Best Books of 2020

If ever there has been a time for escaping it all and curling up with a good book, it’s been 2020 – a year, more than most, that we’ve needed to shut out the noise and find comfort and distraction in a good read.

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland asked children’s writer Myra Zepf, crime fiction author Kelly Creighton and Patsy Horton, Blackstaff Press, to pick their favourite books of the last twelve months.

Here’s their recommendations for some last minute gifts that will make the perfect stocking fillers this Christmas…. 

Myra Zepf

Myra Zepf was the first Children’s Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland (2017-19), appointed by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. The Co. Down author has written 11 books for children, from picture books to a YA verse novel. Winner of two Children’s Book Awards from the Literacy Association of Ireland (2017 & 2019), an IBBY Honour Award (2018) and two Oireachtas Awards for Fiction (2016 & 2018), her books appear in seven languages worldwide.

Savage her Reply, Deirdre Sullivan (Little Island)
This latest young adult offering from the pen of Tangleweed and Brine author Deirdre Sullivan, tells the story of the Children of Lir, but from the point of view of its stepmother villain, Aífe, who turns the children into swans through an evil curse. It is dark and disquieting to read, but exquisitely so. Sullivan’s prose is mesmerizing, bewitching and thought-provoking. The process of seeing through the eyes of this troubled character has changed how I will feel about this legend forever.

Rónán and the Mermaid, Marianne McShane & Jordi Solano (Walker Books Ltd)
This is my choice for purest escapism. An older age-range picture book (5-8 years), it is a stunningly beautiful reimagining of the lesser-known Irish myth of Lí Ban the mermaid. Brimming full of monks, seals, harp music and a certain mysterious mermaid, it has bucket-loads of heart. The language itself has that soft lyrical quality that transports the reader and is perfect to read aloud. Meanwhile, the grey-green sea-swept palette of the illustrations will soothe your very soul.

Molly and the Lighthouse, Malachy Doyle & Andrew Whitson (Graffeg)
This latest adventure in the ‘Molly’ series of picture books is an action-packed story, but with all the gentleness we have come to love about this little island girl. One night, Molly realises the lighthouse isn’t working, wakes up her friend Dylan, and sets off to help. But will Molly and Dylan be able to get the light working again in time to save their father’s fishing boats? A little hair-raising and utterly heart-warming, this book is a gem in both words and pictures.

A Ghost in the Throat, Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)
This first prose book by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa is an astonishing read. It is genre-defying and completely unique, but if you try to imagine a mash-up between an intimate memoir of a young mother, a love-song to an Irish poem from the 1700s (Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoighre), and an obsessive real-world quest for knowledge about the fate of its author, and layer it all with the language of one of our most exciting contemporary poets, you will hopefully at least be curious enough to dive into this extraordinarily special book. You won’t regret it.

Kelly Creighton

Kelly Creighton is a Northern Irish crime writer, short story writer, novelist, poet and editor. She is the author of the Belfast-based DI Harriet Sloane series. Her latest novel, Problems with Girls (2020), is the second instalment in the DI Sloane series. Set in East Belfast is tackles issues around consent, cyberbullying and the invisibility of young women in society. Kelly is also the co-editor of a Christmas story anthology called Underneath the Tree. The collection showcases Northern Ireland writers and features a range of stories, including horror, sci-fi, fantasy and crime.

Witness, Simon Maltman (New Pulp Press)
Post-Troubles Belfast, where the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Pastor Tom believes he can still make a difference but secrets from his past still haunt him. Shady people from his past make a last grab for power. There is murder, kidnapping and corruption. This book is action-packed and fast-paced. Witness has an interesting structure, flitting back and forward to the pinnacle of the story which works really well. All interesting to read books set close to home.

Rejuvenation Trilogy, Byddi Lee (Castrum Press)
A locally-set dystopian tale told after the Melter War. Bobbie Chan is a doctor caring for the ultra-elderly when she notices a new disease afflicting her patients that causes age reversal. But that’s not necessarily a good thing! Bobbie begins a race against time to rescue the Rejuvenees and uncover their true enemy. This book is such an intelligent, well-paced read. Dark comedy shines through. The trilogy has all been released this year so there is plenty to get your teeth into.

Under Your Skin, Rose McClelland (Crooked Cat)
When Kyle’s wife Hannah goes missing, the whole town is out in force to try to find her. One person knows where she is. One person is keeping a secret. Detective Inspector Simon Peters and Detective Kerry Lawlor have been brought in to investigate the case but Hannah has left no traces and Kyle has no clues. The book weaves in the stories of a surrounding cast, told in multiple points of view. It deals perfectly with the issue of coercive control. Unputdownable.

The Last Crossing, Brian McGilloway (The Dome Press)
Tony, Hugh and Karen thought they’d seen the last of each other thirty years ago. Time has passed and memories have been buried. They agree to reunite and as they take the ferry from Northern Ireland to Scotland the past is brought into the light. But of course memory is unreliable and truth is all about perspective. The legacy of the Troubles shows its head. This is a carefully plotted thriller with chilling, political undertones meshed with stunning writing.

Patsy Horton

Patsy Horton is Managing Editor of Blackstaff Press, widely regarded as one of Ireland’s foremost publishers and a leading publisher of quality Irish books. Founded in 1971 the iconic brand has a long and rich heritage. It has published authors such as John Hewitt, Bernard McLaverty, Glenn Patterson, Patricia Craig and Ciaran Carson.

Little Red and Other Stories, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (Blackstaff Press)
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Little Red and Other Stories is a brilliant new collection of eleven short stories. Like most of Ní Dhuibhne’s writing, these stories focus on the lives of women and, in this collection, it’s women who are trying to recover from a crisis that has derailed their lives in some way. Death, divorce, family tensions and splits – this is rich territory that allows Ní Dhuibhne to explore how we define ourselves and our place in the world.  A brave and wise collection, full of sharp and wry observations and writing that is breathtakingly good.

Inventory: A River, A City, A Family, Darran Anderson (Chatto & Windus)
Inventory: A River, A City, A Family is Darran Anderson’s powerful memoir about growing up in Derry during the Troubles. Anderson is deeply conscious of how difficult it is to put a shape on the past, especially a past – his, his family’s, his city’s – that is marked by loss and trauma. The inventory of over eighty objects that he uses to structure the book is a way of finding that shape, making for a terrific story and a compelling exploration of history, memory and legacy.

My Homeplace Inheritance: Recipes for Life from My Irish Country Childhood, Susan Farrell (Blackstaff Press)
My Homeplace Inheritance: Recipes for Life from My Irish Country Childhood by Susan Farrell is her evocative account of what it was like to grow up in rural Armagh and Tyrone. Beginning with her grandparents, Farrell uses food to trace the legacy of her upbringing – the making of bread, food remedies and broths, Cake Sundays – and how, in spite of change, it continues to sustain her. Affectionate and often funny, this memoir is a timely reminder that that we derive much of our happiness from simple things like eating home-cooked food together around a table.

Big Girl, Small Town, Michelle Gallen (John Murray)
I devoured Michelle Gallen’s Big Girl, Small Town in two days, carried along by the energy and personality of its narrator Majella who lives in a small town in Northern Ireland. Majella is resistant to ‘normal’ rules, and her observations about the world around her and her own distinctive way of understanding reality generate much humour in the book. Gallen covers some dark territory and the humour often has an edge to it but there’s plenty of affection and laughter here too, and the prose pulses with Gallen’s exuberant delight in Majella’s voice.

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