Thursday 23 October 2014

Picture perfect

Published 23/12/2012 | 06:00

Coffee table picture books have solved many a Christmas present crisis. They can be great conversation starters after the plum pudding on the big day and are perfect for lazy browsing later on. They look impressive . . . and who will ever know you grabbed one at the last minute?

This year two Irish ones stand out from the rest, Atlas of the The Great Irish Famine from Cork University Press and The Book of Kells from Thames & Hudson.

The Atlas deservedly won an award at this year's Irish Book Awards and it's a fascinating read that recreates the horror through first-hand accounts, statistics, illustrations and parish maps, giving a comprehensive overview of what happened.

It's not cheap, at about €85, but it's a must-have book for anyone interested in our history, so much so that many bookshops have sold out and are waiting for supplies.

The other stunner is the new edition of The Book of Kells, with more than 80 pages from the original printed in full size using the latest technology to reproduce colours to perfection.

The explanatory text is by Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College, who has been studying the book for 30 years.

He wears his learning lightly and guides the reader through the great work with lots of illustrations, panels and explanations. It's better than having the real thing at home. It comes in an impressive slipcase and you're going to need a big coffee table to display it. It's also around €85.

From The Ground Up – the U2 360° Tour Official Photobook with text by GQ editor Dylan Jones was published two months ago by Preface at £25.

We get lots of tour books from rock greats but this one really is the ultimate backstage pass.

It takes the reader behind the scenes on the biggest rock tour of all . . . the one with The Claw (it weighed 400 tons) and it goes from initial concept to realisation and then on the tour which ended in 2011 and saw the band play before seven million people on five continents.

Another one with a similar title is From The Ground Up: How Ireland Is Growing Its Own by Fionnuala Fallon, published by Collins Press at €24.99.

Maybe it's the recession but more people than ever are joining the GIY (Grow It Yourself) movement and this book is for anyone who wants to give it a go.

Full of practical advice and profiles of GIY gardens, from one on a high balcony in an apartment block to a former forlorn suburban plot.

Another lovely one from Collins Press in Cork (who specialise in coffee table books) is Ireland's Atlantic Shore – People and Places From Mizen to Malin by Valerie O'Sullivan, also €24.99.

A magic carpet to the west and a great present for anyone from there. Ireland's glorious Atlantic shores stretch across seven counties and the scenery is truly spectacular. But this book is not just about the seascapes, it's about the people who live there.

Probably the most fascinating coffee table book this year was Luggala Days – The Story of a Guinness House, by Robert O'Byrne, from Cico Books at €51.

Luggala is the famous Wicklow home of Garech de Brun who filled the house with visiting artists and musicians over the years – among the many famous faces is Charlotte Rampling, pictured dancing with Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains.

There were lots of Hollywood picture books this year, but perhaps the most appealing was Audrey: The 60s from Aurum Press, at £25 (€30.78), which covers much of Hepburn's greatest work.

Also from America was The Kennedys, Reel Art Press, £45 (€55.40), an evocative book of pictures by Mark Shaw who had unique access to JFK and his wife in the early 1960s.

The striking thing about these images – half of them never seen before – is how calm and content the couple are and how glorious their lives seem to be.

Ireland in Brick & Stone, Gill and Macmillan, €25.99, has lovely pictures and fascinating text on everywhere from Pearse's Cottage to Knock Airport and lots of ancient buildings as well. It's perfect bedtime reading with 50 buildings covered, each in a few pages, so you can finish one before nodding off. It's by Richard Killeen, G&M's resident historian.

Another book of buildings this year was Abandoned Mansions of Ireland II, the second coffee table book from Tarquin Blake on the forgotten stately homes of Ireland, now mostly in ruins.

An eerie but beautiful reminder of past glories, one of the houses now in ruins is Elsinore in Sligo where WB and Jack Yeats spent childhood summers. The photography in this one is spell-binding; it's from Collins Press at €27.99

For Dubliners, you can't go wrong with Barry Kennerk's Moore Street – The Story of Dublin's Market District, Mercier Press, €25.50.

It's a window into the past in the area, when barefoot kids could be seen among the second-hand clothes and furniture stalls, the rabbit sellers, butchers and vegetable traders, all plying their trade in the narrow lanes.

It's a wonderful book not just for the pictures from a century ago but for the history of the entire area.

And finally the one you've all been waiting for: One Direction: The Official Annual 2013, HarperCollins Children's Books, £7.99. It's mainly airbrushed pictures but the I Heart Niall chapter on the biggest thing to come out of Mullingar since Joe Dolan tells us "exclusively" that he's left-handed, that he can't live without Nando's and what he thinks are the most important qualities in a girlfriend.

Essential reading for millions.

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