Monthly Archives: April 2015

Book 15 – This is How You Get Better

“This is How You Get Better” by Amal Awad (2015)

This blog is a lovely hobby that gives me the opportunity to really stop and think about the books I read. Once in a very little while it also gives me the opportunity to spread my love of stories beyond my immediate circle of friends and colleagues. And it is certainly a way of receiving recommendations. Most people who read my posts, from time to time, ask me if I have read this book or that.

A little over two years ago I had the pleasure of reading the debut novel by Amal Awad – “Courting Samira” because of a recommendation from a colleague, Angie. After I had read the book I blogged about it (Book 5, 2013) and then I emailed to let Amal know that the post was online if she was interested in reading it.

I was genuinely thrilled to hear back from Amal, who let me know she was very pleased with my post and felt that I had really understood Samira, which meant a lot to her. And a few weeks ago I was thrilled again to hear from Amal that she had published her second novel, “This is How You Get Better” which tells the story of Lara, a character from “Courting Samira” whose life has taken a very different turn to Samira’s. Amal very kindly sent me a copy of the novel as a gift, and signed it, for which I am very grateful.

And today, pretty much in one uninterrupted sitting, I have read the book. I could not put it down. I didn’t need to, given that I am on holidays by the beach and there are no rules here, but I am extremely pleased there were no obligations to pull me away from Lara and her story.

The thing, for me, that makes Awad’s writing so very readable is how very human her characters are. In “Courting Samira” I wanted to reach into the book and hold Samira’s hand, let her know I was on her side, that I wanted the best for her. In “This is How You Get Better” I wanted to leap into the book and wrap Lara up in a big hug, reassure her, comfort her, tell her I really, really, really understood how confusing life can be.

Amal Awad is a writer of characters. She makes them whole. She makes them vulnerable. She makes you care. She writes about emotional angst, confusion and the big questions of life in a simple and realistic style. Lara is a woman we know, a woman we have all met, maybe a woman in our family, maybe some readers will identify with Lara themselves. This is not a romance with a happy ending in the way “Courting Samira” was. It is a messy, murky, realistic journey through one woman’s painful mistakes and relentless uncertainty.

Just as I finished with my “Courting Samira” review, again I will end with a hearty endorsement – this book is highly recommended reading.

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Book 14 – Rangers Apprentice (Book Four): Oakleaf Bearers

“Rangers Apprentice (Book Four): Oakleaf Bearers” by John Flanagan (2006)

I read my first Rangers Apprentice book about three years ago, after hubby was adamant I needed to give fantasy more of a chance. I have blogged previously about Books One, Two and Three and described this series as fantasy lite – the only kind of fantasy I’m likely to read willingly.

In Book Four, our hero, Apprentice Ranger Will, and his companions Horace and Evanlyn, are found in the outskirts of Skandia, far from home, by Will’s mentor, Halt. They become embroiled in an impending war between the Temujai and the Skandians. All of them find something of worth to offer to the warmongering Skandians, with their focus solely on getting Evanlyn (who is really Princess Cassandra, daughter of King Duncan of Araluen) back to her father.

The widespread appeal of this series is obvious as the adventures are exciting and engaging. The characters are appealing and believable and the narrative, albeit formulaic, is not too predictable.

I wouldn’t teach the Rangers Apprentice books, but I have recommended them many times to junior students who are looking for something new to read. This was just the right book for my first holiday read.

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Book 13 – The Recruit

“The Recruit” by Robert Muchamore (2004)

I’ve read this book about twelve times in the last 7 years, so it feels like a bit of a cheat to be blogging about it now, but I really wanted to share my most recent reading of it on my blog, and in the process maybe attract some new devotees to all things CHERUB.

“The Recruit” is a wonderful young adult novel about a kid called James who hates school and has a short fuse and gets himself into trouble on a regular basis. Within the first chapter he has had a fight with a girl in his Science class, hurt her (unintentionally), knocked his Science teacher flying (no, he really didn’t mean to) and gone into hiding to avoid the obvious storm that is about to explode all over him.

The next 24 hours don’t turn out quite the way he was anticipating, though, and after he finds his Mum dead on the couch he is taken to a children’s home and life is looking grim indeed. After almost immediately getting caught up with the wildest boys in the home, James finds himself in more trouble than he’s ever known in his life… But just when things look impossibly hopeless he is knocked out and wakes up in the most amazing facility he has ever seen. Set on acres of bushland with sprawling buildings, tennis courts, basketball courts, fitness courses and smiling, healthy looking kids everywhere, James can’t believe his luck. But no one will speak to him and he has to find out for himself what he is supposed to be doing there. James, it turns out, is on the CHERUB campus, a secret training facility for kids who are going to become spies. The question then becomes, will James sit the entrance exam? Will he pass? And does he actually want to be a spy for the British government at just 11 years of age?

The reason I decided to blog again about this book this year is because of the experience I have had, teaching it to my year 10 class. Normally, The Recruit is my ‘go-to’ novel for year 7. It’s also been my novel of choice for year 11 or year 12 English Studies when teaching the Part of a Family module. And a couple of years ago I taught it to a year 10 class of boys who were put together because of their behavioural challenges. I experience massive success every time I teach this book. James is a very likable and realistic character and, unlike a lot of stories that start in a classroom, James reminds my students of someone they know… maybe themselves.

This year I am teaching our Learning Support year 10 class. My students are not diagnosed at a low enough intellectual level to qualify for placement in a formal support environment, but their literacy and comprehension levels are so low that they would be totally lost in a regular mainstream class. So, thanks to the commitment at my school to assisting students in this situation, and the hard work from the Learning Support faculty (this is not the same as the Support Unit, where IM or IO students are enrolled), classes like mine exist. Generally, the Learning Support faculty also teach our ESL classes. There are 14 students in my class, and each one needs about 5 times the level of one-on-one assistance that a mainstream student requires. For 4 of my 6 lessons a teacher from the Learning Support faculty – the wonderful and dedicated Peta – joins me to team teach. And every lesson a School Learning Support Officer (SLSO, formerly known as a Teacher’s Aide) – the fantastically patient and kind Rose – is there too. So, together, our aim is to try to assist the students to succeed in an academic environment that all too often they find totally incomprehensible.

Into this classroom I brought James and his adventure. Now that I think about it, there was never any doubt that I would choose this novel. And in the last 5 weeks, I have read this book to the students, a few chapters at a time, and they have completed lots of work on it. I mean it when I say lots of work. These are students who for the most part need support to write one sentence. But they have written so many sentences, and paragraphs while we have studied this book. They have done all of the same work that I have set for previous classes. I am so proud of them and how well they have worked. Their efforts are a testament to the success of this novel. It works. It works for bright and enthusiastic year 7 students. It works for senior students who brag about having never read a book for school, ever, until this one. And it works for students who are barely literate.

Never underestimate the power of an old fashioned adventure story. When it is a well written one, it gets them every time. Trust me, you want to read this book. And if you’re a teacher, you want to teach this book. Two years ago, after teaching this novel to a group of boys who openly and gleefully bragged about never having read any book set for English, not one, not ever, one of the most challenging boys in the class slipped me a note as he was leaving one lesson. It said, “Hey, Miss, sneak me the next book about James when no one is looking, OK?” These are the moments we live for. This is a book that creates them.

This time, the glory goes to a boy called Julian who said to me in week one of the term, “I hate books, Miss. I don’t like any of them.” I accepted the challenge to find him a book he would admit he liked. As it turned out, Julian was one of the most vocal students in the class during the last five weeks, as we recapped and ensured everyone was up to date before we did any work or reading each lesson. In his last lesson with me he was still reluctant to admit anything… but the proof was there in his enthusiastic recounting of the plot and his focused attention on the final few chapters. Finally, after a little gentle cajoling, Julian admitted it, he really did like the book. And I left that lesson with a smile on my face, knowing that, for this term at least, my work there was done…

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Book 12 – The Maze Runner

“The Maze Runner” by James Dashner (2009)

Audiobook narrated by Mark Deakins

I have seen this book on quite a few students’ desks during wide reading, and I know there’s a movie, so I added it to my wish list on audible and picked it up for $4.95 on a recent sale day.

Like almost all popular YA fiction at the moment, this book is set in an imaginary, and I would guess far-distant, dystopian future. Thomas wakes up to find himself in a dark ‘box’ that, when opened, reveals a crowd of teenage faces all staring at him curiously. He has no idea who he is, who they are, or where he is. He has no personal memory, but accurate functional memory, so that he knows, for example, to recognise friendly interactions from angry or dangerous ones almost immediately.

The place Thomas has appeared in is called The Glade, and it is at the centre of an enormous maze. All of the boys arrived the same way as Thomas, one each month, apart from the original group, who arrived there together about two years previously. Throughout the two years the boys have been focused on one thing – finding a way out of the maze. However, the runners have a disadvantage. Every night, the walls surrounding the glade close, the walls within the maze move around, changing the maze completely, and, worst of all, the ‘Grievers’ come out, making it impossible for the boys to stay out in the maze after nightfall.

Thomas adapts astonishingly quickly. Within less than a day he has comprehended the situation and begged to be a maze runner, determined to help. Then, just 24 hours after Thomas’ arrival, another newcomer is signalled. This sends the crowd of boys into a frenzy. Arrivals have always been like clockwork, one per month. Another new arrival within a day of Thomas’ arrival is a real shock to them all. When the box opens and the new arrival is a GIRL, all hell breaks loose. Then the girl tells them everything is about to change, and that she is the last person who will enter the maze. Events rapidly escalate from that moment and to say that Thomas becomes the centre of the ensuing mayhem would be an understatement.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book and frequently sat in the car for a few extra minutes to hear to the end of a chapter, which is not normally my style. My only criticism, and it’s getting a bit repetitive the more dystopian fiction I read, is that the ending is not an ending, it is the next beginning, making it impossible to know how everyone fares in the end unless you read book two and three and then the prequel… oh, and, yay, apparently there’ll be another prequel soon. As I’ve said many times before, I yearn for the talented YA writer who just writes one book without going for the obvious sales of a series. Aside from John Greene, I mean.

I would not choose this book as a teaching text for two reasons, both simple. One – the movie. Two – the kids are already reading it. I am pretty much dedicated to introducing students to things they wouldn’t normally read, not the best sellers.

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