Books Gift Guide Part II: Spuds, spies and sports

Books for grown-ups

In Difficult Men: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution (Faber and Faber, €15.99), Brett Martin looks at the show creators responsible for television’s golden age. A series of idiosyncratic, autocratic personalities (except for collegiate Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad) emerge from his intelligent, gossipy thesis. The thought that Matthew Weiner, 44, who is notoriously controlling on the set of Mad Men, would ask a journalist not to print the fact he was smoking because he didn’t want his parents to know, is worth the book price alone.

Charles Emmerson takes a look at 23 cities — from old world metropolises, London and Rome, to colonial outposts like Algiers and Winnipeg, and to rising powers such as Tokyo — in 1913: The World Before the Great War (The Bodley Head, €27). There is so much that captivates, particularly the unending social detail and anecdote; it took three years, for instance, to assess JP Morgan’s gargantuan estate, which included 138 watches in one of his houses in London.

Possibly the most beguiling novel of the year is The Infatuations (Hamish Hamilton, €20.99) by Spanish writer Javier Marías. It’s an existential murder mystery set in Madrid leavened with enthralling philosophical ruminations, from the state of falling in love to the nature of lying, to the gnawing worm of doubt and problems of conscience.

The first volume of Eamon Dunphy’s autobiography, The Rocky Road (Penguin Ireland, €21.99) is a very entertaining read. It covers his impoverished upbringing, his journeyman football career, his carousing, his jousts with public figures (including, of course, Big Jack) and helps explain his enigma: how such a smart, gentle, self-deprecating man can infuriate so easily.

Robert Harris takes an interesting tack for An Officer and A Spy (Hutchinson, €20.99), his masterful re-telling of the Dreyfus Affair, history’s most famous miscarriage of justice. Dreyfus is a peripheral character, rotting away on a rock in the tropics. Harris looks at the story from the perspective of Colonel Georges Picquart, the head of the secret intelligence unit who picks away at the cover-up of Dreyfus’s innocence.

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s former president, who died last March, was many things: ruthless, funny, a mesmerising speaker, half-baked in his economic thinking and policy-making; staunch in his defence of the poor. His legacy is a country deeply and violently divided, and promise unfulfilled. His personality comes vividly to light in Rory Carroll’s Comandante: Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela (Canongate, €15).

MaddAddam (Bloomsbury, €17.99) is the final instalment of Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic trilogy. Set in the near future, it hinges on an examination of what might happen given all the wrong turns taken by the human race, as an embattled rump of human survivors try to eek out an existence amongst malevolent, predatory forces, including giant, genetically modified pigs.

The scope of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (Harvill Secker, €17.99) is sprawling. It has sex and big ideas, and it flits between different worlds — the salt flats of Utah; the 1970s’ New York art scene; Italy’s radical political movement in 1977; and detours to steamy places like late-19th century Egypt and Brazil’s rubber plantations — as Reno, a 23-year-old ingénue makes her way in the world of art and motorcycles.

Based on a historical character, The Herbalist (Penguin Ireland, €14.99) in Niamh Boyce’s enchanting debut novel creates more problems than he solves when he rocks up in the square of an Irish market town in the 1930s. Menfolk curse his “dark crafts and foreign notions”, but women are enthralled with his exotic, Indian ways and his secret, illegal practice.

“There was a time when the short story looked — to use a great and morbidly descriptive Irish phrase — as if it might turn in to face the wall,” writes Kevin Barry, editor of Town & Country: New Irish Short Stories (Faber and Faber, €10.99). Not now though. It thrives, as is evident from the talented cast he’s pulled together. They include Dermot Healy, Greg Baxter, Molly McCluskey and the brilliant Paul Murray.

Malcolm Gladwell has churned out another contrarian’s delight in David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Allen Lane/Penguin, €17.99). His idea is that we constantly misread giants: their advantages and disadvantages. He rattles through a series of provocative case studies — including ones on the Troubles in Northern Ireland; dyslexia; the hunt to cure children’s leukaemia; and why class sizes shouldn’t be too small — to prove his point.

Ireland’s greatest contemporary satirist is back with Downturn Abbey (Penguin Ireland, €13.99), the 13th outing in the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly series. Ross is 31. He’s giving it another go with the old wife, Sorcha (needs must in recessionary times). Their two offspring are causing them all sorts of headaches while Ross gets himself into a bit of bother, too, in Bray at a Downton-themed party.

Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland, €13.99) was a wonderful surprise when it was published at the start of the year (and was later longlisted for the Man Booker Prize). It fairly nails the stupefaction and anguish of a rural Irish town when a rogue builder absconds once the Celtic Tiger dies, leaving a trail of destruction and unpaid debts behind him.

Jimmy Rabbitte Jnr rides again, some 26 years after his adventures in The Commitments. In Roddy Doyle’s The Guts (Jonathan Cape, €13.99), the old Svengali is 47 and battling bowel cancer.

Some of the old band (like Imelda Quirke, who’s still a ride, and guitarist Liam ‘Outspan’ Foster) drift by, but it’s chiefly a poignant tale about family and mortality, stitched together with Doyle’s rib-tickling dialogue.

In the fourth instalment of the acclaimed Vanishing Ireland series, entitled Vanishing Ireland: Friendship and Community (Hachette Ireland, €27.99), stories of camaraderie are harvested from a disappearing island. Together with its stop-in-your-tracks photographs, it’s the ideal Christmas gift.

The Sunday Business Post’s political editor Pat Leahy has followed up his brilliant Showtime with another titillating narrative about Ireland’s ruling political class in The Price of Power: Inside Ireland’s Crisis Coalition (Penguin Ireland, €15.99). It examines the first two years of the Fine Gael-Labour Party government, which laughably swept into power promising a “democratic revolution”.

Fintan O’Toole has collected some intriguing items in A History of Ireland in 100 Objects (Royal Irish Academy, €30): a ceremonial axe-head, Parnell’s silver casket, a 1950s washing machine, a decommissioned IRA weapon and the grubby Anglo Irish Bank sign from along St Stephen’s Green, among them, which tell us much about the country’s bedevilled history.

Ciaran Carty’s Intimacy with Strangers: A life of Brief Encounters (Lilliput Press, €16.99) gathers together his most interesting portraits from a lifetime of interviewing the age’s greatest actors, artists and writers, among them giants such as Harold Pinter, John Updike, Woody Allen and Jack Nicholson.

British football’s greatest manager, Alex Ferguson, has lost some gravitas with the unseemly settling of old scores with the players who helped him win 13 league titles, among them Roy Keane (described as “frightening … and I’m from Glasgow”), but what’s bad for personal dignity makes for good, entertaining autobiographical fare in Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, €26.99).

David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: What Makes the Perfect Athlete (Yellow Jersey Press, €17.99) is the most intriguing sports book of the year, and possibly the best-researched, taking in, as it does, field research from below the equator to above the Arctic Circle.

Children's Books

The Adventures OF Bernie and Flora, by Annemie Berebrouckx (Book Island, €11.90)

This colourful book is about the friendship between a duck and a bear, both of whom enjoy gardening, but when Flora’s precious flowers go missing, the search is on to find the culprit. Charming for newly independent readers, 6+.

Mary’s Hair, by Eoin Colfer (Barrington Stoke, €7.55)

Mary detests her hair, so she snips her wiry locks with a blunt scissors and is happy with the results, until the gel kicks in and the hair does things it shouldn’t.

Colfer’s laugh-aloud humour sparkles on every page, greatly enhanced by Richard Watson’s illustrations; 6+.

Uinseann Donn, by Tadhg Mac Dhonnagain and Irisz Agocs (Futa Fata, as Gaeilge, €9.95, HB)

Tells of a grumpy bear, named after the radio and TV journalist Vincent Browne. Disturbed from his sleep by nocturnal squealing, Uinseann sets out to catch the culprit, little realising this will change his life forever. Delightfully illustrated, this is a laugh-aloud read. 8+.

I Am A Potato, by John Hegley (Frances Lincoln, €14.30 HB)

This is a collection of quirky, offbeat poems. Try this Christmas-style excerpt — ‘I’m the beast that bore/ Wiseman number four/ we’re the ones who went North/when the others went West.’ Zany and entertaining, for 8+.

The Goblin of Tara, by Oisin McGann (Barrington Stoke, €7.11)

On Halloween night, the feared goblin comes every year to set fire to the fortifications at Tara and terrify the occupants. Finn, who has been in the Slieve Blooms soaking up the knowledge and the music of the bards, is confident that he can save Tara. 8+.

Deep Water, by Ann Turnbull (Silverwood, €8.30)

Jon’s pushy mother has sent him to a posh school, which alienates him from his peers in the estate. But one boy, Ryan, remains loyal. The two boys skive off from their schools and head for the river, where they take a boat for a jaunt. The boat is caught in a current, which sweeps it onto rocks. Ryan is badly hurt. It’s up to Jon to get help. How can he keep the disaster from his mother? A gem of excellent writing. 9+.

Winter’s Tales, by Lari Don (Bloomsbury, €14.30 HB)

This is a compilation of 15 tales of ancient myth and magic. ‘The Seeds of Winter’ re-tells the tale of Persephone, pulled under the earth to Hades, away from her grieving mother. Finnish legend ‘Ukko and the Bear’ recounts how a well-known animal became a beast of burden. 9+.

The Disgrace of Kitty Grey, by Mary Hooper (Bloomsbury, €8.30)

Set in 1813, this is the story of a young milkmaid whose comfortable, sheltered life, on the estate of Lord Baysmith, is dashed when Will, the boy she loves, disappears. Taking Will’s little sister with her, she sets off to find him in London. Naive and trusting, she is drawn into a world of thieves and scoundrels, but her love for Will never falters in this compulsive, nail-biting read. 10+.

The Middle of Nowhere, by Geraldine McCaughrean, (Usborne, €11.90)

Herbert Pinny and his daughter, Comity, mourn a family loss in the Australian outback. Ignored by her father, Comity forges new friendships and fights to make sense of her disintegrating life.

Eccentric characters, excellent dialogue, and good writing make this a literary gem. 10+.

The Sleeping Baobab Tree, by Paula Leyden (Walker books, €7.10)

Formidable Great Granny Nokokulu, a self-confessed witch, is accompanied by three youngsters, on a journey to the baobab tree, to confront her own demons and possibly solve the mystery of Aunt Kiki’s disappearance.

The story, which, on a deeper level, charts the struggle against AIDS in Africa, has a host of idiosyncratic characters, who are all defined by their relationship with this remarkable lady. 10+.

* Purchase these titles and more at exa.mn/bookstore



Lifestyle

2018 arts year in review: How was it for you?

No rest for the festive workers

Death threats won't stop Jodi Picoult taking on difficult subjects

More From The Irish Examiner