Recommended reads of 2014

This is something of a self-indulgent post, wherein I round up the best books I’ve read this year. In the past, I’ve stuck rigidly to my triumvirate of reading: one education book, one book for children (fiction), one book for grown-ups (fiction or non-fiction). I’ve let this slide somewhat for 2014; there is a definite bias towards fun fiction, perhaps an upshot of going on not one but two beach holidays, each involving a stack of paperbacks. For that reason, I’ll stick with two categories: fiction and non-fiction.

Fiction

Margaret Atwood: Cat’s Eye

It seems unbelievable to me now that the only Atwood I had read prior to this year was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I hated. I saw this book on a list of “realistic representations of girls in school” and, eager to gain an insight into my students (having been both female and a school child, I am constantly concerned I have subsequently unlearned all aspects of each) I picked this book up. It is a gorgeously rendered exploration of childhood, change and femininity.

Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo’s Calling

This is sheer entertainment, and very much ties into my new-found interest in crime drama in general. The kind of book which, as you read it, you feel as though you are, in fact, watching it – that is how little effort it requires.

Sapphire: Push

I’d seen the film Precious, but the book is a much richer and more uplifting portrayal of the life of the central character. I wept at the bleakness of everything at the close of the film; ending this book I felt the opposite. There’s so much hope here, and it is cleverly expressed.

 R.J. Palacio: Wonder

Another book crammed with hope and inspiration, though never cloying – the central character feels realistically drawn; imperfect, self-aware. This was the book I recommended all of key stage 3 to read over the summer, and the one most students have run up to me to tell me they have read and loved.

Dave Eggers: The Circle

I really feel this is the 1984 of our time: a novel of the internet age, taking on every facet of life in a digital world. The silicon valley world feels real here, and if the love interest falls flat it does so for good reason.

John Green and David Levithan: Will Grayson Will Grayson

The imagination in this book is inspiring, and it’s a nifty venture – two authors writing consecutive chapters from different perspectives. The message is one of acceptance and love, and is one children and adults can learn a lot from.

Carys Bray: A Song for Issy Bradley

The tale of a mother dealing with grief in the context of her husband’s Mormon beliefs taught me a great deal about both. This was one of those books which left me feeling empty when it had ended; as if I couldn’t believe those characters had gone from my life.

Laura Wade: Posh

I missed seeing Wade’s play, and I’m sure reading it cannot compare; yet this play was so stark and so heinous, it made me really actually angry. But angry in a really good way.

Non-fiction

Martin Robinson: Trivium 21C

Robinson’s was the first book I read in 2014, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the year. The book is both a vision of how education ought to be, and full enough of personal insight to feel like a friendly conversation. One for re-reading into 2015.

Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In

I’m confused that so many people have strong emotions about Lean In, because I couldn’t see the controversy. This book felt like some really honest reflections about what it takes to be a successful woman, and the choices and mindset necessary.

Heather Kirn Lanier: Teaching in the Terrordome

I’m a sucker for a teaching memoir, and I’m a sucker for anything American. (what is the American version of a Francophile, a propos of nothing? I am that.) Lanier’s depiction of her Baltimore experience of Teach for America made me reevaluate everything I thought possible in my classroom.

 Malala Yousafzai: I am Malala

Of course, Malala is a complete inspiration for us all, but I would argue especially so for young women. This poignant and beautifully written book has been shared with all of my classes across the age groups of the school.

 Graham Nuthall: The Hidden Lives of Learners

I found this way of looking at the way children learn extraordinary. It made me consider that we probably do need to be much more careful about the evidence surrounding the way we educate, and left me with a lot of lovely quotable nuggets I have not hesitated to roll out in too many conversations.

Daisy Hay: Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives

I’m not sure how, but the Romantics are a big gap in my literary knowledge. Preparing to teach Frankenstein to year 13, I sought to remedy this, and found in this particular volume a veritable sit-com of real-life entertainment.

Daisy Christodoulou: Seven Myths About Education

I wasn’t at all sure I would enjoy this book, as I’m not altogether fond of controversy or conflict, and it had felt to me that this book incited (or invited?) both, but after hearing Christodoulou sounding ever so likeable on the radio I decided to give it a go. Thank goodness – there’s nothing controversial here, just sensible observations on education, written in sparse prose (NO superfluous words – not even one).

Easter reading

About one year ago, I attempted to go on holiday. After a day of biking around Central Park feeling smug, I contracted some hideous vomiting bug which had me laid up in bed for the full duration of the “holiday”, thus making that week the longest and most expensive lie-in ever. On the upside, I used my bed rest to write my first two blog posts (here and here), so beginning my foray into writing about books. Although I have strayed far from the tangent, I return today, partly for the sake of nostalgia, to some book thoughts.

I’ve gone about holidaying in a different way this time round. After six solid days of planning, marking, strategising and the obligatory running of many intervention sessions, I went on a holiday. One of those you might normally expect to occur in the midst of July or August, of the beach variety. On a beach holiday, I have two aims: one, spend as long as possible in the sun; two, read as many books as possible.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

I began in the airport, where all good holiday reading begins, with J.K. Rowling’s latest, written under a pseudonym (explained in more detail here). A colleague, who is also our department’s lead Harry Potter champion, recommended this and I’m delighted she did. I’m not normally a fan of crime fiction, but this is crime fiction sexed-up; with a massive dash of celebrity intrigue. It’s like crime meets the Daily Mail Showbiz website. Like The Casual Vacancy and Harry Potter I enjoyed this tremendously, perhaps in an intellectually uncommitted and vacuous way. That said, I do wonder if in a century’s time we might look back on this writer and concede her genius in the way of an Austen or Eliot, in holding up a mirror to our society and making it a rollicking good read.

I am Malala

This is a book for all of my year 11 to read (perhaps not yet – revise first ladies). Malala, also in year 11, has accomplished more than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime, and she is driven by a burning desire to promote education for all. Through this biography, I also learned lots about Pakistan and the Swat Valley, through nuggets of personal anecdote and news-worthy fact which made me hanker back to my pre-teaching days of reading The Economist and generally knowing what is going on in the world. A life-affirming, mission-confirming book.

Primary Colours

Believe it or not, before finding my “calling” in education, I previously worked in politics and sought to make that my life’s work. This novel reminded me of all the dirt and glory that comes with political intrigue. A thinly-veiled portrait of a couple closely resembling the Clintons (I wonder why it is anonymous?), this novel also prompted me to question the “real right” – not political, but moral. The central candidate has catastrophic personal flaws and human failings bordering on the obscene; yet his is absolutely driven by a central aim to make America a better place for its human inhabitants, and an absolute genius in his understanding of policy, strategy and governance. Do we need to care what our leaders get up to behind closed doors? I’m definitely undecided on this one.

The Wasp Factory

 I’m not sure why I read this, other than a feeling that the zeitgeist is normally right about “great” modern writers. For me, this novel felt like Faulks’ Engleby without the humanity. I wasn’t invested in the characters, and the whole climax of the novel fell flat for me. Undeniably, however, this book is beautifully written, and I do believe I have missed something in my underwhelmed response.

Divergent

This novel is known as the poor cousin to The Hunger Games, and with good reason. It rattles on, pure plot, for nearly 500 pages, including almost no characterization. Despite this, I enjoyed it hugely, partly because I’m a sucker for a kids’ trilogy and partly because I enjoy books which are pure plot, especially on holiday. The book is bizarrely almost all scene-setting, with the last 50 pages clamoring to an unexpected conclusion. Will I bother with the second book? It depends how “lite” I want my holiday reading to be.

Next term is short and vital. All term I have found it nearly impossible to read anything that is not about education, be that a piece of non-fiction, blog or child’s exercise book. It has been truly lovely to vegetate my brain with some froth.

 I felt painfully guilty about leaving during the “crucial holiday” for an entire week, but was greatly comforted (as happens so often) by my line manager’s wisdom: “next term is short. But we can do a lot in a very short time. Rest.”