Back Wednesday 9 Dec 2020 3:07 pm

Christmas Reads 2020

Without musing, unoriginally, on what a strange year it's been, let's just say there has never been a better time to support independent booksellers.
main image for blog post 'Christmas Reads 2020'

So, although we have given online links to a range of pubishers and sellers for our Christmas reads, we would encourage you to use your local bookshop if you can. Most offer a 'click and collect' service or may even be offering delivery at the moment. 

We hope you enjoy our recommendations for you and your students, selected from the EMC team’s favourite recent reads. What has been your favourite recent read? We'd love to hear from you in the comments.


Christmas Days

By Jeanette Winterson

Not strictly speaking a recent read, this was my ‘Secret Santa’ present last year: a story for each of the twelve days of Christmas, interspersed with recipes and anecdotes. All written with Winterson’s sharp intelligence and humour. 

Leave the World Behind

By Rumaan Alam

On holiday in a beautiful house in remote Long Island, a couple  and their children are interrupted by two old people who claim to own the house and bring news that something unknown but catastrophic has happened, knocking out all means of communication, and, unbelievably, seeming to presage the collapse of civilisation. Alam captures brilliantly a curious combination of paranoia, dread and panicky disbelief that yes, really, this could be it, creating a novel which blends the eerie with the ordinary. (And see Don DeLillo The Silence for a more abstract, poetic take on the failure of our communication networks and the dawning realisation that this might be the end of the world.) 

Real Life

By Brandon Taylor

A melancholy 21st-century campus novel which highlights explicit and implicit inequalities in contemporary America – and the wariness this produces in those who everyday live with both deliberate and unthinking prejudice. The prose is spare and understated, somehow allowing echoes of all the other novels of young, privileged students, to come through.

Redhead by the Side of the Road

By Anne Tyler

This is a bold book in which very little happens. It's essentially the story of a middle aged guy who runs his own IT business ('Tech Hermit'), lives life to a strict and comfortable routine and can't understand why all his girlfriends walk away. But it's about what's in our peripheral vision, about the things we don't quite see or can't quite grasp about ourselves our pasts and our lives. 




By Zadie Smith

Written entirely during early lockdown, and with all proceeds from sales going to charity, the six pieces in this tiny collection showcase Smith’s essay-writing skills to the full. My personal favourite is titled ‘Contempt as a Virus’. Linking the contempt in Dominic Cummings’ eyes as he failed to apologise for breaking lockdown rules, to the contempt of the police officer killing George Floyd while being filmed, it confronts readers with some hard truths about the structural injustices and racism that permeate so many areas of life.


By Robert MacFarlane

Who’d have thought that the world beneath our feet could be so fascinating? In MacFarlane’s hands it certainly is, as he burrows deep to provide accounts of hidden wonders both naturally occurring and human-made. As ever, MacFarlane’s writing is as sublime as the (under)landscapes he describes. It’s the quality of his research and knowledge though, his willingness to push himself to extremes in his quest for material, that, for me, makes this stand out from his previous books, brilliant as they all are.

Who They Was

By Gabriel Krauze

There’s not a great deal of festive fun in this casually violent and often darkly nihilistic novel about life on road, gang culture and disintegrating relationships, but its central character is interestingly caught between studying for a degree in English Literature while shotting, smoking cro and shanking assorted wastemen. There’s a lot going on and the language is as raw as the life being described, but there’s also the sense that the lead character is trying to make sense of the world he’s in and looking for ways out where he can be true to himself. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s an interesting read.

The Salvation Sequence

By Peter F Hamilton

I’m a sucker for sci-fi trilogies and in a year when the dystopian genre feels just too uplifting, what better than a sequence of novels all about the fate of humankind hanging in the balance at the mercy of immensely powerful but religiously fanatical aliens? It also helps that while many of us haven’t been able to do much more than look out of the window for most of the year, these books transport the human race through quantum entanglement portals to the outer reaches of the universe. The style veers from cyber-punk to hard (techy) sci-fi and then into action-packed crime fiction, and the whole scale is so ambitious and epic – and genuinely excting at times – that they’re a great, absorbing read.


The Wandering Falcon

By Jamil Ahmad

A collection of loosely connected, beautifully written tales which are somewhere between memoir, history and fable. The stories involve the Pawindas, the nomadic tribes of the region which encompasses the borders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ahmad gives a fascinating insight into a forgotten way of life, one which probably closely resembles that of our early ancestors. He wrote the book in his late 70s after a lifetime of living and working in the region in close contact with the Pawindas.


By Gary Disher

If the cold and the dark is getting to you, escape to Christmas in Australia. This is a well-written piece of rural noir with likeable cop Paul Hirsch running from one disaster to another. 

When We Cease to Understand the World

By Benjamin Labatut

Where English meets Science. Each chapter in this highly readable novel-cum-short-story hybrid is based on real-world scientists and mathematicians and their work. The scale of their intellect and of the projects they undertake push human knowledge and understanding to their absolute limits. To the point, in fact, where humans cease to understand the world and so lose control of it. Fascinating and terrifying in equal measure, this is a great example of how literature can help us to at least get some of that understanding back.


By Francine Toon

Scottish Gothic: pine forests, ghosts and winter cold. Proper Christmas reading, in other words!


To Be a Man

By Nicole Krauss

A collection of short stories, each of which has the richness of a novel and which in different ways cast light on the very strangeness of being alive. 

Shuggie Bain

By Douglas Stuart

I always read the Booker shortlist with some anxiety; I don’t want to be disappointed. With this Booker winner, I most definitely wasn’t! The voice of the narrator in the Glasgow vernacular, is special, the narrative beautifully constructed, the events absolutely harrowing but brilliantly conveyed. The boy's overriding love for his mother and his growing acceptance of who he is, is both extremely powerful and very moving. 

Nervous Conditions

By Tsitsi Dangarembga

This coming-of-age novel follows Tambu and her British-educated cousin Nyasha in 1960s Rhoedesia. Tambu narrates the story, but the complexities of gender, colonialism and modernisation are richly portrayed through a large cast of characters who are all given a voice.  Brilliant book which still resonates.

The Narrow Land

By Christine Dwyer Hickey

I had some doubts close to the start of this novel but having jumped this initial hurdle, I grew to love it. The story of the unhappy marriage of painter Edward Hopper and his wife Josephine, it brings in the very moving story of a small boy evacuated from Germany at the end of the war and creates a narrative in which their lives intersect one summer on Cape Cod. It’s a powerful story of unhappiness, mutually destructive anger and jealousy but more than that too, with much that is life-affirming and touching. The descriptions of places and people are stunning, as one might expect in a novel about Hopper. 


Blood and Sugar

By Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Set in Deptford, in London, in 1781, what starts with a murder develops into a harrowing exploration of the secrets of the eighteenth-century slave trade. I enjoyed it for the exciting storyline, the historical detail and portrayal of the period but most importantly of all, for what I learned about the British role in the slave trade and the extent to which it was both highly visible and integral to life in England, and also part of a murky political world at the heart of government.

The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels

By Adam Nicolson

Beautifully illustrated exploration of perhaps the most famous year in English poetry. Nicolson explores the complicated friendships between Coleridge and William and Dorothy Wordsworth, retracing their steps across the Quantocks.  The details of the landscape now, as well as its impact on the poets, make this thoroughly absorbing, and a very pleasurable read.

The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate

By Nancy Campbell

Campbell draws on an eclectic range of sources, research and personal experience to enrich our knowledge and understanding of ice and the way it holds our history and affects our lives, including, inevitably, the impact of climate change. 

For your students


All I Want for Christmas

By Beth Garrod

This is a Christmas romcom, tame enough for KS3, but with more substance than that description implies. Explores the sometimes misleading world of social media. 


By Jordan Ifueko

West-African inspired fantasy for those who like their alternate universes with magic and lots (and lots) of world-building detail. Plenty of twists and turns and moral dilemmas. A good recommendation for someone who enjoyed Children of Blood and Bone.


By Kat Leyh

This graphic novel is about a girl growing up in a trailer park who makes friends with the local witch, but it’s also about coming to terms with the world around her, secrets about her family, friends and her own identity. The central character is really engaging and there’s an understated magical realist feel to the artwork and story. It’s a great read.

The Cane Warriors

By Alex Wheatle

EMC favourite, Alex Wheatle, takes on new ground in this powerful YA novel. Based on the true story of Tacky’s War in Jamaica in 1760, it is centred around 14-year-old Moa, tasked with killing the overseer of the sugar plantation where he is enslaved. Gripping and thought-provoking in equal measure, it pushes at the boundaries of what YA fiction is able to do.


Blackfin Sky

By Kat Ellis

16 year old Sky turns up in her Welsh home town three months after her own funeral, as if she’s been away for a few hours. Is she dead? And, if not, who’s in her coffin? A creepy tale with a satisfyingly surprising ending. 

The Enemy

By Charlie Higson

Page-turning dystopia with zombies. Trigger warning: involves a terrible disease sweeping the country!

Hunted by the Sky

By Tanaz Bhathen

First in a new fantasy series set in a medieval Indian alternate universe. Great world building, charismatic female protagonist, issues around identity and class, warrior magic and a bit of romance. Looking forward to the sequel.


By Marie Lu

Warcross is a computer game with an obsessive global fan base. When rainbow-haired electric skateboarder Emika Chen is recruited by the game’s creator to work undercover and catch a fellow hacker, she finds herself dragged into a much bigger plot with more at risk than she could have realised. She, and the diverse team she is part of, have some tough decisions to make. A good one for getting gamers reading, or to recommend for fans of Ready Player One.


A Phoenix First Must Burn: Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance and Hope

Ed. Patrice Caldwell

Collection of short stories with a deliberately diverse range of characters (and authors). As with any collection, some are better than others of course. My favourite was by Elizabeth Acevedo, last year’s Carnegie winner. 


By Ichigo Takano

This is a thought-provoking read about a girl who receives a letter from her future self. I know some teachers don’t encourage students to read manga, but the research suggests that the wider the school’s definition of reading, the more pupils will identify themselves as readers and the more they will read. Although Orange isn’t aimed at reluctant readers, the amount of text on each page is fairly short, so it would appeal to those who lack reading stamina.

Eight Pieces of Silva

By Patrice Lawrence

When Silva disappears, Becks searches her stepsister’s room and uncovers eight clues which may help her to solve the mystery of what happened. The plot has plenty of twists, but it’s the characters that really drive the story. Lawrence’s compassion for the complex experience of being a teenager in the 21st century shines through, without ever feeling patronising. Great for BAME and LGBTQ+ representation. By the author of Orangeboy.


The Kid Who Came from Space

By Ross Welford

12 year old Tammy disappears in the wilds of Northumberland, and so begins another engaging tale from the author of What Not to Do When You Turn Invisible and The 1,000 Year Old Boy. Wellford’s trademark mix of adventure, intriguing hook, sad bits and laugh-out-loud humour is very appealing, and he writes characters you really root for. Particularly suitable for Y7.

Six of Crows

By Leigh Bardugo

Complex characters, page-turning plot, magic, science, mystery, action, romance and moral dilemmas. What’s not to like? The huge cast of characters is fabulously diverse and not just in terms of ethnicity, religion and sexuality, but also body type, disability and mental health (without any clunky virtue signalling). The sequel, Crooked Kingdom, is just as good. An earlier Grishaverse series, Shadow and Bone, has just been made into a series for Netflix.

For dyslexic or reluctant readers


The Pavee and the Buffer Girl: graphic novel

By Siobhan Dowd

With beautiful illustrations, this short graphic novel centres on the developing relationship between an Irish Traveller boy and a non-Traveller girl and along the way explores small town life and prejudice on both sides. 

Jane Eyre: a retelling

By Tanya Landman

Author of the excellent Buffalo Soldier retells the story of Jane Eyre, retaining the tone and feel of the orginal but in a simplified version for reluctant or dyslexic readers. She has also written a version of Wuthering Heights for the same series. 


By Non Pratt

The opening of a memory box stirs up emotions old and new in a group of friends. Reading age 9, interest age 14+. 


Photo by Cris DiNoto on Unsplash


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