My Bookshelf – Winter 2015

New this post: I’ve made a Pinterest board of my bookshelf for all you visual people out there!

Follow Megan’s board My Bookshelf – Winter 2015 on Pinterest.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

This novel is the first in the Mary Russell series and came highly recommended from my sister. In fan-fiction mode, King reimagines Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic characters (Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson etc) but sets the novel in Edwardian England when Holmes is semi-retired. Mary Russell is a young woman who becomes Holmes’ apprentice and then partner/assistant in crime solving. I really enjoyed this, both for the exciting plot and the plummy idiom in which King writes.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Highly recommend this. Set in modern-day-ish rural Mississippi, the novel explores race, prejudice, identity and how people’s perceptions of events can change them. Franklin brilliantly crafts voices that are at first racially ambiguous (at least to me they were), all the while keeping race as a central theme.

Rags and Bones, edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt

Book of sci-fi short stories where the authors take various fairy tales/stories as inspiration. Weird, wonderful and sometimes very challenging. One that particularly struck me was a futuristic, nihilisitc love story by Rick Yancey where an elite has conquered death by means of downloading your personality into a new body (Dollhouse anyone?), whilst the rest of humanity live and die and serve the rich folks. Neil Gaiman’s reinterpretation of Sleeping Beauty was also quite good.

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

This was an interesting book that went mental from the middle point onward. Referencing Jules Verne’s classic work, Roberts sets up the story on a top secret French nuclear submarine’s maiden voyage. The first dive is begun but then somehow the sub keeps descending for, you guessed it, trillions of leagues into an implied other dimension/world. Highly fantastical, the crew encounter all sorts of crazy things both outside the sub and within themselves.

The Portable Door by Tom Holt

Picked this up randomly from my local library, based on the blurb which said Holt was similar to Terry Pratchett or some such. Started oddly but then turned into a very quirky and funny novel about magic and awkward Brits!

The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland

Another random pick from my library based on the plot blurb (circus acts in Victorian London). Interesting characters including *spoiler* an amnesiac man who cannot be hurt or seemingly ever die who, it’s implied at the end, is a fallen angel. The novel was a bit sex-obsessed, not in terms of racy scenes but what the characters were concerned with / valued. Interesting concept but a bit tiresome and angst-ridden!

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

I don’t read much non-fiction but this was excellent. A diary cum memoir about life as a shepherd in the Lake District. Fascinating reading about such a different way of life and how Rebanks reconciles their ancient customs with the modern world.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Finally got round to reading this best seller set in a city I used to live in, Jackson, MS. Brilliant story about race and friendship amongst women in the 1960s when things were still really bad in Jackson (a period still within living memory). Well worth your time.

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My Bookshelf – Late Summer 2015

I read a fair amount of non-fiction over the summer so for the first time have divided up my bookshelf post into fiction and non-fiction sections.

FICTION

Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow

Another tech-head, conspiracy theory thriller in the vein of Homeland which I wrote about in my last bookshelf post. I enjoyed this one and again it offered a chance to think about different issues around emerging technologies such as privacy. This was all wrapped up in an interesting, not-too-distant-future scenario with Doctorow’s sharp, hip dialogue.

Treachery by S.J. Parris

Well I read another one in the Giordano Bruno series despite giving these a mediocre review in a previous blog. Why? Well they’re entertaining and pretty interesting to read if you’re a history nerd like me. This one centres on Portsmouth, the Spanish naval threat in 1585 and a rival English expedition to the New World to get some of those Spanish riches. Bruno and Sir Phillip Sidney get wrapped up in a murder and ensuing complicated plot which threatens to derail the expedition.

The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin

I picked this up from the library after reading the blurb. It is set in Prohibition era New Orleans and is based on a real life serial killer nicknamed the Axeman because, you guessed it, he killed with an axe. The novel explores race, poverty and class as we follow a mixed race teenage girl and Italian-American ex-cop who are both unofficially investigating the murders (a young Louis Armstrong also makes a semi-convincing appearance). Celestin’s style is very good and he paints a vivid if grim picture of a gritty, vibrant city.

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

After seeing the BBC series of this recently I decided to give the book another go. I’d been recommended Mantel before and leafed through this in the library but found the modern sounding dialogue a bit jarring coming from the mouth of Henry VIII. Well I really enjoyed it upon a full reading. Wolf Hall follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell from blacksmith’s son to Archbishop Wolsey’s fixer to Henry’s privy council. Mantel creates a contemplative atmosphere that still manages to be warm. I can’t quite put my finger on it, something to do with her use of first, that’s not quite first, person… Anyway, go and read.

NON-FICTION

Single, Married, Separated and Life After Divorce by Dr. Myles Munroe

Another recommendation that I read to support a family member going through a divorce. Munro talks a lot of sense and debunks many myths about relationships from our culture (you’re not complete if you’re single, marriage will solve all your problems). Probably the most radical concept was that you need to be single no matter what your relationship status. Go read it to find out more.

Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung

I was recommended this book and the following one in preparation for a seminar session I was doing for the Christian youth summer camp that we volunteer at in Wales. I’d read DeYoung’s Just Do Something which was excellent and I still reference it when people are dilly-dallying about decisions! Taking God at His Word is an evangelical exposition about the Bible and why we should believe and obey it. He goes into the theology and Christian doctrines about the Bible, but all in readable English. Highly recommend it.

Can I Really Trust the Bible? by Barry Cooper

Short, pocket-sized evangelical book that addresses the question of the title. Topics such as the manuscript evidence for the Bible, textual criticism, eyewitness evidence and how the Biblical canon we have was established are covered. Again a highly readable book that has the benefit of being very short and to the point.

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Wow, what a powerful story. This is a memoir/autobiography telling the story of Malala Yousafzai, the girl’s education campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner (and also the life of a teenage girl in Pakistan). She weaves in the history of Pakistan and her native Swat Valley and gives an account of what life was like under the Taliban. Both depressing – because of the seeming political impotence against terrorism – and inspiring, I highly recommend this.

My Bookshelf – Early Summer 2015

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Highly recommended. The setting is World War II Germany and the narrator is Death, an unusual setup but it made for a great read. In particular, reading about civilian life in Germany during this period (the main characters are reluctant conformers) was really interesting since most of what I’ve read/watched is from the Allied perspective.

Homeland by Cory Doctorow

I’d heard of Doctorow from his library advocacy, and so was interested to read one his novels. Homeland is about a group of hackers/techies in California, one of whom gets entrusted with a cache of secret government documents. The prose style was refreshingly down to earth and the themes are up to date addressing issues such as government surveillance, privacy and the impact of technologies on society. Some might think the material alarmist, but I found it a good opportunity to learn and form my own opinions. It was also very funny!

The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc

I was rationing books before a recent holiday (save the short, lighter ones for the beach!) and randomly picked this up from my local library to fill the gap, based on the fact that I’d heard of one of the authors who had a blurb on the front. It turned out to be a lovely novel which one of the blurbs perfectly described as ‘meditative’. I don’t know if this is because it’s been translated from Spanish, but the style was sparse, simple and elegant. Set in a fictional land where an old prophecy about foreigners arriving from across the sea is looming. The catch is that the council gathered to prepare for this doesn’t know whether the foreigners are good or evil. It rather struck me as an allegory of the New World and European explorers.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Collins was a contemporary and friend of Dickens, and this novel is considered the forerunner of the mystery/crime novel. Much more readable than Dickens, I really enjoyed this and was very surprised by the ending!

Night’s Masque series by Anne Lyle

I’ve read the first two books in this series, The Alchemist of Souls and The Merchant of Dreams. The hook that got me in was the interesting genre mashup of historical fiction (it’s set in Elizabethan England) and sci-fi (features a magical alien race from the New World called skraylings). There’s a lot of swashbuckling and some romance, and it also is set within an alternative timeline where Elizabeth I marries Robert Dudley and has children. Despite valid critiques of weak characters and a heavy-handed focus on sexual politics/norms, it is an enjoyable if lighter read.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (pen name of J.K. Rowling)

After a bruising experience with J.K. Rowling’s previous fiction for grown-ups (The Casual Vacancy), I was more than a little hesitant to pick up any others. However I did and it was well worth it. This is a brilliant, gripping crime novel where the protagonist, Cormoran Strike, has a juicy back story that gradually unfolds over the course of the work. It’s also a nice portrayal of life in modern London.

Giordano Bruno series by S.J. Parris

I’ve read two of these so far, Heresy and Sacrilege, after avoiding them for awhile because I thought the cover art ripped off the excellent C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. Indeed they even have similar premises: both are set in Tudor England (Shardlake during Henry VIII’s reign and Bruno during Elizabeth’s); both protagonists are outcasts (Shardlake is a hunchback and Bruno an Italian ex-Catholic) and scholars (Shardlake is a lawyer and Bruno a philosopher); and both get caught up in plots involving the greatest personages in the land. Parris’ characterisation is not as developed as Sansom’s, but these are still worth a read. I also discovered that Bruno is based on a historical figure, and a theory that he was in fact a spy for Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s intelligencer.

Things I Learned in a School Library

I worked in a secondary school library for just over one year, not very long in the scheme of things, but that experience taught me a lot and also helped me into my current job. Apologies for quite a long post but I thought I would share some of the things I learned.

Customer service

  • I gained so much customer service experience and improved my skills as a result of working in a school library. Verbal communication was a daily challenge. Explaining library procedures to 12 year olds required real care so that they could take in the information. Instructions needed to be as concise and clear as possible, if-then statements worked, and always say please and thank you!
  • Which brings me to the improvement in my manners because treating people how you want to to be treated is essential when working with young people both to model good behaviour and maintain credibility. If I had to tell a student off, I then tried to be extra nice to them to show that even though their behaviour/attitude was out of line, I still respected them as a person and wanted to help them as best I could. It’s unrealistic to expect to be respected if you’re disrespectful yourself.
  • Consistency is another important aspect of customer service, especially in a school library. Consequences for overdue/lost books had to be applied consistently and information given had to toe the line as well.
  • Creative thinking was another aspect of customer service I developed because I spent a lot of time helping reluctant readers find books. This involved asking questions, figuring out what they were interested in outside school, making comparisons to pop culture, connecting improving reading and literacy with a life goal (like passing your driving theory test)…you name it, it was worth a try. Those experiences forced me think creatively and develop my interpersonal skills.

Teaching and instruction

  • Observing many teachers teach every day, something was bound to rub off. Through my school library experience, I learned a lot about teaching, learning styles, different instructional approaches and special educational needs, as well as Ofsted, school governance, assessment and national curriculums. I did also gain some experience in instruction and delivering material myself, which was one of the main goals I had set for myself for that year. I delivered training on the Accelerated Reader scheme to students and staff, both formally in training sessions and informally across the library counter.

Behaviour management

  • This was a major aspect of the job as I was working with students most of the day in lessons and supervising them in the library outside lesson time. I had very little experience of behaviour management previously, so I was learning on the job. One advantage was that since I worked with so many different teachers, I could observe what they did that worked (or didn’t) and then try to implement that myself. I had to be very proactive about improving this skill as the behaviour was quite poor. This meant asking advice from others on how I could have dealt with a situation better and blagging my way onto a behaviour management training day put on for the teachers. I also had to learn to shout and sound angrier than I was, neither of which I ever got very good at.
  • The key thing I learned was that you had to be consistent all the time, because if you let a student off once or ignore something, you then undermine the whole system. However this was extremely difficult as it takes so much energy and of course everyone across the school had to be on board.
  • Positive redirection was another important concept. For example if a student was off task, instead of saying, “Stop doing that. You’re not doing what I asked. Why aren’t you doing xyz?”, you would get them to think and redirect themselves back on task by saying something like, “So what are you going doing to do next?” Smiling and looking really expectant helped too. Basically the idea was to focus on the positive rather than emphasising negative behaviour which only reinforces that this is what gets attention.

Solo working

  • Though I supported lessons and teachers all the time, it was really a solo job. There was no head librarian, it was just me. This taught me about taking initiative, seeking advice and feedback, and time management. I also got involved with support networks such as SLN who were a vital lifeline when I needed support from other school library folks.

Subject knowledge

  • The library collection focused on titles that were on the Accelerated Reader scheme that would be of interest to our users. Unsurprisingly, most of the stock was young adult fiction. I was familiar with many of the books such as Harry Potter, Eragon and Twilight, but I sure did learn a lot about this subject area and the many wonderful authors who are also great library advocates – Alan Gibbons, Cathy Cassidy, Neil Gaiman, Tom Palmer, to name a few! I wish I could have read more of them (The Book Thief is still on my list). Whenever I go in a bookstore now, I enjoy having a quick browse of the teen section to see what’s new.

So there’s a year distilled into five points. I hope it was informative. If you are interested in school librarianship, here are some more resources to check out:

Heart of the School blog – A blog by school librarian Caroline Roche.

Barbara Band blog – Blog by school librarian and current CILIP President, Barbara Band.

CILIP School Libraries Group – useful if you’re a CILIP member.

SLA (School Libraries Association) – supports anyone involved with school libraries not just professional librarians.

My Bookshelf 12 Nov 2014

Dominion, C.J. Sansom

Another masterpiece from Sansom, whose Shardlake series I’ve also recommended. This is a weighty tome, at just over 700 pages. While reading it propped up on various pillows and small tables, I starting seriously considering the benefits of e-readers. Dominion is a historian’s “what if…?” tale set in 1952 London. The backdrop is that Britain followed an appeasement policy in World War II resulting in Pearl Harbour never occurring, America never entering the war and subsequent Nazi Germany domination of Europe. It is truly disturbing as you can imagine but also a compelling story of ordinary people standing up for freedom.

Time Dancers, Steve Cash

Second book in The Meq series about a race of ageless children (they stop physically ageing at age 12) with magic powers and their search around the world and through history for ultimate meaning. All I can say is, it’s mesmerising. And the second book has improved on the first.

Book fountain IMG_3587. CC-BY-NC 2.0.

Neat book-related image: Cincinnati Public Library ‘Book fountain IMG_3587’ by OZinOH, Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0.

Sepulchre, Kate Mosse

I picked this up for 40p at a charity shop and man, was it worth it. A well-crafted novel that jumps between present day and late nineteenth-century France. I couldn’t put it down. Also for my music friends, Debussy and his circle crop up.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

I was recommended Gaiman by a school book seller. She said something along the lines of, “Other schools automatically buy any new title by Neil Gaiman, without bothering about what it is. He’s that good.” So I got this from my local library. It is a whimsical, charming and truly fantastic story written from the perspective of a young boy but aimed at adult readers. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh

I recently saw this listed in a newspapers’ list of Best Books Ever Written (or something similar) list though I’m not entirely sure why. I read it recently as someone recommended it to me. Set in the early twentieth century, it was very funny, in a P.G. Wodehouse style of humour. The difference being where Wodehouse is all lighthearted and carefree, Waugh had elements of the bizarre and repeatedly underlined the depressing randomness of modern life.

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

A beautiful, sad and sweeping novel of Mexico and rural America set in a vague time in the mid-twentieth century. The language is as spare and barren as the landscape. Recommended by my local librarian, and well worth a read.