I’ll be honest, I could’ve done more reading this summer but sometimes I just watched telly instead. I did however read some gudduns, particularly following my call for suggestions and I’ve still got a couple from that list that I’ve not got to yet. Last year I included my books from the Easter holidays in my summer reviews but I won’t get into the habit of that so I’ll just say that I read Sue Perkins’ ‘Spectacles’ and Neil Gaiman’s ‘Norse Mythology’ on holiday in April and both are worth your attention.
So. My readings…
Book 1: Cast Iron by Peter May
May’s books appear frequently in my run-throughs of summer reading and Enzo has had his place. This is the last in the series of six books featuring forensic expert Enzo Macleod and his challenge to solve seven of France’s unsolved murders. It’s been a while since the last book (and I waited for the paperback so they matched on my shelves) but worth the wait and some good plot devices to bring in characters from previous quests.
I was going to read this regardless of quality obviously but it didn’t disappoint at all and rounded off the series most satisfactorily. I think there were initially seven books planned (from memories of looking at May’s website) so I don’t know how the intended plot changed but it didn’t seem rushed together. All the main characters are there – from the people to the locations and if you’ve read the others it’s worth finishing them off.
Book 2: A Rage In Harlem by Chester Himes
This was an author suggested by James Theobald. Oh my goodness. I loved this so much I can hardly describe it but I immediately bought another one which is below. They’re set in 1950s Harlem and described on one of the covers as ‘mayhem yarns’ which I never knew was a genre but describes it perfectly.
The book is set on the streets of Harlem and this is the first of Himes’ novels to feature detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones – although it’s more of an introduction to them in this one. It’s a fast paced tale of a simpleton who gets swept up in all sorts of criminal activity with farcical slapstick that slams into grizzly reality at every turn. The language is so sublime that you almost don’t notice it – nothing is held back and it somehow comes across as both a throwaway caper and a raw snapshot of life.
From the con man dressed as a nun to the slashing of throats and a hearse chasing through the streets there is nothing to disappoint.
Book 3: Silent Scream by Angela Marsons
The body count mounts quickly and there are enough twists and red herrings to satisfy without them seeming too obviously placed or clichéd. Having said that I don’t know whether I’ll rush to read another one. There were bits that seemed a little clunky (sometimes I wonder if detective books are being written with TV adaptations in mind) and the parallels between the case and Stone’s history were a bit much at times – having said I won’t rush into the next one it’ll be interesting to see how she develops when the case isn’t as close to home.
If you’re looking for a new detective then give this a go and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I was probably still mourning Enzo a bit.
Book 4: One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
I read ‘Case Histories’ quite a while ago and this is the second of Atkinson’s books featuring detective Jackson Brodie. I’d enjoyed the first and Twitter reminded me I’d not read any more so I was looking forward to it. My mistake was to have a break of 48 hours between starting it and picking it up again half way through. There are so many characters and interwoven storylines that I struggled to keep up with everything when they crossed over.
The novel is set in Edinburgh during the festival and the feel of this was spot on. I think every aspect of the criminal world is covered somewhere is this with most of the characters having a hand in another’s business but there was just a bit too much crammed in for me I think. One of the characters is a writer who imagines writing a book like a matryoshka doll with layers fitting together and this is clearly the concept for this one. I just think I’d prefer a 5-doll set to the 15.
I did like it and I don’t think I’ll wait as long before reading the next in the series (there are four I think), but I’ve got to go back to Harlem first…
Book 5: The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes
I saved this one for after the others rather than getting to it too quickly. I think I slightly prefered this to Rage In Harlem as it kept all the features but had a more flowing plotline and featured more of the detectives. It would stand on its own but there are threads that follow on so definitely read the first.
This one gets in quickly with a bar fight that is both brutal and hilarious in its farce. There’s a chase, a kidnapping, a fart scene. The language is on point once more and I wish I’d made a note of some of the descriptions and off the cuff remarks but I wasn’t going to break my flow. It’s described on the cover as ‘Hieronymus Bosch meets Miles Davis’ and I think that says it all.
I can’t believe I’d never heard of these before and at around 200 pages they’re perfect for polishing off in a day. I still can’t quite describe what they’re like so I’ll just end up sounding like a gushing thesaurus and there’s no use in that so I shall just ask that you give them a go whilst I buy some more.
Links to books are (almost all) The Guardian Bookshop again because of tax and monopolies etc.
Holidays have been a bit upside down for us this year so I’m cheating a little bit. We went to Tokyo at Easter and as that’s our ‘big holiday*’ for the year I’ve included the books I read whilst we were there too. I’ve also included one that’s a dip-in-and-out book and one I’ve not finished but think I’ll take into school as my ‘quite reading’ book.
*The plan was for a UK break over the summer and maybe some cheap sun at October half term but them someone went and signed themselves up to researchED Washington so now we’re going there instead…
Book 1: Runaway by Peter May (a Tokyo at Easter one)
Peter May keeps cropping up in these posts doesn’t he? Well I’ve managed to get my mum addicted too and she’s churning through them all aswell now.
‘Runaway’ is a bit of a change to the usual murdery plots of Mays books and if I’m honest I wasn’t 100% gripped with this one. There’s an element of whodunnit as it follows a group of childhood friends who ran away together in their youth and do it again as old men. There are flashbacks and the two stories are intertwined but it wasn’t really for me.
If you are at all tempted to give a May novel a go after me harping on, definitely do, but this isn’t the one to start with. No matter though – got another coming up in a bit…
Book 2: The Bat by Jo Nesbo (my other Tokyo at Easter one)
Having read all the available books with the various maverick detectives I’ve got on the go, I was looking for a new one to fill the void whilst some more get written. I read ‘Headhunters’ by Jo Nesbo as one of the staff Blind Date books and liked it enough. I found the Harry Hole books when I was looking at what else I could go with and as another detective to add to the mix goes it seemed perfect.
It’s quite cleverly set as an introduction to a Scandinavian cop (there are a few out there) as this one is set in Australia. We get the Norwegian feel but none of the formula that perhaps comes with the others (I believe there are others in the series set abroad too). Premise is that our detective is shipped over to Australia to assist in the investigation into the murder of a Norwegian national – peril ensues. I’ll definitely read more in the series, but might wait for when I need a gap filler rather than rush to buy them all straight away.
Book 3: I Left My Tent in San Francisco by Emma Kennedy (start of the Summer ones)
I read Emma Kennedy’s first autobiographical account last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it. The amount of disaster that one family can have is quite spectacular and as Emma grew up it doesn’t look like things got much better.
This book picks up as Emma finishes university and hasn’t got a clue what to do next. Lured by promised riches on the other side of the Atlantic, we follow Emma and her friend Dee as they set out to make their fortune in San Fransisco and travel back across America before facing life as grown ups. Obviously, as this is a Kennedy tale, thing are far from smooth and I don’t think it would be spoiling it to say there aren’t exactly riches. What we do get is a glimpse into their perseverance and the generosity of strangers.
One of the most beautiful parts of ‘The Tent, The Bucket and Me’ was Emma’s relationship with her parents and that’s missing from this book. As much as I prefer that book, I’m glad that wasn’t the end and we get a second installment. Worth reading if you’ve read the first.
Book 4: Animal by Sara Pascoe
This is a combination of autobiography and the story of female evolution. Using examples from her own life and experiences, Pascoe takes us through a history of what it is to be woman, answering questions of why we might behave and feel the way we do and how women fit into modern society. It’s not too sciency but there’s enough back-up to know it’s not just conjecture.
I’m the same age as Pascoe and I always find it quite easy to read things by people who were teenagers at the same time. I like the way she writes and read most of it with her voice in my head.She covers the topics of ‘Love’, ‘Body’ and ‘Consent’ in a funny and informative way, with things I knew, things I’d forgotten and things we should be shouting about.
I admire people who can be so honest about themselves and found a lot of what she wrote about familiar and motivating. This is the sort of book that makes you follow up on some of the references at the back and realise there are things we should all be shouting about a little bit louder.
Book 5: The Firemaker by Peter May
The China Thrillers series have been out of print and are currently being reissued with the first few already available. As the name suggests, these books are set in China and follow a Beijing detective, Li Yan, through a period of immense cultural change in China. The Firemaker is the first in the series and is set at the turn of the millenium. May has spent time in China from the early 1980s and his witnessing of change in the country is evident in his writing.
The story runs at a good pace and contains all the elements I have come to expect from May. The introduction of American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell serves as our guide to the different ways and customs of the Chinese system. History is peppered through the book and the atmosphere is refreshing in a genre that is swamped with western backdrops. This is a great start to a series and a memoir to a point in time. I’m (predictably) looking forward to working through the rest of them.
Book 6: Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
I’ve waited for a LONG time to read this. Having got the first ones in paperback I didn’t want to break the trend so had to wait and then decided to save it for our summer holiday that we’ve ended up not having. It was worth it.
Me n Howard love Cormoran Strike and his third adventure is a solid addition to the set. The relationship between Strike and Robin is moved forwards brilliantly, there’s enough to keep you guessing and trying to work things out, and Galbraith/Rowling has successfully built the characters over the previous novels into well-rounded figures that can work in changing settings. There’s not the same amount of explanation of the main characters now – just enough to remind the reader of previous books, and the case takes the front seat in a way I don’t think has happened before. This might be because it is more personal to Strike and so the two are more intertwined.
There is a satisfying few references of Doom Bar and we dutifully drank some because that’s what Strike would want. Just waiting for the next book now…
Book 7: Harry Potter and The Cursed Child by J K Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne
I can say it’s brilliant and I really want to see it performed. The plays follow on from the first seven books and are set nineteen years later. The main gang are there and they have children.
It was really easy to read the story as a script so I’m not sure what some people have moaned about. I actually preferred it as I think there’s a lot of bits in the Harry Potter books that stray away from the story and with this there was just enough to allow the reader to build the scene for themselves. Having said that, the hints in stage direction hint deliciously at just how spectacular the stage production is. I doubt we’ll get tickets for London but when it goes on tour we’ll be trying our hardest to get tickets.
Book 8: Fables: Farewell by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha
I blame my boss for this. He bought me the first in the Fables comic book series (trade paperback) for my 30th birthday. I’ve spent a small fortune of the rest now but they are completely worth it. The premise is that characters from fairy tales and folklore are in exile from their homelands and settled in New York. It follows their fight against ‘The Adversary’ and the challenges they face from their past and future. The series is creative and, despite the ‘fairytale’ themes, adult with no one spared for the story’s sake.
From what I can gather the series lasted much longer than initially intended and for that I am grateful. This collection of the final stories is the perfect ending to an amazing series. If you haven’t tried graphic novels then this is a series that is more than worth a try – I warn you it can be expensive though.
Book 9: What Every Teacher Needs To Know About Psychology by David Didau and Nick Rose
This is my dip-in-and-out book. A brilliant introduction to lots of psychological principles in themes across education. This is going to be an excellent go-to book for a wide range of topics that are bound to come up, with quick reference bullet points and longer explanations. The book is organised into three sections: Learning and Thinking, Motivation and Behaviour and Controversies. There’s going to be something for everyone in this – even if, especially if, it goes against what they already think.
The language is easy to read and not scarily academic, and there are a good number of references to follow-up and delve further into each topic. I can see this easily becoming indispensable for people at all levels of a career in education.
Book 10: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (the one I’m still reading)
The book is set in mid-70s India and follows the stories of four characters who come together at a time of political turmoil. The book tells the story of each of them individually and together and I’m about a third of the way through. A couple of things have sprung to mind whilst I’ve been reading this: Anita Rani’s episode of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ that followed her grandfather’s story through the partition of India, and the book ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and set in the Biafran War. Both these reminders give me a sense of foreboding as to the rest of the novel but also of importance that I read it.
Links to books are (almost all) The Guardian Bookshop again because of tax and monopolies etc.
I mentioned in a recent post that as part of our drive to increase the boys’ reading, we were planning a few events. This turned into a (fairly loose) Book Festival which is lasting for about a month, starting with an author visit for KS2 and ending on World Book Day (which will also only be KS2). The bits I’ve organised so far have been whole-school things including a Blind Date With A Book and a ‘We Are Writers’ book. I wrote about our first Blind Date With A Book here so I thought I’d take the opportunity to briefly explain and write about how it was different this time round.
The idea behind going on a blind date with a book is that you pick a book without knowing what it is and you give it a go. Events tend to happen in schools, book shops or libraries around Valentine’s Day, for obvious reasons, but it’s also useful as the closest Friday is normally the last week of half term so it’s a nice way to finish things off before the holidays. Some people add descriptions of the books, some have a display of wrapped books to borrow, we use it as a way to give each pupil in school a book to keep.
Last time I did all this I categorised each pupil into rough reading-ages, made them fill out a fake dating profile and then the ‘results’ of that told them which colour wrapping they were best suited to. It’s been two years since I did that and the school has grown quite a bit which made grouping each pupil a tricky one. So, for 2016 I went through the whole process of buying 100s of books to suit all size of pupil and then instead of categorising them myself, I got each class teacher to pick a book for their pupils before I wrapped them and added a Valentine’s card.
I bought a lot of books from Scholastic again – free postage to schools, earning money off books and some great January sale offers meant that I could get a lot for my money. They also have a great range of books for lower level readers based on poplar tv shows and films. This meant that I could give a Year 11 a copy of ‘127 Hours’ rather than yet another Brinsford Books classic that he’s probably already read. I did use Amazon for a few extras that I thought they might not usually pick like some Tolkien and Gaiman, plus a few books that featured in the TES lists of books pupils should read before leaving Primary and Secondary school, and I threw in a few from the box of free Book Trust ones I have. I had to be fairly realistic though, it doesn’t matter how well I wrapped it or whether they got to keep it, there are a lot of books that they wouldn’t even give a chance to, so the options weren’t a million miles away from things I thought they’d normally pick (shocking number of books with farting or bums in the title).
The art room had some awful pink paper buried in a corner so I stole that (with permission), and I decided that instead of simply writing each pupil’s name on the front of the packages, I would give them all a Valentine’s card from their book. They had poems. As we’ve only got a maximum of 8 in a class, I wrote 8 poems and put them in 8 different cards using my all my best TA skillz. Wrote ’em, glued ’em, stacked ’em. I was pleased with myself.
Class teachers were given their pile of books and able to choose when they gave them out and how they followed it up in class etc. I only saw a few children throughout the day but the ones I did see seemed fairly chuffed with their books and I get the feeling it was a success! We also used that day to display the entries for our We Are Writers front cover design and have a vote, and it was the last day for pupils to submit their stories for the book too. I’ll write more about that further along in the process.
If you are interested in holding your own Blind Date With A Book and want some little cards with awesome poems in, you can find mine here:
In part 1 I talked about motivating pupils to read, particularly in Catch Up sessions. Obviously there’s a bit of a difference between persuading a Year 8 (who’d rather have a fight down the corridor) to come for a reading session, and getting a whole bunch of them to pick up a Penguin Classic* over playing Potty Racers on their laptop at break time. The art of encouragement is a thin line between showing them something that will develop into a lifelong passion and creating a force so stubborn they will refuse to even judge a book by its cover. *or Horrid Henry to be honest.
We’ve got a few things on the go at the moment to encourage a culture of reading and quite a lot involves simply giving them books. Our approach is reasonably subtle and we don’t force them. I would suspect this a natural reaction to having so many pupils with low levels of literacy and poor relationships with reading. That’s not to say they get away with not reading of course, just that we’re more likely to whack some bonus points towards kids that do some awesome reading than take breaks off one who doesn’t.
Anyway, some of our encouraging things. Probably best to list and explain.
- World Book Day – Key Stage Two are pretty good at doing this each year. I’m mostly aware of it when I see Iron Man or an Oompa Loompa traipsing down the corridor. I know they’ve got a visiting author coming this year.
- 10 minutes reading – This is during tutor time after lunch and it’s supposed to be the whole school. It settles the kids down from whatever has kicked off during football and hopefully encourages a culture of reading across school. We’ve probably slipped a bit. I don’t know if everyone who doesn’t have pupils with them at that point reads anymore, but I love my 10 minutes sitting by myself with a book (‘Us’ by David Nicholls at the moment).
- No library – This isn’t particularly a good thing. We’ve got scraps of space and the room that was the library has now been turned into the catch-up room. What has happened though is that the books have been moved into classrooms so hopefully there are more that are instantly accessible to the boys. We’ll get our library back with the new build hopefully, but I also hope we keep a lot of books in classrooms.
- Trip to Waterstones – With some ring-fenced money we had an open-to-all-staff trip to Waterstones one Saturday. General books were chosen and class teachers had got their pupils to make lists of what they would like in the classroom. They could pick anything.
- Blind Date With A Book – I did this a couple of years ago and I’m doing it again in a couple of weeks. Read my BDWAB post for a full rationale, but it’s basically an excuse to give each child a book to keep. I’ve put a few in that I think will challenge them and that they probably wouldn’t try given a free choice, but I’m not stupid so I’ve gone for ones that won’t alienate them completely.
- We Are Writers – We’re writing a book. Scholastic run a scheme where you can get your pupils work published – a chapter each to write whatever they want. We’re using the pupils’ creative writing and I set it all up the other day so hopefully we’ll get started soon. In addition to the BDWAB books, we’ll give each pupil one of these from school, and let parents buy more if they want them.
- Read to them – Underestimated I think. For most of us this is our first experience of reading. Pupils love it no matter how old they are. You can get them to follow in their own book or let them just listen. They hear how you intonate and express yourself; they hear words they’ve never read. A couple of weeks ago we had a heating and electricity failure at school. As I cursed the powering off of my computer halfway through an email, I heard the teachers in rooms either side of me both start reading to their groups and it was lovely (not as serene as you might imagine. The power had gone which is almost as thrilling as snow to a 13 year old boy).
- Prizes – Comes under the ‘give them free books’ banner. Money and chocolate are lovely prizes but books are great for prizes too and less likely to be frowned upon.
- Book crossing – Haven’t tried this with them yet. It’s that thing like geocaching but with books. My thoughts are along the lines that they’ll have to pick a book they love and then leave a copy for people to find. We could do it in-school and have a map with pins or go wild and do it properly.
The Rights Of The Reader by Daniel Pennac
I bang on about this book every now and again. It’s essentially an essay about reading, and there’s a lot of it that makes sense – especially if we’re into getting pupils to enjoy reading for the sake of reading. It’s not a book about strategies or methods, it’s just something that made me stop and think about what ‘gets in the way’ and how we might learn to love reading again. I would love for more people to read it (there’s a poster illustrated by Quentin Blake you can download too. I have it above my desk).
He starts by showing a child’s journey through reading. From bedtime stories and learning to understand words, or being told to put a book down and go out to play; to analysis of texts and the use of ‘If you don’t do your reading, there’ll be no television’. At some point, it’s possible for reading to cease being a wonder and become the enemy.
There are stories from Pennac’s teaching career with ‘reluctant’ readers, uncovering the pleasure of reading and developing a thirst. Stories from his youth and from parenthood. The book concludes with the ten ‘Rights Of The Reader’. There is an explanation for each right, and in the words of Pennac, ‘if we want my son/my daughter/ young people to read, we must grant them the rights we grant ourselves‘. So here they are:
- The right not to read.
- The right to skip
- The right not to finish a book
- The right to read it again.
- The right to read anythihng.
- The right to mistake a book for real life.
- The right to read anywhere.
- The right to dip in.
- The right to read ou loud.
- The right to be quiet.
I would love it if all my boys adored reading and shunned the real world as they opted to bury their heads in the pages of their imagination…
There are a few who are like this, but they’re more likely to be up until the early hours playing XBox online with some kid in America than up until the early hours reading books with a torch under the duvet. I know that’s the case with a lot of children, not just my rock-hard behavioural gang, and it’s certainly not a new issue. I’m not sure what the statistics are for the amount of books children have at home, but I do know that quite a few of ours aren’t likely to have a duvet, let alone a bookshelf, so it’s one of our priorities to give their love of literature a boost.
I work with various literacy interventions, but the most structured one I use is Catch Up Literacy (EEF project here). We’ve been running this successfully for about 8 years now and the impact on pupils who receive this intervention goes beyond learing how to read. The EEF report highlights improvements to pupil motivation and attitude to learning, as well as confidence and enjoyment – certainly something we’ve found as well. Quite often our pupils crave attention and recognition from adults, and dedicated time for 1-1 interventions gives them that. I generally have a whole lesson for a 20 minute intervention and the luxury of that extra time means I can focus on a particular target, work on other skills or look something up that they’ve been reading about. If they spot a book in the room that they’re interested in I’ll let them have a go no matter the level and give them a hand.
They’re eager to read. They see it as something mature and aspirational. They want to read about Biff and Chip because it’s safe and familiar, but they’re aiming for books with a spine and no staples because they’re ‘proper’ books (doesn’t matter whether there’s one word on a page, that spine makes a massive difference). It’s hard when they’ve got bits of knowledge. They (like many others) have been in and out of school (sometimes several) picking up the occasional topic; great with graphs, not so hot on shapes; learning about ‘igh’ but no idea what to do with ‘th’. We’re gap filling and when they think it’s too ‘baby-ish’ their enthusiasm can wane.
One of the things we use to combat this is rewards. We have a range of different reward systems throughout school and with Catch Up it’s stickers. Simple enough; each of them has a bookmark that they pop a sticker on after a session and when it’s full they get a prize and certificate. I like to think I’m fairly well versed on the ins and outs of rewards and motivation, and I know that the ultimate aim is for each and every one of them to be intrinsically motivated to participate. To be honest, most of the time they are, but that 16mm square sticker and the thought of a funky pencil at the end can be the most wonderful carrot when necessary. Intrinsic is great when they’re in a good mood, but we all need a bit of extrinsic now and again whether that’s a shiny sticker or a pay cheque.
Actually (this is the researchy bit) quite often they forget to put their sticker on, or we don’t quite keep track of how many blank squares are left, so all of a sudden we realise it’s prize day and it all gets very giddy. This of course is a great way to do rewards – my own disorganisation turns a spot of fixed ratio/fixed interval reinforcement into variable ratio/variable interval. Brilliant. Also, as a point of interest that I should probably re-investigate, when I was researching rewards and behaviour during my MEd, I found various bits of evidence that whilst extrinsic rewards/token economies don’t necessarily have the impact most teachers want, they do work with pupils with SEN. Wildly searching through old notes and a rescued hard drive, things I’ve found that may support my crazy statements are below. They may or may not be of use:
Capstick, J. (2005) ‘Pupil and Staff Perceptions of Rewards at a Pupil Referral Unit’, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, Vol 10. No. 2, 95-117
Hufton, N. R. and Elliot, J. G. (2004) ‘Motivation Theory and the Management of Motivation to Learn in School’ in Wearmouth, J., Richmond, R.C., Glynn, T. and Berryman, M. (eds) (2004) Understanding Pupil Behaviour in Schools: A diversity of approaches., London, David Fulton.
Witzel, B. S. and Mercer, C. D., (2003), ‘Using Rewards to Teach Students with Disabilities’. Implications for Motivation, Remedial and Special Education, Vol 24, No. 2, 88-96
So is reading its own reward? Most of the time I think it is. Sometimes things need a bit of a boost to get going and I’m happy with the system I’ve got. But what do we do on a wider scale, once we’ve taught them to read? How do we encourage them to read widely and for pleasure? Part 2 will look at some of the things that we’re trying in order to get them going.
The amount of reading I actually do (rather than think I’ll probably do) during the year fluctuates quite a lot, but the summer holidays are definitely the time when I churn my way through a fair few books and this year was no different. A couple of them I’ve been waiting to read in paperback both because I don’t see the point in forking out for a hardback if I can wait and it makes sense to take lighter books on a plane. I’ve tried reading ebooks on both a proper, non-backlit eReader and on a tablet. I prefer to take books. I’m well into my thirties now so I reckon I can get away with picking and choosing the technology I want to engage with.
Dave at work says I should blog about books I’m reading throughout the year too (probably because he leant me a very good Doctor Who related one) and I probably should. Until I get round to that, here’s this summer’s lot.
Book 1: Blacklight Blue by Peter May
Peter May is a fairly steady presence in my reading lists now. This is the third in the Enzo Macleod series set in France and continues to follow Enzo as he uses his forensic expertise to do what the police have failed to do and try to solve another cold case.The premise of this series works around a bet he has made to solve seven prominent murders that feature in a book by his friend Roger Raffin and the series looks set to focus on one case per book.
The book starts with the abduction of a young boy on holiday 40 years ago and jumps to a murder in 1992. In the present day, when Enzo finds himself framed for murder, and his daughter is nearly killed, he reasons that it has only been a matter of time before the perpetrators of the remaining cold cases start to try to take him out before they get caught. Investigating ensues. Assisted by the now familiar characters of his second daughter and her boyfriend, his assistant Nicole and Raffin, his first daughter has more of a role in this one and we start to get a bit more of the characters’ back story. There’s the obligatory scrapes with death, bottles of good French wine and beautiful women.
I find May’s style easy to read and there’s a good balance of continuing threads and fresh storylines. I like the implied end to the series with the seven murders which stops a feeling of things dragging along that can happen with other detective series, and there’s enough of a question mark at the end to make me eager for the next one.
Book 2: The Tent, The Bucket, and Me by Emma Kennedy
Surely no family has had the amount of disaster befall them on their summer holidays as the Kennedy family have. Emma Kennedy’s hilarious memoir following her family’s ‘disastrous attempts to go camping in the 70s’, hurtles you through storms, down French toilets and gangrenous wounds. The determination of one family to have a successful holiday is something to behold. Full of cultural references that paint a picture of 70s Britain (which isn’t too far from my memories of 80s Britain), this is a book that will have you in fits of laughter, cringing, wincing with pain and championing our heroes to get through to face another summer.
I’m not sure whether it was a good idea to take it on holiday or not. One of the flight attendants on our plane spotted it and said how much she’d enjoyed it (which vindicated my stifled giggling for a 4 hour flight) but there’s something about reading about disastrous holidays whilst your on one that seems to be tempting fate! Luckily we didn’t fall down anything nasty and survived to recommend this.
If you can’t be bothered to read it (which you should) the BBC have gone and done a whole TV series of the book. ‘The Kennedys’ should be on in the autumn I think.
Book 3: I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
This is one of the Richard and Judy summer reads and I happened to see them plugging it on the One Show. Quite liking their description I thought I’d give it a go and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m not sure what to say about this one. I really enjoyed it and definitely recommend it but I don’t want to spoil it. I don’t want to say too much really. I had more information before I read it and spent the whole time waiting for that to happen.
So who would like it. Well online and on-book comments suggest that if you enjoyed ‘Gone Girl’ you’ll enjoy this. I read ‘Gone Girl’ last year and it irritated the hell out of me for the first half, got better in the second and had a disappointing ending. This book is far better and much more worth reading. It’s a psychological thriller that kept me gripped and eager to get back to. I invested thoroughly in the characters through the well crafted narrative and raw detail throughout. There aren’t any gun-wielding space aliens or Russian naval spies so I don’t think it’s quite Howard’s thing, but that might help you decide.
Book 4: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
I have invested heavily in Cormoran Strike, Private Investigator, since reading the first novel. Every time I have a pint of Doom Bar I think of him. I got this book for either Christmas or birthday and I’ve been saving it for the summer (might as well take a book we’re both going to read on holiday).
As predicted, the first outing ‘The Cookoo’s Calling’ was a solid introduction to the characters and all the key people were in place for this investigation. Strike’s still struggling with his leg (send him to a doctor please Mr Galbraith), Robin’s still his right-hand woman, and there’s still some murdering to solve. There are some classic detective story elements but it reads as a fresh set of characters and if you enjoy the genre then it shouldn’t seem like you’ve heard it all before.
This one focuses on the world of publishing with a swathe of colorful characters from authors to agents. There is a good balance between the case and development of Strike and his work so I’m looking forward to the next one. I’m being cagey again I know. I’d rather tell everyone to just read it without giving anything away, it’s kinder. Just know that if you liked the first one you should like this one, and if you’ve not read the first one. Read it.
Book 5: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Right where to start with this one. Well, this was the second of my ‘wait for paperback’ books after I heard the review on Radio 2 and thought it sounded really interesting. The book follows the character of Holly Sykes throughout different decades of her life with each decade told from the perspective of a different character; some of which interact with her more than others. It’s a long book and in many ways each chapter/decade is a book of its own.
There’s a bit of a Neil Gaiman style fantasy element feel to the story although I spent a long time not quite sure how it was panning out and this frustrated me a bit. I found the book easier to read for some characters than others which reflected in my pace of reading; it was a lot of work to remember characters as they re-appeared and it took me a while to get through some parts. Having said that, once the story started to reveal itself I really enjoyed piecing it together.
The book starts in the 1970s and works through to the 2040s. As the chapters entered the ‘future’ there was lots of subtle references that I appreciated (like a passing comment on Justin Beiber’s 5th divorce) and it didn’t seem like there were over the top attempts to predict what’s ahead. It allowed for the story to take centre stage as it reached a climax. Having had the climax, the final chapter was a proper slog. Set in a dystopian future there was an unecessary amount of explaining the changes to the world and the collapse of civilisation, I found it all very strained and fairly detached from the story-so-far.
It sounds a bit like I hated it. I didn’t. The premise of where everything leads to is a brilliant idea and as it got going and more was revealed I really enjoyed finding out new perspectives from different characters. I think the ending has jaded my view a bit. You know how a generic hour-long TV murder has the classic solve at 45 minutes and it’s all wrapped up in the last 15? Well this felt a bit like we had the resolution at 45 and there was another hour to wrap it up. I think I’ll be thinking about this one for a while to digest it properly. I’ll recommend it because a lot of people have enjoyed it and I didn’t hate it by any means. It’s a long one though and I prefer Gaiman.
Links to books are The Guardian Bookshop again because of tax and monopolies etc.
For the ‘Tried and Tested’ section of our latest Learning and Development Bulletin I’ve chosen Stephen Lockyer’s idea of marking popular songs in a SPaG lesson. Stephen was surprised to find the high use of non-standard grammar and punctuation in popular songs and had worked it into a SPaG activity for his pupils, highlighting and correcting the mistakes. I think this is a brilliant idea and a really adaptable lesson for all levels of our pupils. Along with several other things I’ve come across recently it’s made me think more about the idea of ‘reading to survive’.
Reading for pleasure is a wonderful thing and I’m delighted that this is given prominence in the curriculum. But before pupils read for pleasure, they need to be able to read to survive. That’s not to say we should differentiate between types of reading; for most children this blends together and we never notice the seam, for others there is a gaping chasm.
When Daniel Willingham tweeted a link to an article about how the majority of popular music has a third grade reading level, I thought it was quite apt having just written about Stephen’s idea. It’s not an academic study, it analyses the numbers and it’s a bit of fun, it sounds nice and shocking but I was interested in what ‘grade three’ meant in terms of reading ability. Grade 3 is 8-9 years and looking at the Hodder Oral Reading Test pack we use in school, a reading age of 8-9 reaches words like ‘cyanide, chivalrous, candidate, opaque’ and sentences like ‘The rock star was an inveterate self-publicist and opportunist of irresistible charisma.’ and ‘The apparatus is equipped with an ingenious configuration of micro-filters’. I know this is a crude way of looking it and I don’t know if American 8-9 year olds are expected to read the same words as ours, but to be honest that seems OK for pop songs to me.
On a tangent here, but with the recent Eurovision Song Contest, I’ve been very enthusiastic about all sorts of songs in different languages. We have a French teacher at our school this term (French national, not here to teach French). He is amused at the level of conversation I’ve generated about Eurovision and said some interesting things about French songs. He said that French music is all about the words and the tune is secondary to the lyrics. He told us that when his English was good enough to actually understand the words to his favourite songs he was disappointed that the words were rubbish and there wasn’t more to them. It would be interesting to see where French songs are on the grade/level scale.
Anyway, all this got me thinking about where our day-to-day language sits. Does it matter that the majority of song lyrics are at a grade 3 level? Most of our conversations are probably at a level that an 8-9 year old could understand. We have specialist pockets of information for given situations or subjects and pupils learn these – first in a context specific way and then hopefully transferable to wider areas. Of course we want them to have a wide and flexible vocabulary. Of course we want them to do much more than survive. But surviving’s a good place to start.
I know we’re a special school but I also know that our pupils are the lucky ones that got a Statement. For every one of ours, they left behind another handful in mainstream. These are the ones who will be ‘failing’ their KS2 SATs. If the scenarios that Bill Watkin recently put forward play out then there’s a high possibility that by focusing on the magic level 4 they get left behind without us thinking about why level 4 was chosen. At a basic level we need them to be able to access the curriculum and pass exams. A simplistic view but that’s pretty much what we want. Everything else grows around this and the more we can give them the better.
Reaching level 4 means they can survive. They can read instructions, fill out an application form, understand their pay slip. They will get some GCSEs and other qualifications* and get into college or an apprenticeship. They might not be headed for the heights of university, they have their own heights. That’s the reality. Not for all of them by a long shot, but a good few. Still. We can only individualise for so long. We know that they’ll sit the same exams as everyone else, do the same BTEC courses, follow the same GCSE syllabus. We have to ensure they can read, write and handle numbers well enough to survive, but also to get a certificate that says so. All whilst making sure we don’t squeeze out other subjects.
It makes great headlines to say X% of songs/school pupils have the reading age of an 8/9 year old. Well, the expected levels for 8/9 year olds mean they’re pretty good at reading. They’re in a position to build their skills and develop their preferences for different texts. They can hold intelligent conversations and write normal, multi-million selling, song lyrics. Does it mean they’ve failed though if it takes them longer to get there? Are they less likely to achieve if we decide they’ve failed?
I’m not quite sure what my point is with all this as I’m bringing together several ideas that I’ve been thinking about. If the goal posts are shifted for GCSE content, of course the level required to be ‘secondary ready’ is going to shift as well. *Whether our ‘surviving’ students will continue to be able to succeed in this way, I don’t know. I’m not advocating a dumbing down of curriculum content or saying grade 3 or level 4 is good enough for a 16 year old. It’s clearly not good enough to only expect the minimum but what is good is having a realistic target for the minimum.
I don’t want anyone to read this and think for a second that I (and my school) don’t have high expectations for our pupils. We stretch them as far as we can and go out of our way to make sure they can access everything they should be able to. I just wonder if in the rush to be top of the tables the core reason of education for some of our pupils is pushed aside. At least according to the Hodder reading assessment, at an 8-9 year old reading level they should be able to read ‘ Vote for one candidate only’.
We were lucky enough to have some good reading-in-the-garden weather over Easter so I took advantage and finally got round to reading some of the books I was given for Christmas and Easter. I’ve got quite a few that I still need to read but I went for either ones that Howard wanted to read ASAP or ones that he isn’t likely to read at all – or at least likely to want to take away in the summer. As you can see, I was being observed as I sat there… Anyway, I’ve not written a post for a while so I thought I’d do another mini book review.
Book 1: Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovich
This is the fifth book in the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovich. I wrote about the fourth a bit in my first booky post a couple of summers ago and whilst this one’s been out for a while, I’ve only just picked it up again after starting it and getting distracted. This is the one Howard wants to read ASAP so I read it first (he’s still not had time to start it though).
Whilst the first four books are set in and around London, this one takes a jaunt out to the countryside. There are of course nods to what’s happened so far in the story but equally it could be read as a stand-alone novel. As Peter Grant steps out of the city and gets away, the tension of the series is paused momentarily and I highly suspect it will prove to be the calm before the storm. There are a couple of characters we know, but if the books are ever filmed, this is the one where actors who have other jobs on or are on maternity leave can get away with being at the other end of the phone.
We get as many new questions as we get answers but I enjoyed the change of pace and once the hazy, magic filled summer is over and Peter goes back to London and the Folly, he’s probably going to be grateful for the get-away as I don’t think he’ll be getting another holiday for a while.
Book 2: The Critic by Peter May
I’ve loved the Peter May books I’ve read so far. A colleague recommended the Lewis Trilogy and I whipped through those. I’ve read the first of the Enzo Files and have some more stacked up. The Critic is the second of May’s books featuring Enzo McLeod, a Scottish forensic expert living in France.
Self-tasked with solving a series of cold cases, the second installment leaves Paris and heads into the countryside for a spot of wine making. If ‘Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris made you crave cocoa, this one will make you perfectly happy to reach for the corkscrew. To be honest, I’m not a wine drinker, but I was taken in by the whole world of it all and was perfectly prepared to declare myself as a sommelier by the end of it. The character of Enzo fits most of the clichés about middle-aged detectives – the strained relationships, the drinking, the maverick persona, but it works and it’s different enough not to seem tired.
The Enzo Files aren’t a love letter to France in the way the Lewis series is to the Outer Hebrides, but the plot is strong and if you like a bit of murder then I recommend you give these a go. I’ve got the next one waiting for me already.
Book 3: The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
I missed Don and Rosie. I knew I would. Since reading The Rosie Project last summer I’d been waiting for the sequel to come out in paperback. Not so much because I’m a bit cheap, more that I had the first in paperback and it’ll look prettier on the bookshelf to have them the same. I decided to go for this one now as a break from the detective genre and for that purpose it was perfect.
Set in New York, Don and Rosie are still around and mixing their life of science and cocktails (there is also some real ale in this one – much more me than wine). Don is just as logical, and his unique take on life is a welcome return. Whilst the first book had me giggling like a loon by the pool, this one had a touch more heartbreak. I’m trying not to spoil anything really, so I apologise for being a bit vague, but rather than laughing at the predictions I was making from Don’s oblivious actions, I was hoping that I wasn’t right. Don’t think I didn’t enjoy it, I really did, just don’t think it will be as carefree as the Rosie Project.
Hopefully this will still encourage people to read all these – or try earlier books in each series. I’m not sure what I’ve got to read next. Most of our books are in boxes as we construct some new shelving for them all so I suspect I’ll wait for a bit and then uncover hundreds more I’d forgotten about when we fill the new shelves!
I wrote about the Blind Date With A Book day I organised at school last year, and briefly that we also did the same for staff. Over the past year I have read several books from the staff list – some of which I would have chosen to or were already on my pile waiting to be read, and some that I don’t think I would’ve gone near. No point in telling the kids to broaden their reading horizons if we don’t give it a go ourselves eh?!
The basic set up for this was everyone suggesting a book and everyone picking one blindly. We’ve created a small library in the staffroom and we’ve continued to exchange and read them. I’m not sure how many people take part now, but there’s an obvious coming and going of books so I know it’s not just me.
These are ones I’d already read and I would recommend them all if you fancy giving them a go:
- The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson
- Kill Your Friends by John Niven
- To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon
- Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander
- Faceless Killers: An Inspector Wallander Mystery by Henning Mankell
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
- Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
- Stuart A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters
I suggested a couple of the books on the list as some staff couldn’t think of one. I’ve mentioned The Rivers of London series in previous posts. We like those. Foreskin’s Lament is one I read as part of the Jonathan Ross twitter book club years ago, which I enjoyed at the time and have lent to people as something they might not pick up normally and thought it was a good addition to the staff list.
The one that was my first choice suggestion was Stuart – A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters. This was lent to me by the DT teacher at work about 5 years ago. They weren’t a big reader but they’d seen half of the film by accident on tv and been so taken by the story that they bought the book. He came up to me one day and asked if I’d like to borrow it because he thought I’d like it and he really wasn’t wrong. Please, please give this one a go. Don’t judge it by the cover. The new cover looks like one of those ‘Why did you leave me Mummy’ books that run in swathes down supermarket book aisles, and whilst we’re not in the zone of judging here, I know you will and Stuart really isn’t a book like this. Really. It is a biography. It, as the title would suggest, tells Stuart’s story backwards, starting with his death and working back to his childhood. You could read Wikipedia and get the whole story, but I think it’s worth reading it and letting the story unfold. Whether it’s because Stuart reminds me of quite a few of the boys I work with, or whether it’s because of the way I came across it, I love this book and I want other people to love it too.
Books I have read from the list since 14th February 2014:
- Perfume by Patrick Suskind
- Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
- Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver*
- Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
- The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer
- The Blackhouse by Peter May
- Bitten by Kelley Armstrong*
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
- Headhunters by Jo Nesbo
When it came to picking my book I chose ‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes. Now this is something I would never pick up to read. I would very much judge by the cover and this one is pink and frilly to sit beautifully in the chic-lit section and be ignored by cover-judging people like me. I read it in 24 hours. Not at all the story I expected. I fell for the characters, I didn’t want it to end, I happily recommend it. Ok. So I still don’t think I would head to the pink frilly section but I’m willing to give a recommendation a shot.
I’ve enjoyed pretty much all of the ones I’ve gone for so far* but the two I’ve really loved have been Perfume and The Blackhouse. Perfume’s been on my to-read list since I read Daniel Pennac’s ‘The Rights of The Reader’. It was great. Read that one if you haven’t. The Blackhouse was recommended by our Deputy Head. Part of a trilogy and set on the Isle of Lewis it starts with a murder and the return of an islander tasked with solving it. The book isn’t so much about solving the crime, but that the crime is the catalyst for a return to the island and reconnecting with the past. It’s brilliant. I’ve read the whole trilogy and other Peter May books since. If you don’t at least fall in love with the landscape then I don’t know what else I could suggest.
*I really tried to give these a good bash but couldn’t for the life of me get into them so I gave up (which of course is my right as a reader).
Blind dating books has turned out to be fun and has introduced me to some books I might not have chosen and hopefully done the same for some other staff too. I’ll keep ploughing through the list as they work their way back to the library and see what I can find. I heartily recommend having a go yourself. Next time you’re in a book shop or supermarket, go to the book charts and pick a book. Use the day of the month, your age, shoe size, whatever you like. Pick something up and give it a go.
I’ve mentioned the Blind Date With A Book event at our school a few times but I’ve put off writing about it until now because I thought if anyone was tempted to have a go themselves, it was silly to be thinking about it too far away from the sort of time you’d want to be organising it. Anyway, it’s about a year since I started planning ours properly so now’s probably the time for other people to start.
Quick background first. We were in the fortunate position that Ofsted told us we’d got too much money left in our budget and needed to get some spent (I appreciate the money aspect might be the sticking point for most people but you can still do it in some ways). Staff were asked to put in bids for specific items and having recently seen some images of Blind Date With A Book events and wondering if we could do something similar at school, I thought it would be a good opportunity to give each of the boys a book to take home. So I typed up a very official looking bid and was told to go for it.
The premise of Blind Date With A Book is that people get to pick a book without knowing what it is and get the chance to read something they might not normally go for (generally speaking I’m a believer in judging a book by its cover but I understand that we’re not supposed to do that). I’ve seen pictures of schools, bookshops and libraries going about it in a variety of ways – plain wrapping, fancy wrapping, brief descriptions on the front, clues to the book, only the scannable barcode revealed, small and big displays – all around Valentine’s Day*. I’d originally thought about just wrapping up some books in the library, but given the sudden injection of a bit of cash I went for buying an awful lot of books instead. *I also saw a Halloween one with a whole ‘Dare To Read’ theme.
I knew that I’d need more books than boys – they’d need something to choose from. I knew I’d need a wide variety of levels of book – we’ve got pupils from 7-16 and within that, reading ages that stretch in every direction. I wasn’t too concerned with excess books as everything left over has gone in the library or classrooms, but other than that I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to work out.
I started by being completely indulgent and buying books I thought they might enjoy; books I like and recommendations from colleagues and best-seller lists. Then I moved on to bulk buying and making up the numbers like a loon. I got quite a lot of books from Scholastic. They have a good selection of all sorts – you can filter by price and age quite nicely plus there’s the bonus of earning money to spend on books for school as you’re buying. I managed to get quite a lot this way, including lots of free ones. Quite a few of our pupils are into things like Robert Muchamore’s CHERUB series and Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates books. I love these books and I’m perfectly happy that if they’re reading anything, they’re reading and this is a good thing. I did include some of these books in my haul, but I also took the opportunity to introduce things like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, some Terry Pratchett and a bit of George Orwell.
This was about getting them to read something new, but also about getting them to actually give it a go. The most difficult books to get were ones for the kids with a much higher chronological age than reading age. They need books pitched at their interests but often they’re completely beyond them reading-wise. Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature is good for helping to gauge the words, and I found some books published by Dorling Kindersley that have proved quite successful. The DK Readers books have levels (some more subtly than others) from ‘Beginning to read’ to ‘Reading alone’ and include a variety of non-fiction and brands like Lego, Star Wars and Angry Birds. One of our Year 7s with a reading age of about 5y 6m has really taken to these books now so at least something good has come from it all!
In our Key Stage Two group we have one pupil who is working at very low levels. During our whole-school 10 minutes of reading after lunch, he reads picture books with his TA. I decided that a picture book was the best option for this pupil so I got a handful and fell in love with all of them. These were my favourites:
I have genuinely dragged people into Waterstones to show them how brilliant they are.
So. I had boxes of books suitable for 7-16 year olds with reading ages of ‘not’ to ‘adult’. I had the morning of Valentine’s Day to fill and I needed a logical way for 50+ boys to pick something that was at least pitched at roughly the right level.
I decided the best way to make sure they got a suitable book was to divide both the pupils (within Key Stages) and books into similar level groups and get the pupils to select books from the right group. I needed to do this in a way that wouldn’t embarrass the lower level readers and make them stand out so I decided to stick with the ‘Blind Date’ theme and get the whole school to fill in an online dating questionnaire. I didn’t sign them up to anything dodgy, I created my own simple WordPress questionnaire. I didn’t need to know what the actual results were, I’d already grouped them, but I was able to give each class a list of the pupils’ ‘results’ with which corresponded to the colour of heart I’d stuck to the front of the wrapped books. The kids happily thought their result was down to their choice of car or ice cream and none of them were singled out as low readers.
Valentine’s Day was upon us and our very enthusiastic Deputy Head decided that was needed to start the day off was a whole-school assembly, in which we would explain what was happening and also the concept of ‘Blind Date’ the TV show to the pupils. This turned into members of staff acting out a game of Blind Date as book characters and Sherlock Holmes going on a date with Miss Dixon (she turned down the Wicked Queen from Snow White and The Gruffalo). Throughout the morning each class took it in turns to visit the (beautifully decorated) library and each child picked their book. I think most of them were happy with what they’d picked. I had a couple of subtle swaps as children were upset with their choice – I wasn’t going to swap everyone’s but I did want it to be a nice event rather than a miserable one, and they asked nicely. I’m not sure if any of them did get their ‘Dream Date’, but I know at least some of them have been read and now if they’re asked by one of those national surveys if they own any books, at least they can all say yes…
I know something like this isn’t going to be possible for everyone. We’ve got a manageable number of pupils and I had the money to do it. I do think it would be something more schools could introduce to their libraries or for individual classes/ year group to do perhaps. I left it up to class teachers as to whether they followed it up with book reviews or class blogging and gave them some rewiew pro-formas, but as we broke up for half term that day, I think they all left it there. It was a lot of fun to do with the boys, especially as it fell as an end-of-half-term event and we did our own version as a staff team. My reading of 2014 was swamped with those books, but I’ll leave that one for another post.