Hil List 2016: Books

Lots of reading done this year. Yes, lots of time on my ass, but also lots of time doing something I love and getting paid for it so there. Here’s a small handful of highlights. Blurbs/links where possible.



The Lonely City – Olivia Laing (Canongate)
“Art can’t bring people back from the dead, she concludes in the final chapter, nor can it mend arguments between friends or cure Aids. It does, however, “have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly”. One could argue that brilliantly rendered non-fiction can perform a similar feat.”
Full Irish Independent review

I’m Not With The Band – Sylvia Patterson (Sphere)
“One would devour this bulky tome in a couple of days were there not so many intermissions needed to put the thing down and emit a bellylaugh for a few minutes before reading on. Patterson’s patter, assembled from those absurdist days tracing Bros and Kylie in Smash Hits, is as full of rhythm, melody and crescendo as the very acts she was charged with covering. And every bit as entertaining too.”
Full Irish Independent review

Play All – Clive James (Yale University Press)
“If this is to be James’ swansong – and pray it is not – the only spoiler alert worth mentioning here is that Play All will be a reminder of what the world will be deprived of once the sword of respite falls from Ibrutinib’s tofu-like hand. This snug body of writings will enrich your appreciation of TV drama’s big hitters, and help elevate discussion on them to a level beyond the pub chat.”
Full Irish Independent review

The Battle – Paul O’Connell with Alan English (Penguin Ireland)
“The earthy but fiercely proud and determined Munster disposition is rife. He’s opened his soul to English, the obvious trust between the two perhaps an unexpected symptom of the added years the project kept taking on. What has come out the other side is a psychological profile that is almost shocking at times in what it reveals about the bloody single-mindedness of the competitive gene.”
Full Irish Independent review



Minds of Winter – Ed O’Loughlin (Riverrun)
“O’Loughlin doesn’t so much pan back as leap about, threading together an extraordinary tale that warps actual history into something conjoined, poetic and thrilling. At the epicentre of these interlocking narratives, these living and breathing jigsaw parts, is a McGuffin that sings with intrigue and a historical riddle that has never been solved.” Full Sunday Indo review

The Pier Falls – Marc Haddon (Jonathan Cape)
“This first foray into the medium by the 53-year-old is a nine-strong assembly of compassionate, engrossing, often hard-edged tales of isolation and hunger (for love, safety, food itself). A housebound obese man and a local tearaway forge a touching friendship without a hint of mawkishness. On a tiny island, ancient Greek mythology and the stark cruelty of nature combine as a woman is abandoned and left to fend for herself. Scenes are constantly scorched into your mind with Haddon’s dexterous linguistic branding iron.” Full Sunday Independent review

The Lonely Sea and Sky – Dermot Bolger (New Island)
“Whatever about the timely ways this extraordinary novel will speak to a nation currently undergoing a mature reassessment of its epoch-defining insurgency, this story of selflessness, duty and a young lad’s emergence into manhood via his actions is a universal hymn that will chime with anybody who understands that while good and evil are nebulous concepts, right and wrong are not. That it does this without sermonising is testament to the lofty skills of this national treasure.” Full Irish Independent review



Lying In Wait – Liz Nugent (Penguin Ireland)
“It is remarkable for a thriller to toggle between freezing the blood and sweating the brow without the use of blades, bullets or bloodletting.”
Full Irish Independent review

Trouble is our Business: New Short Stories by Irish rime Writers – Edited by Declan Burke (New Island)
“Crime fiction lends itself especially well to the format, you feel, due to the breadth of styles and tones that it can employ. The 20 authors here were given free rein with the brief, and the variety of styles, backdrops and registers that duly winged its way back to Burke is this superb collection’s strongest card.”
Full Sunday Independent review

Woman Of The Dead – Bernhard Aichner (Weidenfeld and Nicholson)
“Woman of the Dead beats with an immediacy and tangibility that is frankly rare” Full Sunday Independent review






The Feel-bad Hit of the Summer

Liz Nugent has gone straight to No.1 here in Ireland with her second novel, Lying In Wait. If you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be kept up til all hours turning pages and trembling, look no further. Here’s my Irish Indo review.


Lying In Wait
Liz Nugent
Penguin Ireland

LIZ NUGENT’S time as a writer for RTE soap Fair City must surely have fared her well in her new life as a crime writer. Lying In Wait, her second novel, displays not just an excellence at sculpting, managing and voicing her cast of characters, but it also makes great use of the kinds of curtain-twitching coincidences and path-crossings that only a tiny city like Dublin can credibly get away with. In Nugent’s Dublin, a decidedly “unfair city”, monsters and their prey will meet sooner or later.

And what monsters she creates. Her award-winning 2014 debut Unravelling Oliver, charted the anatomy of a psychopath via a chilling gestalt. She spins a similarly dread-inducing web here in another eerily recognisable Dublin, only this time, the horror is taken to the leafy 1980s suburbs of the South County. Here sits a large Georgian mansion that by the time of this tale’s truly unforgettable denouement, feels like a predator in itself. Its name is Avalon, and as the name suggests, it is somewhat cut off from the world around it.

Justice George Fitzsimons, his wife Lydia and their son Laurence live here. Their affluent lifestyle has been severely curtailed after a close family friend and accountant vanished with their savings. There’s also the small matter of the judge and his wife killing an inner-city drug addict called Annie Doyle and burying her in a flowerbed in view of the kitchen window. A mysterious contract had been agreed between the couple and Annie, and when she refused to play ball, rage and tension resulted in her murder.

Laurence, obese and incessantly bullied at his more affordable new school, is initially unaware of the slaying but notices some particularly strange behaviour by his parents. Shortly afterwards, when George dies of a heart attack, Laurence is adamant to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. Why was his father obsessed with news stories about a missing prostitute before he died, and why had the gardai appeared at the door one day? It would be nice to say that he carries out an amateur investigation and brings justice to the dead girl and her working-class family but Nugent’s is no fairytale world.

Instead, what plays out before us is a wonder of the novelistic dark arts, a three-way circling of the evil via first-person chapter-by-chapter accounts from Laurence, Annie’s determined sister Karen, and Lydia. The multiple-narrative structure is nothing new but inside Nugent’s nightmare they toy with perceptions and perceived motivations excruciatingly well.

The great coup here is unquestionably Lydia, the manipulative and obsessive mother who drips tiny clues to the blackness of her dysfunction from the very opening lines, almost in passing; the childhood death of a twin sister; the unmannered lack of sympathy for Annie’s parents; the creepy way she keeps referring to “daddy”. That her pathology is constructed so cleanly and logically by Nugent only makes it all the more shocking. Her wants are simple to the point of primitive, and the idea that a mother’s love is the purest there is will be of little comfort. Get ready to tremble at one of the greatest villains in contemporary thrillerdom.

Laurence is another gem of characterisation by Nugent’s hand, his smothered existence and juvenile weight issues playing beautifully towards his increasing obsession with the fate of Annie and the efforts of Karen after the case has gone cold. Karen represents “the other Dublin”, hard-working, humble and oppressed, either by her fiercely jealous husband Dessie or her ultra-Catholic mother (this tale’s other dangerously zealous matriarch).

There are themes to be considered all along the path. There is Ireland’s two-tiered justice system, starkly different for the privileged classes than it is for the proletariat. The changing place of women Irish society is exemplified by Karen’s emerging modelling career and Laurence’s brassy ex-girlfriend Helen (the source of some very choice and immaculately placed humour). A special kind of snobbery exists in this land, we’re reminded, without the need of establishment schools or a political peer system.

The great overriding feeling, however, is that Nugent is commenting on the dangers of isolation. Although set during a time when a thing like the internet would have been the stuff of make-believe, it grimly ponders the erosion of compassion when the wider world is scorned in favour of a controlled, contained existence without face-to-face socialisation, much like today’s screen-obsessed generation. The home-schooled Lydia is too good to step foot in a society that she deems beneath her. Avalon is her fortress, and the man on the street can burn as far as she is concerned, precisely because she has never met him. “I like to think I did the girl a kindness,” she says of Annie at one point, “like putting an injured bird out of its misery. She did not deserve such consideration.”

It is remarkable for a thriller to toggle between freezing the blood and sweating the brow without the use of blades, bullets or bloodletting. This is as physical an experience as reading can elicit, where Nugent’s steady-handed tightening of the ratchet is designed to be soundtracked by recoiling gasps and sighs of disbelief. The weaponry is of the mind and the mouth as these three characters collide in a way that you simply won’t see coming.

Nugent has said in the past that she doesn’t do “rollercoasters” in her professional life, preferring to play things safe when she can. It is an interesting metaphor for this new queen of Irish crime fiction to use. Speed and swerves are all very well, but it is often the halls of mirrors or haunted houses, those attractions that require you to step into them of your own volition, that can be the real white-knuckle rides of any fairground. Avalon is such a place.

First published in the Irish Independent

Blue me away

Eoin McNamee’s brilliant Blue Is The Night has just scooped the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award at Listowel Writers’ Week. When I reviewed it last year for both Metro Herald and the Sunday Independent, I knew it was something special. Just sayin’ like…

Ahem. Anyway, here’s the Metro Herald review. 

Blue Is The Night

by Eoin McNamee

Faber & Faber

UNLIKE your Adrian McKintys or Stuart Nevilles, the crime writing of Eoin McNamee’s Blue ‘trilogy’ does not have the dread of hot sectarianism to provide a wrenching backdrop.

McNamee has made a name for himself with true-crime renderings of subjects such as the Shankill Butchers and the ghastly demise of Captain Robert Nairac. The Blue books – not so much a trilogy in the traditional sense as a gothic inquiry on loosely linked incidents – however are situated in corrupt post-war Belfast, and zero in on Attorney General and High Court Judge Lancelot Curran, whose daughter Patricia was found viciously stabbed near his Whiteabbey pile in 1952. That murder was recounted and reviewed in The Blue Tango (which earned McNamee a Booker longlisting in 2001), and she haunts this third part along with many ghosts in what is a supremely eerie and evocative novel.

With one foot in 1949 and one in 1961, the earlier years see Curran’s advisor and strong-arm Harry Ferguson meddling as his boss seeks to hang protestant Robert Taylor for the horrific murder of Catholic Mary McGowan. Ferguson is out to prevent this to improve Curran’s chances of elevating to the political sphere. But a rot permeates Curran and his family, between his mentally troubled wife Doris and promiscuous 19-year-old Patricia.

Chills waft off the page as Ferguson visits Doris years later in a psychiatric home in the hope of bypassing dark voices in her head and solving Patricia’s mysterious murder. Few writers can build such menace and foreboding within the palette of history as McNamee, his tidy, mesmeric syntax dripping with atmosphere and animating malevolent psychologies, both human and spectral.

An early contender for crime novel of the year.