Tag Archives: bookshops


As Ireland and the UK re-enter Coronavirus/Covid-19 lockdown, many retail outlets not deemed ‘essential’ have had to close their doors again, or resume doing business online or via click-and-collect. One of these non-essential businesses, unfortunately, is my absolute favourite: Bookshops.

I’m not going to get into the philosophical ins-and-outs of how essential books are (to my mind, they’re next to air and food and water), because – of course – the primary consideration here is keeping bookshop staff and customers safe during this time of crisis. Having said that, though, there are a lot of people who do need books, and there are a lot of bookshops who desperately need customers, and so in order to do a small bit to help, the author Holly Bourne got several of us writery-types together in a campaign to help bookshops and customers survive Lockdown II. I’m proud to be doing a small bit to help.

The campaign involves authors committing to send signed bookplates to customers who buy their books from an independent bookshop during the period of lockdown, and/or sending signed bookplates to bookshops who’d like some (while stocks last!) So, in order to play my part, I’m offering to send a signed bookplate to the first ten customers in the UK or Ireland who:

  • Buy one (or both) of my books from an independent bookshop (ideally) during the period of lockdown in their country;
  • Send me a photo of their proof of purchase, along with their postal address and the name/s they’d like me to put on the bookplate/s;
  • Are willing to wait a week or two to receive their post from me (soz).

I’ll also be reaching out to some of my favourite bookshops to see if they’d like a bookplate or two, but if you’re reading this and you’re running an indie bookshop anywhere in Ireland or the UK and you’d like a couple of signed bookplates from me, drop me a line.

This CONTACT ME page is the best way to get in touch. https://sjohart.wordpress.com/contact-me/

Some other things to consider:

For the purposes of this campaign, books bought on Amazon or Book Depository won’t count (though I thank you very much for your purchase). The campaign aims to support bricks-and-mortar bookshops.

I’m happy to send a bookplate in whichever design you prefer – I have a snazzy blue-and-tentacle one for The Eye of the North and a super-dooper gold-purple-starry-webby one for The Star-Spun Web, but neither plate has the name of the book on it so feel free to take your pick.

Stocks of bookplates are, sadly, limited so, if you’d like one, the sooner the better you get in touch.

Follow along on Twitter – the hashtag is #SignForOurBookshops – and if you fancy shouting about the campaign and throwing us a bit of support, that would be fab.

Meanwhile: Keep on reading!

Books for Christmas! (Or, just because!)

The main problem I had compiling this post was one of space. I’ve often said it before, and I’ll say it again: for fans of children’s literature, this is a golden age. There are so many excellent books to choose from this year that any round up of ‘the best’, besides being entirely subjective, will have to be far too short.  The following list is a good one to look over if you have someone to buy books for as a Christmas gift (or a birthday gift, or just because you love ’em), but it’s by no means comprehensive.

So. Here is my list of top choices, ranging from picture books to YA, published within the last couple of years:

Picture Books

Shh! We Have a Plan (Chris Haughton)

Chris Haughton has a wonderful, unique visual style, and his books are immediately recognisable. Like my other favourite of his, Oh, No George!, this lovely little story (about a bunch of unscrupulous hat-wearing hunters who plot to capture a beautiful bird) has eyecatching font and art and a pleasing colour palette – and it’s huge fun.

I’m A Girl! (Yasmeen Ismail)

An Irish picture book maker of renown, Yasmeen Ismail is another of my ‘reliable’ authors. I love recommending her work. I’m a Girl! is a story about being yourself, no matter what the world tells you you should or should not like, and I just love that message.

The Day the Crayons Came Home (words: Drew Daywalt; art: Oliver Jeffers)

The sequel to The Day the Crayons Quit, I just love this book. The idea of crayons having personalities and leaving messages for their owner – and, in this case, getting lost and describing their adventures under the sofa and in the dryer, among other places – is so cute and heartwarming. Plus, anything drawn by Oliver Jeffers is worth checking out.


Image: bostonglobe.com


Irelandopedia (words: John Burke; art: Kathi (Fatti) Burke)

It is what is sounds like: an encyclopedia of Ireland! Packed full of interesting and unusual facts and dotted liberally with lovely illustrations, this book is a gorgeous gift for readers of any age.

Shackleton’s Journey (William Grill)

A stunning depiction of Ernest Shackleton’s journey to Antarctica, this book’s beauty is matched only by the depth of its research. I’m fascinated by polar exploration anyway, but for any adventure-loving young reader, this lovely book is sure to be a hit.

Thing Explainer (Randall Munroe)

A book about how things work, and why, in simple language and with a humorous twist (Randall Munroe also writes the very funny comic xkcd), this is a great gift for an older reader.

Middle Grade/Older Readers

Once Upon a Place (various authors; compiled by Eoin Colfer; art by P.J. Lynch)

A beautiful and lavishly-illustrated collection of stories and poems, all based around locations in Ireland, this is truly beautiful.

Darkmouth: Worlds Explode (Shane Hegarty)

The sequel to Darkmouth, this book sees Finn entering the realm of the Legends and hoping – just hoping – to get out of it alive and in relatively few pieces. Fun and fast-paced, this is an appealing book.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow (Katherine Woodfine)

Edwardian, elegant, gripping, and lavishly presented in beautiful covers (and with line drawings by the cover artist, Julia Salda) this is a fantastic mystery with a well-drawn cast of characters. Its sequel, The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, has just been released, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

The Wolf Wilder (Katherine Rundell)

Katherine Rundell’s writing is always gorgeous, and this book is no exception. Her swooping, beautiful prose tells the story of a young girl and her mother who live in the Russian wilderness, teaching wolves to be wild, and who come under threat from the forces of the Tsar. And it looks gorgeous too.

wolf wilder

Image: goodreads.com

The Lie Tree (Frances Hardinge)

It’s Frances Hardinge. What more do you need? If you have never read her, start. (Though I counsel beginning not at the ‘beginning’, with her first published novels, but with this book or Cuckoo Song or A Face Like Glass, all of which are works of genius).

Phoenix (S.F. Said; art by Dave McKean)

A beautiful, epic journey through space illustrated wonderfully by Dave McKean, Phoenix is a memorable and monumental book. Gripping to the end, and wide in imaginative scope, it’s a definite favourite of mine.

The Black Lotus (Kieran Fanning)

Ninjas! Death-defying stunts! Time travel! Superpowers! This book has it all, and a kick-ass cover, too. I loved this debut from Irish author Kieran Fanning.

The Book of Learning (E.R. Murray)

Ebony Smart is a girl unlike any other – and it’s up to her to save not only her family but their entire way of life before it’s too late. Set in Dublin and Cork, its evocative places are as much a character in this story as any of its (memorable) human players.


One (Sarah Crossan)

I read One while in hospital, just beginning the process of labour as I gave birth to my child. For that reason, it will always be special, but it is a wonderful book besides that. Telling the story of a pair of very special twins, it is deeply moving and uniquely written, and I love it.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here (Patrick Ness)

One of the best, funniest, smartest and most moving books I read this year, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is just what you’d expect from Patrick Ness: epic greatness. Following the ‘ordinary’ kids through a near-miss with the apocalypse, it’s clever and full of flawed characters, and it’s fabulous.

rest of us

Image: goodreads.com

The Dead House (Dawn Kurtagich)

Written in a ‘found’ style – pieces of diaries, transcriptions of video and audio footage, newspaper reports, and suchlike – this book tells the story of Carly Johnson, a pupil at Elmbridge High, which burned down twenty-five years before the story opens. Among the papers found in the school’s ruins is a diary belonging to Kaitlyn, Carly’s twin sister – but did she exist at all? Creepy and psychologically unsettling, this is a great read from my fellow Greenhouser, Dawn Kurtagich. Great for dark nights!

The Accident Season (Moira Fowley-Doyle)

A lyrical, unique and memorable book about a family which seems cursed to suffer accidents and injuries every October – some of them fatal – and their journey to uncover why they are burdened in this way. Coupled with a search for a girl whom nobody but this family seems to remember, and Cara’s feelings for her sort-of-ex-stepbrother, it is one of the best books I read this year.

Alors, mes anges. There you have it. A semi-cobbled-together-on-no-sleep list of great books which you might consider purchasing for the readers in your life – though, really, you can’t beat walking into a good bookshop and asking the advice of a knowledgeable bookseller. So, that’s my real recommendation. Ask an expert. And try to buy offline, if you can at all. Let’s keep our bookshops the way they should be – open, and solvent.

And happy Bookmas!








In Praise of Booksellers

Yesterday, I had to go into Dublin city for the day to attend to some business, but – of course – when I’m in the capital I always make time to visit a bookshop or two. This is partly because Dublin has some gorgeous bookshops, but also because, where I live, buying (or even seeing) books is tough. (Unless you’re standing in my living room, which is wallpapered with the things, but you know, I trust, what I mean). In my sleepy town we have one supermarket which has a small selection of new books, though it’s growing all the time – particularly its kidlit section, which is fantastic – but I have qualms about buying books from supermarkets. Call it once-a-bookseller-always-a-bookseller guilt about margins and profits, if you like, but that’s the reality.

Anyway. So. I’m in Dublin. I’m in the comfortable surroudings of one of my favourite bookshops, a place I’ve known and loved for well over fifteen years. I feel at peace. Blood pressure lowered, heart-rate calm, all that jazz. The scent of paper soothing my senses. The quiet buzz of bookish commerce making me feel right at home. The gut-wrenching reality of only having so much money, and a ‘to-buy’ list as long as my arm, and knowing I can only choose one book. One. So it has to be a good ‘un.

I love this stuff.

Photo Credit: Ric e Ette via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ric e Ette via Compfight cc

I eventually made my choice, and approached the register to pay for my purchases. (Yes. Purchases. So I bought two books. One wasn’t for me, though, so you can keep your collective wigs on, thanks very much). I happily queued behind a customer who was there with his small daughter, buying books and bookmarks and generally having a fine old time, and when I got to the till the bookseller – who is a lady I’ve often talked to before in this particular bookshop – appraised my choices.

‘Have they read the first book in this series?’ she asked me, holding up the book I’d bought for myself, which is indeed a sequel.

I smiled at her. ‘It’s for me,’ I said. ‘And yes, I have!’

And that started a long, fascinating and fabulous conversation about books, bookshops, writing, book groups, YA and children’s literature (and how good it is right now), King Arthur and how he pops up everywhere, books we’ve recently read which we loved, and ones we didn’t love so much, books which become incredibly successful (sometimes inexplicably), and ended in the bookseller giving me a personal recommendation for a book series she feels I’d love, and which she wants me to check out as soon as possible. I was glad to take her advice because she is, undeniably, a lady wot knows her onions when it comes to books. She’s the kind of bookseller who makes me glad that I, in my heart and soul, am also a bookseller, even though I ‘only’ worked in an academic bookshop where these sorts of conversations with customers weren’t a daily reality (but I treasured them when they did happen). She’s the sort of bookseller who makes shopping for books an absolute joy, and the sort of person with whom I love to be met when I want to make a bookish purchase. Expert in her field, knowledgeable about many genres of literature outside her own, excellent at spotting the sort of book a customer would like and finding just the right story to slot into their life, enthusiastic and happy to talk and full of the joy of reading, she has always made my trips to her shop hugely enjoyable. I don’t know her name, but that doesn’t even matter. We are of one type, she and I.

And she’s not an algorithm, recommending books based on previous internet searches. She’s not a machine which doesn’t understand it when you want a different edition, or a different cover, or when you have a detailed question, or when you simply want to talk about how amazing a book is. She’s a human being with a brain and a mighty aptitude for her field of expertise, a charming person who makes buying books even more pleasurable than it is already, who greets you and chats and makes you feel special and valued – and not just because she’s programmed to. Because she wants to, and she’s doing a job she loves, and she’s damn good at it. She’s one of the reasons why I hope bookshops are never allowed to wither and die, and why I hope, very sincerely, that there will always be enough people shopping for books offline to keep booksellers like this lady in work, encouraging readers and writers alike, championing books and making spot-on recommendations, and just making people’s lives brighter simply by existing. This recent article gave me hope for the future, and I hope the claims it makes are accurate.

I want to thank this bookseller, and all booksellers who love and cherish the work they do, and all bookshops. Just – thanks. For being yourselves. You’ll always have a friend in me.

My Favourite Bookshops*

So, right. I have to preface this by saying that I haven’t been to very many places, and that – naturally enough – this means a post such as this one may be very Ireland-focused. However, judging by my readership stats (hello, everyone!) most of you aren’t actually from Ireland, so perhaps you’ll find it interesting nonetheless. I also have to say that I’ve visited thousands of bookshops in my life so far, with the hope I’ll be visiting many more, and so chances are I’ve forgotten a few gems – I hope I’ll be forgiven for that.

Now. Let’s begin in Paris, shall we? It seems like the best place to begin most things.

In 2010, my now-husband and I took a trip to Paris. It was memorable for many reasons, including fabulous weather, train trips to the largest medieval keep in Europe (which was awesome), the accidental stumbling-upon of La Musée de Moyen Age, which made my life complete and – most definitely – the proliferation of English-language bookshops to be found. Paris is a great place to be if you’re a reader; in France, they cherish their bookshops and their reading culture, and it’s wonderful to see the open-air bookstalls in the streets and the sheer enthusiasm for print that’s going on. Now, of course, 2010 is an eternity ago in e-reader terms, so maybe things have changed – but I hope not.

Naturally, we went to Shakespeare & Company. It was mind-blowing, and so has to be top of my list of favourite bookshops.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

It’s a bookshop which, to me, describes what I hope Heaven looks like. Warrens of corridors, tiny nooks, unexpected rooms, clusters of scholars doing whispery things in corners, typewriters set out in case you feel like doing a bit of creating, shelves jumbled with books, more books piled on the floor, an assortment of shop animals lying about, lovely laid-back staff, and a fascinating, eclectic selection of stock. Even thinking about it makes me weep, a little, that I don’t live there in Paris. I bought a hardback copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit here, and I treasure it.

We also took a trip into the posh end of the city to visit the stupendous Galignani. This bookshop, the oldest English-language bookshop on the continent, was equally as mind-boggling as Shakespeare & Co., but for entirely different reasons. Where Shakespeare & Co. was like a warm, fuzzy jumble, the sort of bookshop you’d imagine Gandalf owning, Galignani is clean, with sharp lines and immaculate shelves and utter, complete order, and it’s almost too much for a book-lover’s mind to take. There is so much to see. It goes on, and on, and on, and it’s so beautiful you’re almost afraid to touch anything – but then you get over that, and you get stuck in. I bought a copy of Le Petit Prince here, and I’m delighted with it. Galignani stocks English language books, but also French language – and I’m pretty sure they could get you anything you wanted, if you ask them nicely.

I’ve heard a dreadful rumour that The Red Wheelbarrow, the lovely bookshop in the Marais district, has closed since we were in Paris, but I hope it’s a vicious lie. Their website appears a little out of date, which may be a bad sign, but that makes it all the more important to memorialise it here. I bought a copy of Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, in this bookshop and I was served by a lovely, knowledgeable, kind and enthusiastic young bookseller who was eager to ensure I got a book which enriched my time in Paris – and she was on the money with her recommendation. The shop was small, and jumbled, and homely, and its upstairs hid its children’s books (so, naturally, I made a beeline for them), and I spent many happy hours browsing there. If it has closed, I’m extremely sorry to hear it.

Next, we’ll go to Dubrovnik for a short spell.

Photo Credit: JonathanCohen via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: JonathanCohen via Compfight cc

In 2008, some friends and I went to Dubrovnik for a magical week. It was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had, mainly because the walled city of Dubrovnik is among the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. One day when my friends preferred to sunbathe on the pebbled beach, I took a walk from our hotel down to the city, and spent hours alone simply wandering the streets. It’s impossible to get lost, because the walls mark the boundary of the street-grid, so once you’re within them you know you’re safe enough. On the main street (pictured above), I came upon Algebra, a treasure trove of books and art and knick-knacks, and I never wanted to leave. It’s a place where you’d likely find a Venetian-style mask nestling up against the books, or a piece of beautiful glassware being used as a bookend – and it’s definitely not for people who like their bookshops to have everything in order. It’s a jumble, and I loved it. I don’t think I bought anything, though, because it was near the end of the holiday. Sorry, folks.

I also visited several bookshops on the island of Malta while I was there on honeymoon, and while it was fantastic to have English-language books to browse, there’s really only one bookshop chain, called Agenda, which is no different to any other bookshop chain in the world. At least, we didn’t find any hidden gems, but if anyone wants to correct me I’m more than happy to go back to that beautiful island and explore…

And then, there’s Ireland.

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

Ireland, particularly its cities, is full of bookshops. Like everywhere, they’re struggling against the internet, but they’re holding on, and there are some real beauties to be found.

In Dublin, there’s The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar, which is probably my favourite in the city because it’s small, it’s independent, and it has a charming children’s section. As well as that its proprietor is the hardest-working bookseller I know, a tireless champion of books, independent bookselling, and literary events. If you’re in the city, do pop in. Luckily it’s near a fabulous cake shop, the Queen of Tarts, so you can take your bookish purchases over there and have a relaxing cuppa while you read. What could be better?

There’s also Chapters, in Parnell Street, which is massive – its downstairs is all new books, and its upstairs is all second-hand. You’ll find gems there if you dig, believe me! It has great staff, it’s well laid out, and it’s well worth a visit.

Near Trinity College you’ll find Books Upstairs, in existence for over thirty years. Cramped and charming and nookish, this is a treasure-trove, too. I love it.

Facing the lovely Liffey, there’s The Winding Stair, which has a fabulous children’s section and is one of the prettiest bookshops I know of. It also houses a fantastic restaurant and is the only place I’ve ever been where you can have wine in one hand and a book in the other and for it not to be a book launch. Bottoms up!

In Waterford, there’s The Book Centre, which is fabulously, gloriously big and celebratory and shiny and beautiful. I haven’t been back for years but I really want to make the trip. I first encountered this shop when I was about ten, and it has remained in my mind as the ‘ideal’ ever since.

In Galway, there are loads of bookshops, but Charlie Byrne’s stands out. I have only been to Galway once, as a child, but I know I was in Charlie Byrne’s and a copy of Hounds of the Morrigan was bought for me there. The book is magic, but the place it was bought is equally magic, and the two have blended into one in my mind. I’d love to go back.

And then there’s Zozimus Bookshop. In a town very close to my heart, on a street I love dearly, this bookshop is a balm to my heart. It’s a second-hand shop, but I’ve come upon so many treasures there that I can’t name them all, and I’ve gone on to support authors whose works I’ve spotted in Zozzy’s by buying some of their books new in other shops. Its owner is a fount of knowledge and a genial man, and among its shelves is where I feel most at home.

This is only a smattering of my favourite bookshops, really. Everywhere I go, the first thing I look for is a bookshop, and so everywhere I’ve been I’ve encountered bookselling nooks which I’ve loved. I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistlestop tour, all the same, and if there are any shops you’d like to mention, have at it in the comments!




*Or bookstores, if you prefer.

Surprised by Books

This weekend, we spend some time with dear friends (and their darling little girl), which was very book-centric in the best possible way. I am far from being the only writer they know – and I’m very much on the bottom rung of the ladder of success in comparison to the others – and we are all big readers (including the darling little girl, of course). So, we talked about agents and book deals and academia and thesis-writing and books we love and Jane Austen and books for children and a whole heap of fabulousness.

Over the course of all this chit-chat, a book token was given by them to my husband as a gift. ‘There’s a bookshop in (local town)’, they told us. ‘And it’s open on Sundays. And there’s plenty of parking.’


We took our leave, and we trucked on down to this local town, and we sniffed out the bookshop, and – inevitably, dear readers – we went in.

We’d been warned that it only had a ‘small’ children’s section down at the back, so I was expecting maybe one bay of books, or a couple of shelves. However, I was met instead by five full bays, with more displays on the floor, and a whole wall of children’s picture books. This, of course, was ignoring the rest of the shop, which was just as cool. I immediately glued myself to the section in which I am most at home while my beloved went rummaging in the non-fiction sections.

But wait. Are you ready for this bit?

Between special offers and the generally excellent prices, I managed to purchase three books for the princely sum of twenty euro fifty cent, including (finally!) a replacement copy of my missing Stardust; now, my Gaiman collection is once more complete. Twenty euro! For three books! I practically danced to the register.

I was blown away not only by the great selection of books, the size of the children’s and YA section, the general appearance of the shop and the helpfulness of the staff, but also by the prices. I’m not a person who balks at the cost of books – I firmly believe they are objects worthy of a little expense (which is why I don’t buy very many any more, unfortunately) and that the knock-down prices offered by certain vendors, both online and off, are doing extraordinary harm to the book industry. Perhaps that’s a naïve viewpoint, but it’s mine, and it’s formed from years of experience. So, I like to buy books at full price where possible, in a bookshop – preferably, like this one was, an independent – and I don’t care that it costs more. For me, when it comes to book purchasing, cost is the least important factor, and I try to cut my coat to suit my cloth – in other words, I only buy books I really want, when I can. If I can’t afford something, I don’t even consider running to a piracy website and downloading an illegal free copy (because it’s infringing my ‘right to read’, apparently, to have copyright on books and actually, shock horror, charge money for them), or even downloading a legal, but dirt-cheap, copy; I just don’t feel that’s giving a fair deal to the people who worked hard to bring that book to the marketplace. If I can’t afford a book, I wait until I can. If a shop doesn’t have a book in stock, I wait for it to come in.

I think, sometimes, we’ve lost the art of waiting for stuff.

I’ve been looking for a copy of Stardust for ages – it’s funny how, even though Neil Gaiman is a writing superstar, not all his books are easy to find – but I wanted one, and so I persevered. Unfortunately the one I now have is the movie tie-in edition, which is a bit annoying because it makes me seem like an ‘ooh, look! There’s a lovely shiny movie! Let’s get the book and pretend we’ve been fans all along!’ type…



…but it’s better than being Stardust-less, and so I take what I can get. I will always miss my original copy, though, with its lovely (albeit Claire Danes-lite) cover art.

Gosh. Well this post started off being about the wonder of an undiscovered bookshop and has sort of devolved into a mini-rant about fair book pricing and copyright theft; I don’t mean to preach or sound ‘worthy’ or make anyone feel bad for their choices, so I’ll wrap it up here. My choices are mine, and I don’t judge anyone else for theirs (except those terrible people who run piracy websites and the equally terrible people who buy books from them while knowing they’re not sanctioned); I just worry about the future of the book industry, and my future choices as a consumer. I don’t want to live in a world without bookshops which take your breath away when you walk into them, and where just the right book is sitting, waiting for you to take it home. I don’t want to be a reader in a world where our only choice is to download the text to a screen. I don’t want to feel like, with every book I read, I’m hurting the industry and making writers work for nothing.

I’ll comfort myself with the thought that the bookshop we spent a happy hour in yesterday was full for most of the time we were there, and that our modest purchases were far from being the only ones put through the register. I hope, though, that our speed-obsessed, have-it-now society will start to slow down a little and realise that there are things worth waiting for, and worth paying a fair price for. Books, I feel, should definitely be included in those categories.



World Book Day!

Thank the gods and little fishes – it’s World Book Day 2014!

Image: mumsnet.com

Image: mumsnet.com

What a marvellous idea, don’t you think? A day devoted entirely to the celebration, promotion and enjoyment of reading and books and stories. A day when children can go to school dressed as their favourite storybook character and the whole day is storytime (well – not really. But you know what I mean.) A day when children like me (or – er. Children like I was, when I was a child. Shut up!) come into their own and get to revel in their book-nerdiness. A day, in short, when I wish I could be little again so I could go to school and enjoy the day properly. It’s not so much fun when you’re dressing up by yourself. And when you’re a grown-up.


Partaaay! Image: ovenbakedtradition.com

Image: ovenbakedtradition.com

Part of the sheer brilliance of World Book Day is the fact that every child is given a book token to the value of €1.50 – which will, hopefully, be spent in local bookshops! – and, every year, a book is written specially for the celebration. This year, in Ireland, that book is Mary Arrigan’s ‘The Milo Adventures’, which looks like a fantastic read. The token can actually be exchanged for one of eight books which are specially priced for the day, or as part payment for a more expensive book, and – either way – it’s a wonderful gift to every young reader in the country. Amazingly, though, according to the World Book Day website, three out of ten children in Ireland don’t own a book, and that makes me sad. Every child should have access to books. Every child should be encouraged to read, and think, and dream, and write their own stories. Every child should be supported in their desire to engage with books. World Book Day is such a wonderful way to start that process, and I wish it had been around when I was little.

Not that I could have been any book-ier. But I would have loved it, all the same.

Ireland is a great country in which to be a young reader. We have the amazing CBI, or Children’s Books Ireland, which ceaselessly advocates for children’s books and quality writing for youngsters, and we have the office of Laureate na n-Óg whose job it is to promote and encourage children’s books, all the way up from picture books for the earliest readers to wonderful tales for teens (and ‘teens at heart’.) As a country, Ireland is famed for the quality of its literature and for the cultural value placed upon stories and storytelling, and we are blessed with an abundance of storytellers, for all ages. I love that the entire month of March is dedicated to the promotion of books and reading, focusing on today’s celebration (thanks to the Booksellers’ Association), and as a writer, reader and former bookseller I am extremely excited at the thought that, all over the country, people will be sitting down to read today – perhaps people who don’t ordinarily read – and I really hope that they’ll catch the story bug. Nothing has given me more joy in life than my love for words, and I’m excited at the idea that today – perhaps right now – a child somewhere is feeling that joy, the buzzing happiness that comes with being caught up in a story, the total immersion in a world of their own imagining.

Exciting! Image: iowatribob.com

Image: iowatribob.com

Opening up a mind to the endless possibilities of story gives access to landscapes which go on forever, skies as wide as imagination, worlds upon worlds full of dreams. It truly is, as far as I’m concerned, the best and most important part of a child’s education. If a child is encouraged to read, they’re encouraged to think, and if they’re encouraged to think they’ll be curious, and if they’re curious they’ll learn. If they learn, they’ll bring beauty and joy to their world as they grow, and they’ll pass on that broad-based love of life and words and ideas to the generations that come after them. There is a story for every child, and a child for every story – and it’s up to us as adults to bring the two together.

Oh, World Book Day! How I love you.

Go and read a book today. Go on. Particularly if you don’t normally make the time to read. Treat yourself today in honour of World Book Day and, if there’s a young person in your life, please do treat them, too. Read to them, if that’s appropriate. Show them how much you love the words, and help them to love ’em too.

In my humble opinion, there’s no bigger favour you can do for a younger person, and no greater gift you can give.

Image: everhear.com

Image: everhear.com



I have held many nicknames during the course of my (relatively) short life so far. My family rarely refer to me by my real name, and my friends only do so if they want to grab my attention, or if I’ve misbehaved in some way. Going through school, I had a collection of nicknames which I could pick and choose to suit my mood; one of these was Xena the Warrior Princess. I can’t imagine why.

I am a being of sweetness and LIGHT, dammit! Image: libertytech.com

I am a being of sweetness and LIGHT, dammit!
Image: libertytech.com

I have just decided – as of this morning – that I now have a new nickname. I shall henceforth refer to myself, the second I cross the threshold of a bookshop, as ‘The Bookie Monster.’

My slight addiction to books is, of course, news to none of you. However, a new and worrying aspect of my life as the Bookie Monster has recently raised its ugly head. I’m talking about the complete absence of rationality, intelligence and reasoned decision-making that seems to sweep over me the second books are anywhere in view.

An example? Oh, all right then.

The other day, I was in a bookshop. This hasn’t happened in a while, so I guess I was full of pent-up book anxiety, trying to keep myself under control so that I didn’t empty entire shelves and slam them down in front of the bemused cashier.

Image: sweetmarie-83.blogspot.com

Image: sweetmarie-83.blogspot.com

I think, on the whole, I managed to control myself. I purchased the grand total of three books – one for me, one as a gift for a friend, and another as a replacement copy of a book which I have unaccountably lost, or which I’ve given to someone and forgotten about. The book I bought for myself is one I’ve been waiting to read for months (of which more in tomorrow’s Book Review blog), and the gift book doesn’t count as a book purchase, as it was a token of affection. (I’m sure this is a law, somewhere.)

But then we come to the replacement copy of the book which was lost.

I bought the wrong one.

I bought the wrong one! Can you imagine? I suffered some sort of brain fizz/meltdown/short-out as I gazed at the shelf, and I picked up a copy of ‘Coraline’ instead of ‘Stardust.’

Any excuse. Image: myhappybitsandpieces.blogspot.com

Any excuse.
Image: myhappybitsandpieces.blogspot.com

My copy of ‘Stardust’ has been AWOL for a while now. I could have loaned it to someone, or perhaps it has been lost in one of the many house moves I’ve taken part in over the years. Perhaps some nefarious creature has stolen it from me. In any case, I noticed it was missing a few months ago when I was in the middle of admiring my Gaiman collection, and the wound its absence caused me was a grievous one. I can’t be without it, because when it comes to authors like Neil Gaiman and Jeanette Winterson and John Connolly and Angela Carter and others I love without question, I am a bit of a completist. (If anyone out there has my copy of ‘Stardust’ and wishes to return it, by the way, I am hereby calling an amnesty. Return it now, and no questions will be asked. Or, at least, remind me that I gave it to you, so that my anxiety can come to an end.)

I can’t explain why my brain shorted out when I saw the Gaiman shelf in this particular bookshop (it was the Gutter Bookshop, one of my favourite places in the world – if ever you’re in Dublin, check it out); perhaps ‘Stardust’ was sitting on it, looking at me, willing me to buy it, but my eye fell on ‘Coraline’ and my fate was sealed. I genuinely believed it was ‘Coraline’ I needed, and I was thrilled to have found a copy which was exactly the same as the edition I had ‘lost.’ I gladly took it to the till. I gleefully handed over my money, delighted that my Gaiman collection was now, once more, complete.

And then I brought the book home and realised its twin was sitting on the shelf. The loss of ‘Stardust’ hit me once again, with twice as much force as before. I also realised I was a proper idiot for mixing up the two books in the first place, and I questioned my right to call myself a Neil Gaiman fan. That was a bit of an existentialist crisis, and no mistake.

Anyway, I have found a home for my second copy of ‘Coraline’, and so a modicum of balance has been restored to the world. My search for ‘Stardust’, however, continues. And, the next time I set foot inside a bookshop, I will make an even greater effort to keep my brain from jumping at the first pretty book it sees…

This is the Bookie Monster, signing off at the end of another busy week. Happy Friday, everyone!

Image: shelversanon.blogspot.com

Image: shelversanon.blogspot.com

Slaking the Book Drought

Until yesterday, I was (from certain angles, and in the right light) a withered shadow of my former self. I was sloping about my life like a wraith, without direction, without purpose, without meaning, man. There may even have been wailing.

The reason? Why, I hadn’t read anything in ever so long, of course. I was pining for input, just like Johnny Five.

Iiiiinputttt!Image: marketingpilgrim.com

Image: marketingpilgrim.com

I think, in some ways, I’m sort of an addictive personality. For this reason, I’m glad that I don’t indulge in anything terribly harmful (chocolate isn’t classed as ‘terribly harmful’, right?) I have a feeling that I tend to be obsessive about certain things, and that it applies to destructive, as well as constructive, behaviour. Being aware of it is pretty much my only tool in the fight against it, but it’s a good tool to have. This obsessive tendency definitely applies to my need for words, whether reading them or writing them. Sometimes, though, there just isn’t room in my life for an obsession with reading them and writing them at the same time.

You’d think, being a person who devotes their life to words, that I’d read more than I used to, wouldn’t you? In fact, in my previous life, I had a long (long) commute to and from my job, and I had lunch-breaks, and things like that. Lately, though, the old compulsion to write has taken me over completely. I do so much of it that I end up with a stooped spine, gritty eyes, thumping head and spinning brain at the end of every day, and my mind is so stuffed full of my own words that there’s just no room in there for anyone else’s. Overall, I think I probably did more reading in my old life than I do now.

So, that’s why I took a day off yesterday, and trekked off across the sunny, cold countryside, and ended up in Dublin. I saw two friends, I drank pots of tea, I laughed a lot and I found myself in a bookshop. It was like that moment in ‘The Little Prince’ when they’ve been walking through the desert, and they come across the well, and they drink deep. Just like that.

So, I bought three books. I started the first one on the train home, and by the time I went to bed last night I’d finished it. If I’d put the book into a blender with a little olive oil and whizzed it until it was a paste and then drank it, I couldn’t have absorbed it any faster. The book was called ‘Anna Dressed in Blood’, and it’s by Kendare Blake, and it looks like this:

Image: readingunderthestars.blogspot.com

Image: readingunderthestars.blogspot.com

I’d heard about this book on Twitter a few weeks ago, and thought ‘Hmm. That might be worth checking out.’ Turns out, it was. I really enjoyed it. It tells the story of Cas Lowood, a young man who feels he has inherited his father’s ability (and duty) to dispatch unquiet spirits who disturb the living into ‘the next plane’; he’s not actually sure where he’s sending their souls, just that he has to get them away from the world, where they are causing pain. A clear distinction is drawn between ghosts who do no harm, and those powerful enough to become corporeal and who are stuck in their own agony, and who feel compelled to draw the living into their vengeful rage. Anna, who was murdered in 1956, is one of these harmful spirits; she is filled not only with fury but also with some sort of strange and unexplained power which allows her to do incredible damage to anyone foolish enough to cross her.

The story takes us back through Anna’s short life, the reasons for her rage and her amazing power, and – of course – through Cas’ own life and his relationship with his father, who was killed when Cas was a child. Cas’ mother is a great character, sympathetic and warm, protective yet respectful of her son’s need to fulfill his calling, and the friends Cas makes in Thunder Bay are made unique enough not to be ‘stock’ characters. For instance, Carmel – the beautiful, blonde ‘queen of the school’ whom Cas befriends on his first day in order to be close to the source of all knowledge and gossip, and to hopefully learn more about Anna and her ghost – turns out to be the least simpering and girly character you could imagine. Despite her prettiness, and her girliness, and the fact that she is adored by every male she meets, she displays serious muscle and courage in this story, defending those whom she loves and putting herself in danger to try to save others. I really liked her. Thomas, the ‘geeky’ sidekick, is a bit more one-dimensional, but he’s still a lovely creation – a young man who is also a witch and a (sometime) telepath, he does not run from his destiny but embraces it, danger and all. There is quite a bit of gore in the story, but I found it got a bit tamer as the book drew to a close. Perhaps I was just more used to it by then!

There are several different traditions, or schools of magic, woven together here – we have the ‘natural’ magic practised by Cas’ mother (of the herbs, tinctures and oils variety), to the voodoo practiced by Thomas’ grandfather and several other characters, to the unexplained and very disturbing rituals performed by a character central to Anna’s demise. I liked this, actually – I enjoyed reading about the interactions between all these ‘magics’, and how they all feed into one another. And, importantly, though I don’t normally like reading about ghosts, because I’m a fraidy-cat, this story did not keep me awake all night peering myopically into the shady corners of my bedroom, elbowing my husband awake every five minutes to check out a ‘noise’. It’s scary, but the friendships and love between the characters, and the warm familial connections described between Cas and his mother and Thomas and his grandfather, keep it from being too scary. So, overall, I’d recommend this book, with the caveat that there are several instances of ‘language’; I don’t mind reading those sorts of words, but I’m sure there are some people who do. So, this is fair warning! Also, as the book cover itself says, this story is definitely not for younger readers. It’s absolutely a book for older teenagers and adults, despite the fact that it’s about a bunch of high-schoolers.

I’ll read the other books as soon as possible, and I’m sure I’ll waffle on about those when the time comes. For now, though, my brain and eyes and soul feel better for having a day away from the screen yesterday, and I’ve made myself a promise not to stay away from reading for so long ever, ever again.

Knowing me, though, I’ll probably get lost in a story again later today and forget all my promises to myself.

P.S. If you’re still here, maybe check out the latest issue of ‘The Bohemyth’. There’s a story in it by a person you might recognise. Though, if you didn’t like ‘Animal Farm’ (my story, not Orwell’s, o’course), chances are you won’t like this one, either. I do apologise!

Just a Quick Word

Today, my ‘flesh life’ overtook me. I had to make a long and arduous journey to a land far, far away (well, the other side of the county), armed only with a book and a bottle of water. This is the first chance I’ve had today to sit down and have a look around ‘Clockwatching…’, and – well! It’s looking good.

I’ve basically done nothing today except spread germs around the midlands of Ireland, as I coughed and spluttered for the entire length of my journey, despite all the cough sweets I bought along the way. As I crunched my Strepsils and Hall’s Honey-Flavoured Soothers, I reminded myself of Nanny Ogg at the travelling theatre (I hope someone else will get that reference, or I’ll just have to collapse under the weight of my own geekdom!) – I didn’t spit anything at anyone, though. Just in case you were wondering.

Nanny Ogg Greebo smoking drinking

My idol! (Well, except for the smoking bit. We don’t like that).

I guess I’m in a Pratchett mood because my wonderful husband bought me a copy of ‘A Blink of the Screen’ for my birthday, which is a collection of Terry Pratchett’s shorter fiction. *Sigh* If I wasn’t already married to him, I’d marry him all over again!

On the way home, I realised that today is a palindrome, at least if you’re using European dating – 21/11/12. This was geeky enough, until my husband responded – ‘yeah, and you know the mad bit? The next palindrome date won’t be until November 2nd 2020!’* Yes, I am married to Rain Man. I love it.

The only other thing of note that happened today was I discovered a hitherto unknown bookshop, tucked neatly off the beaten path, in a town I thought I knew like the back of my hand. Naturally, I had to make a purchase – not only because the owner had her two beautiful children with her, but it was a big part of my decision-making process – and I’m delighted to know I now have a new place to hang out. I love finding new bookshops; it’s like when you put your jeans into the wash, and you find a twenty in your pocket. Not that this has ever happened to me, but I can imagine it must be wonderful. The selection of children’s and YA books in this shop was brilliant, and the owner’s little daughter helped me choose my book. How cool is that?

So, I now have to try to rustle up some dinner, and settle down for the night. Normal** service will resume tomorrow.

* February 11th, 2020, for Americans.

**Actual normality not guaranteed.

Just Wondering…

Hello, hallo, hullo. Good morrow to you.

I’m here listening to some Pink Floyd, and it has put me in a very mellow mood indeed. Life seems great (despite my rapidly advancing age – see yesterday’s blog!) and all sorts of frivolities are flipping about in my cavernous skull. Today, I’m thinking about reading, and how you know whether you’ll like a book or not. Do you judge its cover (despite all the warnings against it!) or is it the ‘blurb’ that attracts you to a story? Have you ever made any serious errors of judgement in your reading life? How far into a book do you have to be before you’d consider writing it off as a lost cause, or are you the type of reader who will doggedly persist no matter how poor the doggerel you’re slogging through, a sort of ‘finish or perish’ mentality?

I’m not wondering this because of anything I’ve read recently – in fact, it’s been a long, long time since I came across a book I just couldn’t force myself to finish. Many years ago, I boasted, filled with the hubris of youth, that I *never* left a book unread if I started it. A friend promptly challenged me to read L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘Dianetics’; I think I may have reached page 4 before my brain started to mount a rebellion against my eyes, and I had to shut the thing and fling it as far from me as possible. Since then, there have been some others that didn’t make it much further than the starting blocks – another friend asked if I could possibly read ‘Mein Kampf’ (the answer is, of course, ‘no’, though I did give it a go, albeit briefly). Also, there are some classics which I just couldn’t manage – one of them is ‘Middlemarch’, about which I’ve had some impassioned arguments over the years. I don’t care what anyone says – Casaubon is a character that should just never have existed, end of story. I read the beginning of ‘Middlemarch’, and the last 50 pages or so, leaving about 80% of it unread, and still managed to write a passable essay on it while at university. This is less a statement of my own intellectual prowess as it is an indictment of the Irish higher education system, but I digress.

In recent years, I started ‘Wolf Hall’ but didn’t manage to finish it (though I do intend to go back to it as soon as I can clear enough space in my head – so, probably not till the New Year); I also started Nicola Barker’s ‘Darkmans’, which I really liked, but just wasn’t able to get my head around. I think my bookmark sits forlornly at about page 140, where it has remained for about three years. I intend to chivvy it along one of these days, and finish the book, but for whatever reason, I just haven’t been able to manage it. A recent book which I came this close to finishing, but for some reason didn’t, was ‘Embassytown’ (China Mieville); it’s a work of genius, but at the time I tried to read it I didn’t have the opportunity to devote my unbroken, full attention to it. I was trying to snatch ten pages here, fifteen pages there – and I really think it’s a book which just doesn’t respond well to that sort of treatment. I wasn’t able to really engage with it properly, and it creates such a rich imaginative world that you really need to be able to immerse yourself in it. However, I did get to within twenty pages of the end before I gave up. I fully intend finishing it, and probably sooner rather than later.

One thing these books all have in common is wonderful covers, and enticing blurbs. I think I’m a bit of a fiend for a good book cover. An intriguing author photo helps too, sometimes. I usually end up being drawn to books with a focus on history (particularly medieval or ‘early modern’, or whatever it is they’re calling the Renaissance nowadays), or perhaps with a supernatural/folklore-ish flavour, and of course I can’t help but indulge myself when I pass near the SF/Fantasy shelves – you can’t really beat SF/Fantasy books for excellent cover art. I think my love of a good book jacket is another reason why I just can’t warm to e-readers; it’s just not the same when all you’re looking at is pixels on a screen. Sometimes, though, I do feel short-changed when a blurb, a beautiful cover, or even reviews, lead me to believe a book is going to be life-changingly brilliant, and it turns out not to be the case. A recent example was ‘1Q84’, by the normally mind-bogglingly amazing Haruki Murakami. For months in advance of publication, I’d read reviews which told of this book becoming an instant bestseller in Japan; it had sold a million copies before it had even been printed. Advance reviews promised wonderful things. As well as that, I’ve savoured so many of his past works that I was practically foaming at the mouth to get my hands on ‘1Q84’ – such was my ardour that I couldn’t even wait for Books 1 & 2 (published together) to become available in paperback. I had to have the hardback, and I left it for ages on my bookshelf, like a treat to myself. I even bought the hardback Book 3, so they’d look pretty together on the shelf.

Well, they do look pretty. But…

I just don’t know. Perhaps it was the anticipation, or perhaps it was the fact that I usually love his work and was fully primed to love this, too. Maybe it was the fact that I adored Book 1 and thought Book 2 was reasonably good, but by the time it came to Book 3, and I realised I had hundreds of pages of drawn-out, samey story to trudge through before the wholly unsatisfactory ending, that I felt my enthusiasm for it had been sucked right out of me. There are characters in the books called Little People, for instance, who are supposed to be evil, threatening and spooky – but to an Irish reader, all that ‘Little People’ conjurs up is bad old movies about leprechauns, and folklore about fairies. I just couldn’t get behind them as the source of all horror, or whatever it is Murakami intended them to be. After the ten millionth time they’re mentioned, I just wanted to eat the book rather than finish it, but I persevered. I’m glad I did, but I really don’t know if I’d recommend it to anyone else. It was a lesson, perhaps, not to be sucked in completely by a beautiful cover and great reviews. Normally, of course, you can rely on your past experience of an author – in this case, I didn’t feel it was so clear cut. ‘1Q84’ definitely was not up to the standard of a Murakami masterwork like ‘Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’, which is a book I’d recommend to anyone who’s willing to let logic fly out the window and who’s looking for a mind-expanding read.

So. Are there any hard book lessons you’ve learned? Anything you’ve read that you’d rather have left unfinished, or anything you wish you could’ve finished but haven’t yet managed to, for whatever reason? And what is the all-important hook, the thing you just can’t resist, when it comes time to make a book purchase?

Do tell. I’m all ears.