What books are you buying this Christmas?

When family and friends are thinking about purchasing books as gifts I am often asked for recommendations and this year, more than most, there is plenty to choose from. Here are ten of my favourite fiction reads of 2014.

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I started the year reading Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, a historical novel set in Iceland during the 1820s and based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in that country. This is one of those books that draws you in from the first page and utterly holds you all the way through to the end. My biggest regret is that I didn’t buy a beautifully bound edition with blue-edged pages that was in stock in my local bookshop last year. If you like suspense and historical fiction and good writing, Burial Rites is one that I definitely recommend.

From Iceland to Ireland for my second choice which is Colm Tóibin’s Nora Webster. Tóibin writes with tremendous authenticity about ordinary people and has the gift of making the everyday profound. To me, he is at his best when he writes about his native County Wexford and this new novel finds him back in the village of Blackwater as he explores the impact of a father’s death on his young widow and family. I preferred Nora Webster to Brooklyn and The Testament of Mary. If you’ve read Toibin before, it’s probably more like The Blackwater Lightship.

From Blackwater to Boston for my third choice which is The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant who is perhaps best known for her novel, The Red Tent. The Boston Girl tells the story of a Jewish girl, born in 1900 to immigrant parents. It takes the form of a conversation between an 85-year old grandmother and her 22-year old granddaughter — an easy and enjoyable read that many grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters will relate to.

From grandmothers to grandchildren for my next choice. Usually young adult fiction wouldn’t cross my radar however I stumbled upon E Lockhart’s haunting mystery We Were Liars in Time magazine’s Best Books of 2014 and because I love books set off the coast of Massachusetts, I decided to give it a go. This is a coming of age story about family secrets and jealousies concealed behind an apparently perfect facade and was one of the reading highlights of my year.

One of the most talked about books early in the year was Donna Tartt’s long-awaited The Goldfinch. Donna Tartt is probably best known for The Secret History. This new novel, The Goldfinch, is old-fashioned story that is strong on plot with a good cast of believable characters and occasionally brilliant writing. Put that together with some interesting themes about life and art not to mention a ‘moral of the story’ and it all adds up to a pretty satisfying read of Dickensian dimensions.

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Not surprisingly, quite a few novels this year tackled the first world war theme and although none of the ones that I read equalled Pat Barker’s fabulous Regeneration trilogy or even Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, one that did appeal to me was Helen Dunmore’s The Lie which explores the long term psychological impact of war. It’s not an action story by any means — instead it focuses on the interior life of its hero, Daniel Branwell.

For action, you can’t beat a good thriller and among those that caught my eye this year were The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins — an absolute page turner told from the perspective of three different women — each of them utterly believable as characters and deliciously unreliable as narrators. If you liked Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, you will LOVE The Girl on the Train. I couldn’t put it down and it had my heart racing.

Another thriller that I enjoyed was Chain of Events by Fredrik T Olsson. In this one, journalist Christina Sandberg’s ex-husband disappears from hospital while being treated for a suicide attempt. A cryptologist with expertise in military code breaking, William Sandberg has special skills that a top secret international organisation urgently requires. But who is behind the organisation and why are they so intent on withholding the contextual information that might help William crack the code? And how is William Sandberg’s experience linked to the killing of a homeless man in a fake ambulance in Berlin?

I started this list in Iceland and my second last choice heads back into Northern waters and the Faroe Islands for a taut thriller by Craig Robertson. The Last Refuge opens with John Callum lying on a stone slab on Torshavn’s harbour, unable to remember how he got there. Callum, who is in Faroe Islands to escape from an incident in his past, is a former teacher from Glasgow haunted by terrifying, violent dreams about an incident involving one of his former pupils.

My last choice is a quirky one for readers who remember those scary movies on television in the 1970s that featured variations on the curse of the mummy’s tomb, Lesley Glaister’s Little Egypt is a captivating tale of twins abandoned by their egyptologist parents, now aged in their nineties having spent a lifetime together trapped in their childhood home by circumstance and a terrible secret.

So, there are my ten suggestions based on what I’ve read myself in 2014. If you enjoyed this list and would like to connect with me for more book suggestions, you’ll find me on Twitter and on Goodreads. Happy reading!

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Tributes to Brian Lenihan — In Calm and Crisis

Cover Image Brian Lenihan In Calm and CrisisWhatever you thought of Brian Lenihan’s decisions and actions as Finance Minister, his character and dignity won him widespread respect and admiration and that is reflected in this collection of essays by former colleagues, family and friends who recall the personal, political and professional aspects of his life and career, particularly his final years.

Appointed Finance Minister at a time of unprecedented difficulty for the Irish economy, Lenihan faced extraordinary pressure compounded by personal difficulties when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Many questions remain unanswered about the circumstances surrounding Ireland’s bank guarantee and subsequent bailout programme and although the recollections contained in Brian Lenihan In Calm and Crisis provide insights into those events  by some key players close to the Minister and the corridors of power at the time, essentially, this is a collection of personal tributes.

The essays include brief contributions by Jim Flaherty, Former Canadian Finance Minister and Christine Lagarde, former French Finance Minister alongside pieces by names now familiar from the crisis such as Alan Ahearne and Patrick Honahan.

The recollections include the intensely personal (Mary O’Rourke, Paul Gallagher) to the more circumstantial (Eamon Ryan). Perhaps the most interesting contribution is “The Poisoned Chalice” essay by the former Irish Finance Minister, Ray McSharry who argues that Lenihan and Cowen, through the bank guarantee, saved the euro but failed to utilise the leverage that gave them — a failing he also attributes to the current Government.

“Incidentally, I should add that the current Government is also under-estimating the leverage that our membership of the EU still gives Ireland. I think Ireland should be taking a tougher stance to bring about a write-off on our bank debts. We should not forget that the European Council requires unanimity to effect change in major policy areas. I think that some night that our vote is required we should insist that the price of our vote is a deal on our banking debts.”

Other contributors include Brian Murphy, Cathy Herbert, John Mullen, Martin Mansergh, Marie Louise O’Donnell, Harmon Murtagh, John Trethowan and Jillian Van Turnhout. The introduction is by Noel Whelan.

Appendices include Dáil tributes following Lenihan’s death and the text of Lenihan’s Michael Collins Commemorative Lecture at Beal na Bláth on 22 August 2010, where he said “the job of Government is to strike a balance between the legitimate interests of individual groups and the greater good.” Arguably, that’s precisely where government appears to get things generally wrong by having too much regard for the great and the good, too little for the greater good.

Brian Lenihan In Calm and Crisis is edited by Brian Murphy, Mary O’Rourke and Noel Whelan and published by the Irish Academic Press, 2014. Proceeds from sales of the book go to the Irish Cancer Society.

Nora Webster – A Quiet and Profound Novel by Colm Toibin

Cover Image Nora Webster by Colm ToibinNora Webster, Colm Tóibín’s seventh novel is set in the 1960s and early 1970s in his native County Wexford where the seaside villages Ballyconniger, Blackwater, Curracloe and nearby towns of Enniscorthy and Bunclody are beautifully present on the page as the backdrop for an intensely focused study of character and grief. Wexford is famous for its international opera festival and music plays an important role in Nora Webster. Civil unrest in Northern Ireland and the political differences between Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Minister for Finance Charles Haughey will have particular resonance for Irish readers familiar with this period.

As always, Tóibín writes with tremendous authenticity about ordinary people and has the gift of making the ordinary seem profound.The novel opens with Tóibín’s heroine, Nora Webster struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband Maurice, a well-regarded school teacher. Well-meaning neighbours from their small, tightly-knit community call to Nora’s house each evening to offer sympathy and share stories about Maurice. Nora realises that the past cannot be rescued from their memories and she faces the practical difficulties of trying to keep her home together while she finds a way to live without the anchor of her husband.

Nora longs for the questions and the sympathy to cease so that she will no longer have to respond to those who offer their sympathy looking into her eyes and waiting for her reaction.

So intense and personal is her grief, that Nora is emotionally neglectful of her children and surprisingly blind to their loss — particularly that of her sons Conor and Donal who are clearly struggling— and yet she is capable of tremendous understanding and empathy and fearlessly stands up for them when she is put to the test.

Tóibín shows empathy for his heroine but is also unsentimental. When she takes up singing — and in the process unlocks a gift she inherited from her late mother — Nora find a route to independence as well as a source of solace — not in the sympathies of friends and neighbours but in her own inner resources.

Character and place take precedence over plot in Nora Webster, a quiet, atmospheric novel that in my opinion represents Tóibín at his best.

[Disclosure: I received an Advance Review Copy of Nora Webster from the publisher via Netgalley]

See also Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin.

Legal argument and Moral Dilemma in The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Cover Image The Children Act by Ian McEwanIan McEwan first came to my attention a few years ago when On Chesil Beach was selected for discussion by my local book club. A poignant novella about newly-weds on honeymoon in Dorset, the story appealed to me for the way it demonstrated how lives are sometimes ruined as much by what is left unsaid as by what is said and done.

McEwan’s best-known work is, perhaps, Atonement, the novel that would become a movie of the same name starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.

His recent novels include Solar, the story of a Nobel prize-winning physicist which won an award for comic writing and Sweet Tooth, the story of a Cambridge graduate who is recruited to Britain’s secret service. Neither of these two held the same appeal for me as his earlier work so I was not sure to expect when I picked up The Children Act. This time, his heroine, Fiona Maye is a High Court judge whose job involves making life-changing decisions for the families that come before her. Married and childless, Fiona’s marriage hits troubled waters when husband Jack becomes involved with a younger woman. Work provides a refuge and Fiona becomes absorbed in the case of a seventeen-year old boy with leukaemia who is refusing blood transfusion because of his religious beliefs. Will she decide in favour of the hospital and save the boy’s life or will she be swayed by his parents’ argument and the boy’s own religious views even though, should they prevail, the boy will die. Whatever Fiona’s decision, it will have lasting impact on all parties — including Fiona herself.

McEwan’s research into the Courts is apparent and the legal arguments from relevant case law influence Fiona’s judgement but ultimately the decision she makes is hers alone.

The Children Act is a thoughtful novel and at just over 200 pages, it’s a quick and easy read.

[Disclosure: An ARC was made available by the publisher, Jonathan Cape, via Netgalley for the purpose of this review.]