Silent Night by Jack Sheffield

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Silent Night by Jack Sheffield

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Fairhead
Reviewed by Sue Fairhead
Summary: Eighth in the series about a village Head in a small Yorkshire village. Easy to read, and mildly amusing in places, but not the best in the series.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 334 Date: November 2014
Publisher: Corgi
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780552167048

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I read a couple of Jack Sheffield’s books about five years ago, and enjoyed them very much. They were written in a similar style to those popularised by, for instance, James Herriot or Gervase Phinn, told mostly in the first person, describing the author’s first couple of years as Headmaster at a small village primary school in Yorkshire. The village of Ragley is fictional, as are most of the characters, but the incidents and situations encountered are based on the author’s experience.

This book is the eighth in the series. Despite the title and front cover implying a Christmas book, it's set in the entire school year starting September 1984. Jack is married to Beth, a dynamic young woman who is Head of another school, and they have a toddler son. Beth is feeling a bit cramped in their little cottage and longs for more challenge in her career, while Jack is very contented pottering along as a village school Head.

And, really, that’s about it as far as the plot goes. It’s not so much a novel as a series of incidents, most of them involving either children in the school or adults in the village. I found myself a bit bewildered at times with such a huge cast of people; perhaps I would have felt more at home if I’d read all the others in the series, or at least refreshed my memory of the two I read previously.

Still, it wasn’t necessary to know who was whom, although I found it hard, at times, to feel any kind of emotional involvement with anybody other than Jack himself. I found myself a little irritated by the way that the viewpoint kept changing to a ‘fly on the wall’ style, so that we were suddenly observing situations and conversations where the author was not present, despite the main narration being from the Head’s point of view, in the first person.

So, another year in Ragley passes by, set neatly in its historical context by asides mentioning - in perhaps a tad too much unnecessary detail - topical news items and pop songs of the era. Jack’s life is punctuated by minor frustrations of bureaucracy, a few misunderstandings, and occasional irate parents. However it’s also enriched regularly by typical mildly amusing mistakes made by children, and a few sparks of talent that make a teacher’s work so encouraging.

Having said that, I wonder if this series is getting a little tired. The writing seems stilted in places, the children’s anecdotes felt a bit predictable; and since every child spoke with the same kind of voice, I rarely remembered who was whom. I smiled a couple of times, but unlike the earlier books, I wasn't moved to any strong emotion.

Still, it was a pleasant, easy read, ideal for a busy period. I had no trouble putting it down at night when I wanted to sleep, and I think it would appeal to those who enjoy light-weight meanderings into a gentler way of school and village life, prior to the National Curriculum, when mobile phones were in their infancy and people actually stopped to have conversations with each other.

I would recommend reading at least one or two of the author's previous books in this series prior to this one - in particular Educating Jack, sixth in the series, and School's Out!, which is the seventh. For a more specifically Christmas story in similar style, you might like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Stars by Gervase Phinn

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