Infinite variety – Christmas books for all tastes

Infinite variety – Christmas books for all tastes

Christmas books for all tastes


As always at this time of year we publish a selection of books suitable for all ages at Christmas

Compiled by the Books’ Editor


Keeping Christmas Well

By Artemsia D’Ecca

(Phaeton Publishing, €29.00 / £25.00)

This is an amusing and seasonal book from a newish Irish publishing house which aims to invade the British market with their stylish art deco inspired entertainments — something to be encouraged in these days.

Their contribution to the ‘knowledge economy’ is to provide readers with a question and answer guide to the season of Christmas, what they style the ”essential facts about the season of Christmas”.

The book is both very entertaining in its array of miscellaneous facts about the season of the Nativity, and in its wide array of illustrations, many drawing on the rich traditions left us by the Victorians.

The aim of the author is to entertain and to enlighten in a gentle way — and she achieves both, making this a Christmas present which will amuse for years to come.


Titanic – The Story of the Unsinkable

By Michael Wilkinson

(Transatlantic Press, €22.45 / £16.99)

With the centenary year almost upon us it will be hard to avoid a Titanic book of some kind for a good while.

The story has often been told and will constantly be retold, but Michael Wilkinson provides an excellent version.

The voyage has a great fascination for many, and yet it also gives rise to more sober thoughts about human vanity, ambition and the wilful disregard for the good of others; though mixed with all that there were instances of great fortitude and high bravery.

The centenary is to be marked by special events in Cobh to commemorate the start of the fatal voyage.


The House of Silk

By Anthony Horowitz

(Orion, €14.99 / £18.99)


The Narrative of John Smith

By Arthur Conan Doyle

(The British Library, €13.15 / £10.00)

Never mind the new Robert Downey film which opens this week, here is a real treat for all fans of Sherlock Holmes: a new Holmes novel by skilled writer Anthony Horowitz.

The original tales were, of course, short stories. Even the Holmes ‘full length stories’ are merely tales into which a back story was inserted (very much in the style of pioneer French detective story writer Emile Gaboriau, whom Holmes berates in A Study in Scarlet).

Can Holmes, can any detective tale, sustain a novel length was a problem that Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie worried about.

Both thought that the right length was about forty to fifty thousand words — The House of Silk runs to over 80,000.

Though ”this dark and disturbing tale” for adults ventures into realms Conan Doyle avoided, all doubts aside, it will enthral fans over Christmas — this reviewer among them.

Also published in time for Christmas is a book more for Conan Doyle admirers than Sherlock Holmes fans.

The first issue of his famously ‘lost in the post’ first book from 1883 is an elegant piece of bookcraft from the British Library, which holds the MSS.

This is a curious tale of an aging man meditating on his experiences and on the mystery and meaning of life.

It contains in embryo many of the issues that troubled Conan Doyle all his life.

An Irish Catholic by birth, but educated by the English Jesuits, he ‘lost his faith’ early enough. But the rest of his life was a religious quest, an attempt to fill that ‘God-shaped hole’, ending notoriously in the frauds and fakery of Spiritualism.

Yet he still believed in life after death. He remained what he had been born, a religious person, a moral man, but one following the beat of a different drummer.


Death Comes to Pemberley

By P. D. James

(Faber & Faber, €13.00 / £16.93 pb)

Already noticed in these pages, this book will be the season’s treat for devotees of Jane Austen and Baroness James — a large portion indeed of the great reading public. What more can be said about the talents of P.D. James — except to say that here she surpasses herself in a wittily handled plot.

An unknown portrait of Jane Austen, recently found, will be featured in a BBC documentary on St Stephen’s Day.

Also to be read is May, Lou and Cass by Sophia Hillan (Blackstaff Press), the account of Jane Austen’s nieces in Ireland.

A very remarkable book, which carries the reader from the shabby comforts of Hampshire and Kent into the wilds of Donegal in the course of the 19th Century. A very remarkable book, which deserves every success too.


Revolution: A Photographic History of Revolutionary Ireland 1913-1923

(Mercier Press, €25.00 / £21.99)

This is a very evocative album containing many unusual or little seen photographs. It covers all the events from the Lock Out through to the end of the Civil War, adding in for good measure the aftermath images, to the take-over of the Treaty Ports.

However, the title begs the question that historians of all kinds will be re-examining in the years to come.

Was what happened during those years a revolution at all, or merely a change of masters?

Certainly both Left and Right in Ireland, let alone the Unionists North and South, might have different views. For some, all these events represent neither a revolution nor a war of independence, but a civil war between some half dozen parties for the control of Ireland.

This book is wide-ranging, yet the coverage of events in Ulster is almost non-existent, aside from the ‘Battle of York Street’. Pádraig Óg Ó Ruaric tells the story then, but not the whole story.


Wogan’s Ireland: A Tour Round the Country that Made the Man

By Terry Wogan

(Simon and Schuster, €14.99 / £19.99)

The old smoothie returns home, not just to his native Limerick, but to other places too. Perhaps a little touristy, but nevertheless his often acute comments on the past and the present will give pleasure to many of his fans, here and over the water.


A Parish Far from Home

By Philip O’Connor

(Gill & Macmillan, €16.00 /£14.99)

An unusual take on the national game which will be read with interest even by the unsporting, dealing with the sporting enthusiasm among our exiles in foreign places where many have gone to seek work.

In this case, Philip O’Connor describes a year in the life of the lads who play Gaelic games in Sweden — of all places.


Rick Stein’s Spain

(BBC Books, €24.99 / £25.00)

Combines travel and eating in agreeable portions. Rick Stein is one of the most interesting of the telly cooks around, the food being rather like the man himself, genuinely down to earth (if that can be said of anyone who appears on the box).

However, the text is mercifully free of fine food cant. Also of value: Lorraine Pascale’s Home Cooking Made does what it says on the tin.

Throughout cookery shows, one often wishes that producers would give up the out of focus shots, the three second segments, and the ridiculous close-ups of cheese being grated.

What was once ‘edgy’ has now become merely a time-worn telly cliché (to which the popular Rachel Allen and Catherine Fulvio shows are as prone as any).


Charles Dickens: A Life

By Claire Tomalin

(Viking, €15.99 / £18.50)

Another anniversary descends upon us in February, this time marking the bicentenary of Charles Dicken’s birth.

Claire Tomalin is an accomplished biographer, and she recreates the details of a richly creative life lived at an extraordinary pace very well.

But I suspect that to learn more about Dickens we need books about ‘Dickens and America’, ‘Dickens and poverty’, ‘Dickens and the State’, where the detail can be even more fully explored.

Doubtless in the year to come we will get all this too, perhaps even ‘Dickens and Ireland’.


Gloria: An Introduction to 1,000 Years of European Sacred Music

By Tim Thurston

(Associated Editions / RTE¨ Lyric fm, €20.00 / £20.00)

Many will be familiar with Tim’s Sunday morning programme which brings to listeners all around the world (thanks to the miracles of modern technology) the glories of liturgical music over the centuries.

We recently reviewed in these pages Tom Dowley’s Christian Music: A Global History, which was rich in detail about many traditions beyond the mainstream Tim Thurston deals with.

But this beautifully illustrated book (all the pictures being by Irish artists or from Irish collections) provides an introduction which is wonderfully enhanced by a CD produced by Hyperion Records of some 30 selections of the music itself. It is like having a version of the programme to hand all the time.

Tim Thurston is an enthusiast, who has the rare talent of engaging his listeners through his own warm personality with varieties of music they might not naturally turn to. His book is truly a gift of divine music.


The Pen and the Cross, Catholicism and English Literature

By Richard Griffiths

(Continuum, €33.00 / £25.00)

Beginning from the dawn of the ‘second spring’ in the 1850s, Richard Griffith provides an elegant survey not just of the major figures such as Waugh and Greene, but also many minor figures such as Mrs Wilfrid Ward, Robert Hugh Benson and Maurice Baring.

He discusses G. M. Hopkins too, but he also deals with those all too often over-looked figures, such as the poet David Gascoyne and the Welsh artist and writer David Jones.

This is perhaps the best book on Catholic literature published this year.


Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics

By Thomas J. Craughwell

(Doubleday Religion / Veritas, €11.99 / £9.99)

Relics have had a bad press from sceptics in recent centuries. And yet one sometimes has doubts about the doubters.

In KÎln, for instance, there are preserved relics of the Three Kings. An examination of these in recent years suggests that they might indeed be of Middle Eastern origin.

It is only human perhaps, along with visits to shrines and holy wells, that we should also wish to view the remains of saintly figures. This book provides a survey of such historic relics as survive in an up-to-date way. Not a book for all, but certainly one of great interest to both the devout and the historically minded.


Your Sunday Missal

General editor Denis McBride C. Ss.R

(Redemptorist Publications, €24.50 / £20.99 hb)

The renovations, or rather restorations, in the liturgy provide an occasion for the first purchase of a missal for many people. This version is beautifully printed and laid out; though the India paper is perhaps just a little light for regular use. However, shops such as Veritas and Bestseller stock other editions too. We talk about ‘handing on the faith’. Here’s a Christmas gift which will do just that.

And finally, and not so seriously, a grown-up stocking filler . . .


The Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures

Complied by Stephen Pile

(Faber and Faber, €17.15 / £12.99 hb)

A title that seems quite in keeping with the times we live. ”Forget success”, the cover cries, the contents suggesting we might as well go out laughing.

Next week our regular reviewers will share their Books of the Year with readers.

Correction: Imelda K. Butler

Be Not Afraid … I Go Before You (Currach Press, €14.99 / £12.50) noticed in our issue of November 24 is edited by Imelda K. Butler (not Byrne as was stated by an editorial error for which we apologise). Mrs Butler has gathered together stories from well-known personalities of their experience of bereavement, which they share in a very moving way.

”It is hoped that in their stories,” she writes, ”others will find some sense of comfort and healing as they deal with the life shattering event that is the loss of a loved one.”

The profits from the book will be donated to Growth Reaching Africa (GRA), a registered charity. The funds will be used to feed and educate children in rural Kenya; visit

Lost days and forgotten lives


Ghosts of the Faithful Departed

By David Creedon

(Collins Press, €19.99 / £21.99 hb)

Peter Hegarty

The subjects of this haunting photo essay are Irish houses whose former occupants have departed this life.

These people are gone but their pictures of the Sacred Heart still hang on the walls above cold fireplaces.

We sense the impact of emigration on their lives: inside an airmail envelope on a mantelpiece is a letter containing the words ”I’ll always be an exile”.

Calendars tell us when lives ended. The hollow on a pillow is, Creedon senses, where a head rested in death. His images are both elegiac and uplifting.

The details he captures — an empty whisky bottle, a thimble, a suit jacket in a wardrobe, the kettle on a crane — and the intensity of the colours in his long-exposure photographs remind us that these empty, mouldering houses were once homes where people laughed and loved, fought and wept.


Living by their wits

Prodigals and Geniuses: The Writers and Artists of Dublin’s Baggotonia

By Brendan Lynch

(Liffey Press, €19.95 / £18.95)

John Wyse Jackson

Although ‘Baggotonia’ is not a term familiar to many, it is quite a useful one. As might be expected, it refers to the area of Dublin loosely surrounding Baggot Street. Brendan Lynch, in his wide-ranging book, defines it as the centre of the city’s ‘artistic quarter’, like Soho or Fitzrovia in London, or the Left Bank in Paris.

So here we meet once again not only Patrick Kavanagh on his canal bank, Brendan Behan in his basement and Brian O’Nolan in his childhood home in Herbert Place, but also the Wilde family in their grand house on the corner of Merrion Square.

All familiar enough, you might say — and it is certainly true that there are a good many ‘twice-told tales’ to be encountered here.

However, what makes this companionable book worth reading is that there are also chapters that give us valuable details of the lives of some of the less frequently chronicled characters who might once have been found walking along (or weaving around) the pavements of Dublin 2 and 4.

These include George D Hodnett (jazz critic of The Irish Times and composer of ‘Monto’), the family historian and unstoppable talker, Eoin (‘The Pope’) O’Mahony, as well as artists as varied as Harry Kernoff, Pauline Bewick and the late Owen Walsh, a rumbunctious painter and drinker who (if one reads between the lines) seems to have been a particular friend of the author’s.

With these (perhaps lesser-known) figures particularly, it would have been helpful if the book supplied references for the many quotations in the text: it is often impossible to work out if we are reading something that Brendan Lynch remembers like Owen Walsh, for example, saying to him over a pint, or if he has borrowed the passage from some obscure published source. These omissions may naturally affect the book’s reputation for reliability for some.

But Prodigals and Geniuses is written for readers, not for scholars, and with its many pictures and lively conversations recalling some great people, nobody could accuse it of not being entertaining.