Featured Readers

Each month we sit down for a chat with a ‘Featured Reader’, to find out about their favourite books of all time, their literary preferences, recommendations, revered authors, & the likes...

This Month

Tom Hoban and Aisling Nic Artáin

Tom Hoban and Aisling Nic Artáin

We’re both big book nerds, and have been forever giving out that there’s no really good spot to get book recommendations online.

Tom Hoban

Tell us a bit about LitVox. When did you start up? What made you decide to do it? Where are you based?

Tom: Both myself and Aisling are long-time booksellers, I’ve been working with Waterstones for the last 10 years as their Commercial Manager in Ireland, based in Hodges Figgis bookshop on Dawson Street, which is where we met.

It’s not really all that romantic! We were really good friends who shared a drunken shift at the Christmas party, and we’ve been (happily!) together ever since.

We’re both big book nerds, and have been forever giving out that there’s no really good spot to get book recommendations online. Amazon and all the big retailers use algorithms, which are very impersonal, and nearly every other site’s recommendations are driven by marketing, or what that site wants to sell the most copies of in a given week.

I’ve been holding on to the idea for years of setting up a personalised bookseller service where the customer is actually listened to, and the recommendations you get are based purely on your tastes.

The first lockdown in March 2020 gave us the perfect excuse to try the idea out. Way too many people found that when they were forced to stay at home, there’s only really so much Netflix bingeing or phone-scrolling they could do without being driven to distraction, so we decided to try and get people who don’t normally read into reading.

We started off on Facebook, just offering reading lists to friends who found that they didn’t know what to be doing with all of their new-found free time.

We asked people to tell us a little bit about what they like, their hobbies, favourite books, movies, TV shows or interests, and we offered them a detailed reading list, based entirely on their tastes.

The response we got was amazing, so I decided to quit my job, build the LitVox website and dedicate myself full time to it. Aisling still works for Oireachtas na Gaeilge, but finds time to do a lot of the recommendations requests in her spare time.

We have a team of booksellers from around Ireland working on the recommendations, and I run our online book and gift shop, which sells a range of books, greetings cards, and prints. All of our prints are inspired by famous books, and all are designed by independent Irish artists.

We run the whole thing from our home-office on Usher’s Quay, right beside Joyce’s House of the Dead.

Tell us a bit about yourself - where were you born? What memories do you have of your neighbourhood growing up?

Aisling: I was born in Dublin and lived in Greenhills all my life before moving into Dublin 8 with Tom! My dad is from Tyrone and I remember spending a lot of time up at my granny’s house during the summer. I used to support Tyrone in the GAA when I was younger, which my dad was only delighted about. I’m now a true Dublin supporter, but I still do have a soft spot for Tyrone (not that I need to worry about them challenging the Dubs any time soon, sorry!). I loved books from a young age, I remember my mam used to bring me to the local library every Wednesday and I always had a huge haul to take home! My grandad always used to get me books for Christmas, and I still have a lot of them now.

Tom: I was born in London to a pair of Northside Dubs. I lived there until I was 7, when we moved back to Dublin. Settling back into a primary school in Finglas with an Islington accent wasn’t exactly easy, but thankfully the Northside accent won out and there’s no trace of a London tinge to my voice at all these days. I was always the perfect mix of sporty and nerdy kid growing up, and I was surrounded by books from my earliest days. I lived with my grandparents in Finglas for many years and my grandad was the first one to really instil a love of stories in me. He was a proper aul’ Dub from the Liberties, the kind of Dublin character that seems all too rare these days: someone with a cheeky sense of humour and an effortless intelligence, the kind of man that could spin a good story without even really trying. He was the one that got me hooked on reading. If there was a book or a magazine I wanted as a kid, he made sure I had it.

What is your earliest memory of reading? Do you have a favourite book or author from childhood?

Aisling: I absolutely loved the Drumshee series of books by Cora Harrison. I learned so much about Irish history from them and it was the first time I was completely hooked on a series as a child. I still love historical fiction, but I think Harrison’s series really instilled a love of history in me.

Tom: My earliest memory of reading is probably from a book about dinosaurs. God knows what age I was, but it’s a universal rule I suppose. Boys love dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are cool. My favourite book as a kid was George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl. A lot of kids books these days tend to talk down to kids, or write as if kids can’t handle a bit of horror or suspense in a story. There was something pretty cool in reading a novel about a lad that poisons his granny.

Did you use your local library as a child ? Do you have a favourite library now or from your past?

Aisling: My mam is a retired primary school principal and always had me in and out of Walkinstown Library. I remember the staff always being really kind and helpful.

Tom: The library in Blanchardstown, where I went to secondary school, is incredible. My favourite library though is still Pearse Street. The staff are incredible, the resources amazing and the place smells of old leather and paper.

Which of your books is battered and worn from using over and over again?

Aisling: Most of my cookbooks are in bits but I take it as a good sign, the more food on the book the more I’ve used it! Also my Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla that I have on the shelf, I’ve had it since college and it is covered in notes that I’ve made in it throughout the years.

It’s a collection of old Dublin rhymes and stories handed down to me by my grandad. It’s called Janey Mack Me Shirt is Black by Éamonn MacThomáis. Very few people knew Dublin like MacThomáis, and this book is like stepping back into a simpler (if poorer) time.

What are you reading right now?

Aisling: I have two books on the go at the moment. One is a collection of short stories by Joe Steve Ó Neachtain, beannacht Dé leis. It’s called An Diabhal Déanta. The Irish in the stories is so rich, the book is a real treasure. The other book I am reading is Short Walks from Bogotá by Tom Feiling. We watched Narcos a little while ago and I became a little obsessed, so I wanted to learn a bit more about Colombia.

Tom: Reading a brilliant history book by Tom Standage called A History of the World in Six Glasses. It tells the history of human society through our fondness for drink, and the drink that came to be defined with each historical era. So, beer in the Ancient World, wine in Ancient Rome and Greece, tea during the rise of the British empire, coca cola during the Cold War etc…It’s a really fun and interesting way of looking at world history.

Is there a book you think every child should have on their shelf?

Aisling: There are so many great children’s books out there at the moment, but I’m a big fan of any collection of myths and legends! The stories are fantastic and they always have great illustrations with them.

Tom: A good atlas. I think the most important thing to instil in a child is a wonder of other places and a curiosity about the wider world.

Is there a book that changed your perspective on something?

Aisling: 32 Words for Field by Manchán Magan. It’s only recently published, but it really shows just how beautifully rich the Irish language was (and still is). It’s an inspiring book that encouraged me to improve my own Irish. It’s also quite sad as it really hammers home how much of our language and heritage has been lost. It’s a wonderful book.

Tom: Diarmaid Ferriter’s The Transformation of Ireland. Even those of us who really love reading about history can ten to oversimplify their interpretation of it. Ferriter’s brilliant book shows that modern Irish history isn’t nearly as linear and straight-forward as many people think it is. It’s full-on, well-researched history for grown-ups. Brilliant stuff.

Which book do you feel depicts your own or another culture most vividly?

Aisling: I love Kevin Barry’s short stories. They capture a certain brand of madness that you only ever find in this country. There’s that recurring notion that “Ah, but sure, we’re all made together” that I love so much about Ireland. Barry’s stories are laced thick with it.

Tom: There are so many authors that capture Dublin culture brilliantly, Roddy Doyle, John Boyne, Jennifer Johnston, Flann O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, but it’s hard to ignore the cultural influence that Ulysses has had on our city. I know it has a reputation, that it can be difficult and that it’s a bit of an undertaking. But if you just take your time with this book, and don’t try too hard to grasp every single aspect of it, it’s amazingly fun. And so much of the language was influenced by that peculiarly Dublin brand of English. If only people knew how many dirty jokes and curse words that are used all the time now came originally from Ulysses, I bet a lot more people would read it.

What is your favourite book from an International writer?

Aisling: I absolutely loved all of Elena Ferrante’s books, but The Neapolitan Quartet has to be my favourite. That might be a cop-out since it’s technically four books but I wouldn’t be able to choose just one. Anytime I read anything by her I am instantly transported to Naples. I’m also a big admirer of Roxane Gay, but I’m only meant to mention one international writer…

The File on H by the Albanian author Ismail Kadare. It’s a very simple, very funny little book. Two Irish-American scholars arrive in rural Albania in the 1930s with a tape recorder as part of a mission to capture the last of the epic oral singers. Almost as soon as they arrive, the regional governor convinces the locals that they are in fact CIA spies, sent to spread sedition and American influence. The two Irish lads end up being chased through the mountains by bands of armed partisans. It’s brilliant, mad, hilarious stuff.

What is your favourite book of all time?

Aisling: One of my favourite books that I’ve gone back to time and time again is The Doomspell Trilogy by Cliff McNish. I remember getting it from someone for Christmas and I absolutely loved it. I love the idea of someone picking out a book specifically for me hoping I’d enjoy it. It’s why I enjoy what we do at LitVox so much, you basically get to spend your time trying to make other people happy by giving them books.

Tom: A novel called Pure, by Andrew Miller. It's set in Paris, just 4 years before the Revolution. A young, ambitious engineer named Jean-Baptiste is given the task of exhuming the medieval cemetery of Les Halles, in central Paris. He is given a team of 40 miners and a few fellow engineers, plus one mad priest, to help him in his task. But as the work of digging up millions of bones begins to take its toll on the men, they begin to make demands, and not all of them can be met. Trouble brews, tempers flare. Merchants arrive to capitalise on the misery, and soon Jean-Baptise finds that he has become the mayor of a strange town set firmly in the biggest graveyard in Europe. I loved this book, and the writing is absolutely beautiful.

Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us

Aisling: I’ve recently developed a bad habit of treating my books really badly (according to Tom), for example, cracking the spines and folding pages over to keep my place. It drives Tom absolutely crazy, which is half the fun, if I’m honest. I just think it shows that a book has been properly read if it’s a little bit worn and battered. The two of us just have to agree to disagree though.

Tom: I never know how to answer questions like this! Despite Aisling being a Gaeilgeoir, I barely have my cúpla focal, so I know I’m usually in trouble when she refuses to speak English to me.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Just that LitVox’s recommendations service will remain free to use for everyone. We’re working on a shoestring at the moment, so it’s taking us a bit longer than usual to get back to everyone who puts in a recommendations request, but we WILL get to everyone. And, our online bookshop continues to grow, so help support a local business and check out LitVox.com if you need a book. We can source anything you’re looking for, even if you don’t see it on our website.

Also, our kids recommendations service is there for anyone who wants to get their kids reading. We’ve got a pair of expert kids booksellers on our team, with decades of bookselling experience under their belt!

You can find more info about the LitVox project and request book recommendations based on your personal preferences at Tom and Aisling’s website here.


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