EMC Christmas Reads 2021
Apparently 88% of the UK is planning to celebrate Christmas this year. Whether you are in the 88% or the 12%, we hope you get time to read at least one great book over the holiday and take a break from the stresses of the autumn term. Our ‘staff picks’ are an eclectic mix as our only criteria is 'something we enjoyed reading recently', so there are books here for a wide range of tastes. What would you recommend? We'd love to hear your suggestions in the comments, below.
If you’re looking for a quick read that still offers a satisfying narrative, then this could be one for you. Set in a small town in Ireland in 1985 in the build-up to Christmas, it creates a real sense of life as lived in the relatively recent past. While it deals with difficult subject matter (the enforced incarceration of unmarried mothers and the complicity of the Catholic church), it does so in a sensitive, moving way, one that ultimately – it being Christmas – brings the promise of renewal and redemption.
Set in modern Pakistan, Aslam’s novel juxtaposes state-sanctioned violence with ordinary people doing their best. He writes beautifully whether depicting brutality or kindness, cruelty or love. A thoughtful and affecting novel, at times hard to read.
Set in the Peak District fells during the lockdown of November 2020, this is a slim absorbing novel in which Covid provides the context for exploring ideas of family and community, freedom and fear, and the consequences of our actions. Told from the perspectives of different characters, in a sort of stream of consciousness, it would make a brilliant comparative text with Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13.
Multiple narratives combine in the build-up to the Big Oakland Powwow, all told with a clarity and verve that showcase the complexity of life in contemporary America for people of Native American heritage.
If you like an intelligent, psychological mystery which has plenty of twists but doesn’t cheat the reader, this is a goodie.
This is such a quiet novel, dealing unobtrusively in such big emotions. Paula’s husband is killed in an accident – only moments after telling her he is having an affair, a revelation she is unable to share: the exploration of the complicated aftermath – both practical and emotional – is both heart-breaking and funny.
This is a complex and moving portrayal of apartheid South Africa, traced through the experiences of a white family on a farm outside Pretoria. Spanning many decades, it explores ideas of guilt and exploitation, suffering and the search for redemption, looking at the impact of apartheid on all the characters’ lives.
The narrator of this short novel has left New York to take up a position as interpreter in the International Court at The Hague, a position which places her simultaneously at the centre of things and leaves her an outsider – a position she seems to occupy in her personal life too. Woven into the quiet introspective story of this personal life, is both a mystery story – a crime with which she becomes obsessed – and a political one. It’s also a fascinating exploration of language and the weight of the words we choose to use.
For the first few chapters I thought this was going to irritate me, then, once again, her flat prose and painfully self-conscious, try-to-keep-things-light-for-show characters, sucked me in.
Told in the first person from the perspective of the younger sister, this short, sparely written novel brings sibling rivalry to life in a way which makes you alternately feel sympathy for and frustrated with each sister.
Compelling account of the first year of the Covid pandemic, written by the director of the Wellcome Trust. Captures the urgency with which scientists around the world tackled the virus (and gives an insight into the number of possible threats they are dealing with all the time), as well as brilliantly conveying the frustration felt in the face of political decisions.
A melancholy novella which felt a bit like a contemporary Anita Brookner – a tale of sisters who have taken different paths in life, of the prickliness between them and, of course, what binds them too. To be enjoyed as much for the atmosphere and descriptions of weather as for the story.
There seems to be an emerging sub-genre of novels which, in detached, flat, cool and simple prose evoke the complexity of 21st century life, particularly from the position of young women – relationships, work, identity, belonging and self-presentation and deception – and how these are uncomfortably bound together. (Think Rooney, Riley, Nolan.)
Erdrich is one of my favourite writers and this won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2021. Based on the experiences of her nightwatchman grandfather, who fought against Native American dispossession in the 1950s, this is a hard-hitting novel about poverty, corruption and the generational impact of racism, yet full of heart, hope and humour too. Every character lives and breathes and the organically growing story digresses and twists.
Climate change dystopia is probably the last thing we need for Christmas, but this manages to capture some positives about the human spirit and its capacity for love, as well as our determination to protect those close to us, despite being set among the bleakness of rising sea levels and populist, autocratic governments. It doesn’t feel too far off either, as the world painted is recognisably our own one in many places, with the ruined charm of Margate rising out of the oncoming waves.
This is a lovely coming-of-age novel told from the perspective of Marwand, a 12-year-old Afghan-American boy staying with his extended family in Logar in 2005. It's about the power of stories to help us understand ourselves and our communities, and as a way of remembering what has been lost.
A great selection of poems showing the huge range of this prolific poet.
This is a striking collection of autobiographical essays about the writer's relationship with her own body as she developed from girlhood to womanhood and the various reactions these changes provoked in the men around her. It paints a dark picture of how girls are subtly taught to be ashamed of their bodies and their sexuality.
This has just been added to the OCR A Level Literature specification and is a really wonderful choice. One can see why it’s been a seminal text on undergraduate courses for a good long time. It has all the intrigue and complexity of other modernist texts and its subject matter speaks to many of our current concerns about race and racism, gender and identity. It’s also a cracking good read!
13 themed chapters that move roughly chronologically from the end of slavery and the fight for woman and black suffrage up to the time of writing in 1981. Davis makes the case for intersectional feminism and, though dated, the lessons to be learned remain contemporary.
The Blair, Brown, Britpop version of the 90s has received much coverage in the last few years. But musician Brett Anderson's memoir – of growing up in a ‘dolls’ house’ on a council estate outside Haywards Heath and his early twenties spent living in crowded flatshares in London – is a reminder of the forgotten few years at the start of the decade. Honest, self-aware and always entertaining, this memoir plugged me back into that feeling of how music, art and culture can provide a window onto another world when you’re a kid from a shitty nowhere town where nothing happens.
Marrying true crime with biography and historical fiction, this is a retelling of the life of US serial killer Belle Sorenson. It’s a gruesome tale of motherhood, murder and revenge - not for the faint-hearted.
I generally try to recommend recently written fiction, but I came to the John McGahern party late and loved him so much that I feel the need to spread the word. Both of these novels are beautifully written and explore small lives in Ireland with a craft and intimacy that’s hard to beat. Real novels!
Poet Hollie McNish recounts her experience of pregnancy and early motherhood in both prose and poetry. The audiobook, read by McNish is great too.
The Shadow King highlights a history that I was not very familiar with – Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s. It brings women's roles in the war as soldiers to the fore in a dense, powerful and poetic narrative told from different characters’ perspectives. N.B. Contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence and war.
Through the three rented rooms a young woman lives in over the course of 2018, this highly readable and enjoyable but unsettling novel confronts the reader with difficult truths about inequality, belonging, identity – and what it’s all for.
Not for the faint-hearted, this Man Booker International winner is narrated by a Senegalese soldier who has witnessed and carried out appalling atrocities in World War One. As the novel unfolds we are shown the workings of this soldier’s mind as he hurtles towards madness in ways reminiscent of Poe’s ‘Tell-tale Heart’.
For your students:
A poetic, inventive retelling of the myth that manages to make it relevant to some of our current concerns about identity and gender but without the clunkiness of a ‘message’ trumpeted too loudly. I’d recommend it for a class read at KS3, or something to suggest to a fairly committed KS3 reader.
At first this seems like an Alex Wheatle-style story of South London youth. Which in some ways it is, with authentic-sounding slang and a believable (and diverse) cast of characters, drawing on Fadugba’s own youth in Peckham. But it develops into a time travel sci-fi taking surprising detours into quantum physics and philosophy. Fadugba has a MSc in materials science and quantum computing and hopes his book will get young people interested in the mysteries of physics. I think you can tell this is a debut novel in parts, but I’m not at all surprised that Netflix have snapped it up.
The verse novel is constructed to stunning effect, as the narrative builds towards a crossing, both literal and metaphorical. Natalie is training to swim the channel; Sammi is fleeing Eritrea to try and make a new life in the UK. At some point he will have to try and cross the channel. Absolutely gripping by the end.
What do you do when you live in a magical world but your magic has gone? Dark, well-written and gripping addition to the ‘magic school’ genre. First in a series.
One of the most brilliantly illustrated books I’ve come across in a long time, with a great storyline to boot. Julia is an only child who finds herself living in a lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides, while her mother carries out research into the Greenland Shark (they live for up to 600 years and have a metabolism so slow that were they human they could survive on one digestive biscuit a day!). There’s the natural world, there’s adventure and there’s also an age-appropriate (late primary, early secondary) exploration of mental illness, via the mother character.
How will Sandie Cotton deal with the nightmare that stalks her in her sleep when her trusty dog Rabbie can no longer keep her safe? A dyslexia-friendly read from Barrington Stoke. Reading age: 8. Interest age: teen.
Beautifully illustrated and expertly crafted novel narrated in multiple forms and told by multiple voices. At the book’s centre is Kai, coping with the difficulties of growing up, family loss and problems at school.
Violet has learned to manage her mother’s creeping alcoholism. Now her mum has promised things will be different, but can she be believed? A dyslexia-friendly read from Barrington Stoke. Reading age: 8. Interest age: teen.
Another gem from Almond, bringing fresh life to a Northumberland setting, this time venturing inland to the Kielder Forest. A blend of the magical and the real that explores the influence of the distant past on the present.
The story of an ordinary boy and his family making the treacherous journey from Syria to England, as refugees. For late primary, early secondary readers, the book explores how war can tear apart lives regardless of your background.
Gripping story set in wartime with a brilliant conceit at its heart: what would you do if a gorilla escaped from the zoo after a bombing raid? The book offers much more than this too, with its central protagonist, Joseph, coming to terms with his own difficult life.
Smy’s follow up to Thornhill uses the same technique to tell the story – a combination of images and written text. It makes for a beautiful artefact, as well as a well told, satisfying read that sees the protagonist and hideaway, Billy, discovering some of the joys that life can hold as he comes to terms with growing up with a violent stepfather.