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Books of the Year

3 Jan

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Over the past few years I’ve done a books of the year list from what I read over the prior 12 months.  At the start of this year I began blogging reviews of each book as well as charting how I leave the books I’ve read for strangers to find in public places.  Sadly my passion to keep that blog going wavered after I got to 98 books and still only had a response from one person who had found a book I’d left.  I’ll keep leaving them but as I pass the 100 mark I’m less hopeful.  Anyway……here is this years list.  There have been some brilliant read in there.  My love of Keigo Higashino and Haruki Murakami continued to grow thanks to some superb entries from them.  Overall I must say I think both on quality and quantity (I failed to reach a book a week for the first time in 3 years) this was a poorer year than the last.  2016 though eh.  Am I right!

The Best 

Journey Under The Midnight Sun – Keigo Higashino

Disclaimer – Renee Knight

The Taliban Shuffle – Kim Barker

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh

Hear The Wind Sing – Haruki Murakami

The Second Coming – John Niven

Murder On The Orient Express – Agatha Christie

I Saw A Man – Owen Sheers

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

Nomad – Alan Partridge

The Best of the Rest

The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson

The Amateurs – John Niven

The Actual One – Isy Suttie

Fade Away – Harlan Coben

The Let Downs

Jonathan Unleashed – Meg Rosoff

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George

Bullet Points – Mark Watson

The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth

Full reading List

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada (1)

Reasons to stay alive – Matt Haig (2)

Disclaimer – Renee Knight (3)

Personal Days – Ed Park (4)

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy – John le Carre (5)

The Girl In The Red Coat – Kate Hamer (6)

The Taliban Shuffle – Kim Barker (7)

11/22/63 – Stephen King (8)

The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson (9)

Kill Your Boss – Shane Kuhn (10)

Jonathan Unleashed – Meg Rosoff (11)

The Amateurs – John Niven (12)

Hear The Wind Sing – Haruki Murakami (13)

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George (14)

Pinball – Haruki Murakami (15)

The Second Coming – John Niven (16)

Concussion  – Jeanne Marie Laskas (17)

Murder On The Orient Express – Agatha Christie (18)

Bullet Points – Mark Watson (19)

Shoot The Messenger – Shane Kuhn (20)

Stay Close – Harlan Coben (21)

The Actual One – Isy Suttie (22)

I Saw A Man – Owen Sheers (23)

Fever Pitch – Nick Hornby (24)

Deal Breaker – Harlan Coben (25)

Hitman Anders and The Meaning of It All – Jonas Jonasson (26)

Prey – James Carol (27)

The Long Dry – Cynan Jones (28)

Drop Shot – Harlan Coben (29)

Fade Away – Harlan Coben (30)

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson (31)

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh (32)

Ways To Disappear – Idra Novey (33)

The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth (34)

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck (35)

The Girl With a Clock For A Heart – Peter Swanson (36)

Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami (37)

Journey Under The Midnight Sun – Keigo Kigashino (38)

Animal: The Autobiography of the Female Body – Sara Pascoe (39)

Back Spin – Harlan Coben (40)

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman (41)

The Decagon House Murders – Yukito Ayatsuji (42)

A Midsummer’s Equation – Keigo Higashino (43)

Nomad – Alan Partridge (44)

The Green Man – Kingsley Amis (45)

 

School Swap Korea Style

29 Nov

This morning I caught up with the first episode of the School Swap: Korea Style programme on BBC Wales in which three Welsh pupils traveled to South Korea to experience life in their education system.  You can view the show here whilst it remains on iPlayer.

These comparisons are always at the forefront of debate when it comes to the publication of PISA results.  We are forever contrasting performances between nations and asking why one is succeeding above another in the rankings.  Sometimes those comparisons make sense, sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes we are comparing the right things, asking the right questions and for the right reasons, sometimes we are not.  Sometimes we are learning valuable things, sometimes we are misrepresenting the lessons.  It is, to an extent, an inevitable reaction during this media intensive period.

I’ve always believed that it is important to look at international systems and try and see what could potentially work for Wales, in the same way that I think some of the brilliant practice we see in Welsh classrooms should be viewed internationally also.  This doesn’t just mean looking at Asia and Finland but other nations across the world and within the UK.  that said, the reality is that education policies do not always travel well, and certain aspects of one countries education system only work there because of the nature of their society, culture and values.  That is not to say we can’t look at results, outcomes and policies and manipulate them to a Welsh context.

Looking at what did come across from South Korea it did, I am sorry to say, confirm some of the real concerns I harbored for their approach.  It is not a system I crave.   Clearly they have incredible results but it is negligent to examine them without asking at what cost are they delivered? We saw pupils spending 10 hours in the same chair being talked at in silence day in day out.  Children were only getting, in an absolute best case scenario, 6 hours sleep, they where undertaking punishingly long days and were falling asleep at the desk.  The system was funded by parents paying huge sums for private tuition and children denied a childhood in the pursuit of rigid structural learning devoid of creativity.

What was most worrying from a viewing perspective is that I simply did not feel the show gave any real credence to these concerns.  These issues were never really treated with any seriousness.  That pupils were lying asleep across their desks was remarked on with a pithy comment as if it was humorous and the 14-16 hour days were noted in envy rather than concern.  Only through the narration of the three Welsh pupils, who I thought were a credit to themselves, did we really get any reflection on the social and emotional impact of this style of education. It very much appeared as if there was a conclusion written to this show with the narrative set to fulfill it.  Something that incidentally also seemed evident to me in the previous show BBC Wales commissioned Sian Griffiths to undertake on Welsh education*.  It is only fair of me to point out however that this is episode one and perhaps the others will delve into this in more detail.  You would very much hope so as it would be a dereliction of duty to ignore them.

Another aspect that concerns me as a viewer, and as someone focused on Welsh education within my profession, is that documentaries such as this lead people to expect schools to achieve Korean results within our society.  If you want Korean outcomes you must have Korean culture, including major parental payments for private tutors and high suicide rates. (Suicide is the biggest cause of death to those in their 10s, 20s and 30s in South Korea).  To say you want Korean style academia means you want to change our whole society and values, not our education system.  While I don’t doubt many will clamor for world leading PISA results I do not believe there is an appetite for a similar style of society.  I may be wrong to make that assumption of course but certainly I am very proud that we are putting well-being at the heart of our educational agenda.

The proficiency of South Korean pupils should not be underestimated.  Examining their system is not something that should be dismissed.  I do believe there are aspects of any nations approach that can provide important insights.  However, 6am-12am days simply should not be an ambition for the well-being of our children.  There are lessons to be learnt, but also warnings to be heeded.

 

 

*As an aside I can’t help wondering, giving the numerous talented people working for BBC Wales news and politics departments, including their own current and former education correspondents, why it is they have not trusted anyone in-house to front these shows rather than using a presenter whose personal positions are perhaps less neutral on such matters.

The Great Hathway Book Giveaway

23 Dec

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Here’s the first of a good batch I offloaded to a friend. He’s a good egg and is passing them on with my notes

Every year I stockpile the books I’ve read over the course of a year.  You can see the hits and misses from 2015 here.  At the start of the next year I go about leaving those books for others to stumble upon.  In cafes, on trains, on park benches etc. all with a little note to say that they are a gift to anyone who wants them and with a simple request to just let me know what you thought on twitter.  It is fair to say my 2015 experiences were not all that successful.

Still, I am persevering.  I am a plucky individual.  I like to think of the world in the best possible terms and I remain convinced that sooner or later this will work.  Even if I am not seeing the recognition I can still, perhaps a little foolishly, imagine people cracking a smile when finding or finishing one of the books I’ve left for them.  Isn’t that a comforting, if a little naive, thought?

I have given a good few books to a friend home from England for Christmas (see above photo).  I am also giving a chunk to my brother and around 6 to friends holidaying over the festive period.  In that sense I’m already making a start as when they pass them on the network of book angels (that’s not too grand a title to give myself I don’t think?) is already widening.  I have no doubt the tidal wave effect will soon be in play and passing on books will become my full time occupation.*

*I can honestly say I will be delighted if I just get two or more tweets this year!

Music I’ve Discovered This Year

14 Dec

I would never claim to be cutting edge when it comes to music.  Far from it in fact.  I have an eclectic taste and tend to like most things but largely listen to mellow stuff while working and hip hop while training.  I’m not someone who goes to gigs but I have, thanks mainly to Spotify, listened more and more to a range of music this year and more frequently.  My ‘year on Spotify’ review says that I have listened to 610 hours of music in 2015.  Not sure if that is a good or bad thing though.  I try not to sit in front of the TV with the children so, while they do both watch it from time to time, I tend to have music on while we are all playing.  I’ve also discovered the real joy of walking for pleasure and active recovery from training this year and music has played a big part in that.

Below is a few of the songs/bands that have stood out with me this year.  Some are new/not very well known. Others may be very common and dated but I either discovered or re-discovered them in 2015.

Artists / Bands

Yelawolf – I came across Yelawolf as the song ‘Till It’s Gone’ was featured on the trailer for the Jonny Depp film ‘Black Mass.’  I loved that song and so dipped into his album ‘Love Story.’  There are some other great songs on the album, in particular ‘Empty Bottles,’ ‘Fiddle Me This,’ and ‘Best Friend,‘ and it has become a staple on my spotify.

X Ambassadors – I discovered these the way many people may have through their song ‘Renegades’ being featured on the JEEP advert.  Thanks to spotify I also managed to get introduced to other brilliant songs in their collection.  I especially loved ‘Love Songs Drug Songs,’ ‘Unconsolable’ and ‘Shining.’

Phillip Phillips – One of the best things about Spoitify are the host of random playlists that exist.  I stumbled across one called ‘I’m tired’ and found a host of really good songs and artists.  One of those was the ridiculously named Phillip Phillips.  He has a great tone to his voice. ‘Raging Fire’ and ‘My Boy’ in particular stood out for me.

50 Cent Generally I listen to folk music, soft stuff.  However, when I am at the gym its mainly hip hop and rap.  With that I have rediscovered 50 Cent this year.  Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is one of the best rap albums ever.  So many good training songs on there.

Kaleo – My good wife is a fan of the show Mistresses and one of Icelandic group Kaleo’s songs, ‘All the pretty girls’ was featured and I loved it.  Spotify only has another two of their songs available, ‘Way Down We Go’ and ‘Vor i Vaglaskogi.’ The latter in their native language.  All three are beautiful.

Matt Corby – Random YouTube videos led me to a Norwegian version of Corby’s song ‘Brother’ on their version of the Voice. I loved it, as I do the original.  I also really liked Corby’s songs ‘Resolution’ and ‘Made of Stone.’

Oh Honey – As stated above I do like a bit of folk music.  Listening to a random folk playlist on Spotify I came across Oh Honey and checked out their back catalog.  I really liked what I heard.  Some lovely background music for lazy Sundays at home.  Standout tracks for me are, Until you let me,’ ‘It can’t rain forever’ and ‘Sugar, You.’

Kwabs – Kwabs debut solo album ‘Love + War’ this year was a great addition to my music.  ‘Forgiven,’ ‘Perfect Ruin’ and ‘Walk’ are the picks for me.

Oasis – You know what they received a lot of unfair criticism for the later albums.  I never appreciated it at the time but the likes of ‘Heathen Chemistry’, ‘Standing on the Shoulder of Giants’ and even ‘Be Here Now’ may not have had the raw appeal of ‘What’s the Story’ and ‘Definitely Maybe’ but taken as stand alone albums they are genuinely decent.

Songs

Prisoner 1 & 2 (Lupe Fiasco ) –  This song was featured on the ‘Creed’ movie trailer and I just thought it was brilliant.

Gold (Kiiara) – This was song of the week in September on Radio One.  I never listen to Radio One so it was remarkable I caught it but thankfully I did.  Unique and catchy.

Gold – Thomas Jack Remix (Gabriel Rios) – I randomly stumbled across this song after a Youtube playlist took me there automatically after listening to the above.

Lean On (Major Lazer) – I spend a couple of nights controlled crying Llew at the start of the year.  Which is to say I spent the best part of 48 hours awake.  This was pretty much on repeat during that time.

Are You With Me (Los Frequencies) – My summer song for the year.

Bloodsport (Raleigh Ritchie) – Nice chilled melancholic tune I heard on a summer’s day while sitting in the car waiting for Llew to wake from a nap.

Blue Monday (New Order) – Is there a better crafted pop song than this? Every second of the 7+ minutes is gold.

Elastic Heart (Sia) – I love this song, especially the piano version on Spotify.

Nevermind (Leonard Cohen) – This was used as the title track for the second series of True Detective.  Haunting.

Homeostasis (Nostalgia) – Powerful song that builds really well.

I’m Home (Cee Major) – I love this song.  It has been one of the staples of my lunchtime walks throughout the year.

40:1

8 Oct

At the start of the year I embarked on a process of trying to make the literary world a little smaller.  That’s PR speak for saying that I took the books I read in 2014 and have been leaving them in random locations (on trains, in parks, in coffee shops etc.) for strangers to find, read and pass on.

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The way I see it I am not one to re-read books so it is better to let others enjoy them.

In January I had this naïve view of being inundated with tweets from people who had stumbled upon my offerings.  As more and more books were recycled I feared I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the praise and demand.  That bubble was quickly burst.

5 books in with no reply I was humbled.  15 books in I feared the worst.  25 books in I was depressed.  35 books in and my heart was no longer in it.  But low and behold, God loves a trier and 40th time lucky, 10 months after I began this, I reaped the rewards.  Finally someone has responded to a book by tweeting me.

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When I had this yesterday it made my day.  My only regret is that after passing on some fantastic reads throughout the year including Nathan Filer’s The shock of the Fall, We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, and Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher the one that was discovered was a run of the mill John Grisham.  Please don’t judge me.

I only have about 8 books left from the class of 2014.  My stockpile from this year however is both larger in quantity and certainly better in quality.  With this life affirming moment to boost me I can crack on again.  Hopefully you (yes you the person bored enough to read a blog about Welsh education and carrot cakes) will pick one up.

Living with the shadow of This is England

6 Oct

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So last night I watched the final episode of This is England ’90, and indeed the final episode of any version of the This is England series.  I don’t intend to write a review blog.  To be honest far more capable people will have already done that and I wouldn’t really do the piece justice.  (this review in Esquire is certainly worth a look).  However, I wanted to write some things about it while it is fresh in my memory as I am not sure there has ever been a film or TV series (or both in this instance) that has ever affected me in the way This is England has.

I probably watched the This is England film for the first time when it aired on TV not long after it came out.  About eight or nine years ago.  As much as a hit it may be to my masculine image, if I could ever pretend to have one, I am not ashamed to admit it is not an uncommon sight to find me crying in the cinema or at home.  I am someone who easily becomes invested in the things I watch and read.  That said I move on quickly.  I don’t re-watch the same films (save the constant loop of Disney movies the Gryffalo has me sitting in front of at home), nor do I re-read the same books.  I take from them in the moment and then that is that.  This is England was different.

I can’t say I have watched the film more than a few times, I would find it too difficult to do so, but its themes and imagery replay in my mind, and have done for many years since I first watched it.  The graphic, but not sensational, violence of the closing scenes are something I don’t think I will ever get over.  Few films have lived with me the way This is England did.  From time to time I would recall not only the themes but the emotions it stirred in me.  My anger, disgust, helplessness and fear.

When This is England ’86 was announced I was intrigued but didn’t hold up much hope.  I assumed the uniqueness of the film could not be replicated, especially for TV, and there was a risk of undermining the cliffhanger of an ending we had been left with.  What I didn’t expect was that the TV series, from ’86 to ’88 and finally ’90 would not only build on the impact of the original movie but develop it in such a powerful way.  That there has not been a drop off in quality over a sustained period is a remarkable feat.  What is more, my own maturing during the years perhaps gave me a deeper understanding of what I was witnessing.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that my own relationship with this work has changed as I have changed.  Thinking about that gruesome scene in the film it isn’t, as it used to be, the utter senselessness of the attack that lives with me but the image of a distressed Shaun watching on that breaks my heart.  While they are nothing alike I see my own son sitting there.  I think it is the innocence that is at Shaun’s core that I identify.  Seeing that echoed in the flashbacks of the final episode made me feel incredibly protective of Gryff (and to an extent Llew although the fact he is a baby almost disassociate him to a point).  I had trouble sleeping last night with those thoughts in my mind.

What This is England has offered up is brutal authenticity of performance, visuals and scripts.  There is a depressing realism to everything with scenes across every version of the franchise that have horrified me in differing ways.  There has been some breathtaking acting, the likes of which I don’t believe I’ll see again from a British drama, from a cast who have not only portrayed each role brilliantly but crucially in a measured approach. There have been career defining performances from individuals who have had, and will have, outstanding careers.

I could cry thinking about the ‘what ifs’ of so many characters let alone the ‘what dids.’  The fact that I despised Combo with a hatred I have never previously, or since, found for a fictional character when watching the film, yet was left heartbroken with his apparent death by the end of This is England ’90, is a testament to Shane Meadows themes of redemption and Stephen Graham’s sensational portrayal. That said it is unfair to pick out just one character as those playing roles across the cast have left me in a state of constant reflection.

As I said at the start of this blog the film still lives with me today after all these years. I imagine, and perhaps fear, the TV series will continue to haunt me for many a year to come. To the cast and crew, thank you for exposing me to such emotionally gut wrenching moments. I’ll miss those characters thou I doubt my fragile sensitivities could have endured another series.

 

Exploring Murakami

24 Jul

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Saying you are a fan of Haruki Murakami is almost a hipster cliché these days.  In fact, to suggest that you haven’t read his back catalogue is something to be frowned upon.  Sadly I haven’t.  With the exception of his memoir about running, ‘What I talk about when I talk about running,’ I’d never read anything by him.  I thought I would put that right this year, if only because the covers are beautiful in their simplicity.

In total I’ve read three of his books.  ‘After the Quake,’ ‘After Dark,’ and most recently ‘South of the Boarder, West of the Sun.’  These are possibly some of the lesser revered and certainly on the shorter side of his works.  I really don’t think I have it in me to tackle the mammoth 928 pages of 1Q84.

Without trying to sound like one of the many Murakami devotees I must say I am a convert.  Each of these three books were highly enjoyable.  I am a sceptic of the short-story work as I often find it fails to fully explore concepts and can be very much hit and miss but the collection put together in After the Quake was fantastic.  Each offering was thoroughly enjoyable and not one seemed a let down.  I thought it was fantastic.  I was also really taken by After Dark and South of the Boarder in their flowing yet almost static storytelling.  With both I almost felt like I was fully invested in the books completely without noticing I was being gripped.

I’m not sure I have it in me to want to tackle some of the longer works but I at least owe it to the quality of these first three to dig a little deeper into Murakami’s bibliography.  Suggestions where to go next are welcome.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – WMC

16 Apr

I was bought tickets to go and watch this by my brother for Christmas and have been really looking forward to it.  I think the WMC is an amazing place and one of the best things about Wales, so I am always excited to go and see a show there. I read the book by Mark Haddon on which the play is based and loved it at the time but it was that long ago the majority of the plot was hazy at best in my memory. The cast play their roles excellently, especially the lead, Welshman Joshua Jenkins, who is highly authentic without overdoing the part. Their movement throughout the show highlight not just quality acting but an almost rhythmic dance performance at times. Choreographing is almost as important as the acting. The real star performer however, while taking nothing away from the fantastic acting, is the set. JPEG41-750x500

(Photos crdit Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

The whole play is acted out within the above cube structure with lighting and props utilised to change scenery and atmosphere with ease.  The show comes alive through the stage production which is like having an additional leading actor.  There is a breathtaking use of sound and light.  Those behind the show have demonstrated stunning imagination and innovation to tell the story in a way I just can’t comprehend imagining from scratch. I absolutely loved this and would put it up there favourably with anything I’ve previosulty seen at the WMC or in any theatre for that matter.  I would highly recommend it and if you do get the chance to see this show please don’t miss out. As an aside: Kudos to the WMC for their continued innovative marketing.  After turning the Centre green for wicked; photo 1 and this guerrilla marketing shot for singing in the rain; photo 2 this was a nice touch on the pavement outside for this latest production.  You’ll understand why if you watch the show. 5fc2fd86ca6f11ea54c27718d9fd8138