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Pontefract's finest;Books of the year

Voted the UK's most sociable readers, the people of a town more usually noted for confectionery give Elaine Williams a free sample of their best reads of 1998.

Every year Pontefract celebrates liquorice. Each August the town that gave us Pontefract cakes takes to the streets for a week-long jamboree. But this winter, literature, rather than liquorice, is the excuse for a party. The Library Association has decided Pontefract has the most sociable readers in the United Kingdom.

Liquorice is undoubtedly the mainstay industry in the heart of Brassed Off country. The view from Pontefract is of villages hit by the decline of mining. It has no theatre, cinema or community centre but it does have a castle, a marketplace with an ancient Buttercross - and a library, where reading events are the hottest ticket in town.

The Pontefract Library Readers' Group, which won this year's Library Association 1998 Community Initiative Award, has turned reading into sought-after entertainment. Neighbouring villages put on buses for evenings such as "Real Corkers", when the library became a cafe with food and an alcoholic recommendation for each title ("Why not match the length and finish of a good Rioja with the sophistication of a Spanish detective story?"). This reading list later appeared in the local Tesco wine section. Another list, "The Full Ponty", outlines who's reading what - the vicar, the GP, the building society manager and the town's tallest traffic warden reveal all.

Fiona Edwards, the library's reading development officer, is behind much of this activity. A former editor for Oxford University Press, and with a young family, she recruited the core of the readers' group who went on to organise the events.

"Pontefract people love to talk about books, and they like a lot of food and laughter and noise to go with it," says Fiona. Who better to share their favourite books of 1998 with The TES?

Frances Edwards, 8, a pupil at Halfpenny Lane Junior, Infant and Nursery School, Pontefract, chooses Children of the Winter by Berlie Doherty (Mammoth) and The Glass Angels by Susan Hill (Walker) "I couldn't choose - I've read them both four times. Mum started to read a chapter of Children of the Winter to me at bedtime and when she went out I picked up the book and finished it. It's very unusual and it gave me a strong feeling, like when I read The Dancing Bear (by Michael Morpurgo, Collins). I can really see it happening in front of me. The Glass Angels is set just after the war. This book makes you tingle and you want to read it again and again and every time you read it it seems new."

Emily Durham, 3, chooses The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Puffin) "I like it because the caterpillar's greedy and he gets big and fat and it makes me hungry and I want a lollipop and a bun." Her mum Sharon, a member of the library's Tuesday afternoon readers group, says: "Emily tells people she can read it herself. She knows the story and puts her own words in."

Sharon's own choice is Liverpool Miss by Helen Forrester (Fontana). "I first read this in a launderette on a dreary family holiday and was moved to tears for the young girl in the story. I have read it several times since then, feeling more anger and frustration that the girl let her mother treat her like that. A must for those who can't help but get involved in the lives of people within the pages."

Samuel Hollies, 18, from Carleton, near Pontefract, is a modern apprentice with his father's heating firm. He chooses Green Race Red, an autobiography by the racing driver Eddie Irvine (Collins Willow) "Eddie's dad ran a junk yard in Ireland, and used to bring spare tyres home on the back of his bike. That appealed to me. Eddie hasn't got natural talent, he's got killer instinct. He's a more interesting driver for me because he has to try harder. I've got a lot of insight from this read."

Ben Levey, 15, a pupil at Ackworth School, chooses Mort by Terry Pratchett (Corgi) "My dad's a fan of Pratchett too, and we share the jokes. I've read Mort twice. Mort is offered an apprenticeship by Death and he has to learn the tricks of the trade but gets it all wrong. This book is full of surprises, it sort of makes you look on life differently. Death isn't horrible. He's just doing his job. It makes you think that whatever is going to happen will happen."

Wendy Mitchell, senior librarian for Pontefract and Castleford, chooses Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (Bloomsbury) "As soon as I had finished reading this book, I wanted to go back to the first page and read it again. It's about the Holocaust and a boy, Jakob Beer, who witnesses his parents and sister being killed by the Germans. The book is full of wonderful moments. It is very poetic, very beautiful. I would like to meet Jakob Beer. He grows into an intelligent, sensual, very feminine man."

Erica Wilson, a Year 5 teacher at Halfpenny Lane School, chooses Enduring Love by Ian McEwan (Vintage) "I read this by the pool when I was on honeymoon. I was enthralled. I love the way McEwan builds up the story before the balloon accident at the end of the first chapter. It's a little macabre and very unusual, but McEwan writes in such a readable style. You're gripped."

Norman Dale, head at Halfpenny Lane, chooses Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (Indigo) and Life Support: a fan's appreciation of Barnsley's promotion to the big time by Philip Moorhouse (Over-the-Moon Publicity, New Holme Farm, Doncaster Road, Ardsley, Barnsley S71 F5E) "Both books take you on a roller-coaster ride of emotion. I've supported Barnsley since I was six years old. When they got to the premiership their promotion ruined many a dinner party - we could talk of nothing else. How they did on Saturday would colour the weekend. Fever Pitch paints the wider picture."

Paul Sagar, a self-employed dental technician, chooses Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Berni res (Vintage) "The reading group has brought me back to books - books I would never have read. This is the best I have read in 20 years. It's a beautiful love story but it's so much more than that. It has so many funny passages, even when terrible things are happening. I've cried laughing and I've cried with the sadness of it."

Alex Jones, 11, King's High School, Pontefract, chooses Sharpe's Rifles by Bernard Cornwell (Fontana) "I try to come into the library every week, looking for historical adventures mainly. I've read about 10 from this series so far. This one is about an English soldier in Spain during the Napoleonic wars. It tells you more than you realise about the time, about diseases and how difficult it was to survive. I like good explanations of things."

Molly Major, 63, a retired police civilian, chooses The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield (Virago) "It's like putting on a pair of slippers. There are no surprises, no real plot. It's a celebration of ordinariness, a comfy, calming book you can pick up for half an hour when you're tired. She has this lovely crisp way of writing, like Alan Bennett. It was a very civilised way of life, so ordered, the problems were so trifling. It couldn't be more different from my life. I think a bit of me is envious."

Madeleine Jackson, chair of the Pontefract Library Reader's Group, chooses Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (Black Swan) "This is set locally and the places, characters and Northern humour are very familiar. You feel quite guilty laughing about things that are so tragic. I liked Kate Atkinson's use of footnotes. It could have been messy, but in fact it keeps up your interest."

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