Monster Book Lunch – Saturday the 11th of September

Here’s news of an event any reader of this blog – or someone they know – might be interested in . . .

Does your child or teen love books and talking about books? Then this is the event for you – a fantastic literary lunch for young readers, with an author or illustrator at every table!
Fifteen authors will host fifteen different tables, and one of those tables has your name on it (don’t worry, you’ll get to meet all the authors!).

Meet and chat to Kate di Camillo and a host of other authors and illustrators:

Sarah WebbDun Laoghaire Lighthouse
Niamh Sharkey
P J Lynch
Gordon Snell
Mary Murphy
Kevin Waldron
Chris Haughton
Tommy Donbavand
Michael Emberley
Judi Curtin
Joe O’Brien
Don Conroy
Marita Conlon McKenna
Sarah Rees Brennan
Claire Hennessy
and last but certainly not least . . . me!

Every young reader will go home with a goody bag and there will be a bookshop on site to buy signed copies of all the authors’ books.

The event is sponsored by Walker Books, to celebrate their 30th birthday.

Time: 12 to 3.15
Venue: Royal St George Yacht Club, Seafront, Dun Laoghaire
Cost: e15 children   e20 adults
Recommended age: 9+
(Children under 9 must be accompanied by an adult.)
Tickets are strictly limited, so please book early to avoid disappointment.
Booking: 01 2312929 or book online at

Getting to Grips with the Ground

I don’t know if I’d qualify as a real petrol-head – on what most writers or illustrators earn, buying a car is a rare pleasure. But I definitely love driving, and I always grab at the chance to try a car I’ve never driven before. It’s not the speed I’m into – although that can be fun too. It’s the whole thing: controlling the car, learning about the engineering and design, seeing how the whole system of driving works out on the roads, where we all have to take responsibility for ourselves, and how we relate to each other when we’re driving.Off-Road Driving It’s easy to see how people can get obsessed with cars.

I got to experience a different side of it recently, when I went on an off-road driving course in Oldcastle. This is basically the skill of driving where cars just aren’t meant to go. Having driven my car up various rough mountain roads on my way to the start of a hillwalk, I can appreciate the skill it takes to go off-road altogether. And this was great craic.

I was surprised at just how slow you have to go – a lot of the time, you don’t use the accelerator at all, just letting the jeep roll forward (a 4×4 with a big engine will move on its own, once the engine is running and it’s in gear). In the rough spots, I rarely got out of first gear. I spent a surprising amount of the session without my feet on the pedals at all.

After being given a few brief pointers, I was stuck straight behind the wheel, and we were off along the course. At first we drove on trails around this guy’s farm (this is a part time thing for him), letting the vehicle follow the ruts in the ground across a couple of fields. But then we were taking deeper and steeper trails, where the stony gouges in the earth threatened to pull the tyres of the car if you didn’t steer properly. My instinct was often to try and steer out of potholes, or accelerate up over ruts, but it was all about patience and keeping a steady course. The vehicle could suddenly jump a rut and lose control if I gave it too much gas trying to overcome the terrain.

Not getting stuck was obviously one of the things to learn. This got trickier as we went down into ditches, through water that reached up to the tops of the wheels, with nothing but mud and rocks on the bottom. This was often done in a ditch with a tight turn, so you had to use the power and steering on terrain that fought against both. There were times I thought we’d get stuck on a climb, or going over a high bank, or tear out the bottom of the jeep on rocks. We finished up by climbing up and down steep banks, sometimes tipping the vehicle so far over to the side that it felt as if it was going to roll, but again, it was all about staying your course.

There are lots of these courses around, and I’d highly recommend the experience to anyone who likes driving. They make a great gift, and it’s better than buying more stuff.

I think it’s an ongoing challenge to use technology that works with the environment, rather than against it. We don’t live natural lives, but we can keep some of the best bits of natural living by combining environmental design, pragmatism and a bit of sensitivity. Wind turbines are a good example of this. A lot of people are offended by their presence on the landscape, and I can understand this. Human-Shaped PylonsBut if we have to have a means of producing electrical power, I’d rather those things than a power station that ruins the view altogether and spews out fumes. And I quite like how they look.

For me, their function and their design together make them attractive. They’re not going to solve our power problems on their own, but people who say renewable power can’t replace fossil fuels simply aren’t being realistic. The money, time and research spent digging oil and coal out of the ground, or producing nuclear fuel, is staggering. Put a fraction of that into developing means of harnessing the winds, the tides and geothermal power and we’d crack it much, much faster.

On a related note, I was sent this link to an article on an Icelandic architect’s firm that has proposed the design of human-shaped electricity pylons. You can see a concept image in the picture above. They would use the same materials and engineering as existing pylons, but simply be constructed in different shapes. There’s no getting away from the fact that pylons are always going to be ugly, but I liked this idea. At least they’d have a bit of character. And they can be built in different poses, bending forward to climb hills, kneeling down, looking at each other, etc. I think it’s best to run cables underground whenever you can, but it’s not always practical. This is an intriguing alternative. But more importantly, it shows that there are people out there who are thinking in different directions to solve very old, boring problems about how we can get along a little better with the world we live in. That can only be a good thing.

The TED organization (Technology Entertainment Design) features a series of talks that are less than 6 minutes long. So I’m going to close up this post by pointing you towards this talk by Derek Sivers about challenging conventional assumptions.

Livin’ l’Aviva Loca

Last Wednesday, I took our young football nut to the new Aviva Stadium – or the old Lansdowne Road, whichever way you want to look at it – to watch Ireland play Argentina. He was well excited to see players such as Messi, Mascherano and Rodriguez strut their stuff. He also got to see Robbie Keane celebrate his one hundredth cap. I’m not a big soccer fan, but it was a great event to welcome in the revamped stadium.

The game itself wasn’t really anything to shout about, although Ireland acquitted themselves well, and Argentina’s goal was definitely dodgy. Lansdowne–Ireland v. ArgentinaWe didn’t get to see any real magic from the Argentinian stars. They were more agile on the ball, but a dogged Irish defence kept them at bay, and the second half was ours. Except we couldn’t manage to score. We were disappointed Robbie couldn’t lash one in to celebrate his tally of caps.

The stadium looked great – I love the curves, and the mad way we could see out the far end through all that glass. There were over 45,000 people attending. I thought the amount of booing and jeering of the Argentinian players was childish – our team may not be considered world-class, but our fans used to be. It would be a shame to become known for that kind of bad-natured nonsense. But for the most part, there was a great spirit in the place, and I look forward to going back.

Getting in and out of the stadium was very smooth, but I can’t say the same for getting in and out of the area. If you’re going in that way for a match, you wouldn’t want to be in hurry to get anywhere else.

All in all, we had a good night out, tainted only by an unexceptional Argentinian performance which, thankfully, let the Irish lads fight them to a standstill.


Yes. Believe the hype. It’s that good.

Inception-TitleThree of the most fundamental elements of any story are character, setting and the problem that forms the basis of your plot. Having to teach this on courses (particularly to children) has really forced me to tackle the defining of these elements in simple terms. You must to able to separate them out properly in order to weave them together into a gripping and coherent tale. So when a story comes along in which the character, setting and problem are one and the same thing, any storyteller really has to sit up and take notice.

This is by no means the first film in which one person enters another person’s dreams. In ‘Dreamscape’ in 1984, Dennis Quaid’s character does this very thing, and it is Freddy Krueger’s modus operandi in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, also from 1984. Although one was trying to save lives, while the other was out to take ’em in as gruesome a way as possible. Funny how coincidences like that happen in films (and books) – and weirdly related to the subject at hand – but I’ll post on that another day. Entering someone else’s dreams is an idea that lends itself well to film.

But ‘Inception’ takes it all to an astonishing new level. Structured initially as a heist film or a spy thriller, it diverges from that by having the ‘place’ they want to break into as a man’s dream. Inception-CorridorBut it’s one in which the team’s architect has designed a maze-like reconstruction of reality, akin to a stage on which the target can play out his dream. The challenge is to plant an idea so deep in his sub-conscious that he believes he came up with it himself – hence the title. To do this, they must stage a dream, within a dream, within a dream. And to make things even more complicated, there is a sub-conscious saboteur among them.

It all sounds very abstract, but Nolan’s proven himself a master of using thrilling plotlines, stunning visuals and engaging characters to convey challenging ideas (a man dressed as bat in the ‘Batman’ films, the possibility of the existence of real magic in ‘The Prestige’, or the head-spinning backwards plotting in ‘Memento’). But even for him, this must have been a tough one. It doesn’t show.

I don’t want to give too much away (which would actually be quite hard to do with this film in a blog post), but I’ve seen ‘Inception’ twice and the second time was almost better than the first. First time round, there were small issues with the plotting that bugged me, but Nolan managed to convince me second time round (or maybe I was just having such a good time, I was in a forgiving mood). My mind keeps going back to the climax of the film; three parallel countdowns, each one linking up to the next, each using the same team of characters, each pushing the drama to the last second, and all backed up by a profound and emotionally rich exploration of character. Holy shit, the balls this must have taken to make. And it’s not often you hear the audience in a cinema gasp at the last second of a film (which happened both times).

If you haven’t seen this film, go and see it. If you’re too young, look forward to seeing it as soon as you can. Inception-Spinning TopThis is the best thing I’ve seen this year (yes, even better than ‘Toy Story 3’ – sorry, Pixar), it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. It gave me that buzz I used to get when I was a teenager reading a great book or watching a great film, the buzz that made me want to tell stories. That’s a rare thing for me these days. Thanks Mr Nolan.

Armouron Toys Hit the Shelves

Armouron Hits The ShelvesOne of our roving Weird-Wide News reporters wandered into a big toyshop last week (you would think they had better things to do). But while pushing themselves around in a trolley, they  spotted a whole wall of Armouron toys. I was amazed to hear they were finally out (nobody told me), but happy to see them on the shelves.

These suits of armour have special joints that mean you can switch parts and make your own combinations – a bit like Lego you can wear.

The first two books have been out a few months now; ‘The Armoured Ghost’ and ‘Lying Eyes’. But it normally works the other way around – toys and TV or other merchandise come out first. I didn’t come up with the idea for the armour, I was just brought in to write four books to help set up the world, the characters and the first few stories. Armouron-Armoured GhostThe next two books out are by Richard Dungworth, who has also done a few Dr Who books. After that, my third and fourth one should come along.

Apart from the money (obviously), I got into the project for the experience of working on something that offered opportunties in other areas. I was into loads of these kinds of franchises  when I was a kid – Star Wars, Action Force, Transformers – and it was a kick to be involved in helping develop a project this size. Publishing is always a team effort, but normally it’s a writer sitting on their own coming up with the ideas at the start. This was almost more like when I worked in animation, where different disciplines are brought in at different stages.

The principle behind the design of the toys also chimes with an issue I’ve long been concerned about – that of kids dropping their TV remotes, their games controllers (and yes, even their books) and going and playing outside. This armour will not protect your little ones if they choose to run about kicking the crap out of each other, but it should fuel a few fertile young imaginations in a way that gets them physically active, and that can only be a good thing.

Question Everything

It’s a necessary quality in any writer that they be curious. It’s a circular thing really; you’re curious about life, so you write about it to help you sort it out in your own head and communicate those thought processes to others. And once you’re in the habit of writing, you look for more things to write about.

But it’s not just about questioning the things around you – you also need to have an interest in human nature, and some of us can become obsessed with the idea of perception, and how real our world is, or our experiences within that world. Writers like Philip K. Dick have based whole careers on those kinds of questions.

It’s a theme that seems to have become increasingly popular in our entertainment, the more we engage with virtual worlds in our everyday life, and the boundaries between the virtual and the real begin to thin out. Moon-Sam RockwellIt could well happen that, at some time in the future, perfectly sane people might not be able to tell the difference.

A few stories have tickled my interest in this kind of thing lately. ‘Moon’ is a subtle, quietly creepy story of one man working in a mining base on the dark side of the moon, with only a computer for company. The character, played by Sam Rockwell – one of those effortlessly versatile actors who can switch character with ease – suffers an accident while outside on the surface. The events that follow make him question if everything his employers are telling him is true or indeed, even the course of his own life.

‘The Box’ is directed by the man who brought us the excellent ‘Donnie Darko’, and starts with a normal middle-class couple being made a simple offer with far-reaching consequences: The Box-Richard KellyThey are given a box with a button on top by a polite and enigmatic man with gruesome burn scars to the side of his face. As observers, we know that this man is somehow connected with the CIA. If the couple push the button, they will be paid a million dollars in cash. But pushing the button also means that someone they don’t know will die. What follows is not only a search to learn the story behind this mysterious man and his box, but also an exploration of the consequences of decisions that change our lives, and the lives of other people.

‘Exam’ is a film based entirely in one room, not unlike ‘Twelve Angry Men’, except that here we have eight ultra-ambitious candidates going for an extremely high-powered, but unknown job. Exam PosterThey have eighty minutes to provide one answer, and there are a few simple rules they cannot break, including not being allowed to talk to the examiners, or leave the room. But when the clock starts and they turn over their sheets of paper, there is no question. Investigation and scheming ensue as they build to a dramatic stand-off between each other and ultimately, the faceless company. A brave, intriguing, but quite simple film that kept me gripped until the end.

Cory Doctorow’s book, ‘Little Brother’, is a bit heavy on technical detail (which I found interesting – and useful – but others may not), but it’s the best novel I’ve read yet on the modern surveillance culture that’s creeping over us. Set in San Francisco, it tells the story of a teenage hacker named Marcus and his friends who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a massive terrorist attack rocks the city. Little BrotherThey are picked up by Homeland Security and subjected to imprisonment, interrogation, isolation and torture. Marcus comes out a changed young man, determined to fight this paranoid, dangerous and counter-productive new culture of suspicion. Doctorow proceeds to lay down a tense, fast-paced story that opens the reader’s eyes to some very dodgy modern surveillance techniques and how they can be fooled by a bunch of motivated teenage kids or the terrorists they’re designed to stop, but they make life a misery for everyone else.

I was going to include ‘Inception’, Christoper Nolan’s new film, in this post, but it really deserves a section all on its own.

The Masters at Work

I’ve long been a fan of Pixar, and when we first start seeing hints that ‘Toy Story 3’ was on its way, I was really, really hoping they were going to stay true to form.

Last weekend, Maedhbh and I dropped the baby into her granny and took our football/computer game fanatic to the cinema, equipped with 3D glasses from our collection (we keep forgetting to bring them with us when we go to the cinema, and end up picking up more). Toy Story 3We stocked up on (very high-priced) pick’n’mix and drinks and settled into our seats to see if Pixar could match the first two ‘Toy Story’ films, and every other thing they’ve done.

They didn’t disappoint.

There was the sadness of a childhood left behind. The return to the core characters so more new ones could be introduced. A childcare centre that is a prison for toys, who are tormented by mental kids. Our heroes are trapped by the scheming of a bitter but cuddly tyrant and his henchmen, including a tattooed baby. Barbie meets a vain and two-faced fop named Ken. Mr Potato Head gets put in The Box (watch out for those ‘logs’), and later ends up becoming a tortilla. Mrs Potato Head loses an eye and develops second sight. The aliens finally find a Claw! worth worshipping.

Woody breaks out and then has to break back in again to spring his friends in a multi-coloured Great Escape (defying the all-seeing  Monkey). And Buzz becomes a cold-hearted prison guard and a flamenco dancing Spaniard. ‘Toy Story 3’ is brilliant fun, brilliantly executed. Well done again Pixar.

Lunch with the Laureate

Last week, I joined a bunch of writers and illustrators to have a lunch with Children’s Laureate, Siobhan Parkinson. The location was Airfield in Dundrum, which has nothing to do with airplanes, but is in fact a farm in the suburbs of Dublin which has a small cafe/restaurant, a farm shop and a vintage car collection, among other things.

Laureate Lunch 1

An eclectic mix of locations that was well suited to this gathering of diverse (but all very good-natured and entertaining) personalities. Siobhan wanted to talk about what she intended to do during her two years as Laureate, and to get our input. In the photo, left to right, is: Niamh Sharkey, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Michael Emberley, the Honourable Siobhan, some eejit at the back who didn’t smile at the right time, Marita Conlon-McKenna, Jane Mitchell, Sarah Webb and Aubrey Flegg. Mags Walsh from CBI was there too, but somebody had to hold the camera.

You may notice that I’m wearing a shirt in the photo. Despite the occasion, this was not an attempt on my part to look respectable – it was just what I had on that day. The fact that I almost always wear t-shirts to all but the most solemn occasions was brought home to me the last time I put on a shirt, and my stepson asked what I was ‘all dressed up for’.

Apart from eating a lovely lunch and talking shop (writers and illustrators are as bad as any other profession when you group them together), we discussed strategy. Siobhan intends to focus on two things that she hopes will promote the reading of books and the creation of them

First, she wants to push the idea of school libraries. This is not something we do very well in Ireland. Having a separate room, just for books (along with computers, audio books, comics and magazines etc) is still a bit more than many in the education system seem able to conceive. And actually putting a librarian in there too? Preposterous!

Laureate Lunch 2

Where you do find decent libraries in schools, it tends to be down to the initiative of a few individuals, rather than some policy (and funding) delivered from on high. We’re supposed to be a country that takes literature seriously. We can do a lot better.

The second focus of her campaign is to bring quality books from other countries and other languages to Ireland. We’re not great at this either, but this is a problem across the English-speaking world. Lots of other countries translate our books into their languages; we’re slow to return the favour.

If you think books published in foreign languages just may not be relevant to our culture, or may not appeal to young English-speaking readers, try a few of these on for size: ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ (French), ‘Inkheart’ (German), ‘Sophie’s World’ (Norwegian), ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ (German), ‘The Little Prince’ (French), ‘Pippi Longstocking’ (Swedish) and, of course, the magnificent ‘Asterix’ (French). The collective sales figures and critical acclaim speak for themselves. And do I really need to mention Manga? American, however, does not count as a foreign language (sorry guys, but you see enough action as it is).

Siobhan also wants to get children’s books taken more seriously on the literature stage in Ireland. We have the most passionate readership, the most profound effect on our readership, we have internationally acclaimed and multi-award-winning authors, and we achieve some of the highest sales in the world of literature . . . and we’re still treated like a cottage industry.

Our new Laureate is a charming, resourceful and willfully stubborn woman. Expect progress.