1. The Redbreast - Jo Nesbo Started 20/12/13 Finished 03/01/14
|Image from Amazon.co.uk|
This is my 5th Jo Nesbo book, previous books have been: Headhunters, The Bat, Phantom, Nemesis and The Snowman. I am reading them out of sequence, so my interpretation of the central protagonist's - Harry Hole - character development is a little warped. However, Nesbo writes with wit and pace, in this instance using dual narrative strands of a WWII and contemporary narrative, which converge in a dramatic climax. The final reveal, for me, wasn't quite as logical as I'd hoped, mainly due merely considering what the age of the main antagonist should be and how he connected to other characters. Having said that, I rattled through the book due to well-rounded central characters, evocative descriptions of setting and action, witty dialogue. I'll no doubt read the rest. Thanks to @Xris32 for introducing me to these.
2. Mega top-secret novel - Malcom Pryce Started 04/01/14 Finished 08/01/14
Through what can best be described as serendipity and great good fortune, I was asked to read a first draft of an author's new novel along with my great friend Lisa (@Dyskadores). It is a new departure for the author concerned, who was anxious about how his novel would be received. Writers are inherently neurotic, no? I'm not allowed to discuss it, even with Lisa! However, it would be utterly criminal if it wasn't published.
He asked for feedback purely as a reader, so had to switch off my English teacher brain for when I gave him his feedback. I confess to being a tad intimidated by this, I mean feedback to a bone fide, talented published author who I am a big fan of is quite a big deal. I emailed him this afternoon and got a 'brilliant, thanks, I agree and think my editor would agree with you too.' response. I nearly fainted with relief.
Update 08/01/14 PM So, the author, Malcolm Pryce (@exogamist) has tweeted his thanks for my 'beta testing' of his work in progress to two other readers and I. So don't have to be quite so secret squirrel. What a total honour and a privilege, huh?
3. Dark Matters - Michelle Paver with 'Wreck this Journal' Keri Smith
Paver Started 08/01/14 Finished 09/01/14
Image credits: Dark Matter image from amazon.co.uk Wreck This Jounal image from justjillsblog.wordpress.com
Well, the Paver novel did not take me long at all, and at only 240 pages, it's not a tome by any stretch of the imagination. Various adjectives such as 'spellbinding'. 'afraid', 'blood-curdling' and 'mistress of suspense' are used on the blurb. I can't say that I agree. I didn't dislike it, but neither did it make my pulse rate increase.
The narrative, vocabulary and sentence structures are all very simple, perhaps giving away the author's roots in writing fiction for children. It lacked the real subtelty required of a truly frightening ghost story, there was not enough for the reader to do. For example, there is far too much revealed about the 'ghoul' and its appearance far too early on in the narrative, thus removing much potential for suspense to the writer.
She is sensible in limiting the characters in the novel, but for me they are not fully three dimensional. One could argue the landscape and the dark are also characters, offering some menace to the story. Although, for the Northerm Lights to just be named in passing is an occasion where the author misses a trick.
Having said this, due to the simple way in which it is written, it would serve as a useful introduction to ghost stories for younger readers, serving as an ego boost for children or teens who lack confidence in reading, for they would be reading a book for 'grown-ups'.
In short an enjoyable, but an un-taxing read.
The Keri Smith journal is great fun, I spent HOURS colouring in a two pages by 'taking a line for a walk', something I've not done since I was at junior school! My tongue was poking out of the side of my mouth an everything.
Right, now to decide the next book to read.
4. 'A Kind of Intimacy' Jenn Ashworth Started 9/01/14 Finished 14/01/14
Borrowed from @LisaFarrell3
As Lisa told me upon passing me the novel, don't be fooled by the 'Richard & Judy' style book cover. The novel is set in a generic town suburb, that is full of well meaning, but slightly cliquey neighbours.
The protagonist, and our narrator, moved in to this haven of 'normal' and is morbidly obese and with that comes all sorts of potential reader prejudices. An intriguing premise. Much of the narrative is our protagonists stream of consciousness, her intermal monologue recounting what she thinks and feels about what goes on around her, and justification of her actions.
The novel begins calmly and with a certain sense of innocence, you initially feel real sympathy and empathy for our narrator and protagonist. However, as more detail is drip fed to us about her past, along with the recount of her present day behaviours and actions; the reader begins to piece things together, growing increasingly disconcerted, uncomfortable and uneasy. Sometimes I could not continue reading as I needed a break from the squirming.
The increasing darkness of the narrative culminates in a compelling and dramatic finale, although interestingly, even at her very worst, you are never completely devoid of sympathy for our protagonist.
A very intriguing, well structured, uncomfortable and intriguing read. Thoroughly recommended.
5. 'The Snow Child' Eowyn Ivey Started 14/01/14 Finished 19/01/14
Christmas present from Chris Curtis (@Xris32) 212 pages in and I say, "Well chosen sir, well chosen."
This afternoon I decided to ditch whatever else I had intended to do until I had finished reading this book. Yes, it is THAT kind of book.
Set in the wilds of Alaska, featuring an old married couple Jack and Mabel who arrived there, to use a Lennie-ism, "Live off the fatta the land." and escape, well, grief. Grief knots and binds the couple together stiffly; their cabin is essentially Mabel's self-defined prison, while Jack literally fights the landscape to earn a living.
Then the snow girl enters the narrative, but intermittently. She is small, delicate, ethereal and born of fairy tales; she inhabits the Alaskan wilds, and her timid other-worldly presence thaws the frost between Jack and Mabel so awakening them to life.
There is a warm, boisterous supporting cast of a nearby family who Mabel initially merely tolerates. Perhaps a little like a Greek chorus, they are the questionning pragmatic conscience of the reader, curious about Mabel's faith in the little girl and her grasp on her sanity.
This is a beautiful book. The Alaskan landscape, as is the landscape in Brokeback Mountain and The Lord of the Rings, is as much a character as the people who inhabit it. It is wild, glorious and unforgiving; forcing its inhabitants to earn its respect. Language is used with delicate precision to bring us into the Alaskan wilds and Jack and Mabel's powerful and moving inner monologues.
The novel has a fairytale like quality without being a derivative of Disney representations of such. Much like Stoner - on the surface a totally contrasting novel - you become utterly absorbed and engrossed in the novel, the landscape, its deeply, carefully, lovingly drawn characters. You cannot help but love this book, and it will linger with you long, long, long after you have read it. You will close the book and mourn the time you can no longer spend with it. It is wonderful.
Still pondering my next book choice, as I think I need to let the Ivey novel dissipate a bit more. Not ready to let it go just yet. In the meantime, enjoy this book bingo I found via a Facebook:
6. 'Gold' Dan Rhodes Started 20/01/14 Finished 23/01/14
Borrowed from @LisaFarrell3
Previously read by same author: 'This is Life' - also borrowed from Lisa!
After reading 'This is Life' I eulogised about it with Lisa on one of our regular Costa meet ups in the glamorous setting of Tamworth services, more the venue of a clandestine drug deal (also more likely in Tamworth) than a chance to swap literature. I loved this book for it's quirkiness, likeable central protagonist and a real sense of the absurd.
'Gold' I believe, I set somewhere on the Pembrokeshire coast - the giveaways being the mention of Haverfordwest and Milford Haven, and on one of Miyuki's (our heroine) coastal walks, a fleeting description of the Texaco oil refinery, gave me all the clues I needed as an ex 'shire inhabitant. Rhodes captures the unique character of Pembrokeshire's craggy but glorious coastline with an eye for affectionate detail of the magnificent cliffs, undulating coastal paths and as evey 'shireling knows, the importance of the local pub and its regulars.
Rhodes paints his comic characters using recognisable Welsh stereotypes - such as gloriously accurate character nicknames such as 'Septic Barry', 'Tall Mr. Hughes' and 'Short Mr. Hughes' who have a 'Last of the Summer Wine-ish' form of friendship; with the same roguery and gentle humour. Stereotypes maybe used, but they are done with total affection for the 'shire and its inhabitants.
Miyuki, at the start of the novel, a highly charming and enigmatic heroine with a wonderfully mixed heritage of a Welsh mother and a Japanese father. She visits this same village each year for her two week break from her relationship, her pragmatic approach to making sure she never takes her partner for granted. As Rhodes lets us know more about her, her past, her desires and her quirks of character, her interactions with the locals, the village and the landscape become all the more meaningful and at the very end, poignant.
Rhodes has an eminently readable, enjoyable and delicious style of writing; rich in both humour and pathos, creating characters you can't fail to engage with, whilst forming both a recognisable, but other worldly sense of place, in his chosen location. The atypical narrative style have given both novels (this one is really more of a novella at 198 pages) a healthy sense of the absurd. I shall definitely be reading more of Rhodes books.
7. 'The Remains of the Day' Kazuo Ishigaro Started 23/01/14 Finished 28th January 2014
Also borrowed from @LisaFarrell3
Before reading this I was quite familiar with what it was, having seen bits of the film, but for some reason, never the whole film, so whilst I was reading, I could clearly picture Anthony Hopkins in the role of consumate Butler Mr. Stevens and Emma Thompson as the inimitable Miss. Kenton. After having read the novel, I don't think the casting of those roles could have been more perfect.
Stevens is such an intriguing narrator, seemingly suffering from prolixity (or verbosity) whilst recounting past events and justifying his actions and reactions to others, while in dialogue, he is utterly taciturn. His taciturnity, which he never wavers from in his professional life as a butler, is what infuriates Miss. Kenton, but also makes us and her love him. Whilst reading and noticing this I thought this would be a wonderful text for teachers of AQA A2 Lang/Lit to use for the 'Talk in Life and Literature' part of the exam. There is huge scope for delving in to the pragmatics, the unsaid, in this novel whilst also looking at language of the powerful, powerless and the social status. Anyway, back to the novel.
Whilst travelling to meet Miss. Kenton (now married), Stevens recounts to us many anecdotes of his time serving Lord Darlington at Darlington Hall. There is a wonderfully memorable exchange between Stevens and a visitor, Mr. Cardinal where Stevens has been asked to discuss with him the 'birds and the bees'. Stevens' taciturn dialogue, full of euphemism and hedges is wonderfully written providing a moment of beautifully gentle comedy. This comedy of manners recurs during Stevens' recounts of exchanges with his new, American employer Mr. Farraday who is fond of 'bantering' leaving Stevens often at a loss at how to respond. Stevens' desire to master the art of 'bantering' is hugely endearing.
Ishiguro's setting for the novel is between the two World Wars providing us with tantalising glimpses at what occured between politicians and the upper classes during this period. We are never quite sure what it is the Lord Darlington did that was so significant and so troublesome, but Stevens' loyalty to his master, despite his implied shortcomings, is unwavering, and Stevens himself later wonders if it was foolish.
Of course, Stevens' journey to the now married Miss. Kenton, whilst in their later years is significant and poignant. We only realise how poignant the more Stevens reveals about the working professional relationship and their deeply buried feelings. At one point, Stevens tells us his, "heart is breaking"; and for a moment, so did mine.
This is so beautifully crafted, I can see why it won The Booker Prize in 1989. A novel that I am very glad I have read.
8. Gervais Phinn 'The School Inspector Calls' (Christmas present from my mum, she knows me well!) Started 28/01/14 Finished 01/02/14 The 3rd in his Little Village School series.
I read Gervais Phinn's non-fiction books many years ago, where Phinn writes about his time in the Yorkshire Dales as a teacher and a school inspector. They are chock full of humorous anecdotes that would resonate with all teachers, often laugh out loud funny. Having enjoyed his writing before I was quite chuffed to unwrap this at Christmas.
The novel is set in the fictional village of Barton-on-the-Dale, which is somewhat reminiscent of the whimsical England as written by Agatha Christie in her Marple novels, and as televised in Midsomer Murders...but without the murder bit. There are chocolate box cottages, a well populated local, a manor house and a well-loved church. The hub of the narrative and the community centres around the village juniour school.
The premise of this novel rests around the merger of Barton and Urebank junior schools, with the charming but steely Mrs. Devine to be head teacher of both, while Mr. Richardson, head teacher of Urebank, to be her deputy. He is bitter and antagonistic, setting up some narrative tension for the novel and a long drawn out battle to be won. Phinn uses characternyms, like Dickens, to efficiently draw well known archtypes and stereotypes such as Miss. Sowerbutts, the cantankerous retired Head Teacher of Barton school or the HMI Mr. Steel. In the main, these work well in the chocolate box setting of Barton-on-the-Dale, but sometimes you wish for more 'meat' to the characters.
The stars of the novel are really Phinn's cast of pupils. The main narrative ark rests around the arrival of troubled Robin Banks (yes really), a defiant, disruptive lad who runs both his parents and teachers ragged. Full of fear, resentment and rejection, he is a pupil that all teachers know. The nobility of Mrs. Devine's determination not to give up on him is what I really enjoyed, showing a real 'truth' to the nature of teachers. Young Danny and his rich Yorkshire dialect and pet ferret; the lovable, irrepressable geek Oscar with the innocent charm of Chardonnay's apprension of taking on the lead in the school production of "The Wizard of Oz" make up a charming ensemble cast, reminding you what is brilliant and unique about teaching.
The obsequious Inspector of the title has a relatively minor role, but Phinn describing the teachers reaction to his visit being that they think they are, "about to be lined up and shot." is spot on, although why this short and largely inconsequential visit merits his place in the title I don't know.
However, Phinn has a marvellous turn of phrase, often making me laugh out loud, particularly Mrs. Robertshaw's rather forthright opinions; such as describing a pupil's singing voice being like, "a bat nailed to a door". For those moments alone, it is worth a read. As well as reminding me of teachers on Twitter, a bit like Mrs. Devine such as: @bergistra, @RachelOrr, @betsysalt, @chocotzar, @vicgoddard and the teaching cast of Educating Yorkshire who too, never give up on the most difficult of pupils. If only all school inspectors had such respect for teachers and teaching.
9. 'The Fault in Our Stars' by John Green. Started 01/02/14 Finished 03/02/14
The last time I did considerable reading about terminal illness was for my Modern English Literature MA dissertation (1999-2001) that pitched autobiographical narratives of the terminally ill against Barthes "Death of the Author" theory. Why on EARTH did I decide that was a good idea? It scrambled my brain. However, John Diamond's "C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. ". Ruth Picardie's "Before I Say Goodbye." (which made me sob as it read it during my lunch break at Abbey Naitonal bank, big heaving sobs) and Susan Sontag's "Illness as Metaphor" are recommended reading if you'd like to read more on this emotive topic.
I began this book heavy hearted, because, as many of you know, I've had a little experience of loved ones with terminal cancer. Added to that was memories of our Year 11 boy who died from Leukaemia in October 2013, I was initially under a weighty emotional cloud when I picked up this book. Another layer of residual emotional echoes was the beginning of The Six Nations rugby tournament. My dad was a rugby nut and I could picture him welded to the sofa in front of the rugby, growling and "harrumphing" at the Welsh team, who, to be fair, weren't that great when dad was alive. The sound of the Welsh National Anthem sang by a loyal and enthusiastic rugby stadium never fails to bring a tear to my eye. Oh, erm what I digression, back to this book.
The novel revolves around to terminally ill teenagers, Hazel and Augustus, who have resided for a long time in 'Cancervania' coping with living whilst dying. No, not 'coping with' but grasping onto life while their bodies genetic mutation works relentlessly against them. I just loved them, and because I did, it lifted the emotinal weight I felt upon picking up the book. Bright, intelligent, witty and brutally honest, they (nor the author) slip into mawkish sentimentality or traditional cancer cliches. Susan Sontag would heartily approve.
I really valued the author rejecting the "people who die beautifully from cancer" cliches so often seen in TV and films. There is no "beauty" in that kind of death at all, and so we learn so from this novel. This is sensitively handled, whilst truthful to the glorious nature of the characters and the ugliness of a cancer death.
I was expecting to sob, but I did not. Not to say I wasn't moved, but this is somehow infused with hope, optimisim, love and life that I could not be snivelling snotty wreck at the end. It is definitely one of those books you really want others to read, but you'll be damned if you'll lend out your own copy.
It was really hard to choose the next book after, 'The Fault in our Stars', I think you need to allow it to linger and seap through your consciousness before working out what you are in the mood for next. I briefly started, 'if no one speaks of remarkeble things' by Jon McGregor (a gift from @Xris32), however, it contains an unusual form of prose poetry, a little like Dylan Thomas' style of prose writing, that felt too 'weighty' for me at this particular time. Light and fluffy was needed, so that's what I chose next.
10. "The Little White Car" by Danuta du Rhodes (or Dan Rhodes) Started 04/02/14 Finished 06/02/14
I love that he sets his books in Paris, a city which was can't help but 'auto-romanticise' thanks to many other texts that have gone before it. It is just far enough away to be slightly exotic, while near enough to us not to be too alien.
The narrative centres around Veronique and her pretentious older boyfriend, who has the remarkabel ability to smoke during love-making without covering her in ash. (Men/potential suitors - this is NOT something you should aspire to, trust me). He has yet more unappealing qualities which makes their break-up at the beginning not too unsurprising.
The break-up sets off a chain of events, in a famous Parisian tunnel, on the very same night that something globally significant occurs. What ensues is a whimsical buddy story with Veronique enlisting the help of long time friend Estelle, whilst her beloved St. Bernard, Cesar, pads around in blissful ignorance.
This is a similar premise to Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Gildernstern are Dead" where events of significance are viewed from the position of minor characters, a clever ruse that positions the audience/reader in a new place for a familiar narrative. Frankly, without giving too much away, Daily Express journalists should be sat down and made to read this, just to make them, y'know, 'chillax' a tad.
Witty, whimsical and warm, this was a really pleasureable, unconventional romantic-comedy to read, and I really don't like romantic-comedies (films or novels) as a general rule.
11. 'Witch Light' by Susan Fletcher. Can't remember when I started or finished but it took me roughly 2 weeks to read.
Now, as the previous 10 books I have read took a mere matter of days, why did this one take two weeks? Was it because I didn't like it? Well, no, not at all. It is to do with '
sorting out my life' stuff (Occ' Health and Counselling visits, careers advice, and meetings) and a horrid spell of anxiety that really kiboshes your concentration levels.
The other reasons are more literary. There are 'stars' of this novel, the main one being the 17th century setting of 'Glencoe', I mean look at it:
It's not a landscape you can travel through at any kind of quick pace. Wild, unspoilt and ouzing Eden like beauty, why the hell would you want to travel through this place quickly? I went to Glencoe as a student, camping near Loch Lomond (ye Gods, the midges!) and climbing the Aoenach Eagach Ridge, Buachaille Etive Mor, Bidean nam Bian (The Three Sisters) and Ben Nevis. (If you think pronouncing Welsh words is tricky, Gaelic is far more incomprehensible. At least Welsh is phonetic and yes, IT DOES HAVE VOWELS).
Whilst climbing The Three Sisters, we stopped in awe at the sight of a large Stag, standing like a sentinel at the top of the mountain while our mouths turned into a collection of Os at it's eerie, dominating presence.
Corrag a 'witch' is the narrator of the novel. She is locked and chained up in a cell, bruised and battered but stoical. She is a surviving (not for much longer as she is due to be burned at the stake) witness of the army's massacre of the MacDonald (I may have got this wrong, @lisafarrel3 please correct me if needed) by the army. This provokes a visit from a highly religious Christian, Charles Leslie who is keen to find out what she knows.
He arrives full of superstition and prejudice, but as Corrag speaks to him about the Glen, her involvement with the clan, how she actually uses herbs (to heal) how she connects intrinsically to all of nature, his wariness of the witch begins to fade. We learn this from the letters he writes home to his wife.
Corrag's narration is a stream of consiousness - not quite as alientating as a Modernist James Joyce version - although it still takes some getting used to, whilst also slowing the pace at which you travel through time, space and place with her.
It is a novel in which you are entranced by Corrag, her love for the Clan that 'adopts' her and the glorious landscape of Glencoe, which is her home. I'm glad I read this slowly, letting it steep into my consciousness. A very intriging and beguiling read.
12. "I Partridge. We Need to Talk About Alan" Steve Coogan, Rob Gibbons, Armando Ianucci. Started 21/02/14 - Finished 27/02/14
Another slowish read - again not because it wasn't good, or witty as the blurb tells me, but, because, you are delving deep into the psyche of Alan Partridge. A genius comic creation who is: crass, deluded, arrogant, socially inept, pitiful - so it's not easy to spend a long time in his company.
This faux-autobiography follows most of the conventions - with the exception of excessive and what we would deem un-necessary footnotes - for Partridge doesn't credit his reader with being able to read sub-text, and/or he his 'control-freakery' nature means we are not allowed to mis-interpret what he writes.
Toe-curling, witty, and a slightly painful read. I'm sure English teachers would find it useful for looking at autobiographical conventions, as he gets a good deal of that wrong. Glad I read it, also glad to finish it.
13. "Life After Life" Kate Atkinson - no idea when I started or finished it, but read it within about 5 days.
Now, this one won the "Costa Novel Award 2013" so as a hard and fast Costa addict, I had to pick this up for a read, didn't I? On the front cover adjectives such as, "Dazzling" and "Triumphant" are used, so expectations are raised before the book is even opened.
It is a knowingly clever book for the conceit, or question posed by the author is: "What if you could re-boot your life, over and over, until you get things right or at least better?" - perhaps following the premise of a video game character who has several lives.
The protagonist (or is it protagonists?) is Ursula-a strong willed heroine who is easy to root for as the narratives unfold. There are so many 're-boots' to her life that I have no idea how many there are. This does lead an intelligent reader to ponder: is this a novel? Or is it a collection of short stories about the same character? By the end, I was no nearer the answer to that question. In fact, the ambiguous ending reminded me of how a Year 11 class respond to the ending of Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" - that slight aura of exasperation pervades the ending.
That said, Atkinson has moments of brilliance in this text, particularly the description of Ursula's role in the The Blitz of WWII and more horrific was a description of her relationship with an abusive, controlling and psychopathic man.
I can't agree with the adjectives of "dazzling" and "Triumphant" - it is not consistently wonderful, in the same way Williams' "Stoner" is - but I was sufficiently enamoured and intrigued by Ursula to find it an enjoyable read.
14. "Little Hands Clapping" Dan Rhodes - read in about 3 days straight after the Atkinson.
As you'll be able to notice from previous entries, I am rather fond of reading Dan Rhodes novels - many thanks to @LisaFarrell3 for introducing him to me AND lending me all the books of his I've read so far.
This novel is nothing like the ones I have read so far, it is wonderfully macabre with a cast of odd, but lovable characters. Even with the main anatagonist, whose 'hobby' is somewhat unconventional and a tad gorey, Rhodes somehow creates considerable pathos for him, so you are never truly disgusted by his words and deeds.
Set somewhere and sometime in Germany there are key locations such as a museum to suicide (I know, right?) and its Egor-like curator and a picturesque village in Italy where narratives of requited and unrequited love amongst the young unfold, re-fold and unravel. Initially parallel narratives, they converge much later on in a typically Rhodes fashion - where one should safely expect the unexpected.
Macabre, gothic, whimsical, gruesome and witty, it was my favourourite Rhodes book to date. More, give me more Rhodes!
15. "Alice Hartley's Happiness" Phillippa Gregory. Lent to me by my sister.
Gregory is much better known for her historical novels: "The Other Boleyn Girl" and "The White Queen" succesfully adapted into a film and TV series respectively. This was all the contact I'd had with Gregory's work before now.
This, well this one is absolutely nothing like ANY of these. Set in the contemporary town (or city?) of Suffix - see what she did there English teacher nerds - where Alice Hartley's husband is a Professor at their local university, who is making the most of the adoration of a young, blonde female student whilst paying little heed to his wife Alice.
After a momentous confrontation, Alice decides enough is enough and makes her escape from her loveless marriage with the aid of the hapless, overwhelmed and naive student Michael, whom she seduces in both the physical and more metaphorical senses.
A wonderful supporting character is Michael's Aunty Sarah who cheats death more than once, only to blossom under Alice's dubious versions of alternative therapies and a considerable amound of elderflower champagne.
Well paced with a cast of characters reminiscent of some of our best British sit-coms - peppered with a spot of Post-modern direct address to the reader - this well written, well plotted, hugely funny and a bloomin' great read.
16. "The Little Lady Who Broke All The Rules" Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg
I bought this in Waterstones upon recoommendation of the sales assistant, plus it was half price. I am weak in the face of a reasonably priced book. Fact.
Sundberg is a Swedish author and I am more than a little au fait with Scandi-Noir authors, so this was a clear departure from that particular ouvre, it being a 'comedy'. Looks like the Vulcan-like Swedes (stereotype, I know) can do humour too.
The premis is untaxing - a little old lady, who notices that her living conditions in her care home are worse than that of a Swedish prison, decides to embark on a Robin Hood style adventure. Robbing from the rich to give to the elderly, infirm and disadvantaged.
The novel was an easy enough read - well suited to 'brain is fondue' end of term state of mind or holiday reading.
I wonder if humour is more difficult to translate? So much GOOD humour rests on word play, shared cultural understanding,meaning pragmatics can be much more easily lost in translation. It was OK, but I think I'd prefer a Nordic Nesbo any day.
17. "Why Johnny Can't Read: and what you can do about it." Rudolf Flesch
Undertaken with the aims of improving my own learning about English and the process of reading, I asked to borrow some books about phonics from @oldandrewuk, a Maths teacher, who has FAR more knowledge about this than I, an English teacher. A further motivation for reading such a book has been meeting and be-friending @ThinkingReading who runs her own phonics programme for Secondary Schools. So, painfully aware of my conscious incompetence in this (controversial) area, I began reading.
Firstly, it's important to note that this text is focusing on American education systems and structures, not British - however, there is much that is relevent to teachers of English at all Key Stages.
Secondly, it's style is polemical. Not shying away from rhetoric, Flesch's mission is to convince the reader of the uselessness of teaching reading by whole word recognition, whilst championing the use of systematic phonics teaching to do it better, far better.
The polemical sections are book-ended by a letters to a parent and a teacher, where emotional pleas are made to each so that phonics are used to teach pupils who to read. Not recognise the 'shape' of a word to recognise the whole word, but to 'read' the word properly, removing the guesswork element of whole word recognition.
Between each letter, Flesch documents, still in a highly rhetorical fashion, the history and process of teaching reading in American schools. The most disturbing element was the list of words (short, and ever shorter, reminiscent of Orwell's "1984" and those in power controlling vocabulary via the issuing of ever shorter dictionaries) and the 'readers' written to encompass a very small, vocabulary with nonesenical levels of repetition, to the extent that narratives are not narratives at all. How on earth was this going to make pupils better readers? Why on earth had the teaching of the alphabet and its sounds been abandoned so completely? Well, via poorly executed educational research, and, erm, rhetoric.
Reading this left me questioning my own education at primary and junior schools. I don';t actually remember being taught to read, but I have always been a very competent reader.More worryingly, during my PGCE there was absolutely NOTHING taught to us trainee English teachers about how reading is taught at KS1 and 2. The last time I spent any significant time in a KS2 school was during my PGCE. Why don't English teachers spend time in Primary schools on an anual basis? Why had I not really heard of phonics teaching until our school bought in 'Read/Write Inc' to improve our literacy? Why such a MASSIVE gaping whole in my own knowledge about the mechanical and cognitive processes of how we learn to read?
Through Flesch's rhetoric, he prevents a very convinving case indeed for the real benefits to using phonics, and properly, not half heartedly, to teach reading (rather than word recognition) which provide phonics taught readers with the ability to read words with much greater competence and competence than via the whole word recognition route.
Clearly I am at the tip of a large ice-berg, more reading about phonics is clearly required, inbetween novels. I am not surrendering my novel reading, no sirree.
18. "Moll Flanders" Daniel DeFoe - too about 2 weeks to read
I first came across DeFoe as an undergraduate in Year 2 of my degree course with "The Journal of a Plague Year". Our lecturer for this section (We also studied "The Rape of the Lock" by Pope along with the emergence of the novel as an art form) was very formidable, and frankly, I was quite intimidated. I do not remember much about "The Journal of the Plague Year" except that it was a drudge to get through, I really didn't enjoy it. Ergo, I approached the reading of Moll Flanders with some trepidation.
I do remember watching the ITV adaptaton with Alex Kingston as Moll anda pre-Bond Daniel Craig (FAR less sexier then, it has to be said) which was pacy and bawdy. I cannot say the same for DeFoe's novel, however, the approach of the adapters makes the text work for the medium of TV.
Moll, begins her tale as a young girl who does not know her parentage but is fortunate enough to end up in service in a household that shows her some compassion. Her unknown parentage has signficant and damning consequences later on. So begins Molls all to unfortunate encounters with men who promise her much, but deliver very, very little. Consequently, she enters a series of unfortunate and ill advised marriages, one of which turns out to be accidental incest (remember her unknown parantage?) and not forgetting the bigamy that comes as a result of these numerous marraiges; prostitution, conning, theft & burglary.
Moll, as a our narrator, is sometime incredibly naive, honest, rarely desperate and somehow conducts herself through all this with an element of dignity. At the very end we are cheering for her as she stands in the dock and whilst she awaits her sentencing, which we and she believe to be execution.
Although we empathise with her, DeFoe cleverly avoids pity for Moll. She maybe a 'victim' of a society that seems to only favour males and the well-born, however she never accepts that label. She is driven by a will to live, to survive and the hope that things can and should be better. When she is almost totally devoid of hope in her prison cell, she finds solace and redemption via the kindness and patience of the prison chaplain along with the acceptance and remorse for her sins.
DeFoe cleverly use Moll's narration as a cypher (I maybe using that word incorrectly) so that he can make criticisms of a society that fails someone who is without 'class'. The injustices present during society at the time are laid bare for all to see, should they wish to.
I can't say I enjoyed DeFoe's prose style any more than I did the first time, but I have grown a better appreciation of his work as a result of reading Moll Flanders. I now need to and want to read far more Pre 19th C fiction to get with the new GCSE Specs' programme, sharpish.
19. "The Red House" Mark Haddon - less than a week to read.
Prior to Haddon novel, I have read "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" and "A Spot of Bother" - so I could be described as a 'fan'.
The Red House centres on two disparate and fractured branches of a family, a brother, sister, their spouses and offspring, who have been set adrift by the death of their mother, effectively making them adult orphans.
In an attempt to build bridges, the younger, but wealthier brother, books a holiday cottage in Wales for both families to spend time together. In the preceeding years of their adult life, this has not been a usual occurance. Thus setting the stage for a range of tensions to surface between the adults and their offspring.
Haddon provides a range of narrative viewpoints swapping between the siblings, and their children. The narrative has increasing focus on the teenage daughter, a devout and vcocal Christian who is also going through a period of sexual awakening. This character is faced with a troubling but perhaps familiar internal conflict between her religious views (the main cause of tension between her and her mother) and her awakening sexuality. Meanwhile, the mother seems to be unravelling while she is confronted with memories of a daughter who died prematurely.
As ever, Haddon seems to have show great understanding of his characters mental problems (A Spot of Bother focuses on a man having a mental breakdown) so allowing the reader to greatly empathise with them, even though we could describe them as deeply flawed.
Multiple narrative view points in a novel always provide an extra degree of challene when reading a text, this being quite a departure for Haddon who, in previous novels, has really focused his narrative on one character and their battles withn themselves. Neither does the narrative end neatly, which, just as in real family lives - our narratives do not end neatly either.
I definitely enjoyed reading it, but do think I enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NIghtime (read mostly in one sitting) and A Spot of Bother much more.
20. Phil Beadle 'How to Teach' kindle addition - read over 4 or 5 days.
Motivations for reading this were many. Over the past 12 months or so I had become utterly drained, disillusioned and demoralised by being an English teacher. Over the past 12 years, I've given, and given, and given, and given to this rather unique job and was lacking in any more to give. Previous blog posts tell you in detail why this has been so, so there is no need to repeat that here. I have been out of the classroom for a while to needed reminding about what the job is about, why it is worthwhile doing, and how to do it well.
I have briefly been in the presence of Mr. Beadle at my first ever Teach Meet in London, organised by @TeacherToolkit about 2 years ago (Where did the time go?). He did a micro-presentation about plenaries - what was at the time his new book - which although all too brief (Why wasn't he asked to do a Key Note rather than this?) showed me the man knew his classroom onions. When the Teach Meet ended, Mr. Beadle strode past me, with the confidence of Heathcliff and wild hair to match; because he was 'off the tele' I was uber-star struck and lacked the courage to make eye-contact, never mind introduce myself.
This is a book that has PGCE students and NQTs in mind - so should be viewed as a general source of advice for new teachers, rather than a prescriptive Bible of teaching. And, if you have feet in the 'progressive' or 'traditional' camps - then you will find suitable advice, gleaned from experience in some of London's toughest secondary schools, for each view.
What is particularly useful, I found, was the sections on behaviour management and how to, as Tom Bennett phrases it, how to run your room. When you've been out of the classroom for a while - a week, a month, several months, this is the bit of teaching that will cause you the greatest amount of worry. Beadle has an irreverant style, doesn't peddle 'bullshit' (a not to Old Andrew there) and offers more than one way to skin the educational cat.
Beadle also offers a range of teaching ideas that are imaginative, creative, and sometimes a little mind- boggling. He does advocate group work as an effective method of teaching, but does issue some good guidelines about how to make it work (I'm still quite hit and miss with group work), you could argue his methods are 'progressive' but not entirely so. Returning to his behaviour management advice, there are 'traditional' methods at the heart of how he believes teachers should be. In my experience, that is the way of the English teacher.
Beadle's very distinctive voice makes this an enjoyable read, and from an experienced teacher's point of view, I recognised much in his anecdotes, and could reflect on errors I had made in my own teaching from a safe distance. This is a really useful book to dip your teaching toe into, remembering to pick and choose what best suits you as a teacher. I now have 'Dancing with Architecture' and 'Plenary' in my pedagogical book armoury. So much to read, so little time.
21. "The Constant Princess" Phillipa Gregory
As you can see from earlier on in this blog, I had read a Gregory book before and thoroughly enjoyed it. I began this novel with the notion I would enjoy this one in the same way.