Last week I wrote about the books my kids loved this year – 28 recommendations from my kids to yours – so this week I thought I’d post about the books I loved in 2018. There are lots of “best books” newspaper articles and blog posts at the moment, and at first I thought about trying to choose some favourites, but then I figured why not mention all of them – I didn’t read a single book I didn’t like this year so leaving any of them out doesn’t seem fair.
Many of them are written by Irish women – this is partly because I bought them at launches or to support authors I’ve come to know a little, but it’s also because there are so many really excellent books written by Irish authors. So here we go – for anyone looking for Christmas recommendations; a roundup of all the books I read this year:
The Dry – Jane Harper
I started this on the Kindle App on my phone on the bus one night last January – I was on my way into Dublin city centre for a college reunion, and had an hour of bus-time to kill. Within two pages, I knew I was on to a good thing. The opening chapter of The Dry is set at a funeral in a remote Australian town and the atmosphere is perfect. The writing is excellent and the plot pacy, a perfect whodunnit in an Australian heatwave. When I grow up, I want to be Jane Harper. (And PSA: Kindle app on phone is amazing!)
The Abandoned – Sharon Thompson
Set in Dublin’s tenements in the 1950s, The Abandoned is about Peggy Bowden who wants to help other women but ends up on the wrong side of the law. The book gives a very authentic depiction of Dublin in the 1950s and Peggy is a fascinating hero, or anti-hero. She’s utterly believable and I kept turning the pages to see where she’d end up. This reminded me very much of Peaky Blinders, one of my favourite TV series in recent years.
Behind A Closed Door – Adele O’Neill
Behind A Closed Door is Adele O’Neill’s second novel and like The Abandoned above, it’s set in Ireland, but in present day. It’s about domestic violence, as experienced by two main characters (Heather and Jill) and it’s also about two detectives from Adele’s first book who reappear. It’s a page-turner – a quick and emotional read, and I found I needed keep going to the last page to see how it would all end.
Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling – Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen
I love the stories on the OMGWACA Facebook page and I love this first novel about Aisling – it’s funny, moving, utterly relatable and so entertaining from start to finish. As her inventors say, there’s a little bit of Aisling in all of us. (My biggest Aisling habit: counting my drinks.)
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
I got this for Christmas last year and although I really enjoyed it, I wished I’d read it before the hype. I was waiting to be blown away because so many people raved about it, but it took a good half of the book before I got really into it. But ultimately, it was lovely – sad and happy and poignant and definitely different.
The Liar’s Girl – Catherine Ryan Howard
I loved Catherine’s first book (Distress Signals) so was really looking forward to this – it’s about a woman whose ex-boyfriend is a serial killer, responsible for five murders in Dublin. She has escaped her past by moving country, but is called back when there’s another murder, even though her ex is still locked up. It’s really well-paced, very much a page-turner, and I particularly loved the “back in college” flashback chapters. I’m a very slow reader but finished this in two days – highly recommended for anyone who likes their crime well-written (and sure how doesn’t!)
Almost Love – Louise O’Neill
I won this in a Twitter draw (proving that wasting time on social media is not always wasting time) and really, really liked it – it’s a quick read, one that kept me turning the pages to see what would happen. The main character isn’t terribly likeable but I think any of us who has ever obsessed over anything could relate at times. It’s about love, or almost love, or obsession – an affair with a married man who is estranged from his wife, and the fallout that comes from that.
Skin Deep – Liz Nugent
The main character in Skin Deep is the despicable Cordelia, a protagonist you love to hate. I felt sorry for her too, and could empathise with some of her behaviour, but mostly I wanted to shake her. Or hug her. A very different book, extraordinarily well written, and wonderfully cyclical in its perfect ending. I know I said I wasn’t going to pick favourites but if you held me down and threatened me with bodily harm (as some of Liz Nugent’s characters might indeed do) I’d say Skin Deep was my book of the year.
The Missing Ones – Patricia Gibney
The Missing Ones is Patricia Gibney’s first book, and features Detective Lottie Parker, one of the most likeable fictional detectives I’ve come across. It’s set in the town of Ragmullen (which to the trained eye, looks quite similar to Mullingar) and it opens with a murder in a church. There are dark secrets in Ragmullen, and Lottie Parker is caught up in the crime in a personal as well as professional manner. She’s also dealing with the loss of her husband, and raising three teenage children. This is a great read for police procedural fans and anyone who likes crime set in Ireland. And the good news is, there are four more in the series.
Deadly Blind – Siobhan Bunni
Deadly Blind is a police procedural about a mysterious kidnapping of two women. DI Naomi Fox who has just moved from Dublin to Galway is in charge of the investigation – another very likeable fictional character, also dealing with loss. It’s well-plotted, fast-moving and solid – for fans of Sinéad Crowley and Sam Blake, or anyone who likes (fictional) crime set in Ireland.
Little Bones – Sam Blake
The premise for this story hooked me in straight away – tiny bones found sewn inside an old dress. Whose are they and why were they put there? Detective Cathy Connolly investigates, while busy hiding a secret of her own. The story moves between Dublin and London, and everything is woven together, perfectly in tune with the tailoring theme.
Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult
I read one Jodi Picoult book years ago and liked it but somehow missed trying any of her of her (many) other books. But I heard Small Great Things was very good, so when it went on sale for 99p on Amazon I decided to buy it. I really enjoyed it – it’s a page-turner, deftly written, eliciting all the right emotions in all the right places. It’s about racism in the US, played out from the point of view of three characters all caught up in a tragedy that takes place at the start of the story. A clever and very satisfying ending too.
Force of Nature – Jane Harper
I loved The Dry so much, I bought Force of Nature as soon as it came out and raced through it. It’s about a group of employees who go on a team-building trip together but not everyone comes back. It features the same main character as The Dry (Aaron Falk) who is as flawed and introverted as the next main character, but very well written and very enjoyable to read. Again, it’s crime set in Harper’s native Australia, and although the setting doesn’t feature as memorably as it does in The Dry, it’s a really well made crime novel. I still want to be Jane Harper when I grow up.
Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
This is a real “book club” book – a book that’s fresh and different and gets people talking. It’s written from every character’s perspective – you hear all their thoughts, which I found a little odd at first but soon got used to it. It’s about a Chinese-American baby adoption that goes wrong, but really it’s about the intertwined lives and relationships of two families in Shaker Heights, Cleveland.
The Blamed – Emily Hourican
Back to Irish women writers again and I loved The Blamed by Emily Hourican – about a mother and her daughter, and their relationship while tiptoeing around a disorder and a secret history from twenty years earlier. It’s so well-written, with some very flawed characters and a great story. I hung onto every word and can’t wait to see what’s coming next from Emily Hourican. When I’m not being Jane Harper, I want to be Emily Hourican.
Harvesting – Lisa Harding
This is not the easiest book but I truly think everyone should read it. It’s about sex trafficking, and is based on real accounts from real girls, as told to Lisa Harding. She put them together and portrayed them through two fictional characters, Nico and Sammy. Someone said to me recently she might not have read it if she knew what it was about, but was so glad she did. I think that sums it up.
On Bone Bridge – Maria Hoey
Maria is my Poolbeg twin – our first books came out last year within a month of one another, and this year was the same for our respective second books, so basically we’re navigating the sometimes confusing world of publishing together. Maria is a fantastic writer and I loved On Bone Bridge – it’s classified as crime though it’s more of an old-fashioned mystery. Hugely atmospheric, I could see every scene in my mind as the lives of Violet-May Duff, Rosemary-June Duff, and Kay Kelly are played out from childhood on. It’s about something that happened on a bridge when the characters were ten-years-old and I absolutely loved it.
The Flight of the Wren – Orla McAlinden
I was lucky enough to hear Orla read from her debut novel at Bray Literary Festival in September and the opening chapter reeled me in – an elderly woman with a sharp wit (“Put ‘Sarah Mahon lived a lie as Sally Gordon’ if you can afford to pay a stonemason for all the extra words”) dying of Spanish flu. Then we’re taken back to Ireland in 1848, at the height of the famine. It doesn’t sound cheery put like that, but it’s an important story about women in Ireland during that time in our history, and it is wonderfully, wonderfully told. Orla McAlinden is a very talented writer.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf – Helen Cullen
For me this was a departure, as it’s not crime, there’s no blood, no murder, no psychological tension, but there is mystery – who is Winter and why is she writing to William Woolf? He works in the Lost Letters department at the post office – his job is to find out where lost letters were supposed to go, and send them on. That element of the book is particularly lovely – the letters and their detours via William’s desk. But in real life, his marriage is in trouble. This is beautifully written and I love the idea that someone takes care of lost letters.
Bear Town – Frederik Backman
I heard from a few people that this was fantastic but at 40 pages in, I wasn’t so sure. There are a lot of characters, and they play a lot of hockey. And similar to Little Fires Everywhere, you hear the thoughts of every character. But by the end, it was one of my favourite books of the year – I cried so many times, not because of great tragedies (though bad things do happen) but because of perfect little nuggets of goodness and humility and small actions that shout from the rooftops.
Death At Whitewater Church – Andrea Carter
This is old-school crime detection at its best – Ben is a modern day Miss Marple, asking questions, taking note, gently nudging the police when they need a nudge. She’s a solicitor, which arguably gives her more access than Miss Marple ever had, and she has a past from which she’s trying to run. This first book is a great read, and there are three more in the series, plus an upcoming TV drama.
Roar – Cecelia Ahern
I haven’t finished this yet but that’s how it works – it’s 30 short stories about 30 fictional women: quirky, wry, smart, and very relatable. There’s The Woman Who Lived on the Shelf and The Woman who Ate Photographs, and The Woman Who Forgot Her Name – my favourite. We’ve all been there.
The Confession – Jo Spain
This is a fast, fun crime read – a “whydunnit” that opens with a murder, and a wife who may or may not know more than she lets on. It’s set in Dalkey, Dublin, and flits back and forth in time in a way that’s easy to follow and done really, really well. I loved it. Jo Spain also co-wrote Taken Down on RTÉ, has another book out now, another coming in January, and one next July. Whenever I feel like taking a break from writing or a morning off, I think, “Would Jo Spain take a morning off?” and then I keep going. A literal inspiration.
Till the Cows Come Home – Lorna Sixsmith
This is completely different from my usual crime reads – a memoir by Irish writer and farmer Lorna Sixsmith. As someone who grew up visiting grandparents’ farms most weekends and every school holidays this brought me right back to childhood days – it’s warm, easy to read, engaging, nostalgic, and really, really enjoyable.
Her Name Was Rose – Claire Allen
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, living at home but old enough to stay up reading as late as I liked, I used to read Christopher Pike books and Barbara Vine books till 3am, even when I had college the next morning. Her Name Was Rose brought me back to those days – a book I didn’t want to put down. It’s about Emily, who witnesses a fatal car crash and takes an unhealthy interest in the victim. Expertly plotted, with not a word wasted, it’s fantastic.
A Thousand Roads Home – Carmel Harrington
This is about Ruth and her son DJ who become homeless (in a way that’s not dramatic, they’re not running away, but just in that scary way that could happen to anyone on the whim of a landlord or an employer). It’s a very warm, engaging book about a very tough but relevant subject and I flew through it. Definitely my favourite of Carmel’s books so far.
Up next for me: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan, and Snowday by B.R. Maycock.
If you have any tips, I’d love to hear them; if you’re buying books for Christmas, happy shopping, and if you’re planning some downtime with a good read, enjoy!
PS I’m giving away signed copies of One Click and The Other Side of the Wall on my Facebook page at this link – just comment to enter, and I’ll pick a winner on Sunday night – good luck!