Book editor Shauna McCrudden picks the best fiction and non-fiction titles of the past year
The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
A young child dies under the charge of a new nanny in a remote Scottish mansion. Is she guilty of murder or is there something plotting against her?
Ruth Ware, author of bestseller The Lying Game, has created a story that is equal parts haunted house and psychological suspense novel. There are plenty of twists and turns and creepy children here, which may prevent anyone from ever wanting to work in childcare like our protagonist nanny, Rowan! As the title suggests, the book pays homage to the classic Henry James’ horror, The Turn of the Screw and it is just as thrilling. However, one of the most interesting parts of this book is the use of modern technology to elicit scares. It’s common for a haunted house story to focus on old creaky buildings and dusty attics, but here, the enemy is the smart house that is too smart for its own good. Whether it’s the impractical controls or the idea of Big Brother watching 24/7, the feeling of helplessness and loss of control is handled incredibly well through this modern approach.
Although the structure of the novel with Rowan writing letters to take us through the story is slightly gimmicky and somewhat tiring after a while, it oddly works, and I definitely didn’t see the ending coming. This creepy new mystery thriller really keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Available from Penguin Books at all good bookstores, €12.99
Once, Twice, Three times an Aisling by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen
After starting her own business, planning her best friend’s hen party and dealing with her ex, her ex’s new girlfriend and a hunky new guy, it seems like Aisling has a lot to juggle. But it wouldn’t be Aisling if things ran smoothly, now would it?
I’ll be honest here and admit that I haven’t read the first two books in this series, wrongly believing they were a Bridget Jones’ rip-off, which isn’t my favourite series in the world. But this novel has proven me spectacularly wrong. There is so much heart and humour in this book that I immediately went out to buy the first two books as I am now a big fan! Although I would seriously recommend reading the series in the correct order as these books reward long-time readers and as my friend Michelle puts it ‘you grow with the characters and relate to them throughout all the books’ (this is after she stopped yelling at me when I told her I read the third book first!)
There are lots of twists and turns throughout the story, which is tough to pull off with so many plotlines taking place, but it’s expertly done. Aisling is a relatable character as she struggles with turning 30, her love life being far too messy for her own good and generally taking on too much. And as always, being unapologetically Irish. There are some real laugh-out-loud moments but also more serious issues, such as tackling men’s mental health issues which took me by surprise in a very good way. You will finish the book thinking Aisling is a friend and since books four and five are confirmed along with a movie adaptation, you’ll be friends with her for many years to come.
4 / 5 Stars
Available from Gill Books at all good bookstores, €14.99
The Tribe: The Inside Story of Irish Power and Influence in US Politics by Caitriona Perry
Are the Irish still wielding power at the highest levels of US politics? And how will this influence affect the future?
Caitriona Perry is a well-known face to RTÉ viewers as the presenter of the Six One News. But it is her role as RTÉ’s Washington correspondent that gives her the credibility and expertise in American politics. Perfectly placed to provide readers with a look at the role of Irish Americans in the US political system and their influence over the years, Perry takes us on a wild ride. Much like her previous book, 2017’s In America: Tales From Trump Country, Perry has a sense of what makes a good story. And how could she not as she has the dubious honour of being singled out and called beautiful by Donald Trump in the Oval Office during his first call with the newly elected Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
There’s a reason why American politics is perfect fodder for TV shows, movies and books – it is unpredictable and most things you hear sound more like fiction than fact. From the heights of the Kennedy reign to Trump’s ‘Green Army’ of Irish American supporters, Perry provides interviews, a high point being her interview with former President Bill Clinton, along with in-depth analysis. Are Irish Americans more prone to vote Democrat as is the long-standing belief, or have they become more conservative? Are they really a powerful voting bloc? Perry, having been a professional journalist for years, occasionally lets those years of writing reports negatively affect the flow of her story as her prose can be a little flat and too ‘fact-heavy’ which may work well in the pages of a newspaper but can feel stilted in a book. But thankfully it never hurts the drama of it all. For anyone who likes politics, the US or even just a good story, this book is the perfect read.
Available from Gill Books at all good bookstores, €19.99
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
Based on a true story, this book is about a team of women in Depression-era America who were tasked to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new travelling library.
The title of this book doesn’t exactly tell you what you are about to read. I thought I was about to pick up a beach-read rom-com! But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Thankfully, the summary made me desperately want to read it – I’m a sucker for historical fiction about an era I had no idea about. Jojo Moyes, author of Me Before You, whose adaptation had us all weeping into our popcorn, knows how to write an emotional tale about strong, complex women. Based on the real-life Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky who brought books to rural parts of the country, anyone who reads this already understands the power of books and the escape they provide readers. That’s exactly what the team of women offer to the places they travel to.
The very limited roles for women at the time is right at the centre of the book, as are the lengths they would go to for some independence and adventure. Women are in a more fortunate position in today’s world, but for many this still rings true. Dealing with misogyny, racism, discrimination and poverty, along with the life-changing impact of books, stop what you are doing right now and read this beautiful novel!
Available from Penguin Books at all good bookstores, €11.99
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale sequel is set 15 years later and offers fans the chance to learn the fate of main character Offred.
The 2019 Booker Prize-winning The Testaments is a worthy follow-up to what is now an incredibly successful TV show. Writing a sequel to a debut 34 years after the original is no easy feat – you have to get back into the characters’ viewpoint, flesh out the surrounding world and please not only fans of the book but the TV show. But Atwood has somewhat succeeded here and gives the world an entertaining second novel.
We get to have a look at the inner workings of Gilead, a society where women are reduced to breeders, maids or passive wives. After 34 years of questions about the world and the characters, Atwood is able to provide many answers. Told from three point-of-views, Aunt Lydia and two teenage girls, the book stumbles slightly telling us the mythology of Gilead – who actually benefits from this regime? – and it has all manner of horrific events painstakingly told in detail. And if you’ve even just heard of the show, you will likely know what type of shocking events I’m talking about. But the writing is still as poignant and relevant as ever where this type of society isn’t beyond the realms of the imagination even in today’s reality. Atwood tells us about the possibility of hope of resistance and beating back misogyny. And that light at the end of the tunnel is the most beautiful part of this book.
3 ½ /5 Stars.
Available from Penguin Books at all good bookstores, €18.99