As I was reading this it was announced that Louise Kennedy has made the shortlist for the 2023 Women’s Fiction Prize alongside Jacqueline Crooks whose “Fire Rush” I have already read and rated five stars. On the evidence of these two books this particular judging panel seem to know how to spot a gem. I think this novel is outstanding and a serious contender for my Book Of The Year (yes, I know it’s only May!)
It caught my attention when it won Novel Of The Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards beating Donal Ryan, whose book I’d loved. It was also a title which popped up when I was “Looking Around” at what other bloggers had loved at the end of 2022 and Cathy at 746 Books and Karen at Booker Talk and my friend Louise’s recommendations were enough to push this up my To Be Read List.
Set in Northern Ireland in 1974 it is ostensibly a tale of a problematic relationship between a Catholic Primary School teacher who works part-time in her family’s pub and a customer, an older Protestant barrister. But it is so much more as with a lot of attention to domestic detail the author humanises a world which seemed so alien to those of us who were around then watching the horrors of daily news bulletins in the UK at the height of The Troubles. As a child then it seemed impossible to me that life could go on as normal there through the barricades, searches, explosions and retaliations but Louise Kennedy brings this time to life. I recall enough to know that this is subject matter that I would not actively seek out but the author has convinced me otherwise in skilfully recreating this time and location.
Characterisation is great. Main protagonist Cushla’s mother copes with the effects The Troubles have had on her family through alcohol and some wonderful one-liners. Her class favourite, seven year old Danny is such a strong illustration of the resilience of children, her colleague Gerry is a valuable support and there’s a very scary parish priest.
Perhaps the hardest thing to come to terms with was what Cushla sees in barrister Michael Agnew and whether it is worth the trouble it will cause but the author does not romanticise this attachment. We see it in its warts-and-all reality but accept that Cushla is experiencing something different.
I felt my involvement which started off very strong deepened more and more as I progressed through this excellent book. There really has been some exceptional writing coming out of Ireland the last decade or so and this, dealing with very difficult issues and a very difficult time in the country’s history is amongst the very best.
For my last retrospective post I like to have a look around the blogosphere and see the books which have impressed other bloggers during the last twelve months. I always expect that there is going to be a modicum of consensus and that there would be the odd book which appears on Best Of the Year lists time after time, but this is rarely the case and it certainly is not so for this year when there’s a wide range of books being recommended but not often the same book in more than one list.
I follow around 70 blog sites and one trend I am seeing is that fewer and fewer bloggers seem to want to do this kind of end-of-year retrospective. Personally, I love it and think it’s important to look back before cracking on with the new year. So, I am very thankful to those who have reflected and singled out their best reads, despite reluctance to put them into any order.
I would like to think I could find one of my Top 10 books in another blogger’s list but for the second year running I have not been successful in discovering this. (No “Young Mungo”? I’m staggered!). In fact, many of the authors I was expecting to see were absent from other lists. I couldn’t find mentions of these notables who put book out this year- Monica Ali, Hannah Kent, Kamila Shamsie, Ian McEwan, Donal Ryan, Jess Kidd, amazed to see no mentions of Joanna Quinn, whose debut novel “The Whalebone Theatre” felt such a great crowd-pleaser.
Obviously, with so many books being published each year and bloggers having their own likes, contacts with publishers, different methods of getting the books they reviewed there are just too many great reads out there to provide much overlap. However, there were three books which I did see cropping up.
One was from an author I did have in my Top 10, so we will start with her, Janice Hallett. I really loved “The Appeal” but realise I was a bit late out of the blocks with this one and it was her 2022 publication “The Twyford Code” which was getting the nods (although Andrea at Andrea Is Reading did give “The Appeal” an honourable mention.) Jen at Books on 7.47 did well to sum up the appeal of this author and her “devilishly clever plot that won me over. A murder mystery that never stops throwing curve balls while giving nostalgic nods throughout.” Fi at Fi’s Bibliofiles says of it; “It manages to hide so many clues in plain sight and is incredibly subtle in its complexity.” I think both these very well encompass Janice Hallett and I feel that what this author does to her readers is actually quite difficult to put into words. Like me, Books On 7.47 has the new novel “The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels” on her must read for 2023 list and Fi already had it as one of her favourite books she read in 2022, saving her review until the publication date in January.
Another title which impressed was the winner of the Novel Of The Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards “Trespasses” by Louise Kennedy which conquered over one of my Top 10 Books and previous winner of this award Donal Ryan. Cathy at 746 Books describes it as being about “a woman caught between allegiance to community and a dangerous passion with an older man.” Karen at Booker Talk describes this debut as “an intense, engrossing tale of how small acts of kindness assume great political significance and put lives at risk.” The third of these titles which kept popping up I had never heard of. Australian blogger Kim at Reading Matters singled out “Limberlost” by Robbie Arnott as a tale of “kindness loss, love and family”. Set in rural Tasmania in World War II, Cathy at 746 Books felt the need to give it a special mention even though she had not finished it at time of writing. In what seems like an excellent recommendation she said “In a week where I have a lot to do all I wanted to do is read “Limberlost.” That’s good enough for me to put this book on my Want To Read list. Cathy cannily has three lists of end of year recommendations, one from her To Be Read Pile, one of Irish authors and one of new reads. Within her new reads picks there is one that I highlighted in my Books I Should Have Read in 2022 post, The Booker shortlisted “The Trees” By Percival Everett, which she feels should have won the Prize as well as “Trust” by Hernan Diaz which was the book that topped the number of US recommendations in Literary Hub’s round up of end of year lists alongside “Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin which was a favourite of Andrea Is Reading. (Andrea also singles out “Happy Go Lucky” by David Sedaris which has a sublimely creepy cover and reminds me yet again that this year should be the year I really crack on with this author’s work.)
I like older titles being incorporated in the lists. The aforementioned Cathy reminded me of a book I really loved when I read it decades ago- William Trevor’s “Children Of Dynmouth” and I now want to re-read this as well as the copy of his short stories I have on my bookshelves. There’s also an acknowledgement of the greatness of Larry McMurty’s “Lonesome Dove” which is described as “violent, frightening, funny, heartbreaking and transcends the genre” and which if a certain someone is reading this who has recommended this book to me so many times will no doubt tell me “See, I told you it was good!”
Lynne at Fictionphile picks four titles which all seem highly readable to me – “The Keeper Of Stories”- Sally Pope, “Mrs England”- Stacey Halls, “A Quiet Life” – Ethan Joella and “The Winners” – Frederick Backman. Matthew at My Mashed Up Life goes for three – the critically acclaimed “Lessons In Chemistry” by Bonnie Garman (I knew I’d find this somewhere), French novel “Heatwave” by Victor Jestin (a tale of tormented adolescence and I do love these) and “How To Kill Your Family” by Bella Mackie, which I have sitting on my Kindle waiting to be read.
I do love it when people can pick their absolute favourite because their enthusiasm does make me want to read it, even if it wouldn’t normally be on my radar. Linda at Linda’s Book Bag plumps for “Echoes Of Love” by Jenny Ashcroft which she says “encompasses so many forms of love- and hatred- is authentic in time and place and has such relevance for what is happening in today’s world that I couldn’t fault it” and FictionFan’s Book Reviews ( a site which has given me so much pleasure since before I started reviewsrevues nearly 8 years ago) is so enthusiastic about sixteenth century Scottish set “Rose Nicolson” by Andrew Greig describing it as “one of the outstanding books of my long lifetime of reading” that I don’t know how anyone can avoid putting that onto a must-seek-out-list.
Anyway, I think that’s enough of looking back to 2022 and start to get on with the reading joys 2023 has in store. Just want to thank these other bloggers for keeping up the good work. Long may it continue!