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2017 in Books

I always think I don’t make enough time to read, but looking back over the year I’ve not done too badly (helped considerably by audiobooks from Audible). For your interest and edification, here’s my list from this year…

Non-Fiction

Actual books

Real books get read in bed, pretty much exclusively – they get the most attention paid to them, but it’s quite a limited time slot; so these are the ones I most wanted to get to.

  • The Year of Living Danishly, Helen Russell A light entertainment Christmas present – an interesting, readable insight into another culture, but nothing that changed my life.
  • Mindsight, Daniel J. Siegel Loved this exploration of mindfulness and meditation; for me it was the perfect blend of scientific basis and anecdotal colour.
  • Emotions, Learning, and the Brain, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang Academic papers studying various aspects of learning; fascinating, but pretty specialist.
  • The Whole-Brain Child, Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson A good summary of the basics of children’s emotional development; but I’ve read a lot around this already and for me it was mostly old ground.
  • Everything That Can Happen Does Happen, Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw Quantum Physics, for a bit of light relief before hitting the teenage round-up 🙂
  • Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, Lisa Damour A good insight into the (for me fast approaching) world of parenting teenage girls (though much I’m sure applies to boys too) – realistic but not terrifying. Recommended.
  • Free to Learn, Peter Gray. Winner of the most-marked quotes award for 2017. A look at the benefits of unschooling, mostly focusing on the Sudbury Valley democratic school. I wouldn’t say I agree with everything in it; but it served as a useful reminder of why we chose an alternative educational journey in the first place.
  • Blame My Brain, Nicola Morgan Teenagers again – this one aimed at both teenagers and parents, focusing on the brain changes that go on in the adolescent period. I wasn’t completely convinced by this one for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on; something to do with reinforcing the teenage stereotypes more than I was comfortable with. I’d planned to give this to my eldest to read, but I won’t, yet – I think it would just give her ideas she hadn’t yet come up with by herself 🙂
  • Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath A marketing book, on the face of it, but really applicable to anyone who wants anyone else to care about their ideas – which is pretty much all of us, and certainly applies to parents and teachers. Very readable, and full of actionable tips. Also recommended.
  • Brainstorm, Daniel J. Siegel More teenagers, this one from the author of Mindsight. I really wanted to love this one, and in some ways I did – I certainly appreciated the positive interpretation of adolescence – but I also found it a bit hard going, and focused on meditation as the answer to everything. This was also addressed to both teenagers and their parents, but while I’d be perfectly happy with my kids reading it, I can’t imagine that they’d want to just yet!
  • Queen Bees and Wannabees, Rosalind Wiseman A look into the social world of tweens and teens, and another one I struggled with making my mind up about. Some of the social dynamics I recognised, but overall I couldn’t help thinking that for the most part, it’s really not that bad, surely?
  • Reading People, Anne Bogel A change of pace, with a new book from one of my favourite bloggers, Modern Mrs. Darcy. This gives an overview of several personality frameworks – not massively in-depth, but enough to give a pretty good grounding in a topic that if you go for it at all, is pretty interesting. I’m a fan of ‘Know Thyself’, and while Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram don’t have all the answers, they can certainly help you think of some interesting questions to ponder.
  • Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil I got this on a whim, after hearing it was the required reading for my old Cambridge college, and really enjoyed it. It’s a look into how the mathematical algorithms that increasingly govern many corporate decisions bake-in prejudice and assumptions; thought-provoking. Also unashamedly left-wing, but hey, that’s King’s for you.
  • The Rivers of Consciousness, Oliver Sachs My latest Christmas present and my current on-the-go read. A collection of essays bouncing around various aspects of evolution and the interesting ways our brains can work. Fascinating so far.

Audiobooks

Audiobooks get listened to mostly when cooking or clearing the kitchen, or on (very) occasional solo car rides. It’s a good way to multitask, but I find it harder to take in information, so these are more the ‘looks interesting’ than the ‘must read’ list.

  • Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed A look at how we can learn from our mistakes, and what happens when we do or don’t (with a focus on the aerospace industry – which does – and the health industry – which, scarily, often doesn’t). Worth pondering.
  • Essentialism, Greg McKeown The basic argument here is that we should say no to almost everything, in order to be able to say yes to the things that really matter. I slightly bristle at being told what to do, which is always an issue with self-help books, and this hit my ‘yes, but’ buttons quite a lot. Despite that, the man has a point.
  • SPQR, Mary Beard A history of Rome, started in an attempt to broaden my interests from child development and personal improvement. It was interesting, but I probably didn’t have enough of a background to really take it in, and I haven’t finished it yet…
  • The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins The classic 70s treatise on natural selection and evolution. Not as polemic as I half expected it to be on reputation alone, and while obviously not entirely new ideas given the book’s wide ranging influence, there were enough ‘a-ha’ moments to make it a very worthwhile listen.
  • How to Have a Good Day, Caroline Webb A summary on the latest ideas in motivation and productivity. This would probably have been better in print, and would be a good book to start with – but given I’ve probably read most of the works it’s pulling together, it didn’t feel like anything new to me.
  • Getting Things Done, David Allen A reread for me, of the latest edition, which is not too dissimilar to the one I read ten years ago. I’m still only about 70% of the way towards the promised ‘mind like water’ though….
  • All Marketers are Liars, Seth Godin A business-y book, chosen with the vague notion of promoting this blog in some way, at some point. I’ve no doubt it’s good advice – essentially, tell a story, and I’m big on the power of stories – but I fear marketing is never going to be my strong point.
  • Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari An exploration of a possible future, building on the technological advances currently happening. Always a tricky proposition, and there was plenty in here I’m not completely convinced by, and plenty of possibilities I think he ignored unwisely. That said, as with his previous book Homo Sapiens, he presents some unconventional viewpoints that properly challenged my way of thinking, and that’s got to be a good thing.
  • Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker Another book by a blogger I enjoy, and another summary of motivation and productivity sort of ideas. So quite a lot I’d heard before, some of it in the original blog; but an interesting enough way to pass time in the kitchen.
  • Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Now this was odd. More a collection of audio musings than a structured book, which I’m not so keen on, and again, a ground breaking idea in its time that has been explored and built on by many of the writers I’ve read more recently, so not exactly new to me – however there were a few nuggets that gave me a new way of thinking of things. I get the feeling this one may need to percolate a little more.
  • Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, Alex Bellos The latest, not far in, so hard to say just yet. An exploration into various mathematical ideas; since I did my degree in Maths and have fairly recently read a few of his source books, I have a feeling it’ll fall into the ‘diverting, but not much new for me’ category, but time will tell.

Fiction

I’ve had a bit of a weird relationship with fiction since the children were born, and have focused much more on non-fiction. Partly because with reading time suddenly massively more limited, and so much new I wanted to learn about, it seemed a waste to delve into made-up worlds; and partly because a good novel was rather too distracting and tended to lead to neglect of the children. I’m getting back to fiction now, but I’m rather more picky than the days when I’d simply buy and read whatever was available for £1 in the Cambridge seconds bookshop, twenty books at a time.

Actual Books

  • The Confusion, Neal Stephenson (part two of the Baroque Cycle)
  • System of the World, Neal Stephenson (part three of the Baroque Cycle) Not for the faint hearted, these were each thousand-page tomes, and it took me a while after reading the first part – Quicksilver – to commit to the rest. However, it was worth it; strong characters, a lively, complex plot, and a background of scientific and economic change that got me interested in a period of history I’d not paid much attention to before. Diverting and educational – big tick for me.
  • Friday’s Child, Georgette Heyer Pure Regency romance escapism. It’s hard to pretend there’s anything more to it than that, and it’s all the better for not trying to.
  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon This finds its way onto various ‘must read’ lists, although I chose it rather more randomly than that. It’s well written – the story of a boy uncovering the past of a mysterious author – but I didn’t feel like it had much relevance to me at this season of my life. Sometimes that’s the point, but it’s not what I’m looking for just now.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood I reread this after watching the – very good – recent TV series. Still as powerful as I remembered from my initial reading at 17.
  • The Versions of Us, Laura Burnett A recent novel, chosen in the spirit of ’time to read more fiction’. It follows the same couple through three different possible life paths, diverging as they make different choices along the way. It’s not a completely new idea, and I wasn’t sure there was enough to it at first, but as the characters aged I found the structure enhanced the individual stories and added an extra dimension to the novel as a whole. Worth a read.
  • Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman A fantasy novel, set in an alternate city underneath the London we know. I’d read a few rave reviews of this one, and I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman soundbites, but the novel itself was a little underwhelming, if I’m honest. It was a decent enough way to pass the time, but nothing that will stick with me.

Audiobooks

These were both choices of my ten-year-old bookworm to accompany her cooking project time; I haven’t yet figured out how to chose fiction for myself that I both want to listen to and is guaranteed to be safe for passing young ears…

  • Little Men, Louisa May Alcott Follow-on from Little Women, with Jo all grown up and running a small boarding school. It’s a nice take on the important things in an education, with typical Victorian emphasis on religious values.
  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte Classic Gothic romance. ‘Nuff said. The girls loved it, I was only slightly sarcastic about the melodrama.

Children’s Fiction

I’m just including the ones I’ve properly read here; if I included all the picture books read to my youngest and all the books read by the children themselves I wouldn’t actually be able to finish writing this up by the time next year rolled around…

Actual Books

A couple of these were family read alouds, although we’ve done very little of that this year – we’ve hit a phase where it’s very difficult to find something that suits everyone. The others were me pre-reading (something I should probably do more of!) or wanting to read something the girls had recommended – one thing I miss from reading aloud together is being able to talk about what the children are reading.

  • Palace of Stone, Shannon Hale This was a read aloud that we didn’t finish as it got a bit unsettling for my super sensitive eldest. It’s the sequel to Princess Academy, which was a surprisingly good coming of age story; this one continues the theme of finding yourself while bringing in wider social issues, as Miri finds herself drawn into a revolution.
  • Saturdays at Sea, Jessica Day George Another read aloud; this is the latest (and looks like last) in the Castle Glower series, which has been a hit with all of mine, hitting that sweet spot between exciting but not too scary. This time they find a magic ship with a mind of its own.
  • Storybook of Legends, Shannon Hale I read this after the girls really enjoyed it, and recommended it for my reading guide. I can’t say it was up there with the Princess Academy series for me in terms of deeper themes, but it’s a clever blend of modern life and traditional fairy tales.
  • Number the Stars, Lois Lowry I wanted to pre-read this before passing on to the children, given it’s WW2 theme (based in occupied Denmark, the story focuses on a child’s role in protecting her Jewish friend), and I’d had enough recommendations that I quite wanted to read it anyway. I’m glad I did; while it does not shy away from the reality of the time, it has a similar light touch to ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’, and focuses on the strength and courage of ordinary people faced with extraordinary challenges.
  • Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan This is the current focus morning readaloud with my 8-year-old boy, and has sparked off a general Percy Jackson reading frenzy (I had two box sets put by which came out at the perfect moment and have been read multiple times by the older ones over the last month). A lively, modern take on Greek mythology, this is more for an older age range (it was way too much for my eldest when we first tried it as a readlaoud when she was 8; my current 8-year-old is more, shall we say, robust…), but it’s great fun.

Audiobooks

Whenever we’re in the car – and we live in the sticks, so that’s a fair amount – we have a story on. We have a story we’re listening to all together, and ones I listen to with particular combinations of children if we’re out for activities with just a selection of them. And ones they listen to at home when they’re with me in the kitchen, or in the bath, or on their own MP3 players… it’s fair to say we do audiobooks. Sometimes I manage to slip in a new one, though that has the same issues with choosing family readalouds – getting agreement from everyone can be a tricky proposition. Often we listen to repeats, until one or other of us just can’t take it any more.

  • Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie A classic, that we got from Librivox, which provides free audio versions of books that are now out of copyright. As with most volunteer projects, quality is a bit of a mixed bag, and I found this not quite what I was expecting – whether that’s due to the translation or the original version (which I had probably never read, though we’d read several children’s versions and recently seen a play based on a sequel), I’m not quite sure.
  • Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling Which, surely, needs no explanation by now (Stephen Fry version, natch). I think I’ve covered all seven this year, in different orders with different children (and they’ve listened on their own too). We went through the first four in honour of my youngest, who has caught bits and pieces of the older ones’ listening; although, to be honest, I wouldn’t have had him listening that young (four, turning five towards the end of the year) if he hadn’t been exposed already.
  • The Tiffany Aching series, Terry Pratchett Another re-listen, of various books in various combinations. Again, had I looked at these in advance I might not have gone through the whole series with the children this age – ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’ in particular opens with some really rather dark themes – but they have coped, and enjoyed them, and Pratchett is always good for slipping in thought-provoking ideas under the guise of clever comedy.
  • Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli A lyrical tale of individuality and first love, chosen fairly randomly and happening to hit on some close to home issues, as a home educated girl shakes things up as she starts at the local high school. We enjoyed it, but it hasn’t been requested again (the girls did read the sequel) – I think the car is not the best place for quite a personal story!
  • Magicalamity, Kate Saunders A boy suddenly discovers his father is a fairy when he’s thrown into an unexpected magical world – fairies were never quite like this in the storybooks. It was a little scary on first reading, but has had several repeat listens since, although I had to stop the youngest asking for it after he started repeating some of the more colourful phrases 🙂
  • Bewitched, Kate Saunders Another Kate Saunders, this one featuring a time swap as a modern girl gets transported back to a 1940s boarding school.
  • The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop, Kate Saunders
  • Curse of the Chocolate Phoenix, Kate Saunders Two books about twins Oz and Lily and their friend Caydon, who discover their magical roots when they get mixed up in a secret mission to thwart their immortal ancestor’s chocolate-related plans… almost too scary but not quite, and rocketing along with a decent level of interest and humour. We’ve had a few repeat listens of these, and they’ve had the books out of the library, so I think that’s a hit.
  • Frozen in Time, Ali Sparkes A listen with my eldest on the way to one of her activities; we never got to finish it as she got a bit scared (though to be honest, it’s pretty mild stuff). Children who have been cryogenically frozen in a secret experiment in the 50s are accidentally awoken in modern Britain by the children who now live in their house. It’s a mix of culture shock, friendship and mystery as the children try and unravel what happened to them. I must go back and find out how it ended!
  • The Girl Who Walked on Air, Emma Carroll I listened to this to catch up on the girls’ recommendation for the reading guide. It’s a good yarn; a Victorian circus girl sets out to prove herself and discover her past. Enough mild peril to put off my eldest but most 8-12 year olds would enjoy this one.
  • Third Grade Angels, Jerry Spinelli This one follows an 8-year-old boy as he tries to win his teacher’s coveted ‘halo’ for the best behaviour of the class. It’s a straightforward, nicely characterised, everyday life of a child wondering what being good really means sort of book. We liked it, but it didn’t seem to really stick with anyone.
  • Echo, Pam Munoz Ryan This was a recommendation from Read Aloud Revival, and one of those books that may even work better in the audio version than on paper, as the musical themes are woven into the well-read story. I only listened with my 10-year-old, and I don’t think the others would have managed it yet – it has some quite complex WW2-related themes, well handled for 10-14 year olds but my eldest would have found it disturbing. I thought it was beautifully done.
  • Perfectly Ella, Candy Harper A ‘daily family life’ story, as Ella comes to terms with her place both in a busy family still adjusting to divorce and a new baby step-sister, and between her new best friends as they come together at secondary school. It’s nicely characterised and relatable, quietly affirming that it’s OK to be who you are.
  • The Parent Agency, David Baddiel
  • AniMalcolm, David Baddiel Now these stories are about as British as it gets, as you’d expect from David Baddiel (who also performs the audiobooks). Each has a ‘was it real, was it all a dream?’ premise where a boy gets cast into a vaguely comic scenario designed to teach him a lesson. In The Parent Agency, Barry tries out parents that have what he thinks he wants – money, fame, energy – before discovering that his own parents aren’t so bad after all. In AniMalcolm (which we’ve not yet finished listening to), Malcolm is turned into a series of animals. They’re OK, non-threatening, enjoyable, but they don’t strike me as classics.
  • Hero’s Guide series, Christopher Healy We have listened to these fairy tale mash-ups many, many times, pretty much whenever the youngest took charge of the phone. This trilogy is another that is really well performed in the audio version (by Bronson Pinchot), taking stories that are already funny and clever to the next level. I can still bear listening to them after two years of near-constant repetition and that’s saying something.
  • Percy Jackson and the Greek Heroes, Rick Riordan Our current one to listen to when we’re all together, following on from the general Percy Jackson extravaganza. In this, Percy tells the stories of the Greek Heroes in his own inimitable style. Slightly old for the youngest, ideal for 9+, but engaging and fun, and – I’m hoping – reasonably accurate historically.
  • Mr Popper’s Penguins, Richard and Florence Atwater Another Read Aloud Revival recommendation, this is a 1938 story of a house painter who gets a penguin in the post. My youngest (5) loves it, though I find the narrator of the audiobook a bit of a trial to listen to, if I’m honest.
  • Cherry Crush, Cathy Cassidy My listen when I’m with the eldest, not yet finished. It’s a nicely characterised story of a teenage girl, used to living on her own with her father and suddenly catapulted into a new life when he moves in with his new girlfriend – and her four daughters. The hopes and realities of a completely different life are well described, along with the ‘usual’ – but always uniquely personal – trials and tribulations of siblings, rivalries, and crushes. This is one of a series that follows each of the five girls in turn and I’m sure would work well in understanding different personalities and the two – or more – sides to every story. It’s clearly aimed at the tween/young teen girl crowd, but I have to say I’m enjoying it too.

Children’s Non-Fiction (actual books)

Both of these I read because they got my eldest’s attention, and that’s rare enough to take note of!

  • Quiet Power, Susan Cain The teen version of ‘Quiet’, the book that championed the benefits of being an introvert. This was a nice balance of tips on understanding the different ways people can contribute to the world and how to both acknowledge and stretch the ways you feel most comfortable in the world.
  • I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick The teen edition of Malala’s story of how an ordinary schoolgirl in Pakistan ended up internationally famous for standing up to the Taliban. A great insight into a life that is totally different from ours, but still just a teenage girl.

So that was my year, and if you made it this far I hope you’ve found one or two to add to your own To Be Read list for the year to come. If so, I’d love to know what grabbed you. What did you read last year (the good and the bad)? What would you recommend for my list for 2018? Let me know in the comments.

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