Book Reviews

  • Book Reviews

Half a dozen titles that are perfect for teachers and learners…

The Terrible Two (Mac Barnett and Jory John, Amulet Books, £8.99)

Tempt those teens still addicted to Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid with something slightly more sophisticated; it’s written in the first person, which allows a more sophisticated level of humour. The two protagonists are genuinely three-dimensional, with a friendship that, once eventually established, has real heart. And there are considerably more cows than in any other story of a similar nature. Stylish, full of skilfully imagined pranks, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, this has all the makings of the start of a series with staying power.

Liberty’s Fire (Lydia Syson, Hot Key Books, £7.99)

‘...Arise, ye starvelings from your slumbers…’ (Eugène Pottier: the “Internationale” written just weeks after the crushing of the Paris Commune, in June 1871) The years 1870-71 were traumatic for France. Its armies had been rapidly defeated by the Prussians and its capital subjected to a grinding four-month siege. Peace may finally have been signed but the workers of Paris were horrifed, and voted in a revolutionary city government: the Commune. Its radicalism prompted a violent backlash from the official French government, which culminated in a blood-soaked week in May 1871 as barricades were smashed and prisoners executed. This then is the context of Lydia Syson’s third novel, continuing her passionate drive to open up neglected periods of history to teenaged readers. Against this backdrop, she tells a tale of tangled loves and shifting allegiances as the dedicated Communarde Rose, gutsy sixteen-year-old Zéphyrine, fatally-divided opera singer Marie, idealistic violinist Anatole and detached American photographer Jules endure revolution and repression: romantic, fascinating and terrifying.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Sydney Padua, Particular Books, £16.99)

Lovelace and Babbage: what a combination! Had Charles Babbage been a better project manager or delegator, and Ada Lovelace been in better health, the computer might have been invented a hundred years before it was. Why? As Sydney Padua explains in this delightful book, Babbage’s theoretical Analytical Engine was, in effect, a computer. It had memory, a processor and feedback loops, and only differed from the first actual computers by being operated by levers and powered by steam. As for Lovelace, she was one of the few people who actually understood what the Analytical Engine could do, and how it could be made to work. This book imagines what might have happened in an alternative universe in which the Analytical Engine is built and Lovelace does not die young. While their adventures are, of course, pure fantasy, the copious notes throughout the book make it clear that they have a basis in actual events. A mixture of the history of computing, alternative history, science fiction, ‘steam punk’ and graphic novel, Lovelace and Babbage is informative, insightful and humorous. A must-have for your bookshelf (available from April 21st)

Kiss of Death (Bali Rai, Collins Read On, £5.99)

One of the most powerfully concerning results to emerge from the release of the latest What Kids Are Reading study published by Renaissance Learning was the fact that whilst primary school aged children show a marked preference for books that are significantly beyond their natural reading age, this enthusiasm for challenging literary experiences starts to wane in Year 7; and positively plummets for many young people by the time they hit Years 10 and 11. At least one reason for this might be a disconnect between some teenagers’ reading competence, and the range of material that their level of ability enables them to access. Series like Collins’ Read On, then, which feature stories designed to appeal to older kids, told in a way that they doesn’t exclude struggling readers, are an invaluable addition to any secondary school library; and this gritty tale of star-crossed urban lovers from the confident pen of Bali Rai is a brilliant example of how to get such a commission exactly right.

British-Islamic Identity (Aminul Hoque, IoE Press, £26.99)

As recent events demonstrate with chilling clarity, it is all too easy for schools to focus on nurturing an inclusive and tolerant atmosphere amongst staff and students – yet still neglect to take full account of all the other influences to which their young people are exposed beyond the classrooms and playing fields. In today’s atmosphere of increasing uncertainty and suspicion between small but vocal sections of various communities it is wise for educators to take every opportunity available to increase their own understanding of what kinds of experiences their students may be having at home, with their peers, and via the internet. To this end, thoughtful and scholarly works like this study by Aminul Hoque can be incredibly useful. In the book, Hoque presents an in-depth ethnographic study of the lives and identities of six third-generation, British-born Bangladeshi teenagers from Tower Hamlets – and reveals a complex process of self-definition through the construction of a new, positive British-Islamic identity. Fascinating, enlightening – and very, very important.

Headstrong (Dame Sally Coates, John Catt Educational Ltd, £14.99)

Dame Sally Coates has a pretty impressive CV by anyone’s standards – she’s worked in some of the toughest schools in the country and raised standards in all of them - and by about three pages into this book that’s part manual, part memoir, you will start to get an understanding of why. Described by Toby Young as “a phenomenon, sweeping through school corridors like a tornado, making improvements wherever she goes”, Dame Coates has a presence that is indeed formidable, even translated through print. You would expect strong opinions, clear directions and an expectation that those around her will give of nothing less than their best – and that is what you get. What might take you by surprise, however, is the charm, self-awareness, humour and above all, passionate humanity that accompanies those drivers. The result is a book that is not only packed with sound advice that you’ll be itching to put into practice in your own school, but is also a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting read.

Meet the Author

Bali Rai bridges the gap…

Why is it, do you think, that gritty, frightening and even violent storylines are so often used to motivate struggling older readers to pick up a book for pleasure?

It’s about making an instant impact. They are more immediate and visceral. Many reluctant readers will say books are boring. The gritty stuff challenges that and the readers connect with it. Certainly that is my experience when working with such pupils. The darker stuff engages those most resistant to reading. And the subject matter is more apt too. Teen reluctant readers might require simpler writing styles and word counts but they aren’t children. The subject matter must be age-appropriate, and it must appeal. Teens are naturally more informed about the world around them than children, and the gritty stories speak to such readers more readily.

How important is it, in your opinion, for schools to try and nurture a love of reading in older students who may well be more keen to spend their free time on the football pitch, or online?

It’s vital. We know that reading for pleasure is the best thing teens can do, outside of getting an education, to improve their life chances. We can see the impact of low literacy rates on our society. The pupils who read the most, succeed the most. Those that don’t read at all, or very little, tend to remain trapped in cycles of poverty and low-achievement. Education coupled with a culture of reading is the basis of social mobility, the attainment of goals, and the broadening of horizons. I am a passionate advocate of reading for pleasure across every age group, and I think that it must become the basis of all school-based learning. It is that important.

‘Kiss of Death’ ends rather ambiguously… might there be a sequel?

Haha! I have no plans to write a sequel. The ending was supposed to allow the reader to decide for themselves what might happen. It was supposed to make them think, and leave them shocked. Sometimes reluctant reader stories can be too structured, and too rounded-off. The idea with Kiss of `Death was to offer a challenging storyline and structure, with a theme that provokes thought and debate, coupled with a simpler style. I was very, very happy with the way it turned out!