Top books of 2017

Top books of 2017

In 2017 I read 53 books which averages out as being about one book per week. Quite incredibly I wasn’t intending to read so much this year but when I added up my reading list it was a satisfying number. How did I do it? Always have two books on the go, if you aren’t enjoying something put it down and read during the ad breaks on tv. Honestly – that’s it.

When considering my list I decided to offer my best recommendations from this year of reading. The books are a mixture of several different genres and subject matter. No spoilers below, just a list of books that you might want to consider adding to your TBR list.

Here we go….

The Handmaids Tale – Margaret Atwood. Undoubtably one of the most important stories to be unearthed in 2017. World politics, literature and the television binge culture culminated in the perfect moment for The Handmaids Tale by Atwood to be revived. Having been tipped off that the tv series, shown on Channel 4 earlier this year, was unmissable I quickly scrabbled to read the novel and it was rich reading. While the television production was wonderful the book, as always, was better. The television series fell foul to the all too common problem of having to leave the story open for a second series whereas the book provides the perfect ending. My favourite read of 2017.

Closely followed by Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier. This is a collection of short stories which are rich and deep and satisfying. Short Stories are a genre which I used to avoid with hatred but the more I read the more I appreciate the skill and clarity which is needed to construct a successful short story. This collection is possibly the best – haunting, atmospheric and unforgettable.

A couple of books which stood out from the rest this year include Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – Vendela Vida. Both are written in their own unique prose and style and both focus on a young female protagonist. Here, however, the comparisons end. Conversations with Friends starkly chronicles an affair and the ripples it causes through a group of Dublin based friends. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty unfolds from a bizarre descriptive story of a lost suitcase into a vivid, unsettling account of unbearable heartbreak. Both are clever, modern and worth picking up.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby does not need an introduction here – I have already devoted an entire blog post to it. All I will say is this – please read it. Also please enjoy the beautiful cover art.

A book which I bought by mistake was Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon. Gordon talks openly about her experience of mental illness and her ascent back into wellness. I found this to be a completely eye opening venture into depression and mental illness which has really helped me to empathise with others in a new way. A very encouraging yet down to earth book.

The final non fiction book which I want to make mention of is Hunger by Roxane Gay. This memoir was released, quoted and scrutinised well before I had the chance to read it. Yes, I knew what had happened to Gay before I read the text but it was worth picking up – just to hear this unique voice speak so eloquently about her difficult past. It is a quick read but it is harrowing – I suggest you do a quick google search and read around this before diving in – just so as to prepare yourself.


And finally three books which could all be categorised as ‘Christian’ books. One biography –  Emily Foremans We died before we came here was probably my biggest surprise this year. I enjoyed it, and recommended it to many. Again I have already written about it here.

Devoted to God by Sinclair Ferguson is a dense read and I felt like it was hard work. Work that was worth doing – focusing on the subject of Holiness. Not a leisurely fluffy book, but rewarding to read. And finally the last book I read this year was Dance Stand Run by Jess Connolly. The follow up to Wild and Free, which I also loved, my copy of Dance Stand Run has been underlined, dog eared and battered as I devoured it. As comforting as it is challenging many passages from Dance Stand Run will accompany me into the New year and beyond.

SO there to have it. Agree? Disagree? Please let me know what your favourite book was this year. Read more about the books I read here.

Keep track of the books I am reading here at my bookish Instagram account – Books Northern Ireland.

Je T’aime – – #Me too

At the moment it seems like every day unveils a new story of male predators, victims of abuse and trigger warnings.

I have been silent up until now – I have been following the #MeToo hashtag where women, and men, all over the world are telling their personal stories of abuse – ranging from being groped and intimidated, to sexual abuse and rape. Joining together under the hashtag has provided some online solidarity for victims and abuse survivors — but it is difficult and uncomfortable reading.

At the moment I have a t-shirt hanging up on my wardrobe. It is from Topshop and is embroidered with the phrase “Je T’aime” – I love you in French. The picture is fitting for the stories I want to tell today. I was wearing this t-shirt when the stories of Louis CK hit our twitter feeds, reigniting the outrage bubbling against Harvey Weinstein, Brett Ratner, Kevin Spacey and others. I am outraged – as, i’m sure, are you.


A few years ago my husband and I were travelling on a short flight from Ireland to the mainland. As we gathered up with other passengers in the airport lounge we met our fellow travellers. My husband is an observant person and, while I would rather stick my nose into a book, he is often found people watching. After a short time we realised that a stag do of about a dozen young men were waiting to get on to our flight. It was more than obvious that they had already started the party and several of them were well on their way to being drunk. They were loud, boisterous and we all silently prayed that our seats would be as far from them as possible. While waiting in the lounge my husband spotted a lone girl, approx age 17, travelling alone. Some of the young men in the stag party noticed her too. She had her earphones in and was stuck into a book and seemed oblivious to the revellers behind her. When it came to boarding time my husband and I, normally first in the queue hung back. He made me wait because he was watching what was happening, letting the stag party get on the plane and then stepping between them and the unaccompanied girl. We acted a a buffer between her and the drunk men and once we were on the plane and realised her seat was far from the lads we sat down.

The flight was fine, we were only bothered by the hostess getting buzzed a few (dozen) times by the stag party and some loud lairy behaviour. When getting off the flight my husband again placed himself between the men and the unaccompanied girl. At the baggage claim we lifted our suitcase and again hung back until the girl had lifted hers and exited after her. Again she was completely oblivious, we have never seen her again since, and the stag do disappeared into their awaiting minibus.

So what is the point of this story? It is one small example of how my husband and I were able to do a decent thing for a stranger. Our fellow traveller probably didn’t realise it, we didn’t have to say anything but we purposely kept and eye on her and made sure that she was safe at that moment in time.

My point is that many of us have done exactly the same thing. Amongst the stories of abuse, unwanted advances and attention I want to thank the men who have quietly and decently stepped in on my behalf:

Je T’aime:

  • Here’s to the guy who asked two drunk men to leave a shop that I was working in alone one evening.
  • Here’s to the man who took down all the nudie calendars and posters in a male dominated office before I began to work there as the first female in that workplace.
  • Here’s to the male colleague who didn’t take their break because a creepy regular customer had called in for a chat with me and they didn’t want me to be on my own.
  • Here’s to the male friend who stayed as I locked up the shop and walked me to my car, after a man had come in and asked for my number. After I politely declined to hand it over he lurked outside the shop until closing time.
  • Here’s to the colleague who intercepted phone calls from someone in the construction industry who took it upon himself to call me twice a week to ‘chat about my work’ and ‘invite me out to his building site’.
  • Here’s to the anonymous young man who sat with me, the only girl, in the AutoCAD computer room at uni and shielded me from a dozen of my male classmates who were watching a viral porn clip, on all their computers at once.
  • Here’s to the colleagues who rushed out to a site to address a problem with my project only to find out that there was never a problem. The person just wanted me to come out so that they could watch me ‘climb a ladder’.
  • Here’s to the guy who handed in his final coursework and waited until me and my friend were finished because he didn’t want us to have to walk back to halls at dark unaccompanied. He waited for five and a half hours.

Here is to the decent men – one of which I am married to. Instead of telling a #Me Too story I want to give a shout out to the men in my life (some who I know and some who I don’t know) who are good and have been protective, thoughtful and decent to me. Je T’aime.  #JeTaime.

Tag a person in your life who has been decent to you – not because they need to be rewarded for doing the decent thing, but because the news at the moment is so dark. We need this. We need this in the same way that we need the Me Too hashtag. In the same way that we need to see justice for victims and punishment (rather than ‘treatment’ and ‘therapy’) for the abusers.

The Letter for the King – Tonke Dragt

The Letter for the King – Tonke Dragt

Just for a second imagine that you have written a book. And that the book is a bestseller in your country. And that when the children who read it as a child start reading it to their children. And that it becomes so beloved that people start naming babies after the hero of the story. If you are a children’s author then that is the dream – that and a successful sequel. Welcome to the world of Tonke Dragt – true story.

In Belfast we have C.S. Lewis, the creator of Narnia, England has J.R Tolkien and all things Middle-earth and the Netherlands, they have Knights and wannabe knights courtesy of Tonke Dragt

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt was first translated into English by Pushkin Press in 2013. It was originally published in Netherlands in 1962 – so it only took 50ish years for us to take notice and translate it into English. Why did it take so long? Well I have absolutely no idea. The book was a massive success when originally published. It was accompanied by Dragt’s own drawings and came perfectly packaged as the ideal children’s tale. The medieval story was awarded the Granger of Griffels award in 2004 which celebrated it as the best book of the previous 50 years. It was only Dragt’s second novel and was followed by over ten more. She continued to write and draw until arthritis took over here limbs in 2007. Now, in her 80’s she is delighted, and bemused by our sudden interest in her work.

The Letter for the King is basically everything that a good bedtime story is made from

We have the noble knights, the young knights in training, a quest, some danger and even a love interest. The Kingdom is called Dagonaut, and we set off with a bunch of young teenage boys who are on the verge of becoming fully fledged knights. All that they have to do is stay over night in a small chapel in the centre of town. Tiuri is one of these young squires – on his night in the chapel he receives a desperate and urgent cry for help. Can Tiuri leave his ambitions to become a knight and take on this task? Or has he blown it all with one impulsive move?

So, the quest begins – and quite honestly I was hooked. As each page drew on I grew nervous – my biggest worry was that an unexplainable magic wand would be introduced, or a special life saving potion, a problems solving pixie – and there was a little tiny bit of mysticism. However as I read on I realised that this story is pure and simple. When Tiuri succeeds it is because of his character, his virtue and his valour.

A breath of fresh air

When trawling through modern children’s stories it can become predictable to see a hero wins the talent contest or get signed for his favourite football team. The Letter for the King has a satisfying storyline which pulls you along without the pitfalls of nonsensical magic, questionable motives or lazy story-telling. I recommend The Letter for the King to all ages – if you enjoy reading then try this.

Keep track of the books I am reading here at my bookish Instagram account – Books Northern Ireland.

Nutshell – Ian McEwan

Nutshell – Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan has written a lot of books. Seventeen to date. It makes one wonder – Has he run out of stories to tell? Has he mined the depth of characters and their flaws? With Nutshell he answers defiantly. No one is safe, McEwan will tell you a good tale and it will be entertaining and uncomfortable all at the same time. In other words it will be wonderful.

Do not read this if pregnant


I feel guilty calling Nutshell wonderful, but it actually is. However please heed this one caution – do not read this if pregnant. Now that I have this off my chest we can proceed. You see Nutshell is narrated by a foetus, in its mothers womb. A foetus who has already developed a darkly wry sense of humour, and who has overheard everything going on in the life of his mother. Not a great mother in many respects. She enjoys a few drinks and is currently embroiled in an affair, with her husbands brother, and is not so subtly trying to claim ownership of his Georgian townhouse in London. What a wonderful place to start!

Nutshell - Ian McEwan

Our foetus is an entertaining narrator, even when things get a bit, mmm, physical. The mother likes listening to podcasts which give our foetus an interesting worldview. McEwan’s writing is claustrophobic and urgent, leaving the reading straining for a better understanding of exactly what is going on. All too quickly we are brought up to date with the illicit ploy between mother and her lover – to kill the husband. How very Shakespearian. We observe as the couple stumble and blunder through their murderous plans and as our narrator helplessly listens to the plan put into effect. A smoothie lover, an owl poet, a hat, the passports – so much vivid detail is given to fill out the story it is impossible not to want to know what happens.

The ending is simply perfect – if not inevitable


The writer has admitted that the concept for Nutshell is ‘irresistibly silly’ but a silly idea in the hands of a master makes for a unique novel. Coming in at under 200 pages it is the perfect remedy to a reading slump. I read this after trudging my way through a massive Irish family saga which basically was sad and boring so this was much needed. Quick, witty and wicked.

Keep track of the books I am reading here at my bookish Instagram account – Books Northern Ireland.

The Optician of Lampedusa – Emma Jane Kirby

Last year an offshore patrol vessels was commissioned – Named after the Irish author Samuel Beckett this boat was dispatched from the Irish Naval Service and ended up tackling one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of our lifetime. But I’d bet I’m not the only person who has never heard of it before. I only found out when I started trawling through Emma Jane Kirby’s twitter profile.

The Optician of Lampedusa - Emma Jane Kirby

The Optician of Lampedusa – Emma Jane Kirby

In July Emma Jane Kirby was onboard the LE Samuel Beckett to talk about her book – The Optician of Lampedusa. It is fitting because LE Samuel Beckett has saved 4000 migrants – and saving migrants is the big topic tackled by this small book.

The Optician of Lampedusa is a short and difficult story following of a local unnamed optician on his weekend off. This weekend he decided to take his wife and friends out in his 10 person yacht from the coast of the small Italian island of Lampedusa. A holiday weekend. The unimaginable happens as the party are first on the scene when a boat sinks. The boat was no ordinary boat, it was an overloaded and unseaworthy vessel full of people desperate to escape from Libya to find asylum in Italy.

Emma Jane Kirby uses 120 pages to document the tragedy through the eyes of the optician and his companions. Out of over 400 people who were in the water the weekenders were able to help to save 47 people – risking their own lives and boats to get the people back safely to shore.

The Optician of Lampedusa - Emma Jane Kirby

Have I just spoiled the whole book?

No, the story does not stop with the gruelling rescue, you will wince as the optician attempts to turn back to save more of the drowning and you will be downcast as he tries to get updates on the people who he helped to save.

Emma Jane Kirby is a talented journalist, known best for her presence on BBC Radio 4. Her experience has made this true story accessible. I have one word for the challenge of this book – it makes the plight of displaced people unignorable. It makes their plight real and concrete and serious.

Unignorable. Moving. Serious.

Kirby faithfully retells a tragedy and prompts us to tackle the question – What would I do if it happened to me? Remember this is a true story, and it isn’t a one off. The true story is that the Lampedusa tragedy left 368 people dead. They optician of Lampedusa said “We saved 47 people that day, A hero would have saved them all.” The disaster is ongoing – read this book to have a small glimpse of what is happening to many people displaced by war and violence. Well done to Emma Jane Kirby for taking this story and making it readable and real.

More information:

Help Refugees


Barnabas Fund


ASOS Choose Love 

Keep track of the books I am reading here at my bookish Instagram account – Books Northern Ireland.

We died before we came here – Emily Foreman

“We died before we came here” is a memoir written by Emily Foreman. The setting is an undisclosed North African city, directly after the twin towers attacks. The purpose of their journey – to share their Christian faith with Muslims. Emily and her husband Stephen left their home in America with their young family to make new friendships and build a new life in a Muslim world.

I will not give away any spoilers here. I also recommend that you buy this book and read it – don’t read the back first. Here is a glimpse into this true story, which probably says more about the book than I ever could.

“Are we transferring fear to our new brothers and sisters by valuing security above the gospel and living a lifestyle of safety first? Nowhere in the message of Jesus Christ does fear have a place. Wouldn’t we be contaminating the message of Christ if we allow our own fear to dictate our level of obedience to God? It seems to me that we can’t encourage boldness unless we first exemplify it ourselves.” Emily Foreman

“When James Calvert went out as a missionary to the cannibals of the Fiji islands, the ship captain tried to turn him back, saying “You’ll lose your life and the lives of those with you if you go among those savages.” To that Calvert replied, “We died before we came here.”

That’s my question for us again tonight. Are you dead yet? Dead to yourself, dead to your own desires, dead to fear? Are we alive in Christ? My desire is that when people see your life, when they see my life, they will see Christ, and Christ alone. Let us live our lives as if they weren’t our own lives. To truly be strangers in this world. To be aliens in this world. Our citizenship is in heaven.”  Stephen Foreman

Keep track of the books I am reading here at my bookish Instagram account – Books Northern Ireland.

The Son – Philipp Meyer

The Son – Philipp Meyer

In 2013 I read lots of books. This was the year when I started my short stint in the world of bookselling. The staff discount and the continual demand for book recommendations led me to pick up many books that were outside my comfort zone.
The Son by Philipp Meyer is one such book. Here are the reasons why I normally would pass it by; it is very long, it is a sequel, it is set in the wild west and it is a family saga, Yawn. However by the end of 2013 I was announcing that The Son was my favourite book of the year. (FYI I have not read the first instalment of Meyers work American Rust but it is on my TBR list).

A house divided

The Son is centred around three characters Eli, Peter and Jeannie McCullough. They are many generations of one family dynasty, all influenced by the life of patriarch Eli for better or for worse. The book sweeps through several big topics – Oil dynasties, Comanches, ruthless battles over land ownership, cattle ranches and power. The book opens with Eli as a boy, in 1849, as his home is raided by brutal comanches. They abuse and slaughter his family and take him and his brother as captives. We read as he integrates into the tribe and how this experience eventually shapes his life. In the second narrative we follow his son Pete as he raises his family on the McCullough ranch – Eli is now famous throughout Texas – a reputable landowner and a ruthless businessman. Unfortunately Pete doesn’t seem to have the same stomach for business as his father. Jeannie is Eli’s great granddaughter and an oil baroness and we meet her as a elderly woman – rich but alone and in peril.

Brutal, harsh but a pleasure all the same

Reading Meyer’s work is a pleasure – it is brutal, harsh but a pleasure all the same. Each storyline has been so meticulously planned and researched that you cannot help but be hooked. Eli is the ultimate anti-hero, and I was fascinated by his every move. His impact on the future generations is obvious and devastating. All 600+ pages are addictive reading and it i difficult to sum up the saga in a petty review. Just know that it is book which is worth investing your time in.
BTW: I am currently half way through the television show which has slightly changed the plot in places and seems to have deleted the Jeannie character as we see her in the book. Maybe she is yet to appear but I feel like we are missing her chunk of the story – worth a watch but don’t judge the book by the television adaptation. Disappointing that they dropped the only strong female character from the book.

Keep track of the books I am reading here at my bookish Instagram account – Books Northern Ireland.

Best books of 2017 so far

Best books of 2017 so far

Last week I decided to count up how many book I have read this year so far – it came to a very satisfactory 35 books. And since we are half way through the year I have picked out my five favourite books so far. NOTE: this is not a list of the 5 best books published in 2017 so far – this is a personal list of my favourite reads as I came to them. Here we go:

In no particular order:

1/ Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier – And behold I have discover another favourite author. This bunch of short stories are as creepy as they are clever and I was especially pleased to see my homeland of CO. Antrim in Northern Ireland getting a mention in there.

2/ The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I along with a crowd of others have discovered this book and read it as a reaction to the television show. Gladly I was able to read it before the show started and so far have been very impressed by both. It is a brilliantly written dystopian novel which is a modern classic and worth picking up if you haven’t already.

3/ Nutshell by Ian McEwan – I picked this up in the supermarket following two heavy, serious reads and Nutshell was the perfect antidote. It focuses on an unborn child in its mothers womb who narrates the story of his fathers demise. Yip, it certainly is unique and darkly funny.

4/ The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby – This book is a beautiful and shocking all at once. It starts with a promising day off where friends head out on a leisurely boat trip. the afternoon takes a turn when the holidayers realise that the ocean is full of people – people displaced by conflict who are desperate to find safety and a new home. An unforgettable true story which is brilliantly told. If you read anything this year make it this.

5/ Perespolis by Marjane Satrapi – A graphic biography which introduces us to a girl growing up in Iran during the years of the Islamic revolution. An incredible account which is charming and informative and a quick and easy read. The illustrations are gorgeous.

So there you have it. The best five books which I have read this year so far. Honourable mention to Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal and The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie.

My Name is Leon – Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon – Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon is a debut novel – but as you read it you would be forgiven for thinking this is the work of a much more experienced author. Leon is an eight year old boy whose story is so well crafted that there are times when you want to reach in to the pages and give him a hug. As you start to read this book prepare yourself for that feeling – wanting give out hugs – you will feel it often. Even the stoniest heart will be moved.

Leon lives with his mother Carol who has just had a baby, Leon’s half brother Jake. There are no fathers in the picture – just a shadow cast by their absence. Carol suffers a bout of severe depression and Leon is left to deal with his baby brother on his own. De Waal doesn’t sugarcoat any of what happens next. Social services get involved, Carol is taken away and Leon and Jake are rehoused for a short blissful period where the reader can relax because Leon is safe.

Maureen, his new foster carer is the perfect grandmother figure – loveable and flawed, steady and no nonsense. What could go wrong? Well, didn’t I mention that Leon is mixed race and big for his age? And that baby Jake is white skinned with blond locks – as the boys are put up for adoption not all things are equal and the results are devastating.

So far it sounds bleak but De Waal is such a charming writer that you want to keep on reading. The story is set in the 1980’s which gives it the perfect nostalgic charm with an appropriate smattering of references – Curly Wurly’s, The Dukes of Hazard, Action Man figures and  photographs with the date written on the back. The book changes in the second half when an older Leon gets a bike, makes the acquaintance of some local men who educate him in gardening, brawing, and politics. A newly mobile Leon hatches a plan to bring his family back together. A plan that upsets his social worker, worries the adults around him but makes complete sense to a grieving ten year old. Herein is one of the rewards from reading “My Name is Leon” – the character is so well written that you can understand his motives and outbursts perfectly.

Illustration by Supersimbo

De Waals debut novel is a surprise – probably due to the fact the De Waal is writing from her experiences and knowledge. She has worked alongside social workers in her job as a magistrate, she was born to an Irish mother who was a foster carer and her father was Caribbean. One suspects that her experience has moulded Leon and his characteristics.

I wasn’t expecting to care so much about the characters involved and was delighted by a change of pace in the middle of the book. The whole story felt authentic and offers a heartbreaking look at the breakdown of a family unit and the impact it has on child.

So lots of people are asking about arm knitting

So lots of people are asking about arm knitting – it apparently is all the buzz right now. Lots of people are also laughing at / mocking me for knitting without needles (or sticks as I keep calling them). But cease and desist people because a quick flick through Pintrest brought forth these great projects which were created by arm knitting.






Well, who is laughing now. The great news – a scarf takes up to an hour, the middle blanket took 3 hours. The possibilities are endless (as long as a rectangle is what you want). I learn from this excellent tutorial at Flax and Twine.

Currently I have mastered a scarf / snood which too an hour and I only needed to be cut free once. Onwards and upward from here on. The snow has inspired me to keep going. Arm knitting is the future.