Looking for your next great read? Find Books Editor Orna Mulcahy’s 2021 recommendations all in one place …
Evenings are long and diaries empty, so it’s a good time for vicarious thrill-seeking. Daisy Buchanan’s debut novel Insatiable, Sphere, €14.99, delivers, with its vivid reminders of a time when people worked in offices, mingled at parties and snogged each other senseless. “As filthy as it is funny” is how Dolly Alderton describes it and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments between sex scenes so vividly drawn you’ll be glad of the privacy of a Kindle. Buchanan is absolutely fearless and one can only hope there’s a sequel on the way.
Ok, let’s imagine the worst and mankind is doomed. Another debut, Bethany Clift’s The Last One at The Party, Hodder & Stoughton, €16.99, hurtles us forward to 2023 when a far deadlier virus takes hold of the world and wipes out everyone except one woman who now has plenty of time to ponder the identity of her newborn child. Having buried her loved ones, she puts herself up at London’s poshest hotels and raids the empty halls of Harrods for Birkin bags and vintage Krug. A true pandemic page-turner, with a satisfactorily chilling end.
With events so distracting, even the most dedicated readers are finding it difficult to concentrate on big reads. Short stories and essays fill the gap. For those who like things bleak and beautiful, Under a Dark Angel’s Eye, Virago, €18, is a new collection of stories from Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train. This collection, which marks the 100th anniversary of her birth and includes two previously unpublished stories, has unease and menace oozing from the most respectable situations.
Joan Didion: Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Knopf, €18.99, is a slim collection of early essays from the writer who so movingly chronicled the loss of her husband John Gregory Dunne in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Year of Magical Thinking. Now the subject of a superb Netflix documentary, The Centre Will Not Hold, this collection finds her dropping in on Nancy Reagan, attending a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, musing on long-distance running. Didion’s spare style of writing is refreshing in an age of oversharing.
It wasn’t until the age of 60 that romantic novelist Rosamunde Pilcher hit the bestseller list with The Shell Seekers, voted one of the best 100 books in Britain by the BBC. Pilcher sold a staggering 60m books before her death in 2019 at the age of 94. A Place Like Home, Hodder & Stoughton,€17.90, is a new hardback collection of 15 stories set in gorgeous romantic locations, from the Scottish highlands to Mediterranean islands where the sun pours onto hotel balconies furnished with iced bottles of champagne. Of course, love wins out, most of the time, in these charming stories that are surprisingly comforting to read, like literary gravity blankets.
Escape to the country? Hmmm be careful. The Smash Up by Ali Benjamin, Hachette, €17, has a smart New York couple, Ethan and Zenobia, decamp to nowheresville in search of some peace and quiet but instead they find themselves embroiled in hashtag hell as controversy erupts around Ethan’s business partner. Soon their marriage is buckling under the strain of a MeToo crisis as tweets fly and neighbours flee.
Calm and reassuring, in A Whole New Plan For Living: Achieving Balance And Wellness In A Changing World, Hachette, €17, psychiatrist Jim Lucey writes compassionately about the gut-wrenching stress of mental illness and how it can be overcome.
Dark, funny, immensely generous, artist Francis Bacon is exhaustively probed in an authorised biography ten years in the making. Francis Bacon Revelations, Harper Collins, €40, by acclaimed art critics Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, includes new information about Bacon’s childhood in Ireland, his life in London, Paris, Tangiers and Spain, and his vast network of friends that put him in the very centre of the artistic world.
The valium, the vodka tonic in the bath, the Solpadeine, the grinding of teeth to the bone, the alcohol fumes breathing over her babies with
the bedtime stories … Sophie White chronicles it all in CORPSING, her own vivid story of self-harm, self-loathing and grief published by Tramp Press, €15. Tramp has an unerring eye for beautiful books and this is one. For anyone feeling flattened by life, this book could be your friend.
Stella Duffy knows how to tell a dark tale and in LULLABY BEACH, Virago hardback, €19.30, she intertwines the lives of two families in a cruel and brutal dance down three generations. Central to the story is Kitty, a retired district nurse who, though dead by page two, reveals the true story of her life in a cryptic set of dates that lead to a grim discovery in the walls of her beloved beach hut. Don’t expect a heart-warming, Call the Midwife-style finish but do expect brilliant plot twists and violence that’s all the more disturbing for being so occasional and almost casual.
Tipped as rising star in British fiction, Fiona Mozley’s debut novel Elnet was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and appeared in the Leaving Cert English paper in 2018. Her latest novel, HOT STEW, John Murray, €19.30, is set in London’s Soho, where a host of sharply drawn characters, from prostitutes to seeming pillars of society, come together as the foundations of the neighbourhood reveal unsavoury secrets.
Short reads are increasingly what we want and SIMPLE PASSION, Fitzcarraldo, €10.20, a 1991 novel by French writer Annie Ernaux, now translated by Tanya Leslie, (with a film version just released starring Laetitia Dosch) delivers a heart-rending story of a scorching love affair, down to the tiny details, in just 48 pages. It’s a little masterpiece.
Raw and raging with emotion, Megan Nolan’s debut novel ACTS OF DESPERATION, Jonathan Cape, €13.99, is a highly-strung story set in Dublin where it’s love at first sight when the narrator meets Ciaran, a tall fair Dane who slowly reveals himself to be an altogether darker creature as the couple spiral into an addictive, abasing relationship with a shocking end. Nolan’s knife-sharp scrutiny of the need to love and be loved, and her short staccato chapters make this an unstoppable read. I could not put it down.
What did Sylvia Plath, Liza Minnelli and Joan Didion have in common? They all stayed at The Barbizon, a female-only hotel built in the Roaring Twenties in New York. Men were only barred from its 688 pink-painted bedrooms though many tried down the decades, dressing up as plumbers and on-call gynaecologists, according to historian Paulina Bren, who, in THE BARBIZON: THE HOTEL THAT SET WOMEN FREE, Simon & Schuster, €28.40, recalls the heyday of the hotel when Grace Kelly danced topless down its corridors.
The cloud of Covid makes A MATTER OF DEATH AND LIFE, Piatkus, €19.30, all the more poignant and relevant as husband and wife Irvin Yalom and Marilyn Yalom – a psychiatrist and a writer – take a chapter each to describe their long married life together and the difficult choices they face as serious illness looms.
Finally, political nerds and snobs everywhere will love HENRY ‘CHIPS ’ CHANNON, The Diaries 1918- 38, Hutchinson, €39.80. Previously heavily edited, these are the original unexpurgated diaries of Henry Channing, American-born Tory MP and notorious social climber and gossip who was a close friend of Wallis Simpson and who married the brewing heiress Lady Honor Guinness. It is going to be good.
Thirteen years on from his highly praised first novel Bad Day in Blackrock, Kevin Power is back with White City, a disquieting story about a life unravelling in South County Dublin. Only child Ben is 27 with very little to show for it, a steady allowance from his banker father allowing him to idle through his PhD and attempt a novel. But things hurtle downhill when a €600m hole is discovered in the bank’s balance sheet and the guards are crawling all over the family home. His allowance cut, Ben discovers drugs and doesn’t ask questions when an old classmate offers to cut him into a property deal in the Balkans. Power keeps his foot on the doom pedal as the dark heart of the White City development is revealed. Sharp characters and Ben’s unflinching inner gaze make this an unstoppable if uncomfortable read.(Scribner, €15).
Bill Buford is back at the restaurant kitchen coalface in Dirt, in which he gives up a perfectly lovely life as a New Yorker editor and heads to France with his wife and three-year-old twin sons. For anyone who devoured his 2006 book Heat, in which he immersed himself in Italian cuisine to the point of near-insanity, Dirt is just as entertaining. In the rather dour city of Lyon, Buford encounters epic levels of French culinary snobbery while working first in the city’s best-loved boulangerie before graduating to the punishing atmosphere of a Michelin-starred kitchen. A very funny read. (Vintage, €11.63).
In A Year At The Château Dick Strawbridge and his exuberant wife Angel tell how they fell for a 19th-century down-on-its-luck-chateau with sagging ceilings and poor plumbing, never expecting that their renovation journey would attract three million viewers of the hit Channel 4 series, Escape to the Château. (Orion, €14.70).
Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien is a German bestseller in which five loosely interlinked women fall in and out of love while attempting to keep their family, careers and selves afloat. Krien’s flat calm voice is both soothing and shocking as she guides her characters through love, marriage and affairs that often end abruptly. (MacLehose Press, €17.40).
A painful mother-daughter relationship is explored in My Phantoms (Granta, €15) a slim, unsparing novel from British writer Gwendoline Riley. Academic Bridget makes duty visits to her mother, Hen, who is lonely and ailing in her unsuitable flat surrounded by newspaper piles and boxes she’s never unpacked. Increasingly, Bridget has to make room for her and the uncomfortable memories of their fragile early family life.
Boy 11963: An Irish Industrial School Childhood and an Extraordinary Search for Home (Hachette, €17.40) is a well-timed publication given the recent revelations around mother and baby homes – John Cameron’s story is beautiful and desperately sad in its detail. At five months old, Cameron was abandoned in an orphanage; at three he was fostered to a totally unsuitable couple, at eight he was sent to Artane Industrial School where his number provides the title for the book. The consolation for readers is that Cameron survived it all to discover his true history and to have a loving family of his own.
In The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, American biographer Paula Byrne turns her attention to the low-key English writer who has gained a quiet almost cult-like following since her death in 1980, three years after she was nominated for the Booker Prize. Encapsulating, as one critic put it, the essence of the England’s “Linoleum Years” (the 1950s) Pym’s novels are mainly set in suburban London or country villages peopled by vicars, spinsters, academics and titled widows. Byrne delves into letters and diaries to discover the essence of Pym herself. (William Collins, €21.94).
Anne Griffin’s debut When All Is Said sold an impressive 120,000 copies. Now comes Listening Still, (Sceptre, €16.30) a highly original story about a family-run undertaking business where both father and daughter can converse with the dead and sort out their problems, posthumously.
Powerfully drawn to the work of famous artist, L, a woman invites him to stay at the retreat she and her husband Tony have built on their coastal farm where the light is particularly lovely. L duly arrives with a guest of his own, leggy insufferable Brett, and both soon entwine themselves in the lives of the main house where daughter Justine and her boyfriend Kurt are entranced by the new arrivals. SECOND PLACE, Rachel Cusk’s latest novel (Faber, €17.60) is possibly set, though it’s never clear, in pandemic recessionary times and L, in fact, has nowhere else to go. Shifty, insightful and spiteful, he reduces the family members to willing bit parts in his own grandiose story. Fans of Cusk’s Outline Trilogy will find the same sparse prose and knife-sharp observations on relationships, ego and self-delusion. I loved it.
Deborah Levy’s REAL ESTATE, (Hamish Hamilton, €12.90), the latest in her series of memoirs, is a marvellous meander around the properties Levy has loved, lived in and dreamed of – her writing huts, her London flat, an “empty nest” apartment in Montmartre, a mysterious grand house by the sea. It’s also a meditation on what it is to be writer finally free of old ties, needing just a room in which to create art that is a kind of real estate to bequeath.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s WHEREABOUTS (Bloomsbury, €17.60), was originally written in Italian by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer who moved to Rome to immerse herself in the language. Having trained herself to think in Italian, Lahiri then translated the book into English for publication. The narrator, a solitary woman in middle age lives in an unnamed Italian city where she observes all around her, guards her privacy and idly contemplates starting an affair with her best friend’s husband. Beautifully written but I ended up disliking her just a little.
Having scooped the Women’s Prize for Fiction with her debut, The Glorious Heresies, and further accolades for its sequel, The Blood Miracles, Lisa McInerney is back with THE RULES OF REVELATION (John Murray, €16.44), a belting read of drink, drugs, music and finally getting to grips with the past.
BOYS DON ’T CRY (Faber, €15.20), is a fine debut novel from primary school teacher Fiona Scarlett in which 17-year-old Joe makes sure his baby brother Finn gets to see life outside their tower block flat. When Finn falls ill, it’s down to Joe to keep his spirits up in beautiful and unexpected ways. Whatever about boys, this book will make you cry.
I escaped reality for a while with MURDER TAKES A HOLIDAY, (Profile Books, €8.99) a collection of classic crime stories for summer by Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Arthur Conan Doyle and others with pages of very satisfactory detective work carried out on a Cornish beach, on an African safari and in a London drawing room.
It’s summertime too in THE BEAUTY OF IMPOSSIBLE THINGS (Corvus, €15.20), Rachel Donohue’s follow up to her best-selling debut, The Temple House Vanishing. Natasha is led through therapy to a summer of long ago when she lived with her beautiful artistic mother in an elegant house overlooking a seaside town. Strange things begin to happen when Natasha realises she has can foretell the future but it doesn’t help her to rescue those she loves.
Noreen and her friend Therese are stranded in a grim Tunisian resort where it doesn’t stop raining; Eithne and Sandy set out across Ireland to scatter some precious ashes; landscape gardener Aiden rubs soil into the bedsheets of a woman he has history with: Louise Kennedy’s collection of short stories THE END OF THE WORLD IS A CUL-DE-SAC (Bloomsbury, €17.60) is both bitter and brilliant with characters that leap from the page and hang around in the mind. @OrnaMulcahy
An idyllic villa by the sea in the south of France is the setting for much of VOYEUR (Tinder Press, €17.20) a smart debut novel from Francesca Reece in which beautiful but aimless Leah is hired as an assistant by bitter, blocked writer Michael who is stunned by her resemblance to his first love Astrid. Reinvigorated by her presence, he entrusts his old diaries to her to transcribe but it emerges that jazz singer Astrid was the true talent of the pair, making her disappearance in Athens decades ago all the more mysterious. Leah pieces together the mystery in between copious amounts of sunbathing and sex with a handsome neighbour.
The fluffy cloud blue sea cover for DEVORGILLA DAYS (Two Roads, €19.50) suggests a timid rural romance but this real-life story has a lot of grit: author Kathleen Hart finds her life of relative luxury wiped out by bouts of cancer and endless operations that leave her scarred, divorced and with just enough money to buy a leaky cottage in remote Scotland. She kits the house out from the community charity shop, takes daily sea swims and joins every local activity possible from knitting to beekeeping. Sounds too parochial for words? In fact Hart has built up a huge following on Instagram where, as @poshpedlar, she pairs beautiful images with uplifting quotations. I’m looking forward to the sequel.
Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s book of short stories TROUBLE (The Stinging Fly, €15) deals with themes of displacement, loss and madness. An apartment purged of an old man’s letters and books is briefly beautiful until a girlfriend fills it to bursting point with her clothes and shoes; a man shoots a barking dog, and then an angry man, from his balcony, accepting a nod of thanks from the man’s wife down below: Ó Ceallaigh’s skill is in making one read on through bleak but completely believable tales.
We know from Daisy Jones and The Six that American writer Taylor Jenkins Reid can deliver a page-turner and her latest novel MALIBU RISING (Hutchinson, €14.99) is even better. It’s California, 1983, and the stunning, talented Riva siblings live for surfing, for each other and the memory of their late alcoholic mother who was abandoned by their famous father. When Nina Riva hosts one of her famously wild end-of-summer parties at her clifftop mansion, the scene is set for incendiary events. If you’ve a beach to go to, take this.
Ed O’Loughlin’s THIS EDEN (Riverrun, €19.50) zips from Vancouver to Palo Alto to Belfast to New York, as struggling engineer Michael Atarian grapples with the loss of his coder girlfriend and soon finds himself on the run from a shady billionaire. O’Loughlin’s debut novel, Not Untrue and Not Unkind was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2009.
In Liza Costello’s THE ESTATE (Hachette, €16) freelancer Beth is persuaded by new boyfriend Jason to house-sit in a semi-ghost estate far from Dublin so they can save money. But as Jason goes to work in Dublin, Beth finds herself hitting the bottle as the estate’s suffocating atmosphere settles around her. No one is prepared for what happens when a neighbour finally flips. Costello creates a brilliantly creepy world in a cul-de-sac.
Creepier still is Karen Perry’s STRANGER (Michael Joseph €12.99) which presents the perfect family of high-flying Abi and house-husband Mark parenting two teenage daughters. Eva is self-aware with a thing for the dad next door. Fifteen-year-old Beth has issues at school, but French exchange student Corinne proves a fun, fearless friend. The pair swap their deepest secrets, and when the family holidays in France with Corinne’s boho parents, they are bound together on a terrifying trajectory. Gripping from grisly start to finish.
Hitler won the war in CJ Carey’s WIDOWLAND (Quercus, €17.24) set soon after in a drab London riddled with spies and Wallis Simpson as queen. High-ranking Rose has a a coveted job, rewriting classic English novels in line with the Great Leader’s thinking, but when she discovers a plot to topple the leader, she finds herself with the means to change the course of history. @OrnaMulcahy
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