A Year of Books: Five of the Best from 2016

Thank you, Angela McMillan, for a list of books I didn’t know! These shall be added to my list for 2017!

The Reader Online

20150115183825-books-readingAs Angela McMillan, co-editor of The Reader magazine, turns her attention to her reading list for the year ahead, we ask what she loved in 2016.

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Christmas reading (5)

Welcome to our fifth exploration of the Christmas reading of members of staff from our school.  This post discusses two very different books read by Mrs Ewart, our Library Assistant.  One book is the second novel by Jessie Burton, The muse, and the other is by Richard Venables QPM, A life in death, concerning a vital part of his career in the Police Force in the field of Disaster Victim Identification.  Both sound intriguing and fascinating.  Mrs Ewart says:

The Muse by Jessie Burton: I really enjoyed this novel as much as her first historical novel, The miniaturist. The two books are completely different, although both are historical fiction. The Muse is set in Spain in the 1930s and Britain in the 1960s. The story revolves around a painting and the characters embroiled in its creation and destiny. Great storytelling. If you like Tracy Chevalier, I think you will enjoy Jessie Burton’s books…”

A Life in Death by Richard Venables QPM, a retired Police Detective Inspector. This was a gripping autobiograpy  about disaster victim identification, a part of policing that we rarely – if ever – think about. Venables shows compassion, humanity and respect in dealing with the victims. Yet there are touches of humour too. It has been nominated for the People’s Book prize for non – fiction. I strongly recommend that you read it – and then vote for it!”

Christmas reading (4)

Our reading journey continues with two entries which are attracting my attention, and which are now on my to-be-read pile!  Mrs Redman, Head of House and English teacher recommended Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and teacher of Drama, Miss Anderson’s Christmas reading was Before I go to sleep by S J Watson.  Here is what each had to say:

Mrs Redman on The Essex serpent: “I picked it up in Waterstones because it was so beautiful – all rich blues and embossed gold detail.  The rave reviews on the back heralded it as An Essex village is terrorised by a winged leviathan in a gothic Victorian tale crammed with incident, character and plot and they weren’t wrong.  From the start, she creates a creditable Dickensian marshland setting in which grotesques and caricatures live alongside  London cognoscente.  The notion of superstition and a potential force of evil entering their world challenges their feelings towards religion and science.  It’s a page turner with believable and likeable characters facing a predatory menace; who or what the menace really is, and whether it is real or imagined, is the essence of the book.”

Miss Anderson on Before I go to sleep:  “I read “Before I Go To Sleep” by S.J.Watson and it was a fantastic thriller. A woman suffers a brain injury leading to memory issues. She wakes up every day believing she is in her 20s and realises that she is middle-aged and cannot remember any of her life between then and now. She starts to write a diary to aid her day-to-day life and the recovery of her memory. Yet as the days build up, she realises that there are many things her husband isn’t being honest with her about.  It was a great read that had me absolutely gripped.”

Miss Anderson’s choice has been made into a film starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong (more of my favourites!).

Have any of you read these novels?  Please do get in touch, I do like to read others’ thoughts on books which are important to them, especially if featured here.

Sharing poetry (The Reader Organisation)

How lovely to see this today… This shows how a poem can reach people of all ages.

This week we have a wonderful Reader Story from Reader in Residence Laragh behind our Featured Poem, What if you Slept? by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

via Featured Poem: What if you Slept? by Samuel Taylor Coleridge — The Reader Online

Christmas reading (3)

Mrs Grant, our Safety and Environment Manager, was the next person to write to me, telling of the book she read during our Christmas break.  She read the début novel of writer Geoffrey GudgionSaxon’s Bane, and says:

  “I read ‘Saxon’s Bane’, by Geoffrey Gudgion.  He is a local author who came and spoke at our WI, although I sadly missed his visit!  I loved the book. It seemed to have everything: historical interest, village politics, suspense, death, adventure and mystery, with the themes of good vs evil, the Church vs paganism and even a bit of a love story running through it.  I always think the best way to judge a book is whether you actually care about the characters and if you find yourself wondering what they are doing whilst you are not reading the book. Geoffrey Gudgion has achieved this: when I finished Saxon’s Bane I felt I knew them so well I wanted to go and find the fictional village and have a drink and chat with them all.”

I like the way Mrs Grant talks of the way in which she views a book, and then subsequently was able to put her ideas into practice with this one.  A good endorsement, I think.  In a later message, she told me that this wouldn’t usually have fitted with her preferred reading style or genre,which should encourage us all to break out of our comfort zone once in a while, something which we are always advising students to do!

Mr Petty, our Head of Sixth Form, was the next reader to write to me. He had just finished Stephen Graubard’s book The Presidents : the transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama.  This book was published in 2009, when the author was 85.  Mr Petty says this about it:

“Over the holidays I very much enjoyed re-reading ‘The Presidents:  the Transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama’ by Stephen Graubard.  I thought it was a good time to remind myself of some of the brilliant, bold, brave, and frankly bonkers people who have occupied the White House, and this is a masterful book with which to do this.  This wonderful survey – there around 40 pages on each featured President – reminds one how there are limits to how far each President can change the USA, but also brought to mind how greatly I had under-appreciated two presidents in particular.  They are not exactly unsung heroes, but Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson are simply fascinating figures who knew what they wanted, and were unlikely to be thwarted in their very different ambitions.  I’d heartily recommend this work, even if one simply dips in to it to read about one or two presidents.”

After reading this review, I immediately ordered a copy and sent it to my daughter who is studying American politics as a module of her first degree at Birmingham University.  We have been much more interested in the politics of the USA since our visit to Washington DC last summer, and enjoyed visiting the fantastic museums as well as Capitol Hill and the Library of Congress.  We were fortunate enough to attend a session in the House of Represenatives, which brought everything so much more alive for us.

Christmas reading (2)

Our next readers to feature are Mr Ford and Mr Cruickshanks, who have read books in English and Spanish respectively, representing the Departments of Religion and Philosophy and Modern Foreign Languages.

After reading a recommendation in the Library’s Michaelmas Term newsletter, Mr Ford decided to read David Lagercrantz’s novel The girl in the spider’s web.  This was commissioned by Stieg Larsson‘s estate following his death, as a result of finding notes believed to be the essence and beginnings of a fourth novel in the series following the exploits of Lisbeth Salander and Michael Blomquist. Click here to read an article by arts journalist Mark Lawson from August 2015 to read more…  Mr Ford says:

“On the recommendation of the Newsletter I read ‘The girl in the Spider’s Web’ and really enjoyed it – I have placed it in the Castle Common Room for others to read…”

We are all for book sharing here in the libraries, whether it be by passing on recommendations, or physically putting a copy of the printed word in another’s hands… I shall be wandering over to the Common Room shortly to see what else is there!  Mr Ford adds the following about his current read:

 “I am currently reading the first Robert Galbraith novel [‘The cuckoo’s calling’ – winner of the 2013 LA Times Book Prize for Mystery and Thrillers ] and very much enjoying it.”

Mr Cruickshanks, one of our Spanish speakers, read Isabel Allende‘s La casa de los espíritus, he says:

“I finally finished reading a very challenging novel called ‘La Casa de los Espíritus’ (The House of the Spirits) by Isabel Allende, a South American author. It tells the story of the Trueba family throughout the twentieth century, living in an unspecified South American country. The Truebas are land-owners and very affluent, and the novel describes their experiences, from the height of their influence at the start of the century, through the pressures of the arrival of Communism and the demands for workers’ rights and, subsequently, a military coup that overthrows the new Communist government during the second half of the century. I describe it as a ‘challenging’ novel, because (quite apart from the fact that it was in Spanish) the novel is very dense, very descriptive, with incredibly long paragraphs (often stretching over multiple pages) and very little dialogue. I usually prefer more accessible (let’s be honest, more ‘trashy’) novels, but the description of life during the rise of Communism and in the aftermath of the coup was very powerful. It was certainly a novel that made me think!”

Incredibly (because almost everyone I know has), I have not read any of Allende’s novels yet, but this review has made me want to take it home today, and since we don’t have a copy on our shelves, a trip to the public library is in order.  Unfortunately, Spanish is not one of my languages, so I shall be reading it in translation…

Christmas reading (1)

We asked all members of staff at school what they read during the Christmas holidays,  We had a good long break and so felt that there were no excuses, everybody reads, so let’s share the reading vibe…

Dr Hundal was the first to reply. His choice was The sense of an ending by Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2011.  Dr Hundal says:

 “[I] enjoyed the story a lot despite the tragedy at the heart of the novel.  I thought the author captured the thoughts and reflections of the central character really well, although I did have my doubts as to why this character had an overwhelming desire to revisit and understand a failed relationship from his distant past.”

I, too, enjoyed this novel shortly after it was the prizewinning entry.  I generally read quite a lot of stories about relationships, mainly by women, so it is refreshing to me to read a literary text on the subject by a man.  I have just discovered that the book has been adapted and made into a film which is due to be released in March 2017, with some of my favourite actors in key roles, Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Emily Mortimer and Harriet Walter to name a few…

Mrs Ferguson, Head of Art, wrote to me about two books which she had enjoyed reading during our time away from school.  Her first choice is Gould’s book of fish by Richard Flanagan.  Mrs Ferguson’s thoughts are:

“Very dark, powerful writing not for the faint hearted.  This is an edited review from The Observer, written by Robert MacFarlane on 26th May 2002:

‘Prison islands are notoriously wordless places. The authoritarian fear that language might get out of control has led to inmates being denied writing materials or even confined to silence. Yet so often this repression of language has resulted eventually in its outpouring. William Buelow Gould, the narrator of Richard Flanagan’s remarkable third novel, stands in this tradition of eloquent internees. The real Gould was a forger and petty thief who, in 1825, was condemned to serve 49 years on Sarah Island, a penal colony off the coast of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). While imprisoned there, he made 26 paintings of different fish. These were gathered into a book which, unlike Gould, escaped Sarah Island and is kept in the State Library of Tasmania.

In Gould’s Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan, a Tasmanian, has given Gould a voice. The book purports to be Gould’s autobiography – what he calls ‘the story of my compost heap of a heart’ – written as he waits for death in a seaside cell. By ventriloquising a historical figure in this way, Flanagan is able to approach issues such as the British genocide of Tasmanian aboriginals (most recently dealt with by Matthew Kneale in his novel English Passengers), the murderous rationalist legacy of the Enlightenment and, above all, the abominations of the British Empire’s penal system.’

Richard Flanagan is another Man Booker Prize winner, not for this novel, but for The narrow road to the deep north in 2014.

Mrs Ferguson’s second offering is Jonathan Coe‘s novel Number 11.  She sent me the following:

‘Number 11’ by Jonathan Coe Very funny, biting social satire. Again, an edited Guardian review by Alex Clark, dated 11 November 2015:

The title of Jonathan Coe’s 11th novel is, of course, the official home of the chancellor of the exchequer. It is also a bus route that makes a complete journey around Birmingham’s outer circle, providing a haven for those who might not want to go home because, for example, they can’t afford to put the heating on. On top of this, it’s the putative lowest level in an obscenely extravagant multi-storey basement planned by a super-rich Chelsea family. “What is the lady of the house going to put there?” asks Rachel, recently appointed tutor to the Gunns’ twin daughters. “Nothing,” replies the harassed project manager, thinking of the palm trees he has to transport to a subterranean swimming pool. “She can’t think of anything she wants it for.”

‘Number 11’ is also a sequel, of sorts, to Coe’s 1994 novel, What a Carve Up!, the monstrously funny satire-cum-farce about the monstrously terrible Winshaw family, whose lust for power took them into virtually every aspect of British life: the media, the arms trade, agriculture and food production, the health service, the art world. Many of them were savagely disposed of at the close of What a Carve Up!, but the dynasty proves to be hydra-headed, its remnants demonstrating here that they are every bit as rapacious and brutal as their predecessors. Their depredations are smoothly updated to reflect a contemporary setting: reality television, the profitable mopping-up after overseas conflict, highly efficient tax avoidance, the exploitation of migrant workers.

Very different works, clearly, show how diverse our reading tastes can be.  I find it so interesting to discover what people like to read, and why they like the books mentioned.  There are more  reading choices to follow…  Please do comment and add your views, they will all be read.

 

 

Berkhamsted School Staff Book Club: winter reads

Three books to curl up with this winter…

It’s been too long, I know, since the library’s last post, but I have resolved this year to write more frequently.  As ever, we are a busy library and busy staff, so trying to meet to discuss our reading is becoming increasingly difficult.  However, we did enjoy our last meeting when we discussed Jane Hawking’s Silent Music, Sophie Nicholl’s new novel, The dress, and The day I lost you by Fionnuala Kearney.  Here are our thoughts:

Silent music by Jane Hawking

Growing up in London in the aftermath of the Second World War, Ruth is an observant and thoughtful child who finds herself in a confusing and mysterious adult world. She seeks refuge in her memories of her idyllic stays with her grandparents in the picturesque East Anglian countryside – which provide comforting visions of a simpler life. As she comes to terms with her surroundings and her own adolescence, Ruth finds the motivation to pursue the tantalizing dream which has governed her childhood. A coming-of-age novel about the unpredictable nature of human behaviour and about taking control of one’s destiny, Silent Music is a timeless portrait of post-war Britain, as well as a lyrical paean to hope and aspiration. (Nielsen Bookdata Online). 

Those of us who read Jane Hawking’s book enjoyed it very much. Hers is a gentle storytelling, whilst literary and engaging. She is the former wife of the eminent scientist, Stephen, and she has a PhD in Medieval Spanish Poetry.  Her book, Travelling to infinity : my life with Stephen is behind the screenplay for the film The theory of everything .  If you have enjoyed the film, why not try reading Hawking’s two books?  You might be transported…

The dress by Sophie Nicholls

One member of our group suggested that this was a version of Chocolat (Joanne Harris) but with dresses and yes, the formula is rather similar, but the story was quite arresting.  We mostly enjoyed it as it was well-written and easy to read.  Another compared it with The dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.  Fabia is a dressmaker originally from Iran, who finds herself in York, after travelling around England with her young daughter for many years, trying to settle.  She found her way to England via Paris, where she met her Italian husband and with whom she had Ella, after moving to England, and after he had died in a struggle with a man trying to upset the heavily pregnant Fabia.  Once she arrives in York, some years later, we learn of her passion for dresses, her feel for fabrics and her desire to make a success of her new shop.  Fabia is also concerned about the fact that Ella appears to be struggling to make friends and settling at school… Read the novel to learn more.  The dress, if it takes your fancy, is unputdownable, I know that I enjoyed it a lot.

The day I lost you by Fionnuala Kearney

This was a compelling read which was difficult to put down.  A mother hears from her former husband that their daughter is missing after an avalanche hits her skiing trip.  There are all kinds of family threads which unravel.  The daughter, Anna, has a young daughter of her own and both lived with Anna’s mother, Jess.  A number of characters come into the mix with lots of surprising connections to Anna, and the secrets she had kept.  The story is told from different points of view: Jess’s narrative and entries from Anna’s blog in the first person, with vignettes about the lives of the other characters individually told in the third person.  The story is heart-wrenching and painful but with some strands of hope for the future.

A monster calls (Patrick Ness)

I have just finished reading this novel and enjoyed it so much.  The storytelling is so good, and I loved the allegorical tales told by the Monster, and how they were skilfully woven into the terribly sad story of Conor O’Malley…

As Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls hits the big screen on New Year’s Day, our patron Frank Cottrell Boyce explores the interesting story behind the novel.

via On the big screen: A Monster Calls — The Reader Online

One (Sarah Crossan)

I have just finished reading the Carnegie Medal shortlisted novel One by Sarah Crossan and loved it.  It’s the author’s second novel written as a prose poem, or free verse, the first being The weight of water which I also enjoyed but is very different from her latest novel.  Both were beautifully written and equally heart-wrenching, but covering very different stories.  One was clearly very well-researched on all points from the nature of the particular disability borne by the conjoined twins, and their feelings for one another, their difficulties where they, as teenage girls display typical teenage types of behaviour, and how they blow apart the idea that they should be pitied, or considered to be suffering.  The writing quickly draws the reader in and s/he becomes emotionally involved.

The prose poem is easy to read and get into.  The effect of the layout of words on the page, appearing as a poem, make it a fast read, which, sometimes, is a shame, because the reader wants to savour the poetic feel and read it slowly.  Here, however, there is a sense of urgency carried along by the story: time is of the essence.  The twins suffer health complications which must be addressed.  They are attractive characters and the reader soon has a sense of the lovely connection between them, which is often reported to be the case between twins generally, let alone those so closely attached.  Despite sometimes wanting to enjoy the same things as every teenage girl, they have a deep understanding and acceptance of the fact that they can’t participate in life in that way.  They watch their younger sister Dragon do the things that she does, whose own story is explored to some extent by the narrator, right-hand sided Grace.  She is also the teller of her parents’ story.

In keeping with the style of the prose poem, the detail is spares but so expertly described that all that is important is revealed – the story is told more effectively in this way, and is executed skilfully.

This is a sad story, a difficult story but also, at times, a joyful story.  Heartbreaking, yet hopeful.  I wish Ms Crossan all the very best with the Carnegie Medal, she has rightly been rewarded with the YA Prize 2016 and the CBI Book of the Year Award!

One