One of the joys of Christmas is the time to curl up in front of a roaring fire and enjoy a good book – undisturbed. And though this has been an unprecedented year in so many ways, there has been plenty of books to provide escape. From award-winning novels to stocking filler ideas, and from feel good to essential fashion titles, these are some of the Irish and international books published in 2020 I recommend to add to your bookshelves …
For Fashion Mavens
No doubt Alexandra Shulman’s Clothes And Other Things That Matter, Cassell, €17.77, will feature on many fashionistas Christmas list and is an essential addition to any fashion bookcase, read the review here. I am assuming you have read Alicia Drake’s A Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970’s Paris, Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington, Bill Cunningham’s Fashion Climbing, A New York Life? Also add The New Girl by Harriet Walker, Hodder & Stoughton, €14.43. Walker is The Times fashion editor, whose debut novel details the insecurities and passive aggressive atmosphere of working on a glossy magazine called Haute. Vogue: Fantasy & Fashion, Abrams, €66.64, celebrates some of the most magical fashion shoots with archive images from all the great photographers – Annie Leibovitz, Steven Meisel, Irving Penn and Steven Klein et al. I can’t help thinking these mythical productions are a thing of the past – budgets have been slashed for starters. For anyone who enjoyed The Bettencourt Affair: The World’s Richest Woman and the Scandal that rocked Paris in which Tom Sancton reveals the secrets of the family behind L’Oréal, then The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty by Leonard Lauder, Harper, €27.77, is a must-read. This fizzy memoir details how his mother Estée built a global family business. Her mantra was: “There are three ways to get known: telephone, telegraph and Tell-a-Woman.” Leonard learned the ropes and honed his skill in the US navy, which stood him in good stead before navigating the Revlon Wars and the Lancome Wars. Make-up and photography are indelibly linked and Look Again by David Bailey and James Fox, Macmillan, €22.21, charts the rise of the Vogue habitué and photographer as well as his many conquests on and off set. A dyslexic since birth, Bailey told his story to ghost writer James Fox, who hasn’t edited the Cockney’s love of swearing. Revenge as they say is better served cold, which is what Andre Leon Talley exacts in The Chiffon Trenches, Fourth Estate, €22.20. Talley knows what it feels like to fall from a great height. In this case from being the darling of both the French and New York fashion scenes to an obese cast off who is rejected by his former friends Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour. In the same vein look out for Nina-Sophia Miralles Glossy: The Inside Story of Vogue to be published in March 2021.
Barbara Amiel’s fabulously gutsy Friends and Enemies, Constable, €27.77, takes the reader from her world of glittering wealth to near destitution when her husband and media tycoon Conrad Black is (wrongly) jailed for fraud. Amiel reserves special poison for those friends who deserted her: “I have worked out 1,001 way to see them die, beginning with injecting them with the Ebola virus and watching.” With scalpel-like precision Dr Marie Cassidy shares her remarkable professional and personal journey in Beyond The Tape: The Life and Many Deaths of a State Pathologist, Trade Paperback, €14.99. For CSI obsessives like myself, it’s an interesting insight into the world of forensic pathology, describing the intricate processes central to solving modern crimes. Cassidy recounts her work following the tragic deaths of Rachel O’Reilly, Siobhan Kearney, Robert Holohan, Tom O’Gorman and others – along with the Stardust exhumations and other cases from her long career. Barely fictional is Martin Amis’ Inside Story, Jonathan Cape, €17.32. Amis writes unashamedly about the pleasures of sex and an affair as well as his relationships with a trio of greats – Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow and Philip Larkin. Equally feisty is Rosita Sweetman’s recently published memoir Feminism Backwards, Mercier Press, €13.99. As a founding member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in 1970 Sweetman documents her life as a single mother and the joy and pain she has felt, in equal measure, as Irish society has evolved.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €14.43, who has been described as a “wonderfully caustic Sally Rooney” writes about a twenty-something’s tangled love life. Another whip-smart debut was Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out, Serpent’s Tale, €9, whose central character’s (Ann-Marie) life has collapsed (at age 23). She blames everyone but herself. She is convinced love is the answer though this notion is derailed by meeting an unlikely feminist saviour in Stephanie Haight. Another debut that dazzled my colleague Síomha Connolly is The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, Orion, €10.99. This is a multi-generational novel which follows the Sorensen family and their four daughters and their life in Chicago with all the usual ups-and-downs, bonds, tensions, parental guilt and sibling rivalry that are tied into family life. Dolly Alderton’s Ghosts, Fig Tree, €14.99, divided critics and is a novel in two halves. The first half I ripped through about dating, while the second, more poignant, is an ode to love and memory, ageing and identity, dads and families. We can’t mention Dolly without her former partner on The High Low podcast Pandora Sykes, who released her first collection of essays this summer How Do We Know We Are Doing It Right? Cornerstone, €16.99. Any self-respecting millennial with a colour-coded Instagram feed will want this on their coffee table or bookshelf this Christmas. It covers all aspects of modern life from cancel culture to the rise of wellness and millennial burnout. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Dialogue Books, €19.60, also has an Instagram-friendly cover and a plotline that doesn’t disappoint. It deals with issues of race and “passing” (when a person classified as a member of one racial group is accepted as a member of another) and follows twin girls Desiree and Stella as their lives take different pathways when they leave their small town in Deep South America – but come together once again.
You’ll breeze through Miss Aluminium by Susanna Moore, Weidenfeld, €11.10, in which writer and former model Susanna Moore describes hanging out in Hollywood with everyone from Joan Didion to Jack Nicholson. This really is a glossy life – with extra tips from a cast of characters that includes Audrey Hepburn (eg “Always wear shoes the same colour as your hose.”) Time to dig out your Islands in the Stream cd as we move from Hollywood to Dollywood and Songteller: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton, Cassell, €34.99. Who doesn’t love Dolly, especially after her recent $1m donation towards coronavirus vaccine research. Mining over 60 years of songwriting, Parton highlights 150 of her songs, shares photographs, candid insights, and a myriad of memories in her own inimitable style. No Time Like The Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, by Michael J Fox, Headline, €14.99, sounds ominous especially given what we know already about Fox. He has Parkinson’s disease, but this is thoughtful and moving with a side helping of Fox’s trademark sense of humour. Fox documents his daily medical dramas and how he had to learn to walk again following a spinal cord issue, only to suffer a devastating fall, which nearly caused him to ditch his trademark optimism and “get out of the lemonade business altogether.” Jilly Cooper’s Between The Covers, Penguin €16.65, is just the sort of light read best accompanied by a box of Butlers chocolates, being a collection of her irreverent newspaper columns from the 1970s. In one she relates how she deals with Christmas cards, “I cover every available piece of furniture with ours; it is such a marvelous excuse not to dust for a month.” If you need something stronger, excuse the pun, try Types and Shadows: The Roy Strong Diaries 2004 – 2015, Weidenfeld, €27.77, which documents Strong’s life pre-Covid and an endless round of parties, gallery openings, art tours and memorial services. No one escapes his aesthetic fastidiousness – including The Queen who wears “a horrendous brilliant turquoise outfit,” to one party. I’d also include Elizabeth Day’s funny and honest Failosophy: A Handbook For When Things Go Wrong, €11.10, in this category. Having interviewed everyone from Nigel Slater to Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Day has distilled her findings into seven key principles e.g Failure is data acquisition, you are not your worst thoughts and being open about your vulnerabilities is the ultimate act of strength.
Murder and Mayhem
Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton, Penguin, €9.98, is every parent’s basic nightmare – a snow bound siege at a school – this is set in Somerset, but could be anywhere. As the authorities work against the clock, Lupton takes us into the minds of the teachers, pupils and parents as well as the role played by social media and press in this sort of event. I devoured it in a little more than three hours. Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith, Trade Paperback, €14.99, sees the welcome return of private detective duo Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. This time they tackle a cold case – and the disappearance of a GP Margot Bamborough, who went missing in mysterious circumstances in 1974. The chances of solving the case are slim, and it also looks likely that Robin’s messy divorce will be delayed too. For fans of Galbraith (aka JK Rowling), all I can say is, she is back on form and I look forward to the television version of this her fourth Galbraith novel. After the Silence by Louise O’Neill, Riverrun, €12.99 is also about a cold case – this time set on the island of Inisrun where the body of Nessa Crowley was found after a party. The killer couldn’t have escaped Inisrun, but noone was charged with the murder. Ten years later a documentary crew arrives, determined to find evidence, which uncovers a family’s collective guilt and complicity. In Snow by John Banville, Faber, €14.43, (who also writes crime novels under the name Benjamin Black), a body is found in the library of Ballyglass House, Co Wexford which sets the scene for some eccentric characters and the belief that Ireland was a beautiful if benighted country – back in 1957, that is. On my list is Tana French’s The Searcher, Viking, €12.78, which is also set in rural Ireland, so a departure from her Dublin murders. A former Chicago cop mistakenly believes Irish country life is quieter and simpler and soon gets involved when a local boy goes missing and some sheep are mutilated.
Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Tinder Press, €22.21, is inspired by the son of the playwright Shakespeare – whose life has been forgotten but whose name lives on in one of the most famous of plays. I cried over this book which also shows how much O’Farrell knows and loves about apothecaries. Hamnet won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, by the way. Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, Fourth Estate, €14.43, was one of the books of Lockdown 1.0 (though how many of us actually finished it?) This details the final years of Thomas Cromwell, and the finale of the Wolf Hall trilogy. Ian McGuire’s dark literary thriller The Abstainer, Scribner, €11.87, is set in Victorian Manchester – full of Irish immigrants many of whom opposed British rule in Ireland – where the head constable is John O’Connor a recovering alcoholic from Dublin. To say trouble is brewing would be an understatement.
A Ghost in the Throat by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Tramp Press, €16, has just been named as the An Post Irish Book of the Year 2020. This prose debut combines essay and autofiction, as well as weaving together two complementary stories: the narrator’s own relationship with pregnancy and motherhood, and the life of 18th-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Shuggie Bain, Picador, €16.64, Douglas Stuart’s blistering debut novel is the winner of this year’s Booker Prize. The novel is semi-autobiographical and is the story of a sensitive boy and his mother’s alcohol-fuelled decline, both of whom are sympathetically portrayed. Northern Irish writer Anna Burns should be celebrating Christmas in style this year – she banked a cool €100,000, as the winner of the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award for her novel Milkman, Faber & Faber, €16.64. Burns is the first writer from Northern Ireland and the fourth woman to claim the prestigious award in its 25-year history. Milkman is set during the Troubles and is the story of an 18-year-old girl who is harassed by an older man, code name the milkman. Though online, the debut of Dalkey Literary Awards was something to celebrate this summer with Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Narrow Land, Atlantic Books, €16.64 announced as the overall winner. Her novel is a fictional portrait of Jo and the artist Edward Hopper’s life and marriage. For a full review and the shortlisted titles see here.
For Interiors Lovers
At this point in the year all I need some evenings is to look at pretty pictures and deliberate on hypothetical décor projects. Fortunately I’ve found plenty of inspiration. If you can get a copy – which are like hen’s teeth – then At Home With The Tastemakers by Pierre Sauvage, Flammarion, €45.82, covers the trifecta of décor, glossy lives and entertaining with the bonus of a few recipes too. Live Beautiful by Athena Calderone, Abrams, €33.32, shows the EyeSwoon creator tapping into her circle of friends and fashion designers revealing how their carefully crafted interiors came together. Style icons India Hicks and Aerin Lauder have new books on l’art du table too. Both Lauder’s Entertaining Beautifully, Rizzoli €47.14 and Hicks’ An Entertaining Story, Rizzoli, €39.97, contain plenty of name dropping in addition to menu tips. British Designers At Home by Jenny Rose-Innes, €33.28, Hardie Grant features Robert Kime, Kit Kemp, Rita Konig, Beata Heuman and many more in their enviable yet liveable homes. Katie Ridder’s More Rooms, by Jorge Arango, Vendome, €66.64, includes her singular take on colour, texture, pattern, proportion and scale – I particularly wanted to update my bedroom after reading this. I also recommend The Season by Katrine Martensen-Larsen, €54, Narayana Press. This features the homes of twelve Scandinavian artists and their take on Christmas décor and festive eats. I also found it a compelling argument for painting the whole house white and starting over with less stuff. It can be ordered from Nordic Elements Dublin as a last minute gift and is an ode to Norse Noel.
I wouldn’t be without my National Gallery calendar or diary. This year both take their theme from “Reading Women in Art” – a no brainer for stylish bookworms. The Skin Nerd Philosophy: Your Expert Guide to Skin Health by Jennifer Rock, Hachette, €15.99, is how to future proof your skin. Rock’s philosophy is all about accepting the skin you have while working with it to achieve lifetime confidence and happiness. Ideally I’d give this with some of Nunaia’s Nourishing Radiance Serum – my beauty product of the year. For wordsmiths, gift Word Perfect: Etymological Entertainment for Every Day of the Year by Susie Dent, John Murray, €21, to test their knowledge. From tartle (forgetting someone’s name at the very moment you need it) to snaccident (the unintentional eating of an entire packet of biscuits), Dent’s linguistic almanac is full of unforgettable stories, fascinating facts, and surprising etymologies. I haven’t forgotten poetry and gifting a Poetry Ireland’s Friend and Patron membership from €40 (order on the website www.poetryireland.ie) helps support the vital work of the organisation in addition to giving access to exclusive events, advance booking and discounts. Former Irish Children’s Laureate Sarah Crossan debuted her first novel for adults this year. Here is the Beehive, Bloomsbury, €14.41, is definitely in my Top Ten Books of 2020. Gift this with a pair of Paula Rowan’s beautiful gloves. The recipient will understand the significance once she has read the novel, which documents the pain of an undisclosed three-year affair and sudden death of the central male protagonist. It’s written beautifully in stanza form. And for something completely different How To Eat Your Christmas Tree, Delicious Innovative Recipes for Cooking With Trees, by Julia Georgallis, Hardie Grant, €13.33, is equal parts fun and fascinating. Finally, for little ones Will You Be My Friend, by the late Northern Irish writer Sam McBratney, Walker, €14.43. This sees the return of Little Nutbrown Hare 25 years after Guess How Much I Love You. With illustrations by Anita Jeram it’s a celebration of learning to be independent and the importance of making friends.
Merry Christmas and happy reading!
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