Back Tuesday 16 Jul 2019 10:51 am

Summer Reads 2019

Finally, term is (nearly) over, and you can look forward to some quality time with a book. Here's our annual summer selection of recommended reads, gleaned from various members of the team. Enjoy!
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Fiction and Poetry

Freshwater, Alwaeke Emezi

Emezi made the headlines when Freshwater became the first novel by a gender-neutral writer to make the longlist for the Women’s Fiction Prize. It’s a weird and wonderful magical realist tale that itself explores the fluidity of sexuality and identity.

Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion

Published in 1970, Didion’s classic still feels fresh and is particularly worth reading if you’re a fan of Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (EMC Christmas Reads 2018). The influences on Moshfegh (and, indeed, on Bret Easton Ellis’s work) in this account of an out-of-favour Hollywood actress in a culture of excess are clear to see.

The Porpoise, Mark Haddon

Brilliant new novel which begins in contemporary times with a harrowing plane crash before magically shifting back in time to Ancient Greece, with a brief interlude in Shakespearean London. Haddon keeps you interested throughout in a thrillingly original rewrite of an ancient tale.

Happiness, Aminatta Forna

A brilliant novel.  It feels in some ways similar to Barbara Kingsolver in its focus on the natural world, on migration and the relationship between people and place.  Beginning in Massachusetts in 1834 with a stunning description of a 'wolfer' hired by the people of Greenhampton to capture 'the last wolf', it then moves, in less heightened prose, to London 2014, which is defamiliarised slightly by being seen through the eyes of characters who are newly arrived in the city.  The main story is told here but in fact the narrative continues to reveal moments from different times and places and in different voices.  It's expansive and feels very contemporary and politically sharp.  It stays in your mind.

                                 

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Deceptively approachable, the stories in this powerful collection unsettle and disturb. The title story is an instant classic and worth the cover price on its own.

Milkman, Anna Burns

This book is like nothing I’ve read before – a novel of exceptional quality and interest. Though written without paragraphs and in a voice that’s in the moment and like stream of consciousness, for me it was a compulsive page turner. Though it has a surreal, Kafkaesque quality, it is also an intensely ‘real’ immersion into life in northern Ireland during the late twentieth century. And despite the ghastliness of the world it portrays, it is also at times hilariously funny. My book of the decade rather than the year!

Transcription, Kate Atkinson

Though not necessarily my favourite of all her novels, this has many of the qualities that make Atkinson such a popular – and well-regarded – writer. The wartime setting and the spy plot provide a compelling narrative, with the conventional unsettling twists and turns and destabilisation of the reader’s sense of who and what to trust. This is combined with an interesting and appealing female protagonist, through whose eyes we see the unfolding events.

Sabrina, Nick Drnaso

A graphic novel but not a quick read.  The style of the book invites you to read slowly - and you need to, because although the drawing style is unadorned, as the living and working spaces of the main characters are to such bleak effect, and animation comes intermittently in the form of words- very limited dialogue between characters but plenty spoken on the radio or typed on screens - this is about conspiracy theories, and while there is a strong thread here, there are gaps, and you find yourself reading and re-reading, almost in case you're telling yourself the wrong story.

                               

The Perseverance, Raymond Antrobus

Many of the collections shortlisted for the Forward Prize this year are terrific. But this is one that all English teachers should know about and read. Antrobus has done amazing work in schools, as a spoken word educator in London. His collection has, understandably, already won major awards. It is exceptional – full of powerful, stirring, touching poems about his father, his deafness, the hearing world, his identity as Jamaican British. These are poems for adults but many would also be dead certs to spark up an interest in poems and poetry in young people.

Night Boat to Tangier, Kevin Barry

If you're a fan of a killer sentence then you'll enjoy any Kevin Barry story - he's a craftsman when it comes to an arresting written phrase ('Face on him like a bad marriage'). In his latest novel, two ageing Irish gangsters are travelling to Morocco in search of a daughter who disappeared years earlier. Barry's meloncholy male characters are coming to terms with strong feelings of loss, love and morality in this darkly comic novel.

Paper Girls (vols 1-6), Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

It might be a bit lazy to describe Paper Girls as a feminist Stranger Things, but well it’s a feminist Stanger Things. It follows the time-travelling exploits of a group of teenage newspaper delivery girls in a 1980s (to begin with) USA, treating their friendships, rivalries, growing pains and kick-ass adventures with empathy, a dry sense of humour and some beautifully evocative artwork. The series is about to come to an end this summer so it’s a good time to start reading. 

The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley

Dark and dystopian (so perfect for summer, obviously), The Light Brigade is set in a world where massive global corporations run (and ruin) everything. The Light Brigade are soldiers sent at the speed of light (hence the name) to fight for their corporations in whatever theatre they’re called on to perform, be it Mars, the ruins of Sao Paolo or South Africa. As the soldiers become more broken and bitter by what they’re forced to do, the narrative starts to fragment and Hurley plays around with the structure of time to develop a complex and compelling picture of the damage that war, unfettered capitalism and propaganda inflict on an already fragile world. An unashamedly political novel, reminiscent of some of the best writing inspired by the Vietnam War.

Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich

This chilling dystopian fiction focuses on Cedar, a thirty-two-year-old who was adopted as a baby. Cedar wants to find out about her Ojibwe roots, as she is four months pregnant. But there’s a problem: evolution is reversing, and pregnant women everywhere are giving birth to primitive human species. With the end of the world near, Cedar has to keep herself and her baby safe from capture.

                           

In a House of Lies, Ian Rankin; The Comforts of Home, Susan Hill; Big Sky, Kate Atkinson

Fans of Rebus, Simon Serallier and Jackson Brodie have their summer escapism reading sorted, with new adventures for all three detectives.

Travellers, Helon Habila

A novel made up of six interlinked short stories. Each tells the story of an African travelling in Europe, either visiting, or as a migrant from war or economic hardship. The matter-of-fact tone lends a documentary feel to a hard-hitting book that is very much of the moment.

The Dry, Jane Harper

An absolute page-turner of a murder mystery, Harper’s debut novel weaves together several storylines through a narrative that switches between the present and past. There’s no shortage of gore, twists and turns in this tale, and the writer’s choice to set it against the backdrop of drought in the Australian outback only adds to the tension that is palpable throughout.

                               

Non-Fiction

The Abundance, Annie Dillard

An introduction to the acclaimed memoirist, essayist and nature writer, featuring work drawn from several of her books. Read it and you won’t be able to resist reading more.

Chernobyl: HIstory of a Tragedy, Serhii Plokhy

If you’ve watched the acclaimed Netflix series, then you’ll recognise plenty in in this detailed history that provided much of the source material. You’ll discover a lot more too in a brilliantly researched, clearly written account of the most terrifying event of modern times. (If you’re really obsessed by Chernobyl, also check out another source, Svetlana Alexievich’s collection of eye-witness accounts, Chernobyl Prayer.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, Kate Clanchy

That rare thing – a book about education that leaves you feeling upbeat and positive. Award-winning poet and novelist, Clanchy, offers a series of vignettes of life in school, drawn from over 30 years working as a teacher. Perfect for the general reader, but particularly pertinent for English teachers.

On the Red Hill: Where Four Lives Fell Into Place, Mike Parker

Mike and Pred inherit a Welsh cottage outside Machynlleth in mid-Wales from Reg and George, who had moved there in 1972. The book is part memoir, part biography and part history, as it explores the lives of all four men and the local area. ‘A great queer rural triumph of a book!’ as one reviewer commented.

                                  

The Wife's Tale, Aida Edemariam

A biography of the author’s grandmother, who died at 97 having lived most of her life in Ethiopia. Winner of the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2019 this is simultaneously the story of an individual and the history of a country. All of it is brilliantly written and structured.

The Media Education Manifesto, David Buckingham

If there's a flaw in the way your school approaches (or doesn't) media education, David Buckingham will find it and pull it apart. That's what he does in the opening chapters of this book, reminding us not to take a protectionist attitude to teaching the media (and more specifically social media) nor to promote a cyber-utopian 'the-media-is-liberating-the-world' approach. He reminds us instead to promote criticality in our students and to encourage them to ask questions about their own media practices and interrogate the economic factors that shape the types of information available to use and gathered about us.

Respectable, Lynsey Hanley

Like many teachers (and many more media teachers) Lynsey Hanley was the first in her family to go to university and become 'middle class'. Growing up on a satellite council estate outside Birmingham she was one of only a few kids in her school determined to do well. This personal memoir, informed by cultural studies theory and social-science research, examines the experience of social mobility from the perspective of a child growing up in Thatcher's Britain. (There's also a neat potted history of The Mirror newspaper in there for anyone who might be teaching it as a CSP for Media Studies.)

Notes to Self, Emilie Pine

A collection of personal, memoir-style essays – worth reading just for the first essay.

                                      

Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine, Hannah Fry

Fascinating and highly readable exploration of the ways algorithms work, the role they play – and will play – in our lives.

This Really Isn't About You, Jean Hannah Eddlestein

… Except really it is – it’s not only a wryly funny memoir of Eddlestein’s grief for her father and attempts to come to terms with the possibility that she has the same genetic mutation he had, it’s also about how we all live our lives knowing it won’t be forever.

Familiar Stranger, Stuart Hall

A difficult to categorise book by one of the all-time great cultural theorists. Part memoir, part theoretical musings, Hall details his formative years - growing up in Jamaica, moving to England to study at Oxford, and life beyond. It offers a fascinating insight into ongoing process of 'becoming', particularly as it relates to identity.

What Would the Spice Girls Do? How the Girl Power Generation Grew Up, Lauren Bravo

Like observational comedy, Bravo’s book does allow you to nod along and recognize yourself in the tales she tells of playground reenactments and clothing choices. But it’s far more than that: wry and astute, it tells some important truths about gender equality and progress since the nineties, and the important role The Spice Girls played in this.

                        

Children's and YA fiction

Monstrous Child, Francesca Simon

Simon (author of the Horrid Henry series for younger children) takes her love of the dislikable underdog to new extremes in her reworking of the story of Hel, goddess of the underworld in Norse mythology.

The Truth About Lies, Tracey Darnton

Jess has a phenomenal memory: she can remember every detail of every day of her life. When her gift brings her to the attention of a psychology research team, life becomes unbearable. But escaping its clutches and starting life afresh is harder than she thought. Gripping YA novel that offers a stepping stone to the chick-lit genre.

Home Girl, Alex Wheatle

The latest in Wheatle’s Crongton sequence of novels, this one tells the story of Naomi, a teenager growing up in the care system. It’s particularly interesting for its exploration of identity when Naomi, a white girl, is placed in the care of a black family.

The Monsters We Deserve, Marcus Sedgwick

Sedgwick is his trademark playful self, inhabiting the mind of a writer obsessed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

                                    

All the Things That Could Go Wrong, Stewart Foster

The novel switches from the point of view of Alex, a boy coping with OCD and Dan, the bully who is making his life a misery. By turns sad, funny and tense, this is a great book for year 7 which explores some difficult issues without letting them overwhelm the plot or characters.

The Wicked King, Holly Black

The astonishingly prolific queen of the modern fairy tale has done it again. This is number two of the ‘Folk of the Air’ series with number 3 already available to pre-order. 

A Very Large Expanse of Sea, Tahereh Mafi

This novel works as a romance but also explores Islamophobia through the stereotype-defying, hijab-wearing character of Shirin.

The Challenge, Tom Hoyle

Twins Sam and Jack introduce Ben to a new internet game. Then things start to get strange. Well-written with plenty of twists and a good understanding of what keeps kids reading.

                             

The Astonishing Colour of After, Emily X.R. Pan

Heart-wrenching book about a girl coming to terms with her mother’s suicide as she journeys to Taiwan to meet her grandparents for the first time and uncover her family’s past. Best for KS4.

Speak Up! Laura Coryton

Inspiring read for the young activist by the woman behind the tampon tax campaign.

This Book is Not Rubbish, Isabel Thomas

Environmental tips for young people. An easy read, but not at all patronising.

Stay a Little Longer, Bali Rai

Teenager Aman and 59-year-old Gurnam might seem like an unlikely pair to develop a friendship, and yet, after a chance encounter in a local park, it isn’t long before the two characters see each other almost as family. But both characters are dealing with losses that will challenge their friendship: Aman’s father has recently passed away, and Gurnam is coping with being estranged from his family.  The fact that this short novel juggles so many issues (suicide, bullying, grief, homophobia) means it doesn’t seem to get to grips with any of them in any depth, but this doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable and, at times, incredibly moving read.

Bone Talk, Candy Gourlay

Gourlay’s coming-of-age novel follows a boy who is desperately in need of having his masculinity affirmed, while American colonisers in the Philippines challenge and undermine any and all sources of authority for their own needs. Bound to make you feel both resilient and impotent at the same time.

                        

 

Children’s and YA Graphic

Joe Quinn's Poltergeist, David Almond and Dave McKean

The possibility of ghosts is tangled up with a narrative of grief, loss and memory in the latest from the writer-illustrator combination best known for The Savage

The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau

Part of a graphic series that was originally written in novel form, this is perfect for younger secondary readers with a love of adventure. It centres around two children who live in a strange, underground world.

Through the Woods, Emily Carroll

Stunningly illustrated set of original fairy tales. Haunting, scary and filled with wonder.

Illegal, Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin

Powerful graphic account of a harrowing migrant journey from Africa to Europe, told in a way that makes it accessible for younger secondary readers.

                               

Comments

Fantastic list: thank you! Just not enough time to read them all!!!! By Madeleine Champagnie on 17th Jul 2019

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