Summer Reads 2020
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.
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.
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.
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
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!)
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.
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!
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.
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.
By Caroline Criado Perez
A fascinating, angry, relentless exposé of how women have been ignored and under-researched – with frequently serious consequences.
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.
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
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.
By Rutger Bregman
A book full of (evidence-backed) optimism, particularly welcome in these difficult times!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Adam Rutherford
Geneticist Adam Rutherford attacks racism with anger, verve and science.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (trans Michele Hutchison)
A disturbing account of family grief from the particular and peculiar perspective of a young girl.
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.
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 Brock, Pike 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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