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Based in the Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Office, Jackie shares her favourite Irish reads of the year ...

Jackie Lynam’s top 10 books by Irish authors in 2020

I’ve read 60 books this year, including the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award shortlist but I decided to concentrate here on books by Irish authors as there were so many great books published during a very difficult time for writers. I could easily have included another 10 or 15 books on this list but I also did some short book reviews for Dublin UNESCO City of Literature which you can check out here if you’re looking for more ideas.

Jackie's top 10 reads by Irish authors

The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually by Helen Cullen (Michael Joseph)

This is Helen’s second novel and it’s a wonderful depiction of the love story of two very different people - Murlough and Maeve - which begins in Dublin and moves to an island off the west coast. It’s a really engaging book that examines the complexity of love, parenting (from both the father and mother’s perspectives), mental health and obligations. Graham Norton described it as “A beautiful bittersweet story of love, loss and families all set in the most irresistible of locations. Tears were shed!” I cried too so have the tissues handy!

As You Were by Elaine Feeney (Harvill Secker)

Elaine Feeney’s debut novel has been receiving rave reviews for good reason. It’s set over a few days in a hospital ward in Galway and it’s both heart-breaking and hilarious with characters that draw you in from the first page. Sinead Hynes is a young property developer and mother, with a serious illness that she has told nobody about, and in hospital she finds herself among women with secrets of their own. A cast of memorable characters including the wonderful Margaret Rose who runs her chaotic family from her rose-gold Nokia. The 2020 Booker prize winner Douglas Stuart picked it as one of his books of the year in the Guardian.

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)

I was lucky to get a proof copy of this back in February and I loved it so much that as soon as I finished it I pre-ordered copies for myself and my friends. I was already familiar with Doireann’s beautiful bilingual poetry, and her exquisite writing in A Ghost in the Throat won her Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. She seamlessly weaves English, Irish, history and her own domestic life into a sort of detective story about the poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. It’s breathtaking.

Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame by Alan McMonagle (Picador)

Alan’s debut novel Ithaca was one of my favourite books of 2017 so I came to this novel with very high expectations and it didn’t disappoint at all. It’s a very funny and moving novel about the wise-cracking but vulnerable young lady Laura Cassidy who works as a tour guide in Galway and dreams of seeing her name in lights. It sent me on a discovery and re-discovery of old black and white movies.

Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon (Penguin Books Ireland)

I brought this book on my holidays in Kerry and it was the perfect holiday read. Newly-widowed David relives the story of his marriage to Mary Rose and realises everything wasn’t as he thought it was. It’s a beautifully written and tender portrayal of a long-term relationship cut short by tragedy. It will also make you want to book a holiday in Aiguaclara where the book is set!

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan (Doubleday Ireland)

In 1973 Moll takes a bus and disappears, leaving behind her distraught parents who fear they’ll never see her again. She returns five years later bringing with her someone who changes the course of all their lives. Donal Ryan’s novels are short yet every sentence is crafted with care. His portrayal of fatherhood, love, loss and grief is achingly beautiful. Whenever I finish a Donal Ryan book I always want to go back to page one and start it again.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (Picador)

Another book set in a hospital but this time in a maternity ward in Dublin during the Spanish Flu of 1918. In a country ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works in a ward where pregnant women with flu are quarantined together, irrespective of social and economic background. Into Julia's regimented world step two outsiders - Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie. This story could be depressing but in Emma Donoghue’s hands, it’s an engrossing tale of hardship, friendship, love, death and survival.

The Paper Bracelet by Rachael English (Hachette Books)

This is the fifth novel by Rachael and is inspired by real life events in mother and baby homes. It’s a compelling story told with great compassion. I read it during the early days of lockdown when my concentration levels were low so it’s a testament to Rachael’s gift as a novelist and storyteller that I didn’t want to put it down. It’s about Katie who worked as a nurse in a mother and baby home in the 1970s and several decades on, she decides to try to track down the babies and mothers to reunite them with their identity bracelets which she had kept hidden, along with many secrets.

My Pear-Shaped Life by Carmel Harrington (Harper Collins)

I came across Carmel’s novels a few years ago when I read The Things I Should Have Told You and now I devour her books as soon as they are published, and then pass them on to my friends. This novel is about Greta who turns to sleeping pills to deal with her crippling insomnia and her insecurity about her body image and weight gain. Carmel deals sensitively and compassionately with serious topics such as addiction, family and societal expectations while also injecting humour and joy into the writing. It’s a warm, moving and thought-provoking book.

Big Girl Small Town by Michelle Gallen (John Murray)

Set in a fictitious town in Northern Ireland near the border in 2004, the narrator Majella is considered odd - a loner, who doesn’t engage in small talk, she has no friends and no boyfriend. We see the residents of this town through Majella’s eyes as they come into the chipper, where she works. The portrayal of a community affected by the Troubles and in particular the depiction of the relationship between Majella and her alcoholic mother is heart-breaking. It’s also fast-paced and very funny (it was shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Prize) and I thought the portrayal of Majella’s sex life was very refreshing. It has been described as Milkman meets Derry Girls which is a pretty accurate description.

We met Jackie earlier this year as part of our Meet the Librarian series, and you can read the interview here.

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