Sunday, 15 March 2020

Books for an Uncertain World

I thought I would dust off the blog to share some ideas for good reads in a crisis, and for good reads for a potential enforced period of incarceration in our houses. More to come as and when they occur to me.

For taking your mind off things:

The Darling Buds of May by H.E Bates: I have an omnibus version called the Pop Larkin chronicles, which might well be available on eBay, with a wonderful cover illustration by Beryl Cook. These books are my ultimate comfort reading. Bad things end up not being so bad after all, and everybody eats a lot of lovely food, and enjoy a great deal of wonderful-sounding drinks.

The Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb: An entirely different world.  Fitz, the said apprentice, can be profoundly irritating but the stories are spell-binding. If you enjoy this one, it is the first in an extremely long series!

For dwelling on fear and terror:

The Enemy series by Charlie Higson:
A series of astonishing brilliance, following the fortunes of groups of teenagers in a world where everyone over the age of 14 has developed an illness, rendering them into zombies. Good for teens too, although they are very scary and quite violent, so perhaps worth reading yourself first just to check.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson: A classic of the "last human alive" genre.

Speedy reads for when your concentration is ebbing away:

The Poetry Pharmacy and The Poetry Pharmacy Returns by William Sieghart:

William Sieghart prescribes poems for various ailments of the heart: hopelessness, dissatisfaction with life, and unrequited love, to name but a few.

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr:

A young girl is quarantined, due to illness. Strange things ensue...

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce: A boy is sent away from home as his brother is ill.  Strange things ensue...

Something to get your teeth into:

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas:

A man is jailed without trial for a crime he did not commit. This is crazily long, but completely brilliant. The Audible version is 52 hours long, but is completely wonderful.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

My favourite reads of 2018

I enjoyed almost every book I read this year (176 in total, for those who are interested) - those I did not enjoy were an exercise in patience, which I greatly need.  Here are my favourites from the year, split into books written for adults and books written for children and young people.


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Although this is not a newly published book, I had not come across it before.  This was the first book I read in 2018, and it set the bar very high.  Long and involved, but certainly worth the effort.

Soviet Bus Stops by Christopher Herwig

I'm not going to lie, this is niche, but I absolutely loved it.  If you like looking at pictures of unusual public structures in places you'll probably never go, then you might love it too.  If you do, follow it with Made in North Korea by Nick Bonner, which I also loved.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower

Similar to Jonathan Strange - classic in style, long and involved, completely brilliant.

Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb

I have never loved a series of fantasy novels like I have loved the Farseer novels by Robin Hobb. Absolutely beautiful, and I am a little sad that there will be no more.

Educated by Tara Westover

A fantastic autobiography that gives an insider perspective on an unusual life.  Highly recommended.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I enjoyed this a great deal more than the films.

The Murder of my Aunt by Richard Hull

Written in 1934, and republished by the British Library.  Recommended by my step mum.  Clever, and absolutely hilarious.

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascherenhas

Time travel, strong women, multiple perspectives = everything I love in a novel.

The Cows by Dawn O'Porter

Hilarious and clever.

The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah

Very evocative and always interesting.

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

If you liked the film, you'll love the book.  Excellent.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T Sullivan

A deeply moving, fantastically researched historical novel based heavily on the life of a young Italian soldier spy recruited by the Nazis in WW2.

The Colour of Time by Dan Jones

Fascinating.  Colour has been added to iconic old photographs, to bring them more readily into the present.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Hilarious, moving, interesting.

Year One by Nora Roberts

Absolutely brilliant fantasy dystopia.

A Dark Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine

I loved this.  I remember my Mum and Dad getting very excited about the TV adaptation, and now I understand why: spare, compelling, excellent.


The Explorer by Katherine Rundell.  

Timeless and brilliant.  The story of some children, lost in the Amazon, and how they manage to survive.

Release by Patrick Ness

An important book, and also a wonderful story.  Not for young children!

The Iron Man by Ted Hughes

I had never read this, but it is truly wonderful.

The Land of Neverendings by Kate Saunders

Utterly beautiful.  I cried through most of it. The story of a girl whose disabled sister has died, and her adventures with her sister's bear.  

Moonrise by Sarah Crossan

Made me very sad and angry, as great books for teenagers often do. I love Crossan's verse novels, and this does not disappoint.

One of Us is Lying by Karen M McManus

Excellent murder mystery aimed at young teens.

Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood

Wonderful rabbit myth tale. Really enjoyable.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

However many books I read this year...

I still somehow have at least seven books on my Currently Reading shelf on Goodreads.  Admittedly, one of them has been there for many, many months, but I did recently read an entire chapter of it, so I'm not prepared to give up on it yet.  Also, in fairness, there are generally no more than two fiction books on there at once, and I try to make them very different from each other, after the confusion where I was reading two books about mixed race adopted boys at the same time, which was challenging.

Anyway, I am up to book number 68 of my challenge.  A short precis of each, and whether or not I think it's worth reading follows.

31) The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman.

Really interesting bits, could have done, for me, with being about half of the length.

32) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

COMPLETELY brilliant.  Definitely one of my books of the year so far.  The story of how a poor African American woman became the catalyst for huge medical advances at great personal pain to her family.

33) The Writing Revolution by Judith Hochman

The best teaching book I've read so far this year.  I've already used it, and seen brilliant consequences, in the classroom.

34) Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick.

Sedgwick has clearly given up on actually winning the Carnegie and is going for the Amnesty prize this year (good luck with that when The Hate You Give is also on the shortlist). This was very tense, and had some really powerful moments, but it was very, very worthy. It set out its agenda from page 1 with a quote about only understanding things if we assume the stories are about us. Anyway, I hope it doesn't win, frankly.  It felt like he watched Breaking Bad, had an idea and did a nice bit of cultural appropriation under the disguise of awareness-building.

35) Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Recommended to Mr M as an excellent book for medical students to read - answers and poses many tricky ethical questions.

36) The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I tried this a few years ago, and couldn't get into it at all. I am determined to finish all the books in my Audible library, though, and after the first few pedestrian chapters, I loved it. Great characters, especially the tramp. Made me want to visit Barcelona.

37) Release by Patrick Ness, which I blogged about separately.

38) Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

Awesome.  Audible edition read completely by Kate Winslet.

39) All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

I really liked this, but there were elements that just seemed a tad bizarre. Loved the reality of time travel, second time around, but felt more could have been done with that section.

40) Closing the Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley

Brilliant.  I have downloaded a Latin app on the strength of this, and I feel much more confident to do "boring" etymology and explicit vocabulary instruction.

41) Rook by Anthony McGowan

Barrington Stoke. Excellent.  Moving, with believable characters.  Didn't seem like an easy read, but was.  Fantastic. C loved it.

42) Dubliners by James Joyce

15 short stories, which I'm sure I have read at uni, but didn't take in.  Was a Daily Deal on Audible, and it was rather fabulous.

43) Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

I found this a little tough-going. Interesting characters and stories, and a different perspective on sci-fi, but more than a little depressing.

44) Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin

Fabulous,  Described as Jacqueline Wilson meets Home Alone, but I think it's a lot cleverer than that.
45) Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal

Fabulous. Translated from French. About a heart transplant, following the characters over 24 hours.  Very powerful. Wellcome Trust Book Prize winner 2017.

46) Why Don't Students Like School? by Daniel T Willingham

Informative, interesting and useful in the classroom - how cognitive science can be applied by teachers.

47) The Story of the Jews Vol 1 by Simon Schama

A bit boring in places, but horribly depressing - describing how Jews have basically been history's scapegoats.  Made me despair of what humans can do to other humans in the name of religion.

48) What Does This Look Like in the Classroom

Good - an informative precis of lots of different research.

49) Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums by Maryam Omidi

Completely awesome. Like a weekend break for a tenner.

50) The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

A nice idea, bizarrely rendered.

51) The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla

Could have done with better editing, repetitive in places. Very thought-provoking.

52) The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation by Sue Cowley

Was very good for showing me what I already do!

53) Brutal London by Simon Phipps

Fascinating - more places added to the Brutalist architecture tour I am going to take myself on one of these days in London.

54) Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan

Really interesting and thought-provoking exploration of the best international education systems.

55) The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Really clever, but so, so dark!

56) Modernist Estates by Stefi Orazi

Would have been SO much more interesting if she'd interviewed people who weren't exactly like her!

57) And The Weak Suffer What They Must? by Yanis Varoufakis

SO boring.  A true feat of endurance.

58) The Passage by Justin Cronin

LOVED it. Perhaps should have been a self-contained novel, rather than an obvious part 1.

59) Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Potentially politically problematic (white male purports to write as Eastern female) but SO good.

60) Almost Love by Louise O'Neill

Hideous protagonist (she's supposed to be). Not a patch on Only Ever Yours.

61) Teaching Poetry by Amanda Naylor

Some good insights, a little dull, Took me about 9 months to read!

62) Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb

A wonderful end to the 3 trilogies, sad to have reached the end of these great books.

63) The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Did Not Finish - Googled the plot - nowhere near as good as The Passage - I wanted to know what happened, but was not prepared to read several hundred pages for it.

64) The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

Really brilliant dystopia. Would have liked a little more backstory.

65) Overheard in a Tower Block by Joseph Coelho

Loved the poems about reading particularly.

66) Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey

Absolutely, painfully brilliant. Very true depiction of parenting children with mental health issues.

67) Gardening with Junk by Adam Caplin

Some lovely ideas, some bonkers ones.  The tin cans simply looked like tin cans.  The teapot herbs were fab though.

68) Slow Teaching by Jamie Thom

Some good ideas, but having read tons of teaching books this year, nothing that's particularly new.

Right. Off to clear some more off my Currently Reading Shelf.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Release by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness writes in his acknowledgements "The spirit of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and Judy Blume's Forever suffuse Release." A very high-brow way of saying "You can blame the crap bits of this book on Mrs Dalloway and the sex bits on Forever."

Probably like 90% of other women my age, I can only remember reading about 12 pages of Forever. Those who have read it will know which pages they are.  Those that haven't, ask a woman in their 30s for a brief precis. I don't know if I even actually read the rest of the novel.  I really liked Judy Blume, but I didn't think Forever was her finest hour. And, even in her finest hour, she is not as powerful a writer as Ness. But I think it is great that he has acknowledged her continuing cultural legacy.  She is certainly an important writer.

Release is two stories in one.  I *think* the mythical, bizarre-o Dalloway-inspired bit is supposed to be a spiritual counterpoint to the harsh "folksy" religion of the parents on the main character.  I think.  I'm not sure, and, frankly, I sort of think the novel would have been better without it.  However, it certainly doesn't detract from the huge power of the main story.

Adam is 18, and he is gay.  His parents are the sort to pray the gay away, to put it mildly.  The book follows Adam over just one day where he has to go to work, meet his boyfriend, help his Dad at the Church, and go to a get-together.  A great deal happens on this day, including sex with his boyfriend.  It is relatively explicit - it's certainly not for young children, and I would be tempted to give it a read yourself if you're unsure if your child is ready. A wants to read it, which is fine (she's 14), C also wants to read it, but when I told him it contained explicit sexual intercourse, he changed his mind.  He is still squeamish about that kind of thing. He then uttered something about "porn", and was given a very long, probably very boring talking to about how writing about sex doesn't have to be porn.  I am sure he was very grateful for this.

I cannot really overstate how great this book is.  I hope it becomes famous in the way that Forever became famous, but I hope teens read the whole book, rather than just the sex bit. There is so much that's brilliant about how relationships alter in your teens, not just with romantic partners, but with friends, and family.  The main character's best friend who, if I'm going to criticise any of the characters, is slightly irritatingly perfect, says at one point "They're your parents. They're meant to love you because.  Never in spite." A powerful message for us all, I think.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

My "Stop Procrastinating on Your Phone" 2018 book challenge

Ah, faffing about on your phone.  The completely free (apart from all the stuff you buy), mindless activity, that requires no major investment of brain power, and sucks hours, weeks, potentially decades from lives.  I LOVE it, but I do it far, far too much. I decided that in 2018 I was going to set myself a target to read 100 books, in an attempt to distract myself from the demon phone.  

Cunningly, I downloaded Audible, so that the phone can be complicit in the undoing of my ridiculous procrastination.  If I'm listening to Audible, I can't follow Mumsnet properly.  I have prioritised Audible, because I find I absolutely love it.  There are so many books I want to read, Audible forces them down my ears.  I've included the books I've listened to, which may be cheating, but I rather think not.

So here I present my list of books I've read in 2018 so far, why I read them, and what I thought:

1) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Whilst I love my brother in law dearly, we do not generally share a taste in books.  He likes great books, and I can tell they are great, and I can see why he likes them, generally, but I don't. I am thrilled to announce that, after knowing him for 18 years, he recommended a book that I not only liked, but loved.

It's a very long and involved book, but totally brilliant. I loved the weaving in of magic with something that reads like standard historical fiction.

2) Persuasion by Jane Austen

I love an episode of A Good Read on Radio 4. I was listening to the episode with Mel and Sue, from ages ago, and one of them talked about Persuasion by Jane Austen.  In my formative years, I considered myself a pre-eminent Austen scholar, having won £90 for an essay about buildings and social status in 2000, which I spent on jeans and sparkly belts from Oasis, as all self-respecting serious academics do.  To my shame, I realised, that, several years later, and that £90 being literally the peak of my academic prowess, I haven't even actually read Persuasion.  This probably limits my ability to deem myself an expert.  I read it, liked it, and was extremely glad that I didn't have to write an essay about it.

3) Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells

Another book that I heard about on A Good Read, that I assumed I had read, but actually hadn't.  I made a vague mental note to read it, and then discovered it on the shelf of my own classroom, in a lovely 1990s copy with a font I really like.  Fate.  I took it home and read it in one evening. Like Children of the Dust, it utterly defied scientific reality, but was exceptionally powerful.

4) The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson Ellis

Lent to me by my lovely friend at work, I really wanted to like this, because it was a great idea for a story, but it was so over-written.  Clumsy imagery, confusing ending, too much co-incidence.

5) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I loved the flawed, interesting characters, but was annoyed by the twist, which I felt was totally unnecessary.

6) La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

I absolutely loved this, mainly because I loved the first trilogy, but also because I grew up taking walks to Godstow with my family, because my Nan lived in Wolvercote.  I think I would have loved it anyway, but it always helps to know where you are, even if the novel is set in an alternative reality. Childhood often feels like an alternative reality at any rate.

7) The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey

This was like a dumbed down version of all seven books of Charlie Higson's The Enemy series. Higson for beginners! Really good villain in the evil Doctor character.

8) North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Third in the series of Books I Thought I'd Already Read this year is this one. Over-written, in the style of a book that was originally written for a magazine, this is an interesting read, with an annoying main character, and a good love story. I was amused by an audio copy I found on YouTube, read by an American, where the Yorkshire folk had a very interesting hybrid Irish accent.

9) The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

Read this for Book Group.  A fab idea, which was slightly ruined by the writer feeling the need to share everything she's ever learned about Derrida.

10) Fatherland by Robert Harris

A thread on Mumsnet (OK, I'm not fully cured yet) prompted me to read this.  I was sure that my Dad and MIL both had a copy, but apparently they both went to the charity shop years ago, so I downloaded it on the kindle. It took a while to get into, but was rather brilliant.  

11) Soviet Bus Stops by Christopher Herwig

I heard about this on Radio 4, and was so glad I bought it.  A glimpse into a totally unfamiliar world, showing the art in the mundane.  Fabulous.

12) Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans 

Part of my Carnegie reading for this year, but mainly bought because I loved Small Change for Stuart so very much.  This is great, hilarious, thought-provoking. C loved it.

13) Acts of Kindness From Your Armchair by Anita Nelson

Somebody recommended this on Mumsnet as a book to read at night to calm anxiety, so I bought it for C. Some bits will be useful, he says.  It was a little on the woo side for me.

14) The Call by Peadar O'Guillin

Carnegie Longlist, but not eventually shortlisted, which is a shame.  It's a wonderful mix of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games and The Secret History with Old Irish Myths. It might as well have been called Part 1, though, so obviously was it part of a trilogy.

15) Ketchup Clouds by Annable Pitcher 

A recommendation from A.  Clever epistolary novel with a slightly depressing ending.

16) Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

I was inspired to read this by a Mumsnet thread about "inappropriate books you read as a child". Along with Virginia Andrews, Danielle Steele, Jilly Cooper, etc, there were several mentions of this, which is, apparently, terrifying.

I knew enough about the book from the thread not to be scared, but I know I'd have loved it as a child. Like a menacing Moondial. Unsettling ending. Just fabulous.

17) The Explorer

I loved this so very much that I dusted down the blog for it.

18) When the Adults Change Everything Changes by Paul Dix

Key word being "adults". I really liked this, but it's a bit irritating to read about initiatives that have full-staff consistency as a guiding principle when I can't enforce this.  Will implement some things though.

19) The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Another one for the book group. The main character annoyed me greatly, and the motifs were heavy handed, but the story was a good one.

20) Flawed by Cecelia Ahern.

Suffice to say that this is very aptly named. 

21) The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower

LOVED this.  It took me ages to read, because it was so involved. Similar vein to Golden Hill, but better.

22) The End We Start From by Megan Hunter.  

Almost more of a prose poem than a novel.  I loved it, and wanted it to be longer.  Will definitely look out for anything else she writes.

23) The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

This really made me want to go on a random walking adventure, and I have promised myself that one day I will.  

24) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Brutal. Slightly disappointing ending.

25) Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

Carnegie Shortlist 2018. I don't understand why this was shortlisted and The Explorer wasn't. Same sort of thing, but not as good. Like Lord of the Flies with puffins.

26) After the Fire by Will Hill

Carnegie Shortlist 2018. Excellent. A really important topic, well written about here. I think The Hate U Give will win, but this would be a worthy winner too.

27) The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Glad I listened to this one, as it was a bit rambling. Great characters, unpleasant plot. The kind of thing MrM might watch on TV. Reminded me of Days Without End, but better.

28) Beetle Boy by MG Leonard

Read to C.  Good idea, but slow-moving. Neither of us have any great desire to read the rest of the trilogy.

29) Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

I have discovered that the Wellcome Collection (one of my favourite London places to visit, and definitely one of my favourite bookshops) have a book prize.  I bought one of the shortlist for this year (I have 200 pages left), and then bought most of the previous winners second-hand or on the kindle.  This was the winner in 2011, and is brilliant.  Like Elizabeth is Missing, but better-written, and with zero feel-good factor. Great twist.

30) The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris.

Just amazing.  So, so awful that this could happen. Incredibly moving.  Everyone should be obligated to read it.

My currently reading shelf on Goodreads has 9 books on it! My anti-procrastination book fest does appear to be working...

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

This book is so completely brilliant, that I have been compelled to post about it on my sadly extremely neglected blog.  It's on the Carnegie Longlist for this year, which I have been steadily working my way through, and if it doesn't get on the shortlist, I will be both very surprised, and very cross.  Especially given that Rooftoppers did get on the shortlist, and it's SO much better than that.  And that was quite good.

I thought this was called The Explorers at first, as it's the tale of 4 children stranded in the Amazon rainforest.  It's not, it's The Explorer, singular, and is named for a character that we never know the name of, that we meet about half way through the book, who is the best old man in a children's novel since Mister Tom.  Who is one of my very favourite people of all time, despite the fact that he never existed, and even if he had, would have been long dead before I was born.

The characters in this are outstanding, even the ones that only have one line at the very end. They are flawed, but likeable. There are unbelievable elements, like the fact that one of them befriends a baby sloth, and it becomes her companion, but I don't think it's supposed to be grittily realistic.

It's a story of adventure, risks, and learning to care for others.  There's enough mild peril to keep it extremely interesting, but enough clues that everything will be OK in the end, that you don't fear it's going to go all dark and depressing on you.

The language is a thing of absolute beauty.  I am grateful to Katherine Rundell to providing me with many quotes that I am going to write on my board and ask my students to admire and to use to improve their own writing.  A few tasters, that won't spoil the book for you:

"The fire made a noise like an idea being born, a crackle that sounded like hope."

"People do not tell you that love is so terrifying.  It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon."

"Would you like some more?" "No, thank you,  It tastes too much like being electrocuted."

I just loved it.  I was very sad when I finished it.  I am going to nag both of my older children until they read it, and then I am going to nag all of the children I teach until they read it too.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Giver by Lois Lowry

As I've said on here before, choosing which books to read next is one of the little daily pleasures that make my life better.  I particularly love it when I find a brilliant book which I've overlooked for years (decades in this case) that comes, like a gift, from an unexpected source.

Over the summer I read a quarter of a book called Making Every English Lesson Count: Six principles for supporting great reading and writing.  I was so bored by the end of the second principle, that I decided that someone who had bored me so rigid, that I was looking around for extra dusting to do to avoid reading his words, probably didn't have an awful lot to teach me about getting other people to write well.  However, the book did reference another called Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov, which sounded good and useful, and was.  It's written for American teachers, but the principles are absolutely pertinent to the English classroom too.  I have learned a great deal from it, and the children in my classroom are benefitting already.  There were many references in the book to The Giver by Lois Lowry, which I had never read, but the more I read about the exercises related to it, the more I wanted to read it.

Published in 1993, it's an accessible dystopian novel, disturbing but not violent, utterly thought-provoking.  Suitable for age 10+, it's the story of Jonas, who discovers that his perfect community, is masking horrific secrets, and has brainwashed participants to commit inhuman acts.

Apparently it's the first of many set in the world, although I haven't got round to reading any of the others yet - and it didn't feel anything other than a complete book in itself. Highly recommended.  The boring six principles book, not so much...