Sunday 18 February 2018

The best books for Christmas

Here's our guide to the perfect present for every type of bookworm. By Books Editor John Spain

Ella Kiernan (6) and Mia Creighton (7) read Dublin Zoo Elephants
Ella Kiernan (6) and Mia Creighton (7) read Dublin Zoo Elephants
Record breaker: Ed Cahill has made it into Guinness World Records 2014

John Spain

The books pages these days are full of lists by leading authors picking their literary masterpieces of the year. There are novels of the year, non-fiction books of the year, collections of poetry and historical tomes. But many of the books that are bought as Christmas presents every year do not feature on these lists.

There are the cookbooks, the music annuals, the picture books, the gardening guides and the quirky books in other categories. Books Editor John Spain samples the gift books on the shelves this year:


It wouldn't be Christmas without the Guinness World Records annual to amaze the kids and fuel family quizzes after the plum pudding. The 2014 edition includes thousands of the planet's most awe-inspiring people, animals and objects, including new record holders like the skateboarding goat and the world's furriest cat.

There are two new Irish entries this year, both achieved by listeners to Today FM's Ray D'Arcy Show. One was for the largest gathering of people with a Mohican hairstyle (257) and the other was achieved by one Ed Cahill who is now the world record holder for the most toothpicks put in a beard (3,107).

New topics this year include Superheroes, Venom, and Social Networking. This year's book also has what it calls Augmented Reality features, which allows you to "See-It-3D" by using a free app you can download to your phone or tablet. The book varies in price from €16.99 to €19.99 in bookshops.


There were several Beatles books this year (because it was 50 years ago today, etc). The one that got most attention was the ridiculously overwritten The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One (€42.99), the 960-page first part of a three-part biography by music writer Mark Lewisohn who has spent 10 years working on it.

The phrase 'get a life' comes to mind. It's not the nose-picking, virginity-losing life detail that's interesting, it's the music – and for that much better is All The Songs (Black Dog & Leventhal, £35) a chronological record of every song released by The Beatles from 'Please Please Me' (1962) to 'The Long and Winding Road' (1970).

The genesis of each song, how it was written, what happened in the studio, who played what, and all the other details for every one of the 215 Beatles songs gives a window into how these creative geniuses created the catchy, innovative songs that sound as fresh today as they did all those years ago.

What strikes one is the simplicity of it all in the early days. John and Paul wrote 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' in a couple of hours in Jane Asher's house the night before it was recorded. 'She Loves You' was written in their hotel room after a gig in Newcastle.

They did everything themselves in the studio, rarely taking more than a few hours to finish recording a song. For anyone interested in music, this is the perfect Christmas present, a big heavy hardback (it weighs 2.5kgs) with pictures.


Boyband annuals are big business now and this year it's all about one group. One Direction: The Official Annual 2014 (HarperCollins, £7.99) is the only official annual written "in collaboration with" the boys.

Although 'written' may be overstating things a tad, since it's only 64 pages and it's crammed with photoshopped pictures. It's all a bit depressing when you think what the Beatles were doing at the same age.

But they are the most successful "band" in the world, with sell-out appearances, a movie and getting to number one in no fewer than 63 countries over the past year.


Leftovers were the big thing this year with both Jamie Oliver and Rachel Allen telling us how to use them up in mouth watering dishes. Rachel's Everyday Kitchen (Harper, £25) promised "simple, delicious, family food", although her idea of "everyday" includes Arancini with Herb Sauce, Chermoula Fish Tagine and Tartiflette (no, me neither).

To be fair, she does have good ideas for leftover chicken, beef and pork.

In Jamie's Save With Jamie (Penguin, €37.50) the cheeky chappie switches from pretending that it's possible to cook roast dinners in 15 minutes to telling us how to "shop smart, cook clever, waste less."

It's all about saving money and half the recipes use leftovers. Snake in the Hole features an elongated meatloaf in the shape of a snake twisting through a baking dish filled with Yorkshire pud. It's probably delicious but it looks like an operation on someone's large intestine.

For simplicity and practicality, Like Mam Used to Bake by Rosanne Hewitt-Cromwell (Mercier, €19.99) rises above the rest and is perfectly in tune with the current home baking revival. It started life as a popular blog, which was spotted by Mercier Press.

Dublin woman Hewitt-Cromwell has been in love with cakes and baking for as long as she can remember – from the early days of listening to her mam singing in the kitchen as sweet smells filled the house, right up to today, standing in her own kitchen baking more treats than her husband can eat.

It's all there, from almond fingers and upside-down cake to Rocky Road. Plus there's a chapter on Christmas baking that is a model of clarity. Mary Berry eat your heart out.


Not so long ago bookshops had wheelbarrow loads of books by Diarmuid Gavin, Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh every Christmas.

People are still gardening, but the craze has died down, although there is one book in the shops this year that will appeal to gardeners everywhere. Clondeglass: Creating a Garden Paradise (€36.50) is Dermot O'Neill's account of buying a derelict country house and walled garden a decade ago and saving them from ruin.

It was a mammoth task, not least because Dermot was also battling serious illness at the time. This book shows the totally renovated garden in all its glory.


Two beautiful books stand out among many Irish picture books this year. Secrets Of The Irish Landscape (Cork University Press, €36.50) examines our landscape from the Ice Age until the present, with historians, archaeologists, biologists and earth scientists showing how the landscape and the life it supports have been crafted by both natural and human events.

Our landscape would be nothing without its people and Vanishing Ireland: Friendship and Community by James Fennell and Turtle Bunbury (Hachette Ireland, €35.75) shows why. It's the latest in the series on rural Ireland and the extraordinary skills of the older country people who could live rich lives on very little.


A nature lesson that will appeal to all young readers is the beautiful new book for children titled Dublin Zoo Elephants by Catherine de Courcy with illustrations by Cathy Callan. And parents may learn a thing or two.

Did you know, for example, that the gestation period for elephants is two years?

This is on the minds of the keepers in Dublin Zoo right now because they believe that all four female elephants in the herd of five (yes, there is one very lucky male) are pregnant. So all going well, there will be an elephant baby boom in the Zoo in a couple of years.

Lots of books for children fall into the Dumbo fantasy genre but this one explains how elephants really are and how they live happily in the Zoo. The book is now on sale at the Zoo and online at, at €7.95. All proceeds go towards the care of the animals.


Two from the Collins Press in Cork are the kind of quirky reads that are popular over the Christmas holiday. Put the Kettle On (€25.99) by Juanita Browne talks to people about the Irish love affair with tea, including actress Mary McEvoy on all the cups she had to make as Biddy on the set of Glenroe.

Looks Like Rain (€22.99) by Damian Corless is a light-hearted trip through 9,000 years of Irish weather and how it changed our history.

Books Pages Next Saturday: Non-Fiction of the Year

Irish Independent

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