Berkhamsted School Staff Book Club

We held our first meeting of the year this week!   Yes, I know, we’re approaching the end of March already but, here in Berkhamsted, life has simply been too busy for everyone to meet, indeed, this meeting was postponed and rearranged three times!

We had an animated and very enjoyable meeting, nevertheless, despite the fact that we were still a couple of members short.  We discussed Jacqueline Woodson‘s novel Another Brooklyn, published by Oneworld Publications and other books which we have recently enjoyed reading.

We all had differing views about Another Brooklyn, and came to the meeting feeling that we either liked or disliked it.  The discussion was interesting because we shared initial thoughts, then answered the questions which the book’s publisher had sent, and, through discussion, some of us changed the way we had thought about the book and saw it in a new light (or aspects of it at least!).  The story tells of a woman who, at the beginning of the novel, is present at the funeral of her father, and is catching up with her brother and his news, after spending time abroad as part of her job and looking after their father before he died.  After bidding goodbye to her brother, she encounters another woman on the train with whom she, and two others, had shared a particularly close friendship during their adolescence.  This group of four girls gradually disintegrated as the girls grew up and apart, seeking different dreams from each other.  The story is told in the form of a prose poem, and as such, is lyrical in tone, and is set in the mid to late 1970s in the then dangerous world of Brooklyn.  It covers the themes of memory, death, religion and race as well as the concept of close friendship. We ended the meeting less divided in opinion than at the beginning, but remained in one camp or the other, some liked it and others didn’t! I did…

another brooklyn

Recommended reading from the group includes the following books this month:

  • A death in Tuscany by Michele Giuttari
  • Catilina’s riddle by Stephen Saylor
  • The last of the great storytellers : tales from the heart of Morocco by Richard Hamilton
  • The breakdown by B A Paris
  • Quiet : the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain
  • In the unlikely event by Judy Blume
  • My husband next door by Catherine Alliott
  • The return by Victoria Hislop
  • The thread by Victoria Hislop
  • All the bright places by Jennifer Niven
  • The marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
  • The other half of my heart by Stephanie Butland
  • A nun’s story by Sister Agatha
  • Nice cup of tea and a sit down (Nicey and Wifey)
  • Mrs Poe by Lynne Cullen
  • My sweet revenge by Jane Fallon
  • Pushing perfect by Michelle Falkoff
  • A secret garden by Katie Fforde

This list demonstrates a wide and varied selection of reading tastes.  If you have read any of the titles on here, please do get in touch and let me know what you think.

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…

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.

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 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!

 

 

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 (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.