Back Wednesday 1 Jul 2020 11:37 am

Summer Reads 2020

As usual, this is an eclectic list of things EMC staff have read and enjoyed recently. We seem to have had very different experiences of reading during lockdown with some of us reading more than usual, some of us less than usual. Homeschooling children, periods of furlough, or just inclination have all been a factor. How about you? What would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments.
main image for blog post 'Summer Reads 2020'

Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored

By Jeffrey Boakye

Brilliant exploration of Black identity via the words that attach to it - the good and the bad. Boakye, who’s due to speak at an EMC online event in September, interweaves autobiographical details throughout in a book that is as entertaining as it is informative.  

The Female Persuasion

By Meg Wollitzer 

Wolitzer’s 11th novel creates a whole world to jump into, and I really did buy in. In fact, I found it difficult to jump out (well, put down). The central premise of this novel, I suppose, is to question the progress of feminism through two feminist characters of different generations. The main relationship presented spans years of development; between Greer, a young college student at the beginning, and her hero Faith, a legendary feminist speaker and activist. The novel follows Greer as she discovers that our heroes, and lives, are often not as perfect as we hope them to be when we are young. Often humorous and at times gritty and current, it’s brilliantly paced with a satisfying resolution.


By Anne Enright

The wonderful Anne Enright explores fame, sexuality and social mores through the lens of fictional Irish star of film and stage, Katherine O’Dell. Redolent of an Ireland now past, much of the novel’s strength comes from the narrative voice. The story is told by O’Dell’s daughter, Norah, and so becomes as much about her as her mother.

The Heart's Invisible Furies

By John Boyne

This has been one of my favourite reads this year and it’s got a lot of life and death and love and err…cottaging crammed into its pages. It’s largely set in Ireland but moves to New York and Amsterdam as the plot tracks the life and times of Cyril Avery and the changing social winds of the Twentieth Century, particularly around how gay people are treated. While it’s pretty grim in places – repressed and repressive attitudes and institutions taking a lot of the blame for making people’s lives miserable – it’s also hilarious and warm.



By Hilary Lechter 

Surreal, funny, wild, bizarre – a fabulous whirlwind of a novel in which a young woman – ‘a temp’ –searches to become a ‘permanent’ (working along the way as temp pirate, chairman of the board, assistant to a serial killer). Makes you think about our relationship with work too.

In the Dream House

By Maria Carmen Machado

Structurally innovative memoir in which each chapter explores the writer’s experiences through a different narrative lens. I’m not sure this is done with absolute success, but it certainly adds an interesting twist to the genre.


By Bryan Washington

New collection of short stories featuring lives on the margins in a place rarely featuring in the literary landscape – Houston, Texas. Powerful debut, linguistically rich, and winner of 2020 Dylan Thomas prize for young writers

All Passion Spent

By Vita Sackville West

Someone in my book group chose this book, and what a wonderful discovery it was! It is about a woman in her eighties whose life changes with the death of her husband. Her past life and the way in which her marriage and children have constrained her, is superbly evoked, largely through her memories.  The prose style is shimmering and delicate and repays a slow, careful read.



By Hanne Ørstavik (trans Martin Aitken)

A spare, beautiful novel told from the point of view of a young boy and his mother (sometimes switching from sentence to sentence). The mismatch between hope and reality is a bit heart-breaking.


By Brenda Lozano (trans by Annie McDermott)

Any novel with a narrator obsessively searching for her preferred notebook is going to appeal to me. A free-wheeling novel about writing, love, waiting and the world around us.


By Thomas Mullen

Darktown and The Lightning Men are the first two books in a crime series set in Atlanta, Georgia after WW2. They follow the work of the first black police officers in the city and Mullen captures the claustrophobia and constant pressure of segregation while mapping out a rapidly changing world and its uneasy and often violent undercurrents. The characters are fascinating, flawed and well-shaped and Mullen has a great ear for dialogue. (A third book, Midnight Atlanta is out tomorrow and I’m going to start reading it straight away!)

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

By Hallie Rubenhold 

I understand if you groan when you see this here. It is indeed another Jack the Ripper book and ‘what else can there be to know about it’, you ask. The answer is – lots. Rubenhold is a really skilful writer and historian. Yes, she’s creative with details about the women that she’s able to find out but she doesn’t make their stories grisly or sensationalist. In fact, she focuses on giving the victims of Jack the Ripper their voices back. She robustly questions their assumed status as ‘prostitutes’ and bemoans their treatment by society. She treats each woman’s life story with the sympathy it deserves, and brings us back to violence and misogyny in today’s society to pack a final punch. I felt wholly fired up afterwards, and recommended it to every friend.


England’s Other Countrymen: Black Tudor Society 

By Onyeka Nubia

In March my family spent a weekend in Portsmouth. There was a strange atmosphere, with everyone expecting lockdown to be announced at any moment (as it was the following week). Somehow it was the perfect atmosphere in which to visit the Marie Rose, that ghost ship. The gift shop contained a surprisingly interesting collection of books, including this fascinating account of the lives of people of African descent in Tudor times, painstakingly pieced together from a huge range of primary sources (appendices and references make up almost half the book). Nubia convincingly argues that we should reconsider many of our assumptions about conceptions of race at that time. Essential reading for anyone teaching Othello!

This is Pleasure

By Mary Gaitskill

A compelling, one-sitting novella. the story told alternately from the point of view of a middle-aged man accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour and the female friend who understands and explains him to us. The double first-person narrative is fascinating for the way it complicates our sympathies – and perhaps not as you’d expect.

Red at the Bone

By Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson is better known in the States than the UK, and mainly for her children’s fiction. This, her second slim novel, offers real insight into the lives of two families and the consequence of an unexpected teenage pregnancy.


By Ron Chernow

I write this at page 525 of about 750 of Chernow’s biography, in which he fights for true ‘Founding Father’ status for Alexander Hamilton. Admittedly, I came to the biography via the musical, as it’s said to have been writer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspiration. It’s quite the epic read and definitely tough-going when Chernow goes in-depth on Hamilton’s writings, but if you, like me, feel you don’t know enough about this period of American history (I had a complete blank spot) it’s absolutely comprehensive and well worth the investment. Although you might want to be aware that it has been criticised for overstating Hamilton’s opposition to slavery


Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

By Caroline Criado Perez

A fascinating, angry, relentless exposé of how women have been ignored and under-researched – with frequently serious consequences.

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire 
By Akala

This is an important and powerful book. It weaves personal history and anecdote with historical knowledge and political discussion in a way that is both highly readable and rooted in the soil of research and intellectual thought. It should be required reading for teachers in modern Britain.

There’s Gunpowder in the Air

By Manoranjan Byapar

You can’t get this in paperback in the UK, but it was a Kindle bargain at £1.90. A tense tale of an attempted jailbreak, the novel is set in the 1970’s – a time of tremendous unrest in West Bengal. Byapar draws on his own experiences as an illiterate and poor young man – caught up with the revolutionary Naxals, arrested and put in jail (where he taught himself to read). Byapar is an outspoken critic of India's rigid class system and his anger comes through, but there are also darkly comic touches to leaven the tension.


By Colum McCann 

McCann has always been one of my favourite writers. He is ambitious and experimental but without ever being tricksy and attention-seeking. Apeirogon, though a very long and sometimes challenging read, doesn’t disappoint. A ‘sort of’ novel, it is based on the true stories of two men, a Palestinian and an Israeli, who are brought together by the terrible experience of both losing their young daughters, one in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, the other shot with a rubber bullet outside her primary school on the West Bank

Go Went Gone

By Jenny Erpenbeck (trans. by Susan Bernofsky)

A moving and absorbing story of a recently retired and recently widowed professor finding friendship amongst a group of African asylum seekers and, late in life, becoming an activist.

Humankind: a Hopeful History

By Rutger Bregman

A book full of (evidence-backed) optimism, particularly welcome in these difficult times!

London Undercurrents: the hidden histories of London's unsung heroines

By Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

I'm aware that this is a very London-centric choice, but my excuse is that one of the things these poems deal with is the universal in the personal. Arising out of a lot of research, the poems give voice to ordinary women from the past.

Barn 8

By Deb Olin Unferth

Wonderful novel belonging firmly on the ever-expanding eco-lit section of the book-case. Darkly comic and very entertaining, it centres around plans to release a million chickens from factory-farmed hell. But where do you put a million liberated chickens? A gem of a novel, and perhaps the only one out there that places the humble chicken centre-stage.


By Jenny Offill

A novel of gaps and silences, of understated simple sentences, in which Offill subtly and with dry humour tells us the tale of our times.

Grand Union

By Zadie Smith

The stories are a bit hit and miss at times, but fans of Zadie Smith will enjoy the variety on offer. The stories are infused with Smith’s linguistic playfulness throughout, with the stand out one for me being ‘Sentimental Education’ – an absolute gem.

The Voice in My Ear

By Frances Leviston

Stories of mothers and daughters, all named Claire – both the ordinary and the surreal of everyday life. Neither the mothers nor the daughters come out of these stories very well.

Boys Don’t Try? Re-thinking Masculinity in Schools

By Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts

Consistently thought-provoking and practical, this book is bound to make you reflect on some of the assumptions made about boys in schools. There are parts that I disagree with, and I take issue with the confident tone which suggests that scientific evidence simply and unproblematically tells us ‘what works’ (as opposed to suggesting things, which may not be effective in every circumstance, which may be contradicted by other research not selected by the authors, or which may be later overturned by someone else). But that is a general argument about the way research often gets used in education at the moment!


Why I am No Longer Talking To White People About Race

By Reni Eddo-Lodge

Like Natives (see above), this is a book that, for a white reader, can sometimes feel uncomfortable, but uncomfortable in a way that provokes important questioning, thinking and re-evaluating of one’s own ideas about race. That’s good, not bad. Rightly, sales have leapt up in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the public attention for the Black Lives Matter movement.  

The Secret Garden

By Frances Hodgson Burnett 

I recently created a scheme of work on the Victorian narrative, and it kept reminding me of how I’d loved The Secret Garden as a kid; it was one of those I read again and again. So I decided to re-read it during lockdown and found it to be just as brilliant! Its focus on the happiness and health to be found in nature is so of the moment, and Hodgson Burnett adds a dollop of Gothic and some loveable characters into the mix. 

Recollections of My Non-Existence

By Rebecca Solnit

This perhaps lacks the punch of Solnit’s essays and her ‘non-existence’ is a little too literal at the start of the book to really draw the reader in. However, the book really gets going in the second half, offering real insight into the motivation and craft of this brilliant campaigning feminist writer. If you’re new to Solnit, read some of her essays before coming to this.


By Maggie O’Farrell

Somehow O’Farrell manages both to evoke late 16th/early 17th century England and make it seem very contemporary (and not only because of the unexpected relevance of plague and quarantine). A lyrical exploration of love and grief which is also a page-turning story. 


The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

By Denis Johnson

This was Johnson’s last collection of (four) short stories. Not exactly cheery, but haunting and beautifully written. If you like Carver or Hemingway, you will like Johnson.

How to Argue With a Racist

By Adam Rutherford 

Geneticist Adam Rutherford attacks racism with anger, verve and science.

The Dutch House

By Ann Patchett

I totally fell for the main characters in this story of family complexity and unspoken emotions, a brother and sister whose relationship survives all their struggles. There’s a bigger, slightly terrifying character created in The Dutch House itself, the beautiful house in which the siblings grew up and never quite manage to leave behind. Patchett creates an incredible sense of place and slow-growing tension.

Mrs Dalloway

By Virginia Woolf

One that’s been lurking on my bookshelf for years unopened and reading it made me wish I’d read it before, but perhaps it’s the sort of novel I wouldn’t have appreciated at a younger age. It’s described as a ‘portrait of a day in the life of…’ but it’s so much more than that. There are many characters introduced and carefully woven despite the relatively few pages, some of whom we are invited into the consciousness of. These characters are deeply reflective on the past and their lives, though on the surface seemingly happy and fulfilled, are not a little tragic. Woolf’s writing makes me feel like she understands basically every human emotion and condition going and, as someone not easily moved by much, I can honestly say it moved me.



By Philippe Lançon  (trans. by Steven Rendall) 

Philippe Lançon’s beautifully written account of the 2015 attack on the editorial team at Charlie Hebdo, the horrific injuries he suffered and the process by which his face was reconstructed. An exploration of language, literature, politics, medicine and who we are.

My Name is Lucy Barton 

By Elizabeth Strout

Lucy wakes up in a New York hospital bed to find her estranged mother is by her side. Lucy has moved on to create a life without her mother, and her reappearance casts doubt on everything she thinks she knows about her childhood, as well as her life now. This portrayal of a complex mother-daughter relationship is as much about what’s not said as it is the memories they share with one another, and the reader can’t help but feel a deep sympathy for a narrator who sometimes reads as naïve and too forgiving.

Girl, Woman, Other

By Bernadine Evaristo

A book which divided our book group. Is it experimental, challenging in a good way, a joyful read? Or confusing, hard to get through and in need of some punctuation? We couldn’t agree, but no-one was bored by it! I’m firmly in the first camp and thought it was a deserving Booker winner.

Exciting Times

By Naoise Dolan  

Like Naoise Dolan’s characters, this novel presents as all surface and top-show. Bit by bit both the flat and gappy prose and the characters reveal the complicated sadness, neediness, awkwardness and hopefulness beneath.


The Discomfort of Evening  

By Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (trans Michele Hutchison)

A disturbing account of family grief from the particular and peculiar perspective of a young girl.


This is Shakespeare: How to Read the World’s Greatest Playwright

By Emma Smith

Every English teacher should read this, and recommend it to every English A Level student! It’s full of interesting information and erudite scholarship but written in a wonderfully accessible and entertaining style. I loved her whole approach, seeing Shakespeare’s work as something to be enjoyed and questioned rather than venerated. The idea of his work being so long-lasting because of its ‘gappiness’ – all the questions his plays leave unanswered – is especially interesting and a game changer for many of us teaching the plays.


Good Citizens Need Not Fear

By Maria Reva

What starts off feeling like a collection of short stories builds into a novel. With biting dry humour and sometimes shocking simplicity, Reva weaves tales of characters living in the Soviet-era Ukraine.



KS3 & 4

We really enjoyed this year’s Carnegie Medal shortlist and the teaching resources we developed for them are available free. Here are our thoughts on the winner and the rest of the shortlist.


By Anthony McGowan 

The deserving winner is Lark, the last in an outstanding series we have recommended before, which includes BrockPike and Rook. Published by the always excellent Barrington Stoke who produce ‘super-readable books’ for dyslexic or struggling readers, the series has a reading age of 8 but a YA interest age. McGowan works within the limits so skilfully that you could easily read this without being aware that it has been written for struggling readers, and simply find yourself gripped as the story of two brothers messing about on the moors slowly turns into a life-or-death adventure with a heartbreaking conclusion.

Girl. Boy. Sea.

By Chris Vick

An epic adventure at sea after a shipwreck with a bit of everything – jeopardy, romance, mystery, magic and interesting characters to boot. Such a page turner and not how it might at first appear.

Patron Saints of Nothing

By Randy Ribay 

Jay Reguero’s parents think he is going to the Philippines to connect with his extended family and Filipino culture. In fact he plans to investigate the mysterious death of his cousin, which no-one seems keen to discuss. Ribay does not shy away from the complexity of the political and cultural issues Jay begins to educate himself about, or the complexity of people’s personal motivations and beliefs. 

Nowhere on Earth

By Nick Lake

Some standard YA tropes: a plucky heroine discovering what she’s made of in a harsh environment; the disastrous move to a small town away from her friends; the parents who don’t understand her. But Lake adds an interesting and well-handled sci-fi element and a twisty plot with some genuine surprises. Great read for KS3.



On the Come Up 

By Angie Thomas 

I admit I didn’t love this straight away, mainly because Thomas has a habit of making moral points with a sledgehammer when events could have spoken for themselves. But Bri, the main character, is complex and irresistible – you root for her even when she’s being an idiot. I found the insights into how a rapper creates lyrics on-the-spot fascinating and could imagine using sections of the book when teaching poetry. Like The Hate U Give, On the Come Up deals with tough real-world issues, but there is a strong vein of hope running though it. 


By Annett Schepp

A novel for younger readers that might still appeal to Year 7s. Lampie is a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, who is sent away to work as a maid in a mysterious house. There she meets an obnoxious child who lives at the top of the house. Only there’s more to this child than meets the eye. Magical story translated from the Dutch.

Voyages in the Underworld of Opheus Black

By Marcus Sedgwick, Julian Sedgwick and Alexis Deacon

This beautifully illustrated collaborative effort reimagines the story of Orpheus in World War II London during the Blitz. A wonderful example of where the imagination can take you.

The Black Flamingo

By Dean Atta

Following the recent trend of verse novels, this is a coming-of-age and coming out story. At first Michael struggles to find a place where he belongs and feels safe as a mixed race, gay teen with a complicated relationship with his father, but we follow Michael all the way to university where he finds self-acceptance and self-expression in drag club. The novel has some pretty adult moments towards the end, so perhaps best for Y9+.

Title image: photo by Ioana Cristiana on Unsplash


A must read for all teachers, especially those teaching English or Media, is Kate Clanchy's 'Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me'. Just reading it makes you thankful that this kind of work still goes on in schools. By Trevor Millum on 08th Jul 2020
As a school librarian I read all the Carnegie short list and would like to highlight Will Hill's After The Fire which was on the shortlist a couple of years ago. Inspired by but not based on the Waco siege in America the book is set in the aftermath of a fire that engulfs the commune buildings of a cult. We meet the children and teens as they are taken to a safe place and talk through their experiences in counselling. Flashbacks take us to the active commune and its diverse characters including the charismatic Father John. A top favourite in school and one I recommend to teacher colleagues.By the way good to see The Secret Garden on here too, introduced to that as a child by a teacher who would read it to us in segments in that 20 minutes or so before home time. Still have my copy. By Nicola Pollard on 08th Jul 2020
Great suggestion, thanks Trevor.
Kate: EMC
By koliver on 08th Jul 2020
Agree with you about 'After the Fire', Nicola. If you are teaching it, you ,might like to know that the pack we produced for it is still available free on our website: By koliver on 08th Jul 2020

Add your comment