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 at Berkhamsted (1)

Welcome to the first Berkhamsted School Library post of 2016!  Over the next few posts, we will be looking at books which were read by members of staff at Berkhamsted who were finally able to put aside reports, sporting fixtures, outdoor education and many other activities which take place during the school term, in the Christmas holidays, to enjoy a book.  I hope that you find these posts entertaining and that they inspire you to pick up a volume or two!

We will begin with our Vice Principal of Education: Mr Bond’s choice (he was the first off the mark to send in his book!).  The book is entitled The bone clocks by David Mitchell.  Mr Bond says:

“It’s an intriguing book that weaves a fascinating narrative across a 60 year (from the 1980s to 2040s) period with a supernatural theme interwoven through it as well. It’s main strength (in my opinion) is its depth of characterisation – the individuals are richly portrayed throughout.”

The book certainly received great reviews from the broadsheets and, indeed, Mrs Redman, (Head of a Sixth Form House), whose personal choice follows this, says that she also loved it.

Mrs Redman decided to read My Àntonia by Willa Cather.  She says:

“I read My Ántonia, a beautifully-observed account of the fortunes of a young immigrant to Nebraska at the end of the 20th Century as seen through the romantic eyes of a young boy who grows up on the neighbouring farm.  Her early life is one of seemingly unending drudgery in a bleak, unforgiving landscape, but Jim only sees how strong, confident and lovely Ántonia becomes as a result.  It is a glimpse at a frontier world which shows how identities are shaped not only by the harsh realities of the present and dreams for a better future but, most importantly, by our heritage.  Read it for the vivid descriptions of the Nebraskan scenery alone.”

One of a very different nature, I imagine, but as well-written, I am sure.

The final book in this post is a recommendation from Mr Petty, our Head of Sixth Form.  As a historian, this book provides not only a deeper insight into his subject but also a keen personal interest. Mr Petty reports:

 “One of the books I particularly enjoyed over the break was Robert Dallek’s JFK:  An Unfinished Life.  This is such an accomplished biography which covers the key moments in American History c.1930-1963 with panache, rigour and insight – the sections on the Cuban Missiles Crisis and Kennedy’s election to the Senate, and then the Presidency, are particularly riveting. Two surprises for me from the book:  being made aware of how long-established the Kennedys were as a major force in north-eastern American politics, such that they long preceded JFK’s father, Joseph, who is often assumed to be the man who brought them to fame and fortune; and just how entrenched the Kennedy administration was in the deepening crisis in Vietnam, despite escaping censure from historians for the growing problems there.  Dallek is fair-minded, and ranks Kennedy as a potentially great President.  Even though the reader knows the ultimately tragic outcome of this astonishing narrative, one is still somehow shocked and enthralled by the unfolding of the assassination.  A superb account of a remarkable life.”

Three great books, which I am sure will engender debate and further reading.  Have any of you read them?  Please do get in touch and share your thoughts, we would love to hear from you.

Lessons in disaster : McGeorge Bundy and the path to war in Vietnam (Gordon M Goldstein)

Our Head of Sixth Form here at Berkhamsted, Mr Petty, wrote to me recently about a book which had made an impression on him during our Christmas holidays (I know, we’re still looking at books read whilst we still had time to read…).  His choice this time was Gordon M Goldstein’s non-fiction title, Lessons in disaster : McGeorge Bundy and the path to war in Vietnam.  As a historian and teacher of politics, I can imagine this to be a compelling read for Mr Petty.  He says:

“I read a cracking book over Christmas…  It’s based on interviews and diaries by Bundy, a national security adviser who was very close to decision-making in the Vietnam War, which most would surely regard as a disaster.  It has remarkably candid reflections, as its title implies, and is a brilliant companion to that most moving film  based on Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Fog of War, which is similarly honest in its admission of mistakes.  Seemingly rare nowadays, from policy-makers?”

I’m sure that Mr Petty has recommended this title, and that of the film, to his Year 13 students, and can only imagine that it will support their studies.  We should hope that our young people can learn so much from the honesty of politicians and use the past to reflect more deeply on how to improve decision-making and developing foreign policy in the future.

lessons in disaster the fog of war

Mood Boosting Week, 19-23 November 2012

Earlier in the year, we were inspired by The Reading Agency’s Mood Boosting Books initiative to provide a new collection for our students and staff.  We consulted The Reading Agency’s website and obtained their flyers containing two lists of books:  one reflecting books chosen by young people and the other detailing books recommended by older people.  These recommendations are based on books which readers have identified as having lifted their spirits and are definitely not self-help books.  There are some fabulous books on each list.  We obtained two copies of each of the young people’s books and one of each of the books offered by older people, took them to the staff rooms on both sites of our school and then to both libraries and much interest was shown.  mood_boosting_header

Click here to go to the page to find out a lot more about the initiative and here to find more information about reading groups (why not join a reading group for tea/wine, cake and book chat, all of which go well together!) :

reading groups for everyone

It’s so easy to forget how reading can transport you into another world, whether to forget about your worries for a while or to seek reassurance about the decisions you are facing, but, whatever the reason, we mustn’t forget that reading truly does give pleasure…

Read Vita Sackville-West‘s All Passion Spent and Annie Proulx‘s Bird Cloud from the list for older people and Michelle Magorian‘s novel Goodnight Mister Tom and Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery by Keren David from the list for young people…

all-passion-spent bird-cloud-by-annie-proulx Goodnight Mr Tom lia

Nominations have been announced for the 2012 CILIP Carnegie Medal

CILIP has announced that the nominations for the 2012 CILIP Carnegie Medal have been released today.  The Medal celebrates the writing of an outstanding book for children, and if this year’s list was anything to go by, it will prove to be a good year for children’s literature!  The full list appears on the following website:

The Medal was established as a literary prize in 1936, to commemorate the work of Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born industrialist who made his fortune in the steel industry in the USA.  He resolved “if wealth came to me that it should be used to establish free public libraries” after his experience of using libraries as a child and, as a result, by the time of his death, 2,800 libraries had been set up across the English-speaking world using his money.

I recently read three books on last year’s list (all of which we have in our library, so come and borrow them!) and all of these were great reads!  One of which has already been reviewed (Meg Rosoff’s The Bride’s Farewell) but the other two are considered here…

Andy Mulligan’s novel, Trash, was a fantastic book and I’d recommend it to readers of all ages.  Based on Mulligan’s experiences of teaching in a school in the Philippines and the life he lived whilst there, it tells the story of three boys and their families and the consequences of finding a small bag and its precious contents on the rubbish dump where they live.  It’s exciting and keeps you turning the pages right until the end…

My next book was Suzanne Lafleur’s Eight keys.  Having loved her first novel, along with lots of our Year 7 girls, (Love, Aubrey, part of Booktrust’s 2010 Booked Up gift to all Year 7  pupils in the UK), I was really looking forward to reading this, Lafleur’s second offering.  Eight keys didn’t disappoint – Elise is starting middle school and is just the same age as Year 7 pupils so they will be able to understand the difficulties she experiences as they start their high schools in this country.  As the story unravels, the reader learns, with Elise, the secrets to her past and how she came to be where she is today.  The story is told in a wonderful style, it is sad, funny and heart-wrenching all at the same time.  There is also a terrific sense of place shining through in Lafleur’s writing, I could almost imagine myself in Uncle Hugh’s workshop and smell the amazing aromas in Aunt Bessie’s kitchen…


These are but three examples of this year’s shortlist but they are good examples of the best of children’s writing today.  If you’ve read any of  the 2011 or 2012 nominees, please leave us messages here – it would be good to hear from you!

Good Young Adult fiction available from our library…

Recently we’ve been reading more from our collection and for a while Mrs Maxted had been intending to read books by Joyce Carol Oates, knowing her to be a renowned American writer of adult fiction.  A quick search on our shelves threw up one title: big mouth & ugly girl published in 2003.  Oates’s first novel written for young adults tells the story of two high school students thrown together due to an incident taken to be a threat to the school and its students.  Matt Donaghy, a good student who is popular with classmates through his ability to make people laugh, finds himself accused of threatening to blow up the school and shoot students and staff if the play he is writing is not selected for the school’s drama festival…  Outsider and ‘ugly girl’ (she has given herself this name), Ursula Riggs, knows what really happened and informs the school’s principal after Matt has spent several hours trying to exonerate himself at the police station.  The book is told from the perspective of each character and follows subsequent events and the experiences of both students as they come to show the truth of what really occurred, as well as getting to know each other.  This is a very well-told story and Mrs Maxted’s view was endorsed by a current Year 12 student as they waited in the queue at the recently-held blood donation session at school!

It’s an interesting standpoint showing what can happen when an off-the-cuff remark is taken out of context, especially in light of other works on a similar theme, for example Lionel Shriver’s We need to talk about Kevin and actual events known to have happened such as in Columbine High School in 1999.  Let us know what you think…

Mrs Maxted’s second book choice in the last couple of weeks was Julia Green’s Baby Blue.

Baby Blue picks up Mia’s story (begun in Blue Moon) just after the birth of her baby. Mia is sixteen now, and still living with Dad, although this relationship comes increasingly under strain. Not only is Mia having to work out the complicated emotional and practical implications of being a mother when she herself is still a child, with huge emotional needs of her own, she is also having to negotiate new relationships with the adults and young people around her.” Synopsis courtesy of

This book gives good insight as to what life can be like for a young mother such as Mia. It does not go into great depth but expresses the thoughts and difficulties experienced by Mia and her family in the first weeks of the baby’s life.  By the end of this part of her story, Mia recognises that she is more fortunate than some girls in her situation, and, although it is difficult for her to accept, she understands that the people around her need to focus on their own lives, as they have also been affected by her decision to keep her baby.

Look out for more reviews of our Sixth Form Collection here soon!

61 hours (Lee Child)

Mrs Instone read and enjoyed Lee Child’s ’61 Hours’ during the Easter holidays.  Here is a synopsis:

“Winter in South Dakota. Blowing snow, icy roads, a tired driver. A bus skids and crashes and is stranded in a gathering storm. There’s a small town twenty miles away, where a vulnerable witness is guarded around the clock. There’s a strange stone building five miles further on, all alone on the prairie. There’s a ruthless man who controls everything from the warmth of Mexico. Jack Reacher hitched a ride in the back of the bus. A life without baggage has many advantages. And crucial disadvantages too, when it means facing the arctic cold without a coat. But he’s equipped for the rest of his task. He doesn’t want to put the world to rights. He just doesn’t like people who put it to wrongs.”  Nielsenbookdataonline

Mrs Instone says of the book: ‘the central character [Jack Reacher] appears in all his books – an enigmatic ex MP (army!). This is a good page turner and holiday read and there are lots more where that came from – a good boys’ book.’

Perhaps it’s time to get into American thrillers…

Mr Rees’s book choice for World Book Day

On Thursday 4th March, 2010, World Book Day, we asked teachers to talk to their classes about their favourite books or books they are currently enjoying.   Mr Rees talked with his classes about four publications that meant a lot to him.  The first is the incredible story of Joe Simpson and his climbing partner Simon, which has also been made into a moving documentary about their terrifying ordeal:

‘ “Touching the Void” is the heart-stopping account of Joe Simpson’s terrifying adventure in the Peruvian Andes. He and his climbing partner, Simon, reached the summit of the remote Siula Grande in June 1995. A few days later, Simon staggered into Base Camp, exhausted and frost-bitten, with news that Joe was dead. What happened to Joe, and how the pair dealt with the psychological traumas that resulted when Simon was forced into the appalling decision to cut the rope, makes not only an epic of survival but a compelling testament of friendship.’

Students were very interested in this book – what do you do when your only hope of survival could result in the death of a very close friend?  What a dilemma.

Mr Rees then talked of Old Berkhamstedian Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s latest book, ‘Force of Nature’ which he thoroughly enjoyed (and has his own signed copy!):

‘In January 1969, aboard his home-built wooden boat Suhaili, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston became the first person ever to sail solo, non-stop around the world. Twenty-five years later, Sir Robin again completed a record-breaking circumnavigation, co-skippering Enza with Kiwi yachting legend Sir Peter Blake. His place in sailing’s pantheon of greats was assured. Then, after the tragic death of his wife Sue, Sir Robin decided he would try again. In October 2006, at the age of 67 – when most people are settling in to a well-earned retirement – Sir Robin embarked on another gruelling single-handed race around the world. Compared to his rivals he lacked recent experience and a large shore-based support team. There were some who believed that this time he might have bitten off more than he could chew. Then early on, it looked like their worst fears might be realised.Within days of setting off, near-Hurricane-strength storms in the Bay of Biscay capsized his 60′ yacht Saga Insurance. But it wasn’t just Sir Robin who suffered. Three-quarters of the entire fleet had to run for shelter. When they re-emerged, all faced months of hardship and intensity ahead. “Force of Nature” is Sir Robin’s first-hand account his extraordinary return to the ultra-competitive, punishing world of single-handed offshore racing. It turned out to be a very different journey from the one he undertook on Suhaili, yet his experience aboard her remains a touchstone throughout this story. It’s a story of courage, ingenuity and resilience played out against the World’s oceans. But most of all it’s a powerful reminder that age is nothing but a number; no barrier to realizing one’s dreams.’  Truly inspirational.

Thirdly, he recommended Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest biography of Abraham Lincoln:

‘In this monumental multiple biography, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin studies Abraham Lincoln’s mastery of men. She shows how he saved Civil War-torn America by appointing his fiercest rivals to key cabinet positions, making them help achieve his vision for peace. As well as a thrilling piece of narrative history, it’s an inspiring study of one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen. This is a book to bury yourself in.’

Finally, he talked about a publication by the Royal Horticultural Society about creating a vegetable and fruit plot in your garden…  A little light relief, perhaps, from all the fascinating and heart-stopping reading…

All synopses have been taken from Nielsen BookData Online.