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EMC Christmas Reads 2018

Whether you want a book to give away, or one to give to yourself this Christmas we have plenty of suggestions. Here are some personal recommendations from EMC staff of adult and YA books they've enjoyed recently, ranging across styles and genres and from light stocking fillers to hefty tomes. What would you recommend?

For adults


By Michael Donkor

A debut novel by a still practising English teacher is always a cause for celebration. This gripping coming-of-age novel moves between London and Ghana, with plenty of secrets and revelations coming to light along the way.

Convenience Store Woman

By Sayaka Murata

Having never fitted in, Keiko finds her place working in a Japanese convenience store. The simple, unadorned style and flat narrative voice are what make this short novel both absorbing and more than a little disturbing. An emag 'Read This Now' recommendation.

Life and Fate

By Vasily Grossman

Yes, it really is worth reading all 900 pages of this epic novel about Russia, the siege of Stalingrad and the Stalin years! It took me a good few hundred pages to get to know the characters – with constant reference back to the long character list at the front – but it’s definitely one of those great books that one has to put aside the time to read. Not only do you end up getting to know and love the complex, endearingly flawed characters, you are also immersed in a period, place and set of events of immense historical significance.


By Margo Jefferson

Nuanced and thought-provoking memoir of growing up as a member of Chicago's black elite in the 1950's and 60's. Some of the references were lost on me and it's certainly a very American perspective, but Jefferson delves into the complex intersections of class, race and gender with a clear eye and a sharp sense of humour. 

The Blazing World

By Siri Hustvedt

Artist Harriet Burden, tired of being ignored, disappears from the artworld and reinvents herself as a man, or rather three male personas. Her story is told through her own notebooks, interviews with friends and family and so on. Once you’ve given up trying to keep track of the huge cast of characters and the various strands of the infuriating Harriet’s story, this is a hugely enjoyable, believable, touching and playful novel.


By Will Eaves

There’s something compelling about this short novel that enters the dreamspace of a loosely disguised fictionalisation of Alan Turing's life. Highly experimental, so avoid if you want a straightforward narrative that you can actually follow!

Dora Bruder

By Patrick Modiano

This is a very unusual book, a blending of fact and fiction that reminded me very much of WG Sebald’s work, both for its disorientating generic complexity but also for its subject matter – the piecing together of the lives of lost or dispersed people in Europe in the period of the Second World War. A young Jewish girl, Dora Bruder, goes missing and the narrator becomes obsessed with tracing her disappearance through the trails she leaves behind. The strange, sad mood of this book will stay with me for a long time.

A General Theory of Oblivion

By José Eduardo Agualusa (trans Daniel Hahn):

As the fight for Angolan independence is waged on the streets outside, agoraphobic Ludo bricks herself into her apartment where she will remain for 30 years, touched by the world only through glimpses and snippets, recording her own existence onto her walls. 

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

By Meg Elison

This starts with a fairly standard dystopian plot device – the sudden extinction of most of the human race and virtually all female life on the planet. The eponymous (but unnamed – 'nonponymous'?) narrator wakes up having survived the deadly flu epidemic and sets out to make sense of what has happened. Elison is excellent on the language and behaviour of men and women and how the outward signifiers of traditional femininity have to be hidden in this new world. There’s more to come in the follow-up: The Book of Etta.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

By Ottessa Moshfegh

I’m still working out if this is truly disturbing, truly hilarious – or both. One woman’s determined quest to renew herself through a little bit of R&R.

Moon Tiger

By Penelope Lively

This was a book that really grew on me as I read it. A dying woman, Claudia Hampton, looks over her life and in particular her time as a journalist in Egypt during the Second World War. Not only is her complex, tragic, personal history gradually revealed to the reader, but her reflections as a popular historian make us consider the nature of history and historical records. I’d read it again, just for the wonderful evocation of Egypt, and the extraordinary, unflinching portrayal of the relationship between Claudia, her brother and sister-in-law!

Citizen: An American Lyric

By Claudia Rankine

Collection of prose poems laying bare the experience of race and racism in the contemporary Western world. Not only do the poems make this a powerful and thought-provoking book, but the interspersed images and artwork make it a beautiful object too

The Silence of the Girls

By Pat Barker

The story of the Trojan Wars, re-told from the point of view of captured Queen Briseis, given as a ‘prize’ to Achilles. The voice of Briseis is entirely believable and the novel wears it’s historical research lightly. The book loses a little momentum when it transfers to the voice of Achilles but this does not stop this being a compelling read.


By Min Jin Lee

I’m a fan of a multigenerational family epic (think Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others or AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book) and within that genre this is outstanding. Pachinko takes you through the Korean civil war in the 50s, the division of the country and the impact that had on the Korean diaspora in Japan into the present day. It follows a line of female characters who, although sometimes exploited or cosseted by the men around them, are tough, resourceful and compassionate.

Good Trouble

By Joseph O’Neill

Very dark, very funny short story collection, mainly about the disappointments of middle-aged men whose lives have failed to live up to expectations. Firmly in the ‘crisis of masculinity’ genre!

What Belongs to You

By Garth Greenwell

Another emag 'Read This Now' recommendation, this is a story of obsession, longing, disorientation and family relationships.

Young Skins

By Colin Barrett

A collection of bleak and beautiful stories focusing on Ireland's disenfranchised youth. Its mostly male protagonists are dealing with loss and disappointment, struggling to find their purpose in a part of the world that is devastatingly beautiful but offers little to the millennial man. The longest story, 'Calm With Horses', is being made into a film in 2019, which I’m certain will be a social realist masterpiece.

Frenchman’s Creek

By Daphne du Maurier

DuMaurier’s sexy pirate adventure was a thrill from start to finish. Dona is in her twenties - a vivacious London society girl saddled with two kids and an idiot toff of a husband. She flees to Cornwall where she becomes a cross-dressing pirate and falls in love with the educated and cultured gentleman pirate, Jean-Benoit Aubéry. I wish I had known about Daphne DuMaurier when I was a 14 year old girl, this book would have blown my tiny adolescent mind.

The Taskmaster

By Alex Horne

If, like me, you have a 'Taskmaster' fan in the family, they will not be disappointed in this book and will almost certainly make you play the game as a family. Makes a change from charades!

Madame Zero 

By Sarah Hall

Tales of the weird and wonderful, as well as the ordinary and everyday, from a writer fast becoming one of the leading British exponents of the short form.

Sarments: New and Selected Poems

By John James

Spanning 50 years of writing, this is an impressive achievement ranging across the serious, the humorous, the lyrical, the sensual, the personal and the political.


By David Szalay

A relay-race of short stories, each one taking a tiny slice through a life and somehow conveying a depth of character and the richness of individual experiences.

The Mars Room 

By Rachel Kushner

Beautifully crafted, linguistically rich and morally compelling novel centred around a woman serving two life sentences for murder in a US prison. 

The Lost Man

By Jane Harper

If you want to escape winter, head to Australia for this well-written page turner set in the sun-scorched outback. You get a real sense of how dependent people in isolated communities are on the goodwill of family and neighbours as tensions past and present slowly come to a head.

Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills 

By Neil Ansell

A book about living alone in the Welsh hills for five years that makes you want to live on your own in the Welsh hills for five years!


By George Eliot

I re-read this exemplary novel recently as a result of recommending it to a friend who wanted to read ‘a good classic’, having not studied English at university. It took her about six months to finish but she did, eventually, admit that it was very, very good.  

The Gallows Pole 

By Benjamin Myers

Incredible novel based on an incredible real-life story. It’s based around a gang of Yorkshire ‘coiners’, renegades living on the moors, who clip coins and melt them down to forge new ones. Draws heavily on the Yorkshire dialect to stunning linguistic effect.

The Italian Teacher

By Tom Rachman

A very pleasurable story of a whole life – the life of Pinch, son of artist Bear Bavinsky – the compromises he makes as he tries to live in the shadow of his larger-than-life father, and the surprisingly satisfying way he finally leaves his mark on the art world. 

Perfidious Albion

By Sam Byers

A lighter take on dystopia, billed in some reviews as the first post-Brexit satire. It’s hard to satirise something that descends further into farce every day, and while Byers’ novel is sharp and well-observed about the politics of division, it’s also perhaps more interesting on the role of tech giants and social media. While it can be a bit too clever for its own good, when it’s on target it’s very funny indeed and bears comparison with What A Carve Up! in places.


By Jonathan Edwards 

Jonathan Edwards has been a great friend of EMC. An English teacher, he has written for emagazine and is featured in emagclips.  We loved his first Costa-winning poetry collection My Family and Other Superheroes, so it was a great pleasure to open up his new collection and discover that it is just as entertaining and full of heart and humour, with poems that both come out of an everyday world and transcend it. I’ll be looking out for it in the poetry prize nominations for 2018/19!

Days of Awe

By AM Holmes

Brilliant short stories (on the back of which I will recommend again This Book Will save Your Life and May We Be Forgiven).


By Kate Atkinson

Atkinson’s characteristically playful narrative style is particularly suited to this wartime tale of espionage and counter-espionage.

Love is Blind

By William Boyd

Both witty and moving, this love story set in the 19th century takes in Edinburgh, Paris, St Petersburg – and a whole life (a sub-genre Boyd is particularly good at).

Red Clocks

By Leni Zumas

There are echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale as Zumas describes a world where ultra-conservatives and evangelicals have swept to power, banned abortion and IVF and are about to prevent anyone but stable, heterosexual families from adopting children. Following the lives of different girls and women facing up to the new world, it’s a multi-layered and powerful read with such a relentless and unflinching focus on fertility you might never want to engage in festive frolics ever again.

Notes From the Fog

By Ben Marcus

Gothic-dystopian-surreal short stories which manage to be both frightening and funny.


By Tina Fey

Unsurprisingly hilarious, surprisingly full of pithy advice and thoughtful musings. When you need to escape Christmas altogether, this is a good bet.


Normal People

By Sally Rooney

Many people’s book of the year (though I think her first Conversations With Friends is more interestingly written), this is a novel to gallop through in one sitting.

Christmas, a Biography

By Judith Flanders

Eclectic and fascinating social history to dip into when you get a quiet moment, enabling you to annoy everyone else with your newly acquired seasonal facts: the Roman festival of Saturnalia/what Christmas looks like in Japan/why the British have Christmas trees (no, it's not because of Prince Albert).

Blue Fox

By Sjön

An emag 'Read this Now' recommendation, this is a very, very short story with a fable like quality – surreal and witty, it buries itself under your skin.


The Murderer’s Ape

By Jakob Wegelius

Sally Jones is on the run and trying to clear the name of her dear friend the Chief. She’s a great protagonist: kind-hearted, adventurous, resourceful, loyal and brave. Oh, and she’s an ape. Particularly good for year 7 needing to build some reading stamina as it is long but never lags. Can’t wait to read the prequel: The Legend of Sally Jones

We See Everything

By William Sutcliffe

Dystopian thriller in which London is a bombed out shell of a city in which survivors are trapped and under constant surveillance. Gripping read, switching between two narratives, and working towards a stunning conclusion.

I Am Thunder

By Mohammed Khan

Debut novel by an East London teacher inspired by real-life events that saw three British schoolgirls travel to Syria to join so-called Islamic State.

Run Riot

By Nikesh Shukla

The coming of age novel meets gentrification. Caught up in a tragedy, the lead protagonists go on the run, in a story that offers an interesting take on young lives, identity and place.

Corey's Rock

By Sita Brahmachari

A very short book for younger readers, but the story of a family coping with the loss of a young child is so powerful and moving that it deserves to be read by everyone.

The Sun is Also a Star

By Nicola Yoon

A great novel to get readers stuck in the romance genre to be more adventurous. Under the guise of a simple ‘opposites attract’ story and the hackneyed ‘fated to be together’ premise, this novel manages to explore racism, immigration and parental expectation. Her previous novel, Everything Everything, is also very readable for KS4 (or older KS3) romance fans.

Letters to the Lost

By Brigid Kemmerer

When Juliet’s mother dies, leaving letters at the graveside helps her to deal with her grief and loss. Troubled teen Declan, doing community service in the graveyard, begins to write back. This is a delicately handled modern epistolary novel with unexpected twists and a satisfying ending.

The Girl in the Broken Mirror

By Savita Kalhan

Hard-hitting coming-of-age novel confronting a clash of cultures.

Ketchup Clouds

By Annabel Pitcher

15-year old Zoe’s letters to a man on death row in Texas are away for her to share her own guilty secrets. The story is by turns gripping, funny, sweet and dark. I found this in The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education's amazing new library – do visit if you are in London and looking for great ideas for KS3 books. Pitcher’s other YA novels, My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece and Silence is Goldfish, are also very good.


By Anthony McGowan

Published by the always excellent Barrington Stoke who produce ‘super-readable books’ for dyslexic or struggling readers, this book has a reading age of 8 but a YA interest age. A gripping tale of two brothers and a rescued rook, this is no less compelling for being simply written. Others in the same series are also excellent: Brock and Pike, with Lark coming in January 2019. McGowan's other YA titles (not dyslexia friendly) also make for gripping reading: The Knife that Killed Me (dealing with gangs and knife crime) and Henry Tumour (about a boy’s relationship with his brain tumour).

The Colour of the Sun

By David Almond

An absolute gem from Almond that blends the real and the imaginary as a young boy deals with the moral complexities that come with possessing knowledge unknown to others.


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The English and Media Centre on 10 December 2018