1. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Has there been a finer book published in the last 12 months? Illustrator Charlie Mackesy’s story – which is borne along by his superb sketches – about fear, kindness, friendship, home (and cake) is an enchanting adventure. A book to be treasured by everyone from eight to 80 years of age.
2. The Personals: The Human Stories Behind the Small Ads
As listeners to RTÉ radio will know, Brian O’Connell has a gift for spotting a good story – and for telling it with roguish charm. With The Personals, he’s turned his gaze on classified ads and the wonderful, funny and poignant human stories behind them. A gem of a book.
3. Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.
Lili Anolik’s biography of the Hollywood groupie and acclaimed writer, Eve Babitz, is to be devoured. It’s a social history of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s, with vivid portraits of Marcel Duchamp, Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Harrison Ford and, of course, the fascinating, tragic life of Babitz.
4. The Russian Affair: The True Story of the Couple Who Uncovered the Greatest Sporting Scandal
The eagerly awaited new book by sportswriter David Walsh – whose tenacious pursuit helped uncover Lance Armstrong’s cheating regime – dives into the story of the married couple who blew the whistle on institutionalised doping in the world of Russian athletics.
5. Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators
Ronan Farrow’s pursuit of Harvey Weinstein (and other serial predators in the world of entertainment and media) is one of the finest non-fiction books of recent times. Farrow, who’s the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, reveals shocking cover-ups and abuses of power in the Hollywood dream factory.
6. One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time
It’s just over 50 years since the Beatles broke up, but the band still exerts huge influence. This group biography, which is full of Beatlemania trivia, is particularly interesting on Brian Epstein, possibly the real genius behind the band and the reason they’ve cast such a large cultural shadow.
7. Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favourite Drug
An exhilarating history of coffee hinges on James Hill, a ruthless, canny entrepreneur from Manchester who built an empire in El Salvador by introducing industrialised practices for the production of coffee, helping transform it from an obscure Muslim ritual into our most popular drug.
8. Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back
Dublin-based writer Mark O’Connell has followed up his award-winning book To Be a Machine with a dive into the world of right-wing conspiracy theorists, survivalists and would-be Mars colonists to find out what the end of the world looks like.
9. Gaff Goddess: Simple Tips and Tricks to Help You Run Your Home
Timing is everything in life, as they say. Cork-born DIY Instagram star Laura de Barra published her book on household tips (e.g. how to tackle mould) in February, a month before the lockdown took hold of our lives. Her book has since become a surprise hit, helped greatly by her breezy writing style.
10. This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings
Guinness family scion Julia Samuel draws on decades of experience as a psychotherapist – weaving in conversations with patients about love, infidelity and health – to provide insight into managing change and acquiring the great elixir of life, resilience.
11. Republic of Shame: How Ireland Punished “Fallen Women” and Their Children
Caelainn Hogan has written one of the most important books published in Ireland over the last decade. It’s a captivating and disturbing account of women incarcerated because they became pregnant out of wedlock, and their babies’ fate, drawn from interviews with survivors, and the clergy who ran these institutions – some of them well into this century.
John Boorman’s second memoir looks back on a life during a golden age of filmmaking with anecdotes about contemporaries like David Lean, Harold Pinter, Burt Reynolds, as well as some of the shysters he’s met along the way like conman Shit Mackey. Reflections from a singular life.
13. Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl
Publisher Penguin Random House is trumpeting Owls of the Eastern Ice as one of the surprise books of the year: the story of a man’s five-year journey into the Russian Far East to preserve the world’s most mysterious owl, brought to life by brilliant writing, dashes across thawing rivers and madcap secondary characters.
14. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
Patrick Radden Keefe writes for The New Yorker magazine and is the author of several acclaimed non-fiction books. His investigation into the death and disappearance of Jean McConville in 1972, which is just out in paperback, was one of Barack Obama’s books of 2019.
15. The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz
Jack Fairweather’s Costa Book of the Year winner about Witold Pilecki – a Polish soldier who was given the unenviable task of infiltrating the notorious concentration camp Auschwitz to build a resistance network – defies belief. It’s an astonishing tale of bravery and extreme acts of humanity and inhumanity.
Lives Less Ordinary
Hitler: Downfall 1939-45
The second volume of Volker Ullrich’s biography of Adolf Hitler picks up in the summer of 1939. Ullrich’s portrait of the Fuhrer is riveting and full of incredible detail about this loser who lived homeless on the streets of Vienna, transformed, seduced a nation and engulfed the world in war because of his mania for power and land.
When asked how he was, Andy Warhol had a habit of responding: “I’m OK but I have diarrhoea.” The New York Times critic Blake Gopnik spent years studying and rifling through 100,000 original documents to put together a comprehensive biography of possibly the most influential artist of the twentieth century.
Behind the Mask
Tyson Fury’s name is on nearly everyone’s lips, as we await The Gypsy King’s fight with Anthony Joshua. This is the story of his remarkable life: weighing only a pound at birth, as he was born premature, ballooning to 10 stone over his fighting weight while battling depression before conquering the world.
Our House is On Fire: Greta Thunberg’s Call to Save the Planet
Picture book creator Jeanette Winter tells the family story of how a 17-year-old Swedish girl’s lone protest ended up capturing the attention of a planet (and earning the Time Person of the Year accolade) with her urgent warnings about climate change.
The pop star's autobiography is one of the best of its kind. He has such rich source material to work with: a bullying father, a ghastly mother; brilliant celebrity anecdotes; and gargantuan drug-taking, tantrums and excesses – he once phoned an underling to do “something about the wind” outside his hotel room.