A panel of book lovers and writers have each revealed their Top 5 books of 2021 on Arena; covering popular fiction, crime, non-fiction, sport and music. Seán Rocks brought together writer Edel Coffey, sports broadcaster Damien O'Meara, music journalist Éamon Sweeney, and writer and crime-fiction fan Declan Hughes to narrow down their 5 favourite books of the year and talk about their choices on the show. Some of their picks offer total escapism, while others tell pandemic-tinged stories. There are biographies of stellar figures in music and in sport, as well as quirky tales from all genres, laced with fact and fiction to devastate and delight.

All four panellists agreed that Covid has – to some degree - changed how they read. But it’s not all bad, says writer Edel Coffey, who says she's found a renewed enthusiasm for strong stories and big, juicy plot lines. Edel told Seán that she has friend's whose normal reading habits have been affected by low-grade pandemic anxiety. But she says there has been a return to reading, and it’s been accompanied by a desire for drama:

"It was almost like learning to read again in a way; like you needed action, or you needed a really distinct voice to grab you in a way. That’s what 2021 did to me, anyway!"


Top of Edel Coffey’s list is Claire Keegan’s Small Things like These. It’s a novel set in New Ross in the 1980’s tells the story of a mysteriously imprisoned young woman and the moral dilemma that arises from her discovery. Edel has read it a number of times, she says:

"This book for me is the best book of the year by a country mile: fiction, non-fiction, whatever you want: Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These. It is just a work of such immense beauty, it tells us so much about us as an Irish people, it tells us so much about us as human beings."

Edel Coffey’s non-fiction pic is The Right to Sex by Oxford professor and author Amia Srinivasan. It’s a collection of essays which sprang from Professor Srinivasan wrote about a British-American student who went on a killing and maiming spree in Isla Vista, California in 2014. His actions were reportedly motivated by his frustration that certain women would not sleep with him:

"She wrote this essay for the London Review of Books called 'The Right to Sex’ and it was all about this incel [involuntary celibate] Elliot Rogers who was this 22-year old college dropout who killed 6 people and wounded 15 others in California."

Edel says that Amia’s essays are accessible and include a thought-provoking series of questions about where we are with sex and consent in the early 21st century. Here’s the full list of Edel’s five fiction and one non-fiction picks for Arena:

Small Things like These by Claire Keegan, Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan, Magpie by Elizabeth Day Bright, Burning Things by Lisa Harding, Check Out 19 by Claire Louise Bennett, The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan


Music journalist Éamon Sweeney raved about the state of the music book market at the moment, which he says is in excellent health. He spoke about the Sinéad O’Connor autobiography Rememberings, which he says adds so much to the media reports on the Dublin singer-songwriter over the years. Éamon also talked about his "wild card" music book selection The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music of the Coast by Jennifer Lucy Allen: an homage to the dying art of warning ships with "sleepy bellowing" noises. The author is a music presenter on BBC3 who came to think of foghorns as "music" through the work of avant-garde artists like John Cage. Allen was hooked and set about writing a biography of foghorns, Éamon says:

"She basically goes around the world researching foghorns. And this is where the book gets funny as well. She would go in to somewhere like the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and would go ‘I’m looking for these particular archives; I’m doing a book on foghorns.’ You would think that people in libraries all over the world would be used to weird academics and writers saying I’m doing a book on blah, blah, blah. But the foghorn ones, once she blows her cover, they are astounded, from San Francisco to all over the world. And she collects all these stories."

Jennifer Lucy Allen even befriends a Belfast foghorn enthusiast whose conversation is restricted to lighthouses and foghorns, in spite of objections from his family. Éamon says the book is actually riveting:

"This is a book – I suppose niche might be an understatement – but it’s surprisingly accessible. In terms of maritime history, social history, musicology. In terms of a book that’s really original, really joins all the dots."

Here’s Éamon’s top 5 music books of 2021: Excavate! The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, Rememberings by Sinead O'Connor, There and Black Again by Don Letts, Tenement Kid by Bobby Gillespie, The Foghorn's Lament by Jennifer Lucy Allen


Damien O’Meara may be surrounded by wall-to-wall sport in the day job, but he’s not equally keen on all sports. That doesn’t stop him from loving a book about one of his least favourite sports: boxing. Damien has nothing but praise for Damage, by long-standing boxing journalist Tris Dixon. Damien says the book is a tough read in parts, but he also thinks the book deserves to be read widely:

"It’s an examination of brain trauma, CTE and what boxing has known over the years about the long-term damage that it inflicts upon its participants. It’s part history, part investigation. It is really difficult to read in patches, but it is a phenomenal piece of work."

Here are Damien’s Top 5 sports books of 2021: Crossing The Line by Willie Anderson, Fight or Flight by Keith Earls, Damage by Tris Dixon, Emerald Exiles by Barry Landy, Barca by Simon Kuper


Talking about crime novels is tricky, Declan Hughes says, as any comment could be a spoiler:

"It’s always difficult to talk about crime fiction because of course you can’t talk about the plot, but take it from me this is very well plotted."

Without revealing anything important, Declan zeroed in on some of the great writing in one of his top picks, Blood Ties by Brian McGilloway. The novel is set in the lead-up to the pandemic and features the return of Inspector Benedict Devlin. The emotional heart of the book, Declan says, is the father-son relationship:

"There’s a brilliant description of how the father starts to talk more directly about his feelings for the son, and Devlin moves to shut things down. He says; ‘ Understanding that I’d want to remember every word he’d said, but keen for the conversation to be over too.’ And I thought that captures the Irish male father-son thing completely!"

Here are Declan Hughes’ Top 5 crime novels of 2021: Dream Girl by Laura Lippman, The Survivors by Jane Harper, 56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard, Blood Ties by Brian McGilloway, A Man named Doll by Jonathan Ames

Listening back to the book chat in full with the top-5 lists in front of you is highly recommended. The expert reviewers talk about their favourites with such passion, colour and enthusiasm, it might just transform your last-minute festive book-buying experience. You can listen back here.