Loosely based "Back to School" themed reads for grown ups!

It's back to school time so I thought I'd write a post about some of the books I've read this summer that cover some of the themes related to school (some more tenuous than others!). Hope you find something to pop into your satchel and slip inside the cover of whatever it is you're supposed to be reading at your desk (who would do that - certainly I never did... *blushes profusely and looks sheepishly at floor*).

The Art Teacher

Meet Patrick Owen as he wearily faces the daily challenges of teaching in a school in London. He's proud to admit that he's not punched anyone yet. Yet. But what happens when a man whose button has been pressed just once too often makes a snap judgement and his whole life begins to unravel.....

This is a gritty read. Its portrayal of teaching in a London school is brutal, as is the frightening reality of gang culture and its impact on teenagers. I'm not sure how I would categorise the genre of this book as essentially it is a story of crime, intimidation, bullying, murder and gangs. It is compelling and there is plenty of tension so it could be defined as a thriller or crime thriller. However, for me, what really stood out wasn't the plot, but Read's writing. His descriptions of characters, teenagers, teaching, schools and the community in which he based the novel, were so vivid, intelligent, insightful and humorous I could have read volumes of it. I found the emotions, decisions and dilemmas of his protagonist Patrick the most engaging and well written passages. 

Patrick Owen is an ordinary man but a very memorable character. Read's writing is very clever; it conveys an atmosphere of depression, dead-end hopelessness, apathy and quite a bleak picture of society through eloquent, striking, powerful images. It's intense but distinct and will leave a huge impression on the reader. It is a literary read with an original blend of menacing yet engrossing characters and imagery. I imagine this book to be a bit like a film captured in black and white, grainy shots that are cut together with deliberately abrupt editing, seemingly improvised and unscripted. 

It's well worth a read and I am definitely going to look out for any further novels from this writer. It's an impressive debut. Bold. Original. Controversial. Maybe not for everyone as Patrick is not always an easy character to relate to, but ultimately Read's writing is a treat. 4/5 stars from me!

My full review can be found herehttp://bibliomaniacuk.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-art-teacher-paul-read.html

Available on kindle from Sept 1st 2016

A Boy Made of Blocks

Not really school based, this book is about a boy, a father and autism. I have read a few books about parents with children who have autism very recently ("Love Anthony" by Lisa Genova, "Harmony" by Carolyn Parkhurst) and I've included this book here as I think all these novels make us think about how each child is unique, learns differently, interprets the world differently and needs supporting differently. As our children re-enter the classroom, it's a good time to make some resolutions about how we are going to support them all this academic year. Here are my thoughts about "A Boy Made of Blocks".

This is a tender novel, inspired by Stuart's own relationship with his son who has autism, about a father trying to rebuild his complicated relationship with his son and how they begin to bond over the computer game of Minecraft. It's an emotional read with moments of sadness, frustration and anger but yet full of humour, warmth and love. It reads very much like a Nick Hornby or David Nicholls book; accessible, fluid, easy and engaging- a good light read.

What is really engaging about this book is the down to earth tone of narrative and the very "up front" and honest voice of Alex. He is a very likeable character; he is ordinary, he is fallible, he mishandles things, he makes mistakes. He is a parent trying to do his best. This book is an emotional journey for him but it is written with a gentle warmth. It is not moralistic or patronising. Although a very valuable and interesting account of autism, it is as much about parenting, marriage and facing responsibilities and a great read for anyone with children. It didn't feel like a novel "about autism", it felt like watching Hugh Grant in an amiable Saturday afternoon movie. 4/5 stars from me!

This book is available from 1st Sept 2016 on Kindle and in Hardback. 

Read my review in full here: http://bibliomaniacuk.blogspot.com/2016/07/a-boy-made-of-blocks-keith-stuart.html

Josh and Ben are nine years old and best friends, until a single, careless act in the school playground destroys the lives of both families – and wrenches their small Manhattan school apart. As both mothers Maddie and Joanna try to find out what really happened between the boys, they discover the truth is far more complicated and painful than either of them could have ever realised… with lasting repercussions for both families.
I did enjoy this book. It was quite compulsive but that could have been because I was waiting for the twists and compounding dramatic events which is promised from the blurb. Not that this isn't delivered - in fact towards the end it is really quite harrowing. I literally did cover my hand with my mouth in distress at one particular sentence. I honestly felt very moved by the final climatic denouement. 

Hewitt weaves quite a tangled web where the relationships between the characters are confused and complicated. Both women are affected by previous issues and experiences which clouds their perspective and rationality. As well as themes of parenting, supervision and guilt, there is a lot about motherhood, pregnancy, love, relationships and marriage. This is not a book for the emotionally fragile! 

I loved the premise of the novel. I thought it was a really clever situation to explore and as a mother of school aged children (and a lunch time supervisor!) it really did make me go cold at particular moments. It is a bit like "The Slap" but much more accessible with a much more redeeming cast of characters. To me, it also felt a little like Jodi Picoult in the sense that Hewitt has picked a highly emotive topic and really looks at the ensuing dilemmas from a range of perspectives. It is thought provoking. 

I did read it quickly; I did find Hewitt's style and language very enjoyable and easy to read. She structures her story very successfully, throwing a cliffhanger or new piece of information in just when you think you have figured everything out. There are some great twists and plenty of suspense. 3/5 stars from me.

My full review can be found at 


The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir

A stark but uplifting story of bullying and redemption, for anyone who's ever been a weirdo. A story of abuse and survival, of falling down and of starting again, and of one woman's battle to learn to love herself for who she is, The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir is Lesley Allen’s startlingly honest debut novel, perfect for fans of Rowan Coleman and Julie Cohen.

"The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir" is not an easy book to read at times. We first meet Biddy, aged 30, making a telephone call to a chat show running a phone in about bullying. The opening description is full of bird imagery - a theme which permeates the entire novel- and not only effectively captures Biddy's trepidation and emotion at this moment in the narrative, but is also used to illustrate her fragile yet unique and naively innocent personality as the book continues.

It takes a little while to adapt to Allen's narrative style. She is a master of language and description but at first this is disguised through the simple, childlike manner of writing. However, this understated, innocent voice effectively reflects and mimics not only Biddy's character but I think also reduces some of the impact of the events of which we read. By keeping a more childlike perspective on events it helps to not overwhelm the reader or make it sensationalised or sentimental. It remains raw, real and authentic. It's been a while since I've become so entranced by characters that I feel my pulse rate increase as I read about them and find myself muttering responses under my breath as I see them acting out their role in the novel. I really lived and breathed this story.

This book is special. It tackles a depressing topic but through it has created a character of stunning uniqueness. You will be enthralled. It is a captivating read and Allen's prose is impressive. This is her debut and I can't wait to read more of her writing - she is clearly talented and full of imagination and talent.

All I can say is read it. And may this book be dedicated to all Biddy Weirs. May all of them overcome their demons, survive and learn to live again.

Without a doubt, 5/5 stars from me and one of my most favourite reads of 2016. This book was published on Kindle and in paperback from April 2016.

You can read my full review here http://bibliomaniacuk.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-lonely-life-of-biddy-weir-lesley.html

I have included this novel as it is a coming of age story that includes passages about his childhood and school days as we join Jacques on his journey.

"Jacques" is Tanya Ravenswater’s beautiful and touching coming-of-age novel of loss, longing, falling in love and finding a place to call home. And, most importantly, of the power of the relationships that help us along the way. Jacques is a young French boy who finds himself orphaned and torn away from everything he knows. Forced to move to England to live with his guardian – the pompous and distant Oliver – Jacques finds himself in a strange country and a strange world.

It is a slow, measured read. It is about character, relationships, coming of age and love. Despite being so contemporary and set in the late 1980s, it had the feel of a more classical novel, maybe even a little like Dickens or a darker Laurie Lee, but certainly reminiscent of Forster and L P Hartley.

I liked Ravenswater's description. Her evocation of place and atmosphere was always so effective and always managed to effortlessly imply more about the character or events. For example, when Jacques talks about his new school he describes the "dark runners of its corridors, blackboards scored with monotonous lines.... I reduced myself to a scarcely noticeable grey dot."

This is a very original read. It is one of those books which you read with ease and surprising speed but then find yourself contemplating for days after. Ravenswater's ability to capture the male voice of Jacques with such conviction and authenticity is highly impressive and it is hard to accept this is a debut novel. 3/5 stars from me!

My full and detailed review can be found here http://bibliomaniacuk.blogspot.com/2016/08/jacques-tanya-ravenswater.html

A Library of Lemons

A poignant story about dealing with grief through the magic of reading and friendship.

The story is about 10 year old Calypso whose mum has died a few years ago and her father, who is clearly emotionally struggling to cope with his grief, throws himself into writing his own book ("A History of the Lemon") leaving everything else to Calypso. As a passionate reader, she retreats into her own world of books and fiction. When she meets new girl Mae at school, the girls' shared love of reading and writing stories draws them together and shows Calypso a way to understand her world, feelings and family.

There is much about the power of books and stories in this novel. Cotterill is clearly a passionate bibliomaniac and the references to other novels and the way the girls' enthuse about reading and talk about the fictional characters as if they are real, enhances Cotterill's own fictional characters, plot and atmosphere. The power of writing to heal (both adults and children), to say what can't be said aloud or face to face, to process, to confront and see clearly, is incredibly powerful. A strong case for the use writing therapy within mental health if ever there was one. I could not tear my eyes away from these passages, even when I had to feel around me for my discarded, already sodden, tissue. 

I'm interested in how many children's books tackle the issue of grief, loneliness, solitude and mental illness at the moment. This is certainly a book which could be used to support children with difficult emotional lives. It would be a great read for any young adult as books are always a useful tool for empathy, curiosity and the start of a tricky conversation. There is a certain safety in exploring difficult feelings and ideas through the pages of fiction. But I would end by saying that above all this is a novel about a beautiful young girl and her empowering journey of self discovery. It is a book of warmth, friendship, love, hope and inner strength! I'll leave you with a final quote from Calypso:

"the strongest people are the ones who love others and let themselves be loved back. If you have inner strength but no one to love, what is it for?" 

Nothing but 5/5 stars for this book! Definitely one of my favourites in 2016. Published in May 2016. 

Read my much longer, much more effusive review here: http://bibliomaniacuk.blogspot.com/2016/05/a-library-of-lemons-jo-cotterill-ya.html

There are so many more I could include here but these are all recently published and hopefully there is something new here for you to discover! Happy reading and I wish you all a positive, exciting and enjoyable start to the new term, wherever and at whatever stage of your journey this September finds you! 

For more reviews and recommendations please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk) 


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