Book Review of Sparks in the Dark

sparks in the darkI saw a lot of chatter about this book on Twitter and figured it might be a nice opportunity to get back in touch with the old Head of English who used to be pretty active in the space of promoting reading and writing.

And I can see why Sparks in the Dark is causing so much conversation – it’s a really good primer for those who are looking to transform their practice, to approach writing from new directions and to allow students a lot more freedom over their reading choices, so that what we actually foster is a lifelong love of reading.

This book will introduce you to some great thinkers in this space such as Nancie Atwell, Kerry Gallagher and Penny Kittle and is in itself littered with some great musings of the power of reading and writing in our lives.  A good read to begin a journey or to remind you of those new ways we can frame our classrooms.

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Book Review of The Outsider

outsiderWhen it’s a good one, reading a Stephen King book is a special kind of pleasure.  One I had saved in fact, for these school holidays and a work trip to the Gold Coast.  And The Outsider is just what you would hope it to be – engaging, suspenseful and in touch with that dark world just outside ours that Stephen King seems to have a direct line with.

The story begins with two interesting premises – the first is the arrest of a local baseball coach for the particularly brutal murder of one of the local boys he coached.  This alone peaks interest – how does the local hero hide the kind of dark side that could commit the crime described by police in the first pages. But there were witnesses to him picking up the boy in a van, and DNA

Then irrefutable DNA and eye-witness evidence emerges placing him at a literary convention in another city that day.  So what is the answer?  How can one person be in two places at the same time?

The mystery here will appeal to fans of King’s recent Bill Hodges series (and there is a nice connection to this later in the narrative), but don’t be fooled – there is more to this than meets the eye.  When all possible explanations are removed, only that which is impossible is left.  And that is exactly where they need to look for the answers to this crime.

The whole novel is a great read, but particularly the chilling first half where everyone – the reader and the characters – are trying to determine the truth.  King has a spellbinding ability to create that sense of the ominous – of something dark and dangerous just outside our reach.  You wont be disappointed by The Outsider.  It’s a great read.

Book Review of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

espwI can’t remember where I read something positive about this book, but when it came time to binge on audiobooks over the school holidays, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows popped up on my list. And it was delightful.

Much of the story surrounds Nikki – a thoroughly modern Punjabi woman living in London who is largely sceptical and disregarding of many traditional elements of her culture, which she sees as behind the times and irrelevant to her own life. After dropping out of her law degree, she takes a job teaching what’s she thinks will be creative writing to women at the local temple … but it turns out few are able to read and write in English. Nikki resigns herself to the idea of teaching basic literacy to the older women – mainly widows – until serendipitously the women are accidentally presented with a book of erotic stories mixed in with the basic texts she bought for them.

This leads to the sharing of unexpected longings, experiences and desires. Nikki is forced to rethink all of her ideas about the lives of traditional Indian women. While shy and reserved, many possess deep wells of feeling and sexuality she never expected. Eventually the whole class comes to embrace the idea of documenting erotic stories and the women of the local community become quietly fascinated too.

But behind all this is the darker side that was responsible for many of Nikki’s preconceived ideas. There are definitely pockets of the community stuck in incredibly traditional and conservative thinking – and who will bully mentally and physically any woman who looks to step outside her place. In places, the story takes a sinister undertone when exploring this.

But ultimately this is a heartwarming story of self-discovery and liberation for many of the characters. I challenge you not to enjoy this.

Book Review of The Hope Circuit

 

hope circuitIt took me over a month to read Martin Seligman’s latest offering, The Hope Circuit and in fact, I was surprised to find how much I struggled given what a fan I am of his work.

But there are two reasons for this. The first is that – unlike his other books – The Hope Circuit is essentially autobiography. It tells of Seligman’s life from childhood up to now, focussing on his work and journey as a psychologist with also some small insight into the way his own mind has worked (Seligman himself claims that his mindset is naturally pessimistic and that his wife and his work on positive psychology have transformed him). So for those of you looking for advice on how to live, you won’t find it here.

Secondly, I think Seligman gets a bit lost in the details here. So many names are mentioned! While I am sure he is trying to acknowledge everyone who contributed to the work he has done in his field, it’s actually quite exhausting keeping up with them all – despite his efforts to use photographs to make it all easier.

While there are great insights into how he changed his focus from Learned Helplessness to Learned Optimism, as well as the inventions of Positive Psychology and Positive Education, this could easily have been shorter and in fact, more personal. Educative but not absorbing.

Book Review of The Immortalists

immortalistsHow would you live if you knew the day you were going to die?

This is the premise of Chloe Benjamin’s very clever novel, The Immortalists.  When a travelling gypsy promises to tell you the day of your death, the four Gold children are intrigued, and pool their pocket money to hear their fortunes.  But Benjamin’s novel suggests there are some things best left unknown as each of their lives are shaped by the news they receive that night.  Three of the four will die long before their time. But they don’t reveal their dates to each other – not until it is almost staring them in the face.

From this point, each sibling takes over the narrative in order of their death (great strategy by the way!).  Simon, the youngest and with the least time lives passionately, but dangerously.  A gay man in the seventies, he seeks the freedom of the emerging gay scene in San Francisco – but falls foul of the “gay cancer” that is puzzling the medical community.  His closest companion and sister Klara is tormented by his loss – a loss she seeks to understand through the occult.  Already a magician, her belief in the afterlife and her continued belief in a connection to Simon lead to her downfall.

Second oldest Daniel is the rock – the son who looks after the mother and attempt to be all he should.  But even as his date comes, he cannot ignore the gypsy prophecy and cannot stop wondering about his two deceased siblings… so on his fated day he seeks the gypsy out.

The surviving sibling lives the smallest life, studying longevity and living a controlled and safe existence, perhaps in the guilt of being the lone survivor.  But the gypsy promised Varya things would “turn out alright” in the end, and the narrative leaves us warm in the hope that she may have been right about this too.

Although each of the four stories is interesting in it’s own right, some are obviously more compelling that others.  But this is a wonderfully crafted novel and I really admire how Benjamin structured it.  A fascinating premise and a very worthwhile read.

Book Review of Teach Like Finland

Teach-Like-FinlandThe Finnish education system has gotten  lot of attention over the years since they leapt to the top of the PISA rankings, and everything about their learning and teaching became a point of conversation for educators.

I have been sitting on this book for a while, and suddenly felt the urge to pick it up and see what I responded to.  It’s written by an American who went to teach in Finland, outlining what wet well and what his conclusions were.

The book is full of his honest personal experiences, and split into five sections: Wellbeing, Belonging, Autonomy, Mastery and Mind-Set.  It’s full of tips big and small – ones that you could implement yourself in your own classroom, and ones that rely upon much bigger thinking and processing, that you would need school structures to change for, or that would work only with a team of staff on board. Some of the key takeaways for me included:

  • The need for students to take 15-minute brain breaks every hour to maintain focus – and that teachers can actually use this to strengthen their team bonds
  • Text books definitely have a place – we can neither afford to ignore them nor rely on them totally. Instead we “mine them” for the good stuff.
  • Movement and mindfulness have an important place in the school day
  • Give students more responsibility rather than have them build up to it – show them you trust them
  • Eliminate the stuff that is all style and no substance.
  • Have more conversations with your students, about how and what they want to learn and about what they think they have learnt and how well.
  • Look after yourself – take breaks and vacations.  Don’t feel the need to be competitive with your colleagues as to who is working the hardest… instead work together to support each other as a team.

This is very readable and simply structured.  Quite a good reminder of what good practice is and how to sharpen what you are doing now.

Book Review of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

sophie-stark-e1448060209378One of the real luxuries of holidays is to throw all serious reading aside and pull out a book of relaxing fiction. 

First I started with a Lianne Moriarty, but that turned out to be too light. I settled instead for Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, a book that had been on my to-do list for a while. I ungraciously pounced on it when a friend revealed a whole bag full of second-hand book goodies she’d managed to pick up .. and she much more graciously allowed me to take this, offering that she had plenty more to keep her going.

So the story of film-director Sophie Stark… it’s quietly intriguing and cleverly crafted. Told in sections by the people closest to her – and not entirely chronologically, they each paint a picture of that tortured artist trope – a woman trying to communicate with the world via film and through appropriating the powerful stories of those in her lives. Equal parts genius and destructive, Sophie is a vivid figure who none – including the reader – are likely to forget. 

I absorbed this with a quiet fascination over about three days. It’s a book with few likeable characters and some clever storytelling. Although trite in places, it’s the kind of book you wished you’d come up with the concept for yourself. Worth picking up