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

School projects and the Library: part 2

As mentioned in our previous post, we are also working on a History project with our Year 7 students.  For the past few weeks,they have been learning about life in a Medieval castle and are now in a position to carry out some research into how people lived during the Middle Ages, their task being to write a diary entry for a date to be selected by them during the period between 1066 and 1485, but for the date that they choose,  their writing must be historically accurate!

They have to assume the character of one of the following: a Lord or nobleman, Lady or noblewoman, squire or knight, a cook or an armourer; they then choose a special event to write about: a joust, a banquet or feast, a wedding or a festival.  Finally, they should incorporate daily routines from the life of their chosen character such as mealtimes and food, schooling and education, work and leisure, and clothes.  That’s a pretty detailed piece of writing, and, as well as this, they have to draw a plan of a castle with a key to the various parts and themselves in character.

Our part in this is to help them use books, yes, real books (!) within the library space, and guide them to use specific websites which have been carefully selected for content and which are guaranteed (as far as possible) to be available.  We then help them to start creating their own bibliography, listing books and websites used, in the correct order and format.  We explain concepts such as key words, contents and index pages, and glossaries, and emphasize the need to credit the work that other people have done, and which they use as inspiration.  So far, these classes are proceeding well and we feel that our approach has made it as easy for them as can be, especially given the ground they are required to cover.  The final project is to be printed or written on parchment paper, to encourage an authentic feel!  In past years, we have received tea-stained copies with burnt edges, pages tied together with raffia… Lovely!

If any of our readers are carrying out similar project work, we would love to hear from you. Sharing good practice is one of our goals.

Berkhamsted_Castle

This is a photograph of our very own castle here in Berkhamsted. It was begun in 1066 and became a very important castle in its day, as William the Conqueror visited and received the submission of England here after the Battle of Hastings.  Past occupants have included Thomas Becket and Geoffrey Chaucer.  To discover more, click here.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons; originally submitted to Flickr by Anne Thorniley.

 

School projects and the Library: part 1

We are very busy in the libraries here at Berkhamsted at the moment as we are assisting two academic departments with their projects for Year 7 and Year 8 students.  We enjoy doing this so much as it helps the students see that we are not just there to keep the peace in the libraries but share our knowledge and expertise with them in preparing projects and getting them used to acknowledging the work of others as early as possible.  We advise on how to create bibliographies and where to go to research their projects and, in the process, find that we are learning a lot ourselves (in this case themes covered in Religious Studies classes and Medieval life)!

Our first project is the Religious Studies Themed Reading assignment which we started just before our half term break.  Each student in Year 8 chooses a work of fiction from a box of books put together to cover the following themes:

  • spiritual journeys
  • religious faith and philosophy
  • understanding religious and cultural diversity
  • challenging victimisation
  • celebrating physical and mental diversity
  • dealing with family relationships

fatboyswimWhilst reading these novels, they are encouraged to extract the themes within the books (Catherine Forde’s book, Fat boy swimis an excellent example as you can talk about issues such as bullying, victimisation, comfort-eating which then leads to obesity, and further bullying, and a whole host of problems with family relationships) and then explore these further to discuss and produce a piece of work in a number of formats.

We offer the children the chance to make leaflets and collages, create a google site, presentation, poster or infogram, or write an essay.  In all instances, the children are required to talk to the class about their chosen topic and work, which incorporates a bibliography.  I am impressed that children of the age of twelve and thirteen can already grasp why such things are important as they write, and even before they sit down to work, they understand these concepts which can be seen clearly, from their answers to questions I have asked of them.  It is also good that they are encouraged to speak in front of a class, thereby building confidence, something which has always terrified me!  I hope that they also get an idea about how such stories can help people who are going through difficult times, and even relate the stories to their own situation or those of people they know – a kind of bibliotherapy if you will!

Berkhamsted School Staff Book Club meets again…

We had a lively and interesting meeting last Tuesday (17th May), and discussed two books Katherine Webb’s The legacy and Father’s Day by Simon van Booy.

the legacyGenerally we all enjoyed the books to some extent, but had more to say individually.  Katherine Webb’s novel was felt to have been well-written and a good read, with plenty of plot and storyline, however some felt that the ending needed a clearer definition: there were interesting threads which we as readers knew to be part of the story but the protagonist seemed to feel satisfied that they were not brought together for her; of course, this is purely the preference of two of the readers.  Some members of the group felt that this fact made it more realistic because in life, things aren’t always resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but we others, whilst recognising this, felt that here, somehow, it would have made for a better ending for everything to be tied up.  The characterisation was good and the settings were interesting.  Our thanks go to HarperCollins for a copy to review.

Father's Day

Father’s Day was generally liked very much.  For a novel whose story involves travelling between the past and the present, generally we felt that this was done seamlessly with items signifying  good or important memories invoking events from the past between the two protagonists.  The story was told simply and not  sentimentally, we felt, although one member of the group disagreed.  The back story was intriguing and provided a good deal to question and talk about. The characters were likeable and interesting, with their story, whilst dramatic in itself, told calmly and almost gently. We should like to say thank you to One World Publications for the advance copy.

As usual, we then had a discussion of books which we’d recently read and enjoyed, please see the list below:

Missing, presumed – Susie Steiner

My map of you – Isabelle Broom

Maestra – L S Hilton

You sent me a letter – Lucy Dawson

The boy on the wooden box – Leon Leyson

Am I normal yet? – Holly Bourne

The storyteller – Jodi Picoult

Faces in the smoke – Josef Perl

The girl on the train – Paula Hawkins

Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

All the light we cannot see – Anthony Doerr

A book which looks absolutely fascinating and which I would love to read this summer is A life discarded by Alexander Masters (author of Stuart : a life backwards).  He found some diaries in a skip outside a house which was being cleared in Cambridge, and which were written by one hand spanning five decades.  Apparently they reveal an ordinary life lived but one which is, at times, shocking, poignant, and hilarious…

If you have read any of these fantastic novels, please do get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Finally, we hope, as a group, to see the long-awaited film adaptation of a favourite book of ours, Jojo Moyes’s Me before you, which is out on general release in cinemas from Friday 3rd June…Check out this blog for a review!

 

 

Saboteur Awards 2016 – Burning Eye poets shortlisted!

Hooray! Burning Eye Books has been shortlisted for the Most Innovative Publisher at the Saboteur Awards! That’s something to smile about! Shortlist voting continues until 27th May and whilst …

Source: Saboteur Awards 2016 – Burning Eye poets shortlisted!

Our book club returns…

Just before our half term holiday, we had our first book club meeting of the year.  It’s so hard, sometimes, to arrange a time to meet in a school as busy as ours, and sometimes you just have to make a date, and hope that people come!   Well, they did and we had a great catch up with what we had read over the past few weeks and reflected on the wonderful day we had had in London back in November at The Reading Agency when we participated in English PEN’s ‘From one reader to another’ event – more of this later.

Please see details below of our reading, in case you feel inspired to take a look:

Persuasion Jane Austen
Reasons to stay alive                      Matt Haig (great exploration of the author’s own experience of depression and how there is a way through, turn to literature and mindfulness)
Sagan, Paris 1954                           

 

Anne Berest (in translation –  about the year when 18 year-old Françoise Sagan published her much-acclaimed novel Bonjour tristesse)
The shock of the fall                        Nathan Filer (great reviews for this debut novel, well-written and observed, about a young man and how his mental health deteriorates, but not all doom and gloom)
The light between oceans             M L Stedman (a boat washes up on the shore of an island containing the body of a dead man and a crying baby, the lighthouse keeper and his wife have to decide what to do).
The age of miracles                         Karen Thompson Walker (the world starts slowing down with days and nights becoming longer: what effect would this phenomenon have on the world?)
Disclaimer                                           Renée Knight (cleverly written thriller, a woman starts reading a book which turns out to be about her, and a secret that only she thought she knew)
The widow                              

 

Fiona Barton (psychological thriller, after a man’s death, his past is dragged up as it is thought that he had abducted a child…)
After you                                             Jojo Moyes (sequel to Moyes’s Me before you, where we follow what happens to Louisa after Will’s death)
The memory book                           Rowan Coleman (well-written novel by local author about a woman who develops early onset Alzheimers, and how her she and her family deal with it, again not all doom and gloom)

The next meeting will be held on Tuesday 15th March when we will be discussing Sarah Waters’s novel The paying guests and Blood ties by Julie Shaw.  I shall report back with our thoughts on these novels shortly afterwards.

On Saturday 14th November, 2015, we were lucky enough to be chosen to participate in a day of reading group activities based at The Free Word Centre in London, hosted jointly by English PEN and The Free Word Centre. ‘From one reader to another’ offered us the opportunity to read two books in translation:

  • Dreams from the endz    Faïza Guène
  • Compartment no. 6         Rosa Liksom

We discussed each book with a different reading group, one based at English PEN itself and the other from a library reading group based in East London.  We had a fascinating discussion and met some interesting people through a mutual love of reading.  We listened to Jessie Burton talk about books which had inspired her to read and then to write her wonderful novel, The miniaturist.  We were treated to a translation duel of a text from its native Polish into English which was exceedingly enjoyable, and then heard about the work of a reading group coordinator based in a prison.  It’s easy to forget how literacy can enable and empower, he was telling us how those who’d participated had found that reading had improved their literacy to such an extent that they felt determined to improve their lives on leaving prison.  We had an amazing experience and would like to thank all at English PEN and The Free Word Centre.

 

Christmas reading at Berkhamsted (5)

Mr Cowie, Head of Economics, is an avid reader and has written to me about three books which he read over the Christmas holidays.  I should like to share them with you here.  The books cover various periods in British history, and focus on very different subjects.  I have also read one of these, the first mentioned below.

It is renowned author and journalist Ben MacIntyre‘s telling of the story of one of the country’s most intriguing spies of World War II, Eddie Chapman.  Here’s what Mr Cowie has to say about Agent Zigzag : a true story of Nazi espionage, love and betrayal :

“The tale of a WW2 double-agent called Eddie Chapman. A total cad but not a complete and utter rotter – in fact, something of a hero.”

I would wholeheartedly agree with the second sentence here.  Chapman’s story could not have been dreamt up by the most inventive or imaginative of novelists, however, I am sure that it would inspire authors of the spy genre. From his humble beginnings of a petty crook from one of the poorer areas of London, Eddie discovered, as a young man, that he had a talent for learning languages quickly and soon found himself attracting the attention of German soldiers in Jersey at the time of occupation… It’s a great story.

The second volume offered by Mr Cowie is something completely different. Mod : from Bebop to Britpop by Richard Weight shows the story of the Mod, his music, style and mode of transport from his origin right up to his more modern equivalent in the time of Britpop.  Mr Cowie says:

“A history of Mod culture – British and working class – from the late 50s, through Swinging London, Northern Soul, the late-70s revival, and Britpop. Short for ‘modernists’ (obv) and interested in black American music, French film, and Italian fashion.”

For those of us who are at a certain stage in our lives, this book will educate about, and remind us of, popular culture prevalent when we were growing up, a great recommendation.

Finally, he recommends John Darwin’s book, Unfinished empire : the global expansion of Britain:

“an intelligent and nuanced study”.

A writer for Nielsen Bookdata Online has this to say about it, and, I must say, it sounds like an important chronicle of the history of the British empire:

” This is a both controversial and comprehensive historical analysis of how the British Empire worked, from Wolfson Prize-winning author and historian John Darwin. The British Empire shaped the world in countless ways: repopulating continents, carving out nations, imposing its own language, technology and values. For perhaps two centuries its expansion and final collapse were the single largest determinant of historical events, and it remains surrounded by myth, misconception and controversy today. John Darwin’s provocative and richly enjoyable book shows how diverse, contradictory and in many ways chaotic the British Empire really was, controlled by interests that were often at loggerheads, and as much driven on by others’ weaknesses as by its own strength.”

We welcome any comments or thoughts you may have about any of the books featured here, so please do contact us and start a discussion.

Christmas reading at Berkhamsted (4)

This, the fourth episode in our Christmas reading journey, sees three more, very different books read by Dr Hundal, Head of a Sixth Form House and biologist, and me.  Dr Hundal’s chosen novel is entitled Butcher’s Crossing, and was written by John Williams in 1960.  Williams’s book Stoner enjoyed renewed success in 2013, forty eight years after it was written, perhaps Butcher’s Crossing will too, some fifty five years later!  Dr Hundal says:

“A terrific read which is set in the 1870s. It is written with a simple but engaging descriptive prose. The story’s central character is a young East Coast man going out West in search of adventure. After teaming up to hunt down one of the largest buffalo herds remaining, he finds he has taken on more than he bargained for.  The tension between the main characters is at the heart of the book. I enjoyed the wonderful description of the wide, open and, at times, mountainous wilderness. Well recommended.”

The book was reviewed in The Guardian newspaper on 7th January 2014 by Nicholas Lezard and, he, too, was impressed by the novel. Click here to read more.

The two books which I spent my holidays reading are Jane Austen’s timeless Persuasion and Matt Haig’s current and most recently published Reasons for living.  Both were read with different expectations.

Persuasion is my favourite of Austen’s novels, and thinking that I would have the time to do it justice, I began to read.  Having read so many modern novels of various genres lately and not reading the great classics for a good few years, I found it took a little time for my brain to settle and focus on the language, manners and expressions.  I had thought that I would be able to slip into it again, and the fact that I didn’t, and felt that I had to engage my brain physically to do so, made me think that this could  be an excellent brain exercise! I was justly rewarded and reminded of what a great novel it is.  I have recently seen an article which considers Persuasion the poorest of Austen’s work but I’m sure I don’t agree.  Perhaps I am not viewing it critically and just enjoying the story, the setting and language.  That’s good enough for me!  It’s a wonderful novel about true friendship, the nature of families, love, and the way life turns out – not so different from many modern novels but also a commentary on its time, where making good marriages did count for some. we learn how a man could establish himself as a naval officer and earn the respect and wealth which goes with hard work, and, interestingly, become rich through being a captain in times of war.  Give me a Captain Wentworth any day!

I chose my next book having read a review somewhere (I really must start making notes of where I read such things!), and felt the need to take a look at Matt Haig‘s book to understand exactly what he went through as a young man of 24 who found himself extremely depressed with very little hope about what the future may bring. He tells how he came through his darkest times and discusses how mindfulness has become a key part of his recovery.  The more I learn of this idea, the more I like, and can see how beneficial it can be.  I had heard of Haig as an author of children’s and young adult fiction, and wanted to know more about him.  I truly appreciated this book and learned more from it than I have from other sources, produced by clinicians.  It is an honest account of how he has come through and taught me a few things:

“That’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety.  It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything…”

His list of reasons for staying alive halfway through the book makes so much sense to me, even as a non-sufferer. This book helps those who love people who are.

I’d be interested in reading your thoughts, if you have read any of these books, do let me know!

Christmas reading at Berkhamsted (3)

Part three of the Christmas reading project features a selection from Mrs Kelly, one of my fellow librarians, of novels which she read during the holidays.  She read two of these in translation in her native Polish, despite being fluent in English!  The first, however, was originally written and read in English.  It’s Matthew Thomas’s novel entitled We are not ourselves:

“[This is] a very compelling novel of a family (Irish emigrants in America) dealing with challenging circumstances. A very intimate portrait of a daughter, wife, mother, nurse, alcoholic. Interestingly, written by a man!”

The author appears to have put so much into the consideration of his characters, which is appealing to a reader… One more for my list!  The next on Mrs Kelly’s, is Yann Martel‘s first novel, Self.  She says:

” [This was] interesting but [I] had some mixed feelings.  A fictional auto-biography of a Canadian-born traveller and writer. Initially, rather funny, but I was disappointed with the way the gender issues were portrayed. Definitely an adult content.”

It is always good to have some topical issues to discuss, perhaps this one should be on our reading group list.  Her final choice is Rakesh Satyal’s Blue Boy:

“A lovely story about a boy, who certainly is a bit of an outcast amongst his male peers – loves pink, girls’ toys and secretly uses mum’s make up. A novel about searching for an answer to the question: Who am I? And it is all in the colourful Indian world.”

These Christmas posts are manifesting some very different types of stories and show the versatility of a reading mind.  I like the fact that they are not all new books, just released as well, showing the enduring nature of reading as a pastime. Contact us with your views…

 

Christmas reading at Berkhamsted (2)

In part two of our Christmas reading project we have three books offered by our School Archivist, Mrs Koulouris.

The first is a book by the Irish author, Cecelia AhernThe Marble Collector.  Mrs Koulouris says this about the book:

“A family story about a collection of marbles and the story that the daughter unravels about her Father and his past.  Not bad.”

Her second novel is Dawn French’s latest offering, According to yes, which she enjoyed very much:

“[I] loved this, primary teacher Rosie Kitto goes to Manhattan to work for a family.”

Mrs Koulouris’s final choice is the reflective and intriguing book, Chance developments, by Alexander McCall Smith; it is a different style of writing from his previous work, and has certainly piqued my interest.  Mrs Koulouris had this to say:

“[I] really loved this … He [McCall Smith] produces stories around a random set of photographs, not knowing anything about the people or places in the snaps.”

Mrs Koulouris has subsequently written to me saying that one book she’d like to read soon is Tom Michell’s The penguin lessons:

“A true story by Tom Michell, who was a teacher in Argentina who adopted a penguin as a pet.”

It seems that the penguin is reluctant to return to the sea , having been rescued from an oil slick by the author and cleaned up.  Michell takes him back to the boarding school, where he works as a teacher, and the penguin naturally becomes an invaluable member of the school!

I would very much like to read all of these, and they shall all be on my TBR list!  if you have read these books, please let me know what you think, it’s always good to hear from other readers.