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!

The surgeon of Crowthorne (Simon Winchester)

This is such a fascinating book.  Prior to reading it, I had no knowledge of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, of the mammoth task of compiling an authoritative list of all words used in the English language, citing printed examples of the use of each word… And in a time long before the advent of computers!  I loved reading about the history of dictionary-making, including Samuel Johnson’s contributions to the task he set himself a century earlier than James Murray was asked to take on the role by the Philological Society in the late nineteenth century.  The very idea that volunteers were recruited to carry out the enormous task of collecting words, and written evidence of their existence in quotations is simply incredible, when we consider the already vast collection of books printed by the end of the 1800s.

When we learn about the life and work of one of the most important contributors, William Minors, the story of the origin of one of the biggest dictionaries of the English language in the world becomes one of fascination, intrigue and grisly horror!  Minors adds to the work of James Murray and his office staff whilst a patient in Broadmoor, built in 1863 and still a high security psychiatric hospital today.  We read of Minor’s deeply troubled mind, how events in his past affected, and may have contributed to, his mental health, and how his sharp intelligence and well-read brain assisted him in his tireless work on the dictionary. He was actively encouraged in his labours by the hospital staff and governor, until he could no longer work due to illness, and his subsequent release and return to his family in America.  So much is contained in the wonderful slim volume, I would definitely benefit from reading it again at some point.


World Book Day 2014: celebrations in school (2)

Welcome to part two of our posts about our celebrations for World Book Day 2014.  We took our lead from the World Book Day 2014 website  and decided to create our own ‘Writes of Passage’ noticeboard.  We had a banner made for each of our school libraries and placed them close to, or at the top of, a noticeboard.  We then invited as many people as possible to complete blank postcards with details of books which had meant a lot to them as they were reading them.  We had a terrific response!  Many were colourful and some contained entire illustrations.  Many congratulations and thanks to all who participated!

We were delighted that so many people participated – we received 322 cards and the majority of books shared were shared by only one person, and amongst them, there were only a few adults represented, thus providing an overwhelming impression that our children are reading and reading so diversely!  The children also voted outstandingly in favour of print editions over electronic versions of books.  Hooray!  Our top ten books, (including series) are as follows:

1.     The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins

2.    The Fault in Our Stars John Green

3.     To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee

4.     Harry Potter series J K Rowling

5.     The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas John Boyne

6.     The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time Mark Haddon

7.     The Book Thief Markus Zusak

8.     The 100-year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared Jonas Jonasson

9.     The Inheritance Cycle Christopher Paolini

10.   The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky

Interesting that our top four also rank in the top four on the World Book Day 2014 list!

The Rosie Project (part 2!) (Graeme Simsion)

The_Rosie_Project_jktFollowing on from my last blog post, we have now had a book group meeting where we discussed Graeme Simsion’s novel, The Rosie Project.  We all enjoyed it so much, and could easily identify with the characters, recognising traits of Dr Don Tillman in all of us (some more than others!).  One member of the group even professed to be Don!  Some amongst us had been to meet the author at Chorleywood Library on Thursday 13th February and were treated to a very entertaining evening. Graeme Simsion talked about how he had come to write the book (originally conceived as a screenplay for a film), where he drew his inspiration from and how he has indeed, just turned the novel into a screenplay. He has also completed a sequel.  Both the film and second novel will be eagerly awaited by us!  The novel made us laugh out loud, as we did when we heard him speak.

At the back of the book, there are some cocktail recipes which Don memorises for a reunion of the medics who were contemporaries of Rosie’s mother, which look quite fun to try.  You should also take the test to see whether you are compatible with Don and would make a good wife for this Professor who likes to live his life according to schedules and regimes!  If you are male, you could view this as a test to see whether you are Don!  Why not look at the website for the book and see which character you are most like?  Click here to find out.  Four of us tried the Wife Project quiz and one of us was very nearly a good match…

We also discussed Damian Barr’s book, Maggie and me. This memoir is an account of Damian’s difficult and poverty-stricken upbringing in suburban Glasgow close to the Ravenscraig Steelworks during the era of the Thatcher government.  The views of our reading group were quite varied: ‘I didn’t like the content, but found it compelling and couldn’t put it down’; ‘It was very interesting, if uncomfortable, reading’; ‘I enjoyed it.  It is very different from the books which we usually read.  It was not as dark as it could have been, Damian kept it fairly jovial considering what he was going through’.  Definitely one for the ‘to-read’ shelf…

maggie and me

Two of our members also found the time to read Capital Punishment by Robert Wilson:

Beautiful Alyshia D’Cruz has grown up in London and Mumbai wanting for nothing. But one night she takes the wrong cab home. Charles Boxer, expert in high-stakes kidnap resolution, teams up with his ex-partner, investigative cop Mercy Danquah, who’s battling with their rebellious teenage daughter. Alyshia’s father hires Boxer, who knows all about the tycoon’s colourful career, which has made him plenty of enemies. But despite the vast D’Cruz fortune, the kidnappers don’t want cash, instead favouring a cruel and lethal game…To save Alyshia, Boxer must dodge religious fanatics, Indian mobsters and London’s homegrown crimelords. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT is a journey to the dark side of people and places that lie just out of view, waiting for the moment to tear a life apart.   Neilsen Bookdata Online.

Our members really enjoyed it and found it good to read a book from the crime genre.  One said: ‘I have also finished Capital Punishment which I loved also. Enjoyed reading an English crime novel for a change. Loved that it was based in London so I could actually visualise where they were! Liked the characters’.  The other commented that it was a good thriller and kept him turning the pages.  It’s certainly on my pile to read next.

capital punishmentHappy reading!



The Orange Prize 2012 shortlist

Here in Berkhamsted School Library, we are trying so hard not to put through an order for our own copies of this year’s shortlisted books as we would like to share them with you all!  I cannot wait to get started on these titles, they all look like thoroughly good reads, especially for those long summer holidays…

The shortlist for 2012 looks like a particular well-chosen collection of books with some fascinating stories to keep our reading brains tuned in over the next few weeks.  It’s good to see Esi Edugyan‘s Half Blood Blues on the shortlist after she wasn’t successful in winning the Man Booker Prize of 2011 after being shortlisted for that prize too:

“From Weimar Berlin to the fall of Paris, and on to the present day, danger, jealousy and inspiration combine to tempt a man to a secret betrayal. The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero’s bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there’s more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero’s fate was settled. In “Half Blood Blues”, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don’t tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong… ”  Nielsen BookData Online

Anne Enright‘s new novel, The Forgotten Waltz, will hopefully be as successful as her previous book, The Gathering, winner of the Man Booker Prize 2007, it certainly looks like it’s an excellent book to read:

“If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened. She saw me kissing her father. She saw her father kissing me. The fact that a child got mixed up in it all made us feel that it mattered, that there was no going back. “The Forgotten Waltz” is that rare thing: the literary page turner…It is an acutely tender depiction of the complex familial bonds joining us, a delicate portrait of love, loss and hope, from a formidably talented writer”. (Claire Kilroy, “Financial Times”).”  Nielsen BookData Online

Painter of Silence is Georgina Harding’s fifth book and third novel.  From the synopsis below, it makes for a superb story:

“Iasi, Romania, the early 1950s. A nameless man is found on the steps of a hospital. Deaf and mute, he is unable to communicate until a young nurse called Safta brings paper and pencils with which he can draw. Slowly, painstakingly, memories appear on the page. The memories are Safta’s also. For the man is Augustin, son of the cook at the manor house which was Safta’s family home. Born six months apart, they grew up with a connection that bypassed words. But while Augustin’s world remained the same size Safta’s expanded to embrace languages, society – and a fleeting love, one long, hot summer. But then came war, and in its wake a brutal Stalinist regime, and nothing would remain the same.”  Nielsen BookData Online

It’s always gratifying when a writer’s debut novel appears on literary prize shortlists, and  here we welcome the efforts of Madeline Miller. Her work, The Song of Achillesis a re-telling of the Iliad:

“Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear. ”  Nielsen BookData Online

Cynthia Ozick, a well-known American author, whose work appears here for the first time, has written critically acclaimed and award-winning short stories and literary essays.  Her new novel, Foreign Bodies, should be an intriguing book to read:

“The collapse of her brief marriage has stalled Bea Nightingale’s life, leaving her middle-aged and alone, teaching in an impoverished borough of 1950s New York. A plea from her estranged brother gives Bea the excuse to escape, by leaving for Paris to retrieve a nephew she barely knows; but the siren call of Europe threatens to deafen Bea to the dangers of entangling herself in the lives of her brother’s family. By one of America’s great living writers, Foreign Bodies is a truly virtuosic novel. The story of Bea’s travails on the continent is a fierce and heartbreaking insight into the curious nature of love: how it can be commanded and abused; earned and cherished; or even lost altogether.”   Nielsen BookData Online

Finally, we come to a previous winner of the 2002 Orange Prize for her novel Bel Canto, Anne Patchett.  Her latest offering, State of Wonder, seems to be a fascinating thriller:

“There were people on the banks of the river. Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women for ever. Dr Annick Swenson’s work is shrouded in mystery; she refuses to report on her progress, especially to her investors, whose patience is fast running out. Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher, is sent to investigate. A curt letter reporting his untimely death is all that returns. Now Marina Singh, Anders’ colleague and once a student of the mighty Dr Swenson, is their last hope. Compelled by the pleas of Anders’s wife, who refuses to accept that her husband is not coming home, Marina leaves the snowy plains of Minnesota and retraces her friend’s steps into the heart of the South American darkness, determined to track down Dr. Swenson and uncover the secrets being jealously guarded among the remotest tribes of the rainforest. What Marina does not yet know is that, in this ancient corner of the jungle, where the muddy waters and susurrating grasses hide countless unknown perils and temptations, she will face challenges beyond her wildest imagination. Marina is no longer the student, but only time will tell if she has learnt enough.”  Nielsen BookData Online

I hope that these short overviews will inspire you all to read these works of fiction and if you have read them already, please let us know what you think.  As I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am waiting for the summer holidays to arrive before I can begin!

Graham Greene returns to Berkhamsted School Reading Group!

At the second meeting of our reading group, held on Wednesday 23rd November 2011, we discussed two of Graham Greene’s works: The Third Man and The End of the Affair.  We had a lively discussion with our male members of the group liking the writing, although one preferred the latter and the other enjoyed the former.  The female members in attendance felt that Greene seems not to sympathise with his women, and certainly does not seem to care much for Anna Schmidt in The Third Man; Sarah Miles seems very much a secondary character and not dealt with particularly fairly in The End of the Affair.   His male characters do not appear particularly likeable either but are well-drawn.  We talked of the fact that both books are very much of their time and it was suggested that the film version of The Third Man is indeed very much better than the book with the sense of gloom and moodiness of post-war Vienna with Orson Welles playing the part of Harry Lime, Joseph Cotton as Rollo Martins and Trevor Howard taking the part of Major Calloway.  As Greene himself says: “My story, The Third Man, was never written to be read but only to be seen.  The story, like many love affairs, started at a dinner table and continued with headaches in many places:  Vienna, Ravello, London, Santa Monica….   The film, in fact, is better than the story because it is, in this case, the finished state of the story.’  Graham Greene, from an article appearing in his collection of essays entitled Ways of Escape.

A must for all of us who haven’t yet seen it, it came out in 1949, a year before the novel was published.

Of the two film adaptations of The End of the Affair, only the second with Ralph Fiennes playing the role of Maurice Bendrix and Julianne Moore as Sarah Miles, had been seen by group members (we have a copy of the dvd in our libraries, available to borrow).  One of the group preferred the film ending to that in the book, I would disagree and say that I enjoyed the ending as Greene wrote it!  What do you think?

Four of us enjoyed the style and his use of language but the remaining four were less enthusiastic.  Sue and I found certain phrases and sentences which, on the face of it appear innocuous, but which struck a chord given certain experiences we’ve lived through.  Nevertheless, we all felt that it was good to read these titles and had a good chat about Greene’s life and how we could see influences of his beginnings, here at Berkhamsted, and life during the forties and fifties, with the long-lasting effects of World War II still hanging over the literary circles of the time.  We are fortunate here in Berkhamsted to be hosts to some of the events of the Graham Greene Festival which takes place at the end of September/beginning of October each year, if you are a fan of Graham Greene, why not come next year?

2011 Man Booker Prize shortlisted books now in Castle Library! (part 2)

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan:

“The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero’s bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there’s more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero’s fate was settled. In Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don’t tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong…”

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman:

“Newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on an inner-city housing estate. The second best runner in the whole of Year 7, Harri races through his new life in his personalised trainers – the Adidas stripes drawn on with marker pen – blissfully unaware of the very real threat all around him. With equal fascination for the local gang – the Dell Farm Crew – and the pigeon who visits his balcony, Harri absorbs the many strange elements of his new life in England: watching, listening, and learning the tricks of inner-city survival. But when a boy is knifed to death on the high street and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harri decides to start a murder investigation of his own. In doing so, he unwittingly endangers the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to try and keep them safe. A story of innocence and experience, hope and harsh reality, Pigeon English is a spellbinding portrayal of a boy balancing on the edge of manhood and of the forces around him that try to shape the way he falls.”

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick De Witt:

“Oregon, 1851. Eli and Charlie Sisters, notorious professional killers, are on their way to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. On the way, the brothers have a series of unsettling and violent experiences in the Darwinian landscape of Gold Rush America. Charlie makes money and kills anyone who stands in his way; Eli doubts his vocation and falls in love. And they bicker a lot. Then they get to California, and discover that Warm is an inventor who has come up with a magical formula, which could make all of them very rich. What happens next is utterly gripping, strange and sad. Told in deWitt’s darkly comic and arresting style, The Sisters Brothers is the kind of western the Coen Brothers might write – stark, unsettling and with a keen eye for the perversity of human motivation.”

2011 Man Booker Prize shortlisted books now in Castle Library! (part 1)

We have received our copies of the books appearing on the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, so please come and look for them in Castle Library.

The titles are:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (this year’s winner!):

“Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life. Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove. The Sense of an Ending is the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past. Laced with trademark precision, dexterity and insight, it is the work of one of the world’s most distinguished writers.”

Snowdrops by A. D. Miller:

“A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops is a riveting psychological drama that unfolds over the course of one Moscow winter, as a young Englishman’s moral compass is spun by the seductive opportunities revealed to him by a new Russia: a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical dachas and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets – and corpses – come to light only when the deep snows start to thaw… Snowdrops is a chilling story of love and moral freefall: of the corruption, by a corrupt society, of a corruptible man. It is taut, intense and has a momentum as irresistible to the reader as the moral danger that first enchants, then threatens to overwhelm, its narrator.”

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch:

“Jaffy Brown is running along a street in London’s East End when he comes face to face with an escaped circus animal. Plucked from the jaws of death by Mr Jamrach – explorer, entrepreneur and collector of the world’s strangest creatures – the two strike up a friendship. Before he knows it, Jaffy finds himself on board a ship bound for the Dutch East Indies, on an unusual commission for Mr Jamrach. His journey – if he survives it – will push faith, love and friendship to their utmost limits.”


Too Much Happiness (Alice Munro)

One of  Mrs Maxted’s June reads so far has been Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness, her collection of short stories which won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize.  She says that she wouldn’t usually pick up a book of short stories having a preference for reading novels, but this one had been recommended by a friend who knew that she liked reading literature by Canadian writers.  This collection has made her re-think her preferences as she did enjoy this edition.  What follows is an excellent summary from the Waterstone’s website:

“A wife and mother, whose spirit has been crushed, finds release from her extraordinary pain in the most unlikely place. The young victim of a humiliating seduction (which involves reading Housman in the nude) finds an unusual way to get her own back and move on. An older woman, dying of cancer, weaves a poisonous story to save her life. Other stories of this title uncover the ‘deep holes’ in marriage and their consequences, the dangerous intimacy of girls and the cruelty of children. The long title story follows Sophia Kovalevsky, a late nineteenth-century Russian emigree and mathematical genius, as she takes a fateful winter journey that begins with a visit to her lover on the Riviera, and ends in Sweden, where she is a professor at the only university willing to hire a woman to teach her subject. Alice Munro takes on complex, even harrowing emotions and events, and renders them into stories that surprise, amaze and shed light on the unpredictable ways we accommodate to what happens in our lives.”

If you like short stories as a genre, why not give this a try?

All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque)

Mrs Maxted recently read this book and, having read Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong a few years ago and visited the trenches in the battlefields of Northern France at Easter, was struck once again by the heartbreaking reality that so many innocents died during World War I…  Here’s a review that tells the story from A Customer at

“This book is so moving and yet, despite the horrors endured on the frontline during WW1, a sense of humour (however grim) is retained throughout, almost to the last few paragraphs. The story is written in the first person narrative, by a young German soldier, Paul Bauer. He is only eighteen when he is pressured by his family, friends and society in general, to enlist and fight at the front. He enters the army, along with 6 other lads he was at school with, each one filled with fresh, lively, optimistic and patriotic thoughts, but within a few months they are all as old men, in mind if not completely in body. Paul and his friends witness such horrors and endure such severe hardship and suffering, that they are unable to even speak about it to anyone but each other. This is a very moving and poignant novel, and the reader is made even more aware of its poignancy in knowing that its author is writing from experience, having suffered greatly as a young man on the frontline, whilst fighting for the Fatherland.”

This is an excellent summary of the book, but you must read it to feel its force.