Night of the living dad;Books of the year;Books;Review

17th December 1999 at 00:00
As the daylight gives way to darkness, something is stirring down in the library. But hold the garlic and the holy water: this is not some gathering of blood-sucking ghouls but a group where fathers and sons get together to discuss their literary tastes. Michael Thorn investigates.

Something strange is happening in the library of Test Valley School in Stockbridge, Hampshire. Fourteen-year-old boys are avidly recommending books to each other. Their fathers are there too at 8pm, keen to join the discussion. The atmosphere is clandestine.

This group is believed to be the only one of its kind in the United Kingdom. It is clearly down to the combined enthusiasm of Anne Marley, the energetic, get-things-done head of Hampshire's Children's and Schools Library Service, and Test Valley's librarian, Ruth Crabbe, that the venture was set up last February and is now so strongly established.

The group is small. Persuading 13 and 14-year-old boys to participate was never going to be easy. In the beginning, group dynamics were awkward and Anne Marley did most of the talking. Although discussion now flows easily, with one or two of the teenagers out-talking the adults, her role remains pivotal. Each half-termly meeting brings a new selection of library books, and she speaks briefly about some key titles. But, importantly, there is no sense of the group being directed towards particular types of book.

As the group share thoughts about favourite books of the year, fathers and sons constantly refer to one another's, mostly similar, reactions to books. The aim was to have selected titles read by both and jointly reviewed. The discussions, and resulting recommended reading lists - which will be printed and circulated free to Hampshire libraries (with additional reviews by authorillustrator Anthony Browne and his 16-year-old son) - make little reference to "teenage" fiction. In the "Lads' List" just three of the 10 titles are published on children's lists. The combined "Dads And Lads List" finds room for four (two Gary Paulsens, a Paul Jennings and a Philip Pullman).

But, with the exception of Philip Pullman and one boy's choice of The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price, teenage reading appears not to have generated the same level of discussion or passion as the adult books. The group has bonded over its shared enthusiasm for the humour of Bill Bryson, and for the real-life action of behind-enemy-lines accounts, such as Chris Ryan's The One That Got Away. Ruth Crabbe and another school librarian who attends the discussions are clear about what this means for book selection in secondary school libraries - buy more adult titles.

Richard Fannon, hotel manager, and Ben Fannon, Year 9 Richard: The Chosen Child by Graham Masterton (Heinemann pound;17.99) "The first horror book I've read for 20 years. Benjamin read it and was equally glued to it. I've also read all Bill Bryson and Bruce Chatwin."

Ben: The Beach by Alex Garland (Penguin pound;6.99) "I'm a Terry Pratchett fan, but this has to be my favourite book of the year. They get into all sorts of adventures and you have to find out how they end up."

Dale Wells, operations director of a motor racing circuit, and James Wells, Year 9 Dale: Safe Bet by John Francome (Hodder Headline pound;5.99) "I picked up a new author for the first time this year. Because I'm away from home a lot I read Wilbur Smith, Jack Higgins, Dick Francis - easy reading. John Francome is in the same mould as Dick Francis but his style of writing is refreshing."

James: Say Cheese And Die by R L Stine (a Goosebumps title, Scholastic pound;3.99) "I like Narnia and Goosebumps and Animorphs. I like a book with a decent front cover. Heroes by Robert Cormier may become my favourite - I'm still reading that -but at the moment I have to say it's still Say Cheese And Die."

David Smith, storeman, and Stephen Smith, Year 10 David: The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth (Corgi pound;5.99) "The most gripping book I've read for a long, long time. I'm very interested in autobiographies and I'd read Peter de la Billi re's Storm Command (HarperCollins pound;8.99) simply because I served in the Gulf, and when I got back I was more interested in the man who commanded me out there than anything else. But when I read The Fist of God, where it was put into a sort of thriller but very factual, you could actually put the two books together.

The group has changed the way I look at books. I now go on people's recommendations. I wouldn't read anything other than James Herbert at one time."

Stephen: Tornado Down by John Peters and John Nichol (Penguin pound;6.99) "I've always been interested in the air force and this is about downed pilots during the Gulf War. I've read Bravo Two Zero (by former SAS paratrooper Andy McNab) three times, and I read dad's choice as well and thought it was brilliant, the detail it went into."

Andrew Dines, solicitor, AND Anthony Dines, Year 9 Andrew: Seven Years In Tibet by Heinrich Harrer (Flamingo pound;7.99) "This was fascinating - we can't really comprehend what Tibet was like at the end of the Second World War - but I don't think that it's a read for 13 and 14-year-olds. Without this group I would never have read the first two books of Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy (Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife, published by Scholastic) and now I can't wait for the third. I couldn't put those down. I've enjoyed the opportunity to talk about books."

Anthony: Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson (Black Swan pound;6.99) "Very funny. I like the comments he makes as he travels around the country. It's almost as good as being there. My second choice would be Bumface by Morris Gleitzman."

Hayden Hopkins, proofreader, and Michael Hopkins, Year 9 Hayden: Black Notice by Patricia Cornwell (Little Brown pound;16.99) "Patricia Cornwell stands out among my favourite authors purely from a science and investigation point of view. I would never have got into her if it hadn't been for this group. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby is also a close contender for my favourite, because I can relate to the Seventies football scene. Hornby brought back some good old memories of years and years ago on the terraces, giving the Saints stick."

Michael: Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab (Corgi pound;5.99) "There are some really harrowing bits in Bravo Two Zero where he talks about what happened to him and his mates while they were held prisoner. I also like the Chris Ryan books (more Gulf War memoirs) and Tornado Down. I like all Paul Jennings's books. And I did read one of the Bill Bryson books - The Lost Continent."

Peter Borrett, company secretary, and Richard Borrett, Year 10 Peter: Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson (Black Swan pound;6.99) "I love Bill Bryson's humour, and in this one there are so many places you can relate to, because you've been there yourself. And you know he's right. And so many character types he describes you also know are right, because you've met the people. He doesn't teach you much you didn't already know - he just makes you laugh at it.

"I came (to the group) reluctantly really, I wasn't much of a reader before. Listening to other people's comments helped turn me into a reader."

Richard: The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price (Scholastic pound;14.99) "I read this when our school shadowed the Carnegie Medal judges and I got so engrossed. After the first 10 pages, it's fascinating and gripping. There's like a second book between the lines. It's not just about time travel and there's comedy in it as well. At the end, it's action-packed almost as if you're watching a film."

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