Recommended reads – Summer 2017
Sweeping family story, jumping back and forth in time, with very interesting things to say about the relationship between real life and fiction.
Part memoir, part fiction, with a riotous trip through the lesbian sub-cultures of San Francisco and Los Angeles along the way, this is a self-conscious take on writers like Hunter S. Thompson, but with a very different set of characters.
Crehan, a teacher, decided to take a tour of the top scoring PISA countries to find out what lies behind the headlines. She stayed with local teachers, visited schools and talked to students, teachers and parents. She’s always clear that this is a personal journey rather than a piece of scientific research, but what she learns about teaching styles and cultural attitudes to education makes for interesting reading.
Practical Criticism meets mountaineering. The writer follows in the footsteps of his great-great-aunt, Dorothy Polley, pioneering mountaineer and wife of leading Literature academic, I.A. Richards. Perhaps the only text to combine close reading with an exploration of why it is that we climb mountains.
This is a dense novel requiring concentration, and I admit that I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s a rewarding read. Mandanipour writes a love story, at the same time anticipating and crossing out what will be cut by the censor, giving the reader a fascinating and often humorous look at life in modern Iran.
Photographing dead animals in rural Ireland wouldn’t be everyone’s approach to getting over depression – but it makes for a very engaging, thoughtful, even funny novel.
I recently re-read this as a result of an (unsuccessful) attempt to declutter some bookshelves. It starts with a fairly dull premise – will Charles Blakey, unemployed and desperate for money to pay the mortgage, rent out his basement to a stranger for $50,000? But this set up leads to a compelling philosophical enquiry with all the tension of the crime stories Mosely is better known for.
I make no claim for this as cutting edge writing. But Sedaris does make me laugh with the kind of deadpan, close to the edge humour that Americans do so well.
These short stories are highly original, inventive, quirky and genre-bending but not in a gratuitous, attention-seeking way. Rather they take you more deeply into the minds and lives of the characters, with the muscular spareness of a Raymond Carver, the roaming stream of consciousness of a Virginia Woolf mixed with the playful futuristic imagining of a Ray Bradbury. Extraordinary!
Shifting voices and times tell the story of a marriage (and the betrayal at its heart).
The satirical novel is a literary form that seems particularly apt for our times, and this one feels even more apt than most since the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA. The rise and fall of financier, Augustus Melmotte, and the swirling cast of characters surrounding him, is a tale of grandiose pretensions, overweening political aspiration and wholesale lies. It depicts a society mesmerised by money and people desperate to climb the ladder of success, come what may. A tour de force that still resonates powerfully.
Beautiful and varied poetry collection from one of the best writers about nature around.
A much more straightforward novel than Smith’s previous, NW. This one centres around the lives of young women from West London, as they move from childhood into adulthood. Not everyone in the EMC office has enjoyed it, but the narrative voice is a fascinating study in letting life simply pass you by.
Very short, elliptical and absorbing tale of a young woman’s life – and the difficult marriage she ends up in.
Memoir about how Lahiri turned her back on the English language and committed to reading and writing in Italian only – a language she was far from fluent in when she embarked on the project. Her Italian texts sits alongside the English translation (which she deliberately avoided doing herself).
The most powerful novel I’ve read since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Beginning in an unnamed warzone, reminiscent of Syria, the book follows two young lovers, Nadia and Saeed, as they flee their homeland and take on refugee status. Not only incredibly powerful, but also worth reading for the narrative surprises and Hamid’s supreme control of voice.
A shadowy espionage thriller set immediately post-WW2, which creates a murky, paranoid snapshot of life in the inner circles of government at the start of the cold war, contrasted wonderfully with the privations of domestic London life after the war. I'll eat my hat if this isn't adapted for TV soon, maybe with Ben Wishaw in the lead, Vicky McClure as feisty, loyal wife, and Rupert Everett as the complication........
Explores the louche, sundrenched days and sinister nights of late-60s California through the experiences of a bored, neglected adolescent dabbling with an increasingly disturbing cult. And you don't have to know anything about Charles Manson to understand the forbidden attractions of this seductively dangerous family.
Campus novel tracing the obsessions of Selin, a Turkish-American student, over the course of her first year at Harvard. Extremely readable with enough oddities and sort of surreal bits to give it an edge.
Shortlisted for the International Man Book, a thoughtful, engaging, sometimes sad but also funny interior monologue. Her other books – Mina Needs Rehearsal Space/Karate Chop and So Much for that Winter: Novellas (which also includes Minna) are formally more unusual (almost like poetry) and also great.
And some for your students:
Brilliant take on the Norse tales, thrillingly illustrated by Chris Riddell. A delight for young and old alike. Y4+ right up to adults!
Supernatural YA horror story Jekyll's Mirror takes Robert Louis Stevenson's novel as its theme and brings personality distortion into a 21st-century setting - by way of modern social media. One you might want to recommend to year 9 if they will be studying Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for GCSE.
A complex and gripping historical mystery thriller, which has a lot to say about the values of London then (1830) and now. 19th-century Clerkenwell and Holborn brought to life, in the spirit of Charles Dickens, whom protagonist AJ loves. One you might want to recommend to year 9 if they will be studying The Sign of the Four, A Christmas Carol or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for GCSE.
Cracking Sherlock Holmes mystery, Horovitz writes with a great eye for the detail of Victorian London. There is a sequel. One you might want to recommend to year 9 if they will be studying The Sign of the Four or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for GCSE.
Powerful, sometimes disturbing story, of a young boy, known only as Beck, who is orphaned in Liverpool and sent to live with the Catholic Brothers in Canada in the early part of the 20th century. This Carnegie short-listed novel is a tough read emotionally, so teachers should read it first to make sure it is suitable for particular readers. Y10+
Walker Books has just reissued this brilliant novel, winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize when first published in 2000. Set in depression-era Australia, it is narrated by young girl, Harper, and is unforgettable because of the storyline around her younger brother, Tin, who burrows under the family home and lives there. Y8+
A bestseller in the States, this is perfect for young readers interested in the Black Lives Matter campaign. It is narrated by Starr, a sixteen-year-old girl who witnesses the fatal shooting of her unarmed childhood friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Aware of the delicate balance she must tread between speaking the truth and protecting her family and wider community, this powerful read explores important issues of power, justice and race. There are better written YA books, but the storyline will hold young readers. Y9+
This is a children’s book but its manner of telling and the themes it raises are far from childish. It has an unusual, almost surreal narrative, which works allegorically to explore ideas about the destruction of wildlife, poverty, migration and Africa as a developing nation, through the parallel stories of a wolf in a zoo and the small boy who watches him in his cage. For young teenagers, it would not only be a moving read, but also a brilliant introduction to the way in which narratives can proceed in non-realist ways.