“I LOVE books, and I love to talk about books, so I’m definitely in the right job,” says Lily Keohane with a laugh.
Commercial manager of Waterstone’s Cork, the Bantry native orders all of the books for the Leeside shop, and it is the fulfilment of a life’s ambition.
“I’m in a job where I get to read a book and say ‘I’ll have 50 of these!’ It’s my dream job. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be around books.”
Lily had wanted to be a librarian when she grew up, but a stint as a temporary librarian in UCC made her rethink that. She doesn’t elaborate, but is clear that she is now where she wants to be.
“I came to Waterstone’s Cork as a Christmas temp six years ago, and I’ve been here ever since. This is my seventh Christmas.”
She believes booksellers are a definite tribe of their own, united by a common love for books, and says a particular honour is in welcoming to the shop young readers who might be interested in a series or a writer she loved when she was their age, and in recommending to them similar or related books.
“Bookshops are a safe space. We regularly get people of all ages calling in just looking for directions. I think people just associate us with libraries and trust us. We do our best to live up to that trust.”
Although part of a UK chain, she says, Waterstone’s Cork has always prided itself as a champion of local authors and books, and while the parent company has a book of the year, so too does the Cork branch.
This year’s Waterstone’s book of the year is Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics, and it does look gorgeous, even if it’s massive enough to have its own gravity well and costs a whopping €90, even with its own tote bag.
“We’re offering €10 off, and your loyalty card will come in handy,” she says with a smile.
The Waterstone’s Cork book of the year is Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, which Lily calls “a perfect little novel”. It’s set in a small Irish town in 1985, in the shadow of a mother and baby home.
“It’s not an easy topic, but this offers a beautiful, emotional take on the subject. The only complaint I’ve had about it is that it’s too short.”
Not that people felt short-changed, she stresses, it’s €13 in hardback and runs to 116 pages, rather that they wished they could have spent a little more time in the world of the novel.
Describing herself as “a stereotypical late-20s reader”, Lily loved Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You - “a phenomenon” - but her own personal book of the year was Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, which she calls “a perfect book”. It got lost a bit in the third lockdown, and she suggests it deserves a paperback second wind.
It’s hard to predict the big Christmas stand-out, she says, but really that’s not the point. Irish publishing has had an incredible year and there really is something for everyone.
Teen books are “booming now”, and just as JK Rowling proved the gateway drug for an earlier generation of young readers - Harry Potter is still flying like Hedwig off the shelves - she says TikTok has been a huge driver of reading, with the tag #BookTok making a sensation of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. The similarly themed Medusa, by Jessie Burton, is going down a storm. Murders are huge too with young people, Lily says.
As a parting recommendation, she suggests It Rose Up: A Selection of Lost Irish Fantasy Stories, a thematic sequel to A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, and says that with genre, as with teen books, there should be no room for snobbery.
“Whatever gets you into reading, whatever gets you into books, there’s no judgement. There’s a place for everyone here.”
John Breen has been a bookseller with Waterstone’s Cork for 30 years, and his passion for Cork writers is legendary.
These are some of his local picks this Christmas.
Pancho and Lefty Ride Again, by Cónal Creedon.
What can you say about Cónal? Documentarian, playwright, film-maker, and “accidental author” as he calls himself, he’s such a gifted writer, so evocative and lyrical, and he’s Cork to the core.
This is a reissue from 25 years ago, a self-described “digital remaster” with 11 “bonus tracks”, or new stories. Thoroughly recommended. Irishtown Press, €15.
Coastal Atlas of Ireland
This is a massive work of scholarship, extremely readable, and a beautiful book. At nearly 1,000 pages, it’s a steal at €59. Cork University Press.
Ireland: An Aerial Journey, by Dennis Horgan
A stunning book of aerial photography, but this isn’t drone footage, Dennis goes up in a small aircraft and takes the most fantastic shots. Described by The Echo as “a masterpiece”. Red Stripe Press, €35.
The Presidents’ Letters, by Flor MacCarthy
This is a lovely collection of letters to and from Irish presidents. Some real gems in here. New Island Press, €25.
Liberty Terrace by Madeleine D’Arcy
A fantastic writer, D’Arcy’s second collection of short stories is set in a fictional area of Cork City before and during lockdown. Doire Press, €15.
The Art of Falling, by Danielle McLaughlin
This was our One City One Book choice this year. It’s the debut novel of the author of Dinosaurs on Other Planets, and it’s excellent. John Murray, €12.
56 Days, by Catherine Ryan Howard
Winner of the Crime Fiction book of the year. Atlantic Press, €18.
Utter Disloyalist, by Dónal Ó Drisceoill
This riveting, enlightening book tells the story, until now largely forgotten, of Tadgh Barry, the last high-profile victim of the crown forces during the War of Independence. The Mercier Press, €20.
Memoir of an Irish Jew, by Lionel Cohen
Beautiful, affecting autobiography that has flown out the door. Only a few copies left. Cork City Library, €15.
Smugglers in the Underground Hug Trade, by William Wall
A lovely collection from local poet/novelist William Wall, Cork’s official poet laureate, twice longlisted for the Booker Prize. Doire Press, €14.
Thomas McCarthy’s Journal
A Waterford man living in Cork, Thomas worked in Cork City Library and this memoir covers the 1970s up to almost now. It’s due very soon on Gallery Press, and Thomas will – Covid permitting – do a reading in Waterstone’s in January, 2022, alongside William Wall.
Apathy is Out, by Seán Ó Ríordáin
Greg Delanty’s excellent translation of selected poems by Ó Ríordáin. Bloodaxe Books, €16.15 Big Dance by Aoife Greenham. A charming kids’ book about the importance of being yourself, beautifully illustrated by the author. Child’s Play International, €9.50.