to finally put together the books from 2017 that I think you should read, and a short review of each.
Barry McKinley – A Ton Of Malice
What a surprise this was. Set in late 70s grimy London with an Irish expat narrator winding his way through drink, drugs, friends, loneliness and all that come with it. Gorgeously, really beautifully written in places, deserves to have a much bigger audience than it’s already had.
Roddy Doyle – Smile
One that stuck with me for a long, long time after I had finished it. How the story ultimately plays out left me satisfied, cold and off-balance. A rare thing.
Salman Rushdie – The Golden House
The Golden House starts around the inauguration of Barack Obama, when a mysterious and recently renamed family of extreme wealth moves from an as yet unnamed country into a mansion in New York. It takes in politics, identity, reinvention, plutocracy and all of the usual whirlwind of breathtaking references you come to expect from him. Loved it.
Shaun Bythell – The Diary Of A Bookseller
Shaun Bythell runs a second-hand book shop in the Scottish town of Wigtown and this is the diary of his days in the shop and, most importantly, the bizarre, bonkers, baffling people who come into it. I haven’t laughed as much reading a book in a long, long time.
June Caldwell – Room Little Darker
God, what a breath of fresh air to read a collection of short stories by an Irish author that, in places, literally blow you away and are frequently like nothing else you’ve read in years! Part dark sexuality, part speculative fiction, all wonderfully original. Yes, not for those with dicky tickers or those that find offence easily (another reason I found myself enthralled by them, BTW) but new, new, new, original, smart, filthy and wonderful.
Gabriel Tallent – My Absolute Darling
A complex story, backstory and future of one teenage girl living with her father in isolation in almost impossible poverty in rural America painted with guns, survivalism, clashes with the world outside, mental health, loyalty and one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve had to read in recent years. You can never, like with last year’s A Little Life, call this 'enjoyable', but it’s certainly one I think you should grab and read as Turtle is one of the most rounded and memorable characters in a long time.
Naomi Klein – No Is Not Enough
This takes threads from all of her previous works and brings them together into the surrounds of one man – Donald Trump. It explains why, literally, just saying "no" isn’t enough anymore and then, hopefully, at the end, shows a possible agenda for the future. Brilliant.
Matt Haig – How To Stop Time
What if there were a tiny portion of the human race who lived for centuries, aging incredibly slowly and being almost invulnerable but weren’t vampires. They were just people. How would you survive people noticing you didn’t age if you were born in the age of witches? How would you make a living? Most importantly, how would you survive without love?
Sarah Crossan – Moonrise
One kid’s last week visiting his brother on death row for a crime he claims he didn’t commit and how it affects everyone around them. Atmospheric, detailed, real, heartbreaking and told in her own unique prose style. This may be the best thing she’s ever written.
Sally Rooney – Conversations With Friends
Frances is a 21-year-old college student, Bobbi is her best friend and ex-girlfriend. They meet older couple Melissa (a photographer) and Nick (a semi-famous actor) and soon the four lives start to intertwine. No thrills, no big bangs, no plot twists, just a story of people. Loved it. May even have teared up a little at the end.
Min Jin Lee – Pachinko
A chunky (700 pages plus) epic span of the story of one poor Korean family living under Japanese occupation in the early 1900s, then moving to Japan just before the war, right the way up until 1989. Full of large and small detail, things I didn’t know, and wonderful painstakingly put together drawings of one normal extended family’s extraordinary journey through a century.
Sarah Winman – Tin Man
One of my favourite books of 2017 by a long way. A small (in both senses of the word) story of one man’s life, marriage, loves, history, solitude and the places we should have ended up and maybe still can. It describes itself as an almost love story, and it is, and more. I don’t want to spoil any of the detail for you as I read it cold.
Mark O’Connell – To Be A Machine
This, to my eternal shame, has been sitting on my shelf for months even though it’s right up my alley. Finished it in a day, and it is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a very long time. Elegant, insightful, wonderfully intelligent and a door to the possible future of the whole human race.
Elan Mastai – All Our Wrong Todays
The story of one man from the 2016 we should have had (flying cars, endless clean energy, bases on the moon!) who, through some improper use of a time machine, ruins it all and ends up in our 2016, warts and all. How clever and lovely and human and brilliantly put together on the time travel bits.
Sara Baume – A Line Made By Walking
Sara Baume’s new book (after the all-conquering Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither) is a similar and yet different beast. Just as beautiful in language, just as hypnotic in the internal monologue of an outsider and their life, and something that will deserve just as much acclaim as her first.
It’s impossibly easy to get lost in the quiet, damaged, hermit-like life of Frankie and, just lie last time, whole paragraphs demand that they are re-read.
Edouard Louis – The End Of Eddy
I can see why there’s been such an international fuss about this. Edouard Louis’s brutal, autobiographical novel is an insight into a rural French life in the late 90s and early 2000s that wouldn’t seem out of place decades prior. His story of growing up gay in a small industrial town in Northern France dominated by the local factory and filled with hard-drinking, violent men is at times hard to read (emotionally, not literally), eye-opening and genuinely unbelievable.
John Boyne – The Heart’s Invisible Furies
I’m tempted to just review this with the one sentence - "I adored this book, and I’m not sure how I could have liked it more" - but just in case that’s not enough. Cyril Avery winds his way almost Forrest Gump-like from his mother’s expulsion for being pregnant and unmarried in West Cork to an almost Royal Tenenbaums-esque childhood and on into what might be considered a dull, average life were it not so extraordinary by turns of fate. Really one of the best things I’ve read in such a long time.
Lisa McInerney – The Blood Miracles
If you remember how much I liked her debut The Glorious Heresies, then it may not come as an enormous surprise to find that the continuing story of Ryan and those that surround him in Cork is just as compelling. Fast, elegantly written in a world of drugs, amorality and dance music but an expansion on the first book that’s far more than a sequel – you end up so much more invested in these characters than you ever were in TGH. She has told the legendary 'second album syndrome' to go feck itself here and I can’t wait for more.
Samer – The Raqqa Diaries – Escape From Islamic State
Simply out, this is the non-fiction book I most want to put into the hands of complete strangers this year. It’s about the life of one young man living in Raqqa in Syria and the unimaginable fate that befalls him, his family and friends as ISIS take over his city and proceed to drag it back into medieval times - before his escape to a refugee camp.
Ciarán McMenamin – Skintown
Skintown is a debut novel set in the 90s in Enniskillen, where a couple of young lads get caught in a huge drug deal on the rave scene between provisionals of both stripes just after the IRA ceasefire. I read the first page of this and was immediately hooked. It’s rattlingly written, hugely immersive, funny too. Adored it. Cracking stuff.
Dave Rudden – The Forever Court
Did you, like me, read and really enjoyed the first in this series Knights Of The Borrowed Dark? This, the second book in the series, is a bajillion times better. People have (lazily) compared the first book, a little, to Harry Potter. I loved Harry Potter, but when was the last time J.K. Rowling wrote a sentence so beautiful you had to re-read it three times? That’s what you’re getting here. Incredible visual descriptions, ideas and conceits that start to drag this world into more YA territory (think Empire as opposed to Star Wars).
Sarah Pinborough – Behind Her Eyes
I’m telling you nothing shy of it starting as a fairly conventional love triangle. Girl meets man in bar, they hit it off, turns out he’s her new boss and then girl meets the bosses' wife and becomes her friend! I know that might sound a bit soap-operaesque, but then the whole venture takes a sharp right hand turn and it all becomes genuinely compelling after that. I was sure I had the shape of this nailed about a third of the way through the book, so did my wife, we were both very, VERY wrong. This is a tightly written, genuinely rattling, clever and water-cooler conversation generating thriller that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
Ali Land – Good Me Bad Me
Ali Land’s debut Good Me Bad Me starts with a fairly attention grabbing scenario. A teenage girl ends up in foster care. As she has handed her mother over to the police. Because her mother is a serial killer. What could have played out like an average episode of Criminal Minds in average hands instead here is textured, human and, in that oldest of clichés, page turning in the hands of a debut novelist.
Lisa Harding – Harvesting
A genuinely harrowing story of human trafficking with two stories being told in tandem – Nico is 12 and from Moldova, Sammy is 15 and from Dublin. Doesn’t flinch from the truths but is never exploitative. I think it’ll do so much more to raise awareness of the evils involved here than a dozen articles in the Irish Times ever will.
Karl Geary – Montpelier Parade
I feel terrible. This one has been sitting in my TBR shelf for 12 full months while all around me raved about it. They were right. Sonny is a working class kid in south county Dublin in the 80s working in a butcher’s shop while going to school, his dad does some building amongst other things.
Vera is an older (to him anyway) woman who lives by herself in the row of Georgian houses of the title and this is the story of what happens after they meet.
Genuinely exquisite, moving, real and one of the best Irish books of the year.
Rick O'Shea's new show is on RTÉ Gold is at 3pm weekdays. He also runs Ireland's largest book club - find out more here.