As we finish off a year of great reads, Jennifer McShane reflects on the ten books that really stood out for her, and that make for great additions to your Christmas gifts.
NOTES TO SELF BY EMILIE PINE (TRAMP PRESS, APPROX €10.99)
Emilie Pine is a startling writer. Her immensely powerful collection of deeply personal, interlocking essays on addiction, rape and infertility jump out from every page. Each story is emotive; from the loneliness of infertility to the wrenching exhaustion of loving an addict – and, above all, it’s real. The UCD lecturer shrewdly self-examines, yet her singular voice is almost a rallying cry; a call to arms for women. She’s that voice. The voice inside that wonders time and time again, “Is it just me who feels like this?” One of Notes to Self’s greatest achievements is that it almost totally silences those waves of doubt we can constantly feel. Read it once, read it again, and pass it on to every woman you know.
A LADDER TO THE SKY BY JOHN BOYNE (DOUBLEDAY, APPROX €15.99)
What would you do to grab even one brilliant idea? Maurice Swift deems this his obsession when he realises that for all his good looks, charm and ambition, nothing can be achieved unless a great idea precedes it. A chance encounter with a celebrated novelist sparks a way out of this dilemma: he’ll use the stories of others and pass the work off as his own. Eventually, these stories make him famous, but he’s begged, borrowed, stolen – and done much worse to get them. Boyne puts a fresh spin on the phrase “everything’s copy” – and it makes for a truly fascinating read.
HOW TO BE FAMOUS BY CAITLIN MORAN (EBURY PRESS, APPROX €14.99)
How to Be Famous follows 19-year-old Johanna Morrigan and her musical journalist alter-ego, Dolly Wilde, after she moves to London and becomes a columnist. Her job is to put pen to paper and depict the life of “The Famouses”, aka those who are really, properly famous. But she gets more fame than she bargained for, thanks to a disastrous thanks to a disastrous two-night-stand with slimy comedian Jerry Sharp, which results in public sexual shaming. novel about a young woman being This anticipated follow-up to How to Build a Girl is hilarious and endlessly relatable.
MILKMAN BY ANNA BURNS (FABER & FABER, APPROX €12.99)
Immersive. That was only one of the praises heaped on this, the winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2018. Anna Burns is the first Northern Irish writer to win the literary honour for her telling of the story of our protagonist: an unnamed 18-year-old girl, who we know only as “Middle Sister”, being pursued by a much older and, as it so happens, menacing, paramilitary figure, the Milkman. It’s a tome that disturbs, but it’s extremely vivid and highly original. It challenges the reader. Timely and relevant, the Troubles-set novel about a young woman being sexually harassed by a powerful man has never felt more potent.
SWAN SONG BY KELLEIGH GREENBERG-JEPHCOTT (HUTCHINSON, APPROX €16.99)
This vivid debut centres on the rise and fall of Truman Capote. After In Cold Blood has reached wild literary acclaim in the 1970s, the revered novelist suffers from a severe case of writer’s block, and uses beautiful, venerable, wealthy women he calls his “Swans”, from Slim Keith to Babe Paley, to write his infamous roman-a?-clef – the book he considers to be his greatest masterpiece. But in exposing the secrets of Manhattan’s rich and elite, his own downfall and self-destruction are secured. This book was based on ten years of research and is a dazzling read.
THE LIDO BY LIBBY PAGE (ORION, APPROX €9.99)
Libby Page’s The Lido is, quite simply, pure feel-good fiction. We follow 86-year-old Rosemary, a lifelong Brixtonite, and young newcomer to the area, 26-year-old Kate. On the surface, they may be generations apart, but the women have two things in common: they’re both alone and lonely, and love outdoor swimming. When the eponymous lido is threatened with closure, their shared passion leads them to form a friendship as they try to prevent this from happening. It’s heartwarming and an absolute joy to read.
NORMAL PEOPLE BY SALLY ROONEY (FABER & FABER, APPROX €15.99)
Sally Rooney’s second novel is one of those slow-burners; the more time you give it, the more it gets inside your head. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it follows Marianne and Connell from their early school days into their post-graduate lives. Both are opposites in every sense, yet their romance is intense and powerful. It’s a love story that works, because you root for them as a couple, yet it’s about so much more than a relationship. The themes of class, wealth and power are all shrewdly observed, and it makes for a truly superb read. Rooney is now the darling of the literary world, and once you finish this, it won’t be hard to see why.
HELP ME! BY MARIANNE POWER (PICADOR, APPROX €10.99)
Self-help books tend to get a bad rap, but journalist and self-help book enthusiast Marianne Power illustrates their massive appeal to followers and fans of the genre and its bestsellers. After finding herself stuck in a rut, Power decided to faithfully follow the diktats of a different self-help book every month to see if she could achieve true happiness. And did it work? To put it simply, the author quickly realised that life keeps happening no matter how many self-help books one reads, and yet it’s her no-nonsense advice that shines through. It’s funny and fearless, with excellent pearls of wisdom from Marianne’s mum added in. I loved it.
BITTER ORANGE BY CLAIRE FULLER (FIG TREE, APPROX €9.99)
Narrator Frances is recalling in old age the summer of 1969, which she spent in a dilapidated English country house. There, while on an assignment, she meets Cara and Peter, an enigmatic couple who take Frances under their wing. They indulge her with luscious picnics, skinny-dipping and plenty of wine, and she soon becomes enamoured. But something is off; the couple’s stories don’t match up. Soon, you come to question whether Cara, Peter or indeed Frances is telling the truth. It has all the claustrophobic undertones of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and slowly builds up before a truly surprising end. This is a story that stays with you.
A SPARK OF LIGHT BY JODI PICOULT (HODDER & STOUGHTON, APPROX €12.99)
This timely and nuanced novel from bestselling author Picoult sees her look at every side of the “right to choose” debate. A gunman takes the staff and clients hostage at a US women’s reproductive health centre, intent on exacting revenge for his daughter’s choice. She expertly gets into the heads of the gunman, the negotiator, the clinic staff and the women trapped inside that day. It’s an emotive issue, and Picoult expertly and unflinchingly depicts all sides.