Tag Archives: Ireland Reading Challenge

A challenge too many

I don’t think I’ll do it again. At least not this way. My two challenges for 2011 went well, but were far too hard to stick with. I didn’t give up, and I suppose I knew I probably wouldn’t, since it’d make me look bad. It’s rather like announcing you’re going on a diet. You sort of have to avoid giving up.

The Ireland Reading Challenge, where I joined in with bloggers everywhere, and where my goal was to read six Irish books, seemed dead easy. It was. Or would have been, had it not been such a very busy year. I still have plenty of Irish books to read, but it was the fitting them in every two months that almost did it for me.

And I kept forgetting to link to my reviews and I kept forgetting how to link. So, it was fun to take part, but too prescriptive for me. I will continue to read Irish books because I love them. Not because I ‘went on a diet.’

Then there was my own Bookwitch Foreign Reading Challenge, which I started in a fit to counter-balance someone else’s British challenge. At least it was my own. I set the rules and I didn’t have to do complicated links. And I did feel that one foreign book a month was doable. There are always masses of books being ignored by me every month, so one more, to give room for a stranger, surely wouldn’t hurt.

The end of the month came by far too early in certain months. I’m not sure how that happened. But it wasn’t time that was my greatest obstacle. It was finding books to read. I began by drawing up a list of likely countries. I contacted publishers to see if they had anything coming during the year. A surprising number said they didn’t. (Hence a real need for foreign challenges.)

I was surprised to find at the end that I had read no Australian* book and nothing from France. I had counted on those. On the other hand, I had not expected a Japanese novel, nor a Flemish one, to come my way.

In some instances I ended up reading something I might have avoided, had it not been for the fact that I needed another book from somewhere different. But none were bad, and most were as enjoyable as novels chosen in a more conventional way.

As with the Irish books, I will endeavour to read more imports, but without the strict framework of a challenge. I just wish publishers would take on more translations. I also wish more people knew more about what there is to read. I don’t want to be told that the children of a country read Harry Potter. That’s not what I asked. And I was sad to hear that there is very little besides imports somewhere like South Africa. And with Finland and Iceland, it’s the lack of translated books that prevented me. Although, I realised belatedly that Tove Jansson would have qualified for my challenge.

My Scottish challenge, which has no structure or rules whatsoever, will hopefully continue as and when I find suitable books. It’s mainly that I really want to read more writing from Scotland.

Other than the challenges, 2011 offered plenty of wonderful reads. I’m still hoping to find strength of character to read only the best, and to ignore some ‘average’ reads. Life is too short.

And life is too short to look at stats for the past year. Do feel free to go through all of Bookwitch 2011 and count the books for me! I’m often tempted to keep accounts as and when things happen, but I seriously doubt I will do it in 2012.

No New Year’s resolution is a good New Year’s resolution.

Fabio Geda: 'Yay! It's the Bookwitch!'

Above is Fabio Geda, the great surprise of the year. Italian book. Very unusual. Probably also the best on Bookwitch in 2011. So is Fabio’s smile.


* No sooner had I written this, and thought about it, than I realised I did read Australian books. At the time I just forgot they would fit in with the challenge. I kept remembering this and forgetting it again, several times. Like you do in dreams…

Absolute Zero Cool

And here she is, the Bookwitch is finally Kissing the Blarney Stone!

Not really, it’s just the level I’ve achieved in my Irish reading challenge, set over on Books and Movies. Who better to end with, than my original introduction to the Irish criminal world, Declan Burke?

Absolute Zero Cool, Declan Burke

The thing about Absolute Zero Cool is that I’ve read it before. Once upon a time Declan published it free, online, and we flocked to read whenever he put a new bit up. That was then. This is now. Now Declan has an actual book, which suits me so much better. It looks nice, too. Blue, with a flaming ruler. No, I see. It’s a bomb, carefully disguised as a ruler. Candle? Thermometer?

I’ve been trying to work out who is the craziest; Declan or his character Karlsson/Billy. To tell the truth, I’m not so sure they are separate. This is the story about the author who sits peacefully on his deck, enjoying a coffee, when an old character saunters back into his life and demands to be taken seriously. He used to be Karlsson, but now calls himself Billy.

Karlsson is not happy with having been ‘forgotten’ and has ideas about reviving his old novel. So they chat and they edit and come up with new ideas as the weeks pass. Karlsson works as a hospital porter and he wants to blow the place up. Whether he’s also responsible for those unexpected deaths on the wards we never really find out. He’s crazy.

It’s clever. The first time I had great difficulties keeping all these people and ‘settings’ apart. This time it was easier, and I have concluded it’s not just Karlsson who is a page or two short of a full book.

We know it’s the real Declan, because he discusses things from his own life with Karlsson, including putting his lovely baby daughter in the risk zone. Karlsson is a real piece of work, although I quite enjoyed the bit where he engages in chatting up a young girl online, and before you all splutter in your scrambled eggs, it works out ‘interestingly.’

It’s weird. It’s different. But if you can keep several balls going at the same time in this juggling act, it’s a fun read. Shows you what publishing can be like. It’s sort of a picture within a picture within a…

Death Bringer

It is still September, isn’t it? (Just checking.)

Skulduggery Pleasant Death Bringer

There is only one thing wrong with Derek Landy’s Death Bringer (or any of his other Skulduggery Pleasant books). It’s big. Taller than all other novels in my collection, and so heavy it’s a struggle for little old ladies to hold and read at the same time. But we suffer this gladly because the gore and the violence and the humour is very more-ish. As all of Derek’s fans would say, we wouldn’t mind some more Skulduggery, right now!

Valkyrie’s relationships aren’t going well. How many friends and boyfriends can a girl fall out with in a week? And how easy it would be to kill those nearest and dearest to you. Though to be perfectly honest, Valkyrie is getting rather full of herself. Beautiful and powerful and with no idea of what modesty is.

But on the other hand, why should a girl character not have personality flaws?Just because she is a girl doesn’t mean we can only like her if she is truly good. And modest.

The Necromancers have finally found – or created – their Death Bringer. Have they got it right? Someone whose task is to usher in death is not good news. The Death Bringer will need to be stopped.

The reflection was beginning to creep me out in this book. Actually, I think I began worrying about her earlier, but here I really did think she overstepped her looking-glass boundaries. Perhaps she takes after Valkyrie even more than intended. Or maybe we do want the reflection to take matters into her own (are they really?) hands. Interesting dilemma. It’s like having a nanny and going out to work and becoming a stranger to your child.

And speaking of babies, Valkyrie has a baby sister. It seems Derek was inspired by his new and plentiful nieces, to whom this book is dedicated. As dedications go, it’s a good one.

And speaking of families, I had at least two ‘aunt Petunia’ moments re various members of the Edgley family, and I don’t mean the twins. Let’s hope Derek will make more – and interesting – use of these hints.

As to the plot. Well, what can I say? Valkyrie and Skulduggery go round doing what they do best, saving the world and stuff like that. China is having trouble of her own, and Ghastly is still sad over Tanith, who does not turn up at all in this one. (Bring her back!)

Geoffrey Scrutinous does his bit, and I’m still disproportionately proud of all he does. But the ‘paparazzi’ are getting closer.

The dialogue reaches the usual levels of excellence, which is good, because that’s why I come here. ‘I have to admit,’ he said, ‘I did not think that sentence was going to end where it ended.’ I do like that kind of thing.

(My fifth book in the Ireland Reading Challenge. Not that this was a challenge at all. Apart from size. And September growing unusually long, even for me.)


Plugged is a great start to Eoin Colfer’s adult criminal career. As a longstanding fan of Artemis Fowl and Co, I have to admit to preferring the child criminal, simply because there is a deep satisfaction to be gained from crime novels that are just perfect without all the swearing and violence you get in adult writing. I firmly believe the skill is far greater.

Eoin Colfer, Plugged

But, Plugged is an excellent example of hardboiled crime where the hero can be permitted to be both kind and funny, while still being a hard guy. Daniel McEvoy is a former Irish soldier, who makes a living chucking people out of a sleazy club in America. Despite a troubled past he is a much sweeter person than you’d think. A bit vain, perhaps, but then who isn’t?

His sort of girlfriend at the club ends up murdered on the same day that Daniel ‘just happens’ to kill a man. He needs to avoid getting caught, while trying to find the girl’s killer. He keeps hearing a crazy friend’s voice in his head and he also has a more than insane neighbour, whose casserole I have to admit I had greater hopes for at the end than what actually transpired.

Never mind.

It’s a bit of a shock finding the seemingly sweet-natured Eoin taking so well to violence and bad language, when the strength of his fiction for younger readers is that he can do perfectly well without them. But in actual fact, Plugged is plotted in the same devious way, with all the unrelated details tying up beautifully in the end.

Some I could see coming, but Eoin turned things around a lot at the end, and it’s a humorous and different kind of ending to what could have been a cold and violent story, but isn’t.

And if I could understand poker, I daresay some aspects would have made much more sense.

Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but in a way I hope this was just a test as far as Eoin’s writing is concerned. I liked Plugged a lot. But I feel strongly that he should use his considerable skills writing for a younger audience. Not all authors can.

A great re-writer

It was the Resident IT Consultant’s birthday, so I abandoned him for a younger man. Well, it’s not every day that John Connolly comes to a bookshop near me, is it? Though to be fair, people don’t have birthdays every day, either.

John Connolly

John’s on tour with Hell’s Bells, although his talk at Waterstone’s Deansgate was primarily a physics lesson, with some humour thrown in. I carefully arranged to bring my photographer-cum-physics student, and apart from the unfortunate ether (which apparently does not exist) she enjoyed John’s talk. And that’s high praise indeed.

Hodder’s Kerry had commiserated with me about the onslaught of children I’d have to face, but setting aside the fact that I’m used to the little creatures, the adults beat the children. Not literally, you understand. Just in numbers. We may have been old, but we sat in the nice and airy children’s department, and the air we breathed in (he told us to!) had previously been used by Elvis. Probably. Which somehow had some bearing on what Hell’s Bells is about.

John Connolly

Writers are magpies, who use the same shiny ideas over and over again (and I don’t think he meant you, Anthony). In good catholic schools you didn’t study biology, so it was physics for John, which was probably a good thing. There are lots of universes, all at the same time. In one of them you are down at the pub and in another you’re not.

When John asked for scariest Doctor Who monster it took three tries before we got to the weeping angels. I was on the verge of suggesting ‘are you my mummy’. Again.

John Connolly

He broke the sad news to the assembled children that life ends with something quite bad happening. One boy kept coming back with clever questions and John hates those who are younger and cleverer, but managed to keep his audience under control by pointing out we’d not get any freebies if we weren’t good. (That’s the drawback with these author types. Think they are boss.)

When he writes he sits down and writes and hopes for the best. He always hates his books after 20,000 words, and is now down to a mere ten drafts per novel. People ask him why he’s taken up writing for children (although as someone in the audience said, he doesn’t, really) and it’s so that he can be funny and let his imagination run riot.

John Connolly

John Connolly's hellish badges

Then he ended up in deep water, talking about little old ladies while seemingly staring at the lady whose birthday it was (see, good day for it!), but she was a born heckler and John didn’t get far.

The really good thing about printed books is that you don’t have to switch them off as the plane comes in to land. And you want books to enjoy, not to be improved by.

John could barely stop when his hour was up, so he was good value for money. Especially since it was free.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

All’s well that ends Hell

Heaven doesn’t exist. Or so Stephen Hawking claims. At the end of John Connolly’s latest novel Hell’s Bells, one of Professor Hawking’s ‘colleagues’ working on the Large Hadron Collider says that Hell doesn’t exist. So we’re all right, then. Maybe.

Hell’s Bells is the perfect title for a children’s book don’t you think? Witty, a little bit of mild swearing and a fair description of a book that takes ice cream to Hell, and back. Almost. Even the Resident IT Consultant once shouted the words Hell’s Bells while we were in the car. Offspring found this hilarious.

John-Connolly, Hell's Bells

Beware of going trick-or-treating. You just never know whose door you will knock on and what the knock-on effects are likely to be. You could, like Samuel Johnson, inadvertently open the gates to Hell. And just as we thought that had ended well in The Gates, along comes this one, where poor Samuel and Boswell the Dachshund are snatched back to Hell.

Luckily a few other people are co-snatched and together they will just have to try and defeat millions of horned and red-hot demons and worse. But with true friendship and some home-brew you can achieve anything.

This is a very moral tale. It’s anti-war and anti all kinds of other bad things. Friendship is good and so are wine gums. When faced with Hell, even vaguely inept policemen can come up trumps. And as for those dwarfs…

It’s also the most tremendously funny story. There really does seem to be something in Ireland that makes for funnier books than anywhere else. How you can be amusing while writing about such vile creatures, I don’t know. Perhaps because they remind us of our own dear leaders? The angry Mrs Abernathy and her handbag? The double crossing army leaders. They’re all there. And they have ice in hell. Did you know?

John Connolly is very intelligent and he knows about the LHC and stuff and writes knowledgeably about all sorts of sciencey things. Or was he making it up? Anyway, we should clearly be careful with the LHC thingy. You just can’t know what it will do.

And I still need to grasp this Higgs Bosun chap. Doesn’t he work on a boat?

How noir can you get?

Luckily they began with Eoin Colfer’s story in the Dublin Noir collection. It was somewhat of a shock finding my kind and funny Eoin being all adult, and a little noir. But that’s what Dublin Noir is about. Dark crime. Irish crime. His story is a far cry from Artemis Fowl. On the other hand, the man’s an adult. He’s allowed.

That’s as far as I read when I first bought the book a few years ago. So I had to re-read Eoin’s story in order to get into the whole thing properly. And it’s quite humorous, in actual fact. Better if you don’t go into it expecting Artemis to lurk round the corner.

Ken Bruen came next, and I have not read any of his novels, but I have been told to do so. The man is god, apparently. I was a little taken aback by Ken’s story, but by the time I’d read some of the others I began to appreciate it properly.

Dublin Noir

Some of the Dublin Noir stories are pretty noir, and I’d like to think they have little to do with Dublin or the Irish, or I’d never ever contemplate visiting. I suppose you can ‘noir’ almost any place or topic. A lot of swearing. Of course. An awful lot of unpleasant deaths. Not that death is ever pleasant, but violent and sordid and uncalled for killings are not nice, let’s say.

Halfway through I almost wanted to rest and come back later, but I was lucky and got in some slightly less noir and gory reads. So yes, its not a bad book. Quietly good, really. But black.

With hindsight you realise it feels a little weird. Published in 2006 it expects Dublin to be prospering and on the way up, whereas now that the bubble has burst things are noirer than they were.

I have to admit to preferring the lighter stories. The ones with blood flowing in rivers all over the place are too OTT for me. But it’s a good way to read many of the names I’d previously only heard of. Still not sure Ken Bruen is god. Good, yes.

The Salmon of Knowledge and other fish

I really, really shouldn’t have taken this long to read the second instalment of Adrian McKinty’s Lighthouse series. The Lighthouse War is – as Adrian himself said – much, much better than The Lighthouse Land, and that was very good. What I don’t understand is why Adrian McKinty is not a big household name in children’s fantasy. This is yet another of the instances I keep harping on about, where merit and success have very little to do with each other.

Buy and read the Lighthouse trilogy, for god’s sake!

Admittedly, I have yet to read The Lighthouse Keepers, but it can’t be that bad… In fact, I had a panic situation here, because as soon as number two was done I wanted to at least hold and stroke number three a little. Couldn’t find it. Searched high and low. In the end I recalled it was a hardback and then it turned out to be purple, and then I found it. Phew.

So. Fish. The Salmon of Knowledge was in the first book as well. But it sort of died. Jamie and Ramsay need to revive it, and please don’t try this at home! There is a fish van involved. A rather smelly one. And do keep track of how many planets our solar system has. Just in case. Lord Ramsay turns out to have a brother, the aptly titled Lord McDonald. Sounds better than Brian. Luckily he’s studied at MIT. Luckily he’s rather old. And tall. I didn’t think the Irish were tall. Red hair. I did know about the red hair.

And he’s not the only adult. Jamie (aka the Lord Ui Neill) very sensibly (not) told his Mom everything after their first adventure through the wormhole to this other galaxy. She was on morphine and didn’t believe him.

Anyway, there is this message from space which NASA can’t understand, but the boys work out it’s for them. So off they go again. The bad baddie appears to be less dead than they had expected, and Wishaway is less happy to see Jamie than he’d hoped. All is good, in other words.

Very exciting adventure, yet again, and so very funny. The humour is what makes it stand out. Nerdy and geeky, these males have some very useful ‘special interests’ and everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter comes up. A very little bit of romance. Plenty of ice age weather.

There is just enough of Carrickfergus to give the story that Irish flavour which makes it stand apart from dozens of other books on space travel. A tiny bit of New York and plenty of Altair, in the Pegasus constellation. The Cassini space probe plays its part. Leprechauns get a mention. And the Lady Ui Neill is a credit to motherhood everywhere.

I loved this.