Back Monday 12 Jul 2021 4:07 pm

Summer Reads 2021

Whether you will be reading on a far away beach, or a local park bench, we hope you will get a chance this summer to do what English teachers love best: finish a whole book in peace. As usual our only criterion is 'a book we've enjoyed in the last six months' and this leads to an eclectic selection of new and old, prose, poetry and non-fiction. We'd love to see your suggestions in the comments too.
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My Phantoms

By Gwendoline Riley

This is such a clever and readable short novel. Narrated in the first person by the grown-up daughter, it managed to provoke in me not only sympathy for her and irritation with her mother, but also real sadness for the mother – and pretty intense dislike for the daughter, our narrator. 

Another Country

By James Baldwin

A classic text from a brilliant writer. Set mainly in the bohemian world of 1950s Greenwich Village, the novel deals with issues of love, lust and friendship, in a complex exploration of the relationships between a group of friends and lovers. It breaks taboos around race, sexuality and depression, treating them with unflinching honesty. Magnificent!


By Marliynne Robinson

The fourth in Robinson’s Gilead sequence and one of the best. The story of errant son, John Ames Boughton, is told with Robinson’s distinctive eye for detail.


By Octavia E Butler

This was my first book by Butler but it certainly won’t be my last. It combines science fiction with historical fiction about slavery, in a highly inventive and powerful mix. The main character is an African-American woman living in 1976 California who finds herself transported back to antebellum Maryland. This text would be brilliant to read alongside The Handmaid’s Tale, or other speculative fiction, offering a very important, and different set of angles and ideas.




By Jenni Fagan

The imagination of Alasdair Gray, the grit of James Kelman and the darkness of Irvine Welsh collide in a novel made up of interlinked stories set around a tenament house in Edinburgh. An exhuberant, weird, magical, ambitious and captivating slice of Edinburgh gothic.


By Angie Cruz

What Ana wants for herself is irrelevant. For the good of her whole family she is going to marry a man she barely knows, leave the Dominican Republic, and make a new life with him in New York. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that there is no fairy tale ending. Not much happens – it's a character-driven story ­– but the writing is as full of energy as Ana. I came away with a new appreciation of the real lives of women like her, reinventing themselves with limited resources and little support, especially when I read that the novel is based on the life of Cruz's mother.


By Lucy Caldwell

Short stories about the lives of young women in Ireland. All of them are great – I particularly recommend Mayday and Like This.

The Writer’s Voice

Various authors (podcast)

When my eyes are too tired to read, as they increasingly are these days from peering into my laptop, I turn to audio. The Writer’s Voice (  is a short fiction podcast from the New Yorker; writers read aloud their stories that have been published that week in the magazine. It’s a diverse mix of writers, some highly established like Roddy Doyle, Margaret Atwood and Ben Okri as well as more contemporary writers like Patricia Lockwood, Kevin Barry and Jamil Jan Kochai, who was featured in our recent Iridescent Adolescent collection. I just listened to Sam Lipsyte’s ‘The Apology’ in which a middle-aged divorcee with anger-management issues is attempting to write a formal letter of apology for an office indiscretion for which he feels no remorse. A hilarious cautionary tale for the ‘boomer’ generation.

Sea State

By Tabitha Lasley

A female journalist travels to Aberdeen to research the lives of oil rig workers. And she ends up having a reckless affair with one of them. Part examination of a sub-culture, part memoir, this certainly isn’t the book that Lasley set out to write.




Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands

By Will Carruthers

This account of life with the psychedelic indie drone-rock pioneers and pharmaceutical adventurers, Spacemen 3 is both gloriously unhinged in its descriptions of making and performing music and bleakly mundane in its focus on joblessness, the indignities of the DHSS and the grotty realities of nihilistic drug culture. Written by the bass player who perfected some of the most amazing one and two-note basslines in the history of the genre, Carruthers paints a vivid picture of a band who threw themselves into sonic cathedrals nearly as enthusiastically as they threw themselves into the medicine cabinet, but also adds the kind of late 80s/early 90s detail that will ring bells for anyone who grew up in the miserable fag end of the Thatcher years. 

The Harafish

By Naguib Mahfouz

The sprawling, multi-generational tale of the al-Nagi family. Their fortunes rise and fall (and rise and fall) among the ‘harafish’ – the plebs – in the busy alleys of Cairo. The most minor of side-characters in a huge cast is deftly drawn and I found myself totally absorbed in the al-Nagis' world. One of those big tomes that works best when you have a bit of time to get stuck in over the summer. Mahfouz is a Nobel Prize winning writer (and this is beautifully translated too).

The Dry Heart

By Natalia Ginzburg

Daunt Books has recently reissued several of mid-20th century Italian writer, Natalia Ginzburg’s works. This dark gem opens with a woman killing her husband, then rewinds to explore how this came to pass. Reading her work, you can’t help feeling that she’s had a strong influence on several contemporary writers - Elena Ferrante, Ottessa Moshfegh and Jhumpa Lahiri among them.


By Jhumpa Lahiri

A novel that marks a complete break from Lahiri’s earlier work. Written originally in Italian, then translated by the author herself, the female narrator wanders an unnamed city, largely in solitude. It’s a dreamy novel of dislocation and uncertainty, perhaps mirroring Lahiri’s own transition to writing in a whole new language.



The Poetry Deal

By Diane di Prima

Late poems by the legendary feminist Beat poet who died last year, aged 86. I've been reading and enjoying this again recently while looking for poems for a forthcoming EMC anthology. Personal, political, accessible, experimental. It’s all here.

They Came Like Swallows

By William Maxwell

Set in the period of 1918, during the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic, this novel is seen first through the eyes of 11-year old Bunny, then his older brother and finally his father. Rarely have I read a more touching and beautifully written novel of childhood, family and loss. It deserves to be seen as a modern classic and, in my view, would be an ideal A Level NEA or set text.

The Mermaid of Black Conch

By Monique Roffey

A magical-realist modern myth set in the Caribbean. A short and enjoyable read, but with a dark undertow and points to make about slavery, the environment and feminism.

Mr Wilder and Me

By Jonathan Coe

If you’ve missed travelling or movies over the past year, I wholly recommend Mr Wilder and Me, the story of a young Greek translator who finds herself on the set of one of Billy Wilder’s last films, Fedora, in 1978. It’s a love letter to old Hollywood cinema as she observes Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, coming to terms with the reality that work like ‘Some Like it Hot’ and ‘The Apartment’ have had their moment and what audiences like now is ‘that shark film’. It’s a sweet and beautiful book with such a sublime description of drinking red wine and eating brie on a summer’s evening, that I defy any of you to resist the urge to do the same!



The Bass Rock

By Evie Wyld

Three women are linked by place, across time. Beautifully written, this is a skilfully handled and unsettling exploration of what happens to ordinary women who find themselves unable to fit the mould that has been created for them.

Intensive Care

By Gavin Francis

A doctor’s account of the early days and weeks of the Covid lockdown, conveying in very human terms the sense of fear and confusion, the speed with which the medical profession learned the vagaries of the disease, their irritation (and fury) with politicians, the profound impact on other aspects of the health and social services. One of the most moving parts is about Francis’s visits to a hotel temporarily housing some of Edinburgh’s homeless people.

The Odyssey

By Emily Wilson

What a surprisingly good read! I hadn’t read Homer’s epic cover to cover before, though I’d dipped into translations that were enjoyable in their own way, but reading this one for our new publication on Homer was a revelation – fresh, readable and contemporary without any tricksiness. And the introduction is great too.

The Ratline

By Philippe Sands

In his second book about the holocaust, Philippe Sands traces the escape from Germany of Otto Von Wächter, a committed Nazi who became the Governor of Kraków and then of Galicia. Through a developing relationship with his son, Sands seeks to uncover the truth and, in a gripping account which sometimes feels like a thriller, he reveals much about the complex political forces across Europe, the psychology of Nazism and the devastating human realities behind the actions of men like Wächter.



Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape

By Cal Flynn

A fascinating exploration of what happens to the places humans abandon: countryside rendered uninhabitable by landmines; buffer zones keeping the peace between enemies; land poisoned by pollution or catastrophe; cities emptying of inhabitants. Thought-provoking and not without hope.

The Rules of Contagion – Why Things Spread and Why They Stop

By Adam Kucharski

Published before any of us had heard of a novel coronavirus, this engaging and accessible book looks at the way things – not just diseases – spread. So R numbers in the context of social and media trends, as well as disease. 


By Natasha Brown


Little Scratch

By Rebecca Watson

Two novels, both of which tell the life of a young woman in London over the course of a single day (and a bit in the case of Assembly). Little Scratch is more obviously experimental – two columns of text, text which jumps about the page, sort of poetry, sort of prose. Assembly also resists a conventional narrative, but perhaps in more subtle ways. Both worm their way into your head, raising questions of identity, genre, equality, privilege, consent, class. (Big issues in very slim, thought-provoking and engaging novels.)



How to Grow Your Own Poem

By Kate Clanchy

This is essential reading for every English teacher, for every Creative Writing teacher, for every student of English, for every adult who has ever thought of writing a poem but felt a little sheepish about it, indeed for everyone. Clanchy’s book is stuffed full of brilliant prompts, advice and most of all, fabulous poems to spark one’s thinking. No-one need fear writing (or reading) poems again.

Sorrow and Bliss

By Meg Mason

The impact of an unnamed mental illness on the woman who suffers from it – and her family. This is another novel where the reader’s sympathies are so cleverly and subtly played with – so we experience with the narrator sudden shifts in our view of what has been happening. (It’s a page-turning, need to get back to sort of read.)


By Caleb Femi

This is a wonderful debut collection of poetry by an exceptional writer. A reviewer describes him as an ‘urban romantic’ and, to me, this seems like a good account of his ability to write about the everyday realities of a young man’s life in Peckham, crystalise it in fresh and memorable images and then elevate this experience to something visionary and almost mythic. Poems for adults but also for young people looking for a poetic model to aspire to.



Lean Fall Stand 

By Jon McGregor

As compelling as all McGregor’s novels, Lean Stand Fall is also an exploration of language and the way we communicate. How he does this – still managing to tell a story – is incredible – but I’m recommending it for the first section – an expedition to the Antarctic. Heartstopping.

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

By George Saunders

George Saunders latest book is a tour de force of critical thinking about both reading fiction and writing it – a thrilling, witty, insightful exploration of seven short stories by Russian writers, that takes you well beyond those individual stories into a whole way of thinking about the craft of fiction. It is full of humour and storytelling, big-hearted and personal, with a great deal to offer teachers of literature and creative writing. The questions Saunders asks himself, and the ones he encourages us to ask ourselves, are ones that English teachers can learn a lot from – though the answers he provides are rich and complex, the questions themselves are often very simple ones. Another colleague adds: I know others have recommended this absolutely brilliant book, but I’d like to recommend the audio book version too. Saunders reads the discussions himself – like being in his class! Brilliant.

The First Woman

By Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Thoroughly immersive coming of age story set in Uganda: Kirabo negotiates feminism, folklore and family networks while the country is similarly on the cusp of change.



Young Adult Books

Weight of Water

By Sarah Crossan

The YA verse novel is now an established genre – Sarah Crossan’s One being a great example – and this by her is another. It tells of 12-year old Kasienka’s migration to England from Poland with her mother, with all the ingredients of a gripping and emotionally engaging story for young people. But it also has a lot more. The telling is superb and there would be a huge amount to explore if you were doing this as a class reader in early KS3. 

The Henna Wars

By Adiba Jaigirdar

This is a romance but it does not shy away from the difficulties faced by our resilient heroine, Nishat, a Bengali Irish girl, as she experiences racism, homophobia and just the general toughness of being sixteen and in love with someone from a different culture.

Ghost Boys

By Jewel Parker-Rhodes

Heart-breaking story told by the ghost of a boy shot by a cop. The spare language is appropriate for the 12 year old narrator, but also makes it an accessible read. Finds a way to end in an uplifting way, without diminishing the tragedy.

The Soul Hunters

By Chris Bradford

This reliable author is the one to recommend to year 7 who haven’t yet discovered that reading is fun. As a writer of page turners with a bit of substance, Bradford understands that some readers need to be hooked into the action from the very first paragraph.




By Alice Osman

This graphic novel is a sweet but substantial boy-meets-boy romance. First in a series.


By Samira Ahmed

Near-future dystopia in which Muslim-Americans are being rounded up and sent to internment camps. Although it sometimes lacks subtlety and could have been better written, this is a hard-hitting read which stays with you.


By Michael Grant

Where have all the adults gone? And what happens now? Gripping dystopia. And if you like this one, there are five more in the series.



The Boxer

By Nikesh Shukla

Unfolding with the ten rounds of amateur boxer Sunny’s first fight, this is a gripping read that doesn’t take you quite where you think it will.

Shadow and Bone

By Leigh Bardugo
This YA series grabbed me as I’d enjoyed the 2021 Netflix adaptation and decided to investigate further. There are some classic YA fantasy tropes - the conflicted young female heroine who is coming to terms with a new power, the darkly alluring bad guy and the cast of supporting and occasionally disposable friends – but some imaginative twists too. They’re well-crafted and enjoyable books, with dynamic and frill-free storylines.



Quick reads

The Humiliations of Welton Blake

By Alex Wheatle

Barington Stoke, wonderful publishers of books for struggling and reluctant readers, have teamed up with EMC favourite Alex Wheatle for this ‘everything that can go wrong will go wrong’ romance.

Reading age 8, interest age: teen.

What Magic is This?

By Holly Bourne

Sophia, Mia and Alexis are friends who dream of being witches. A story of secrets and spells with a reading age of 9 and a teen interest age.



Photo by L'odyssée Belle on Unsplash


Great list.

I would heartily recommend:
The Nix by Nathan Hill

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
By John Carpenter on 13th Jul 2021
Always some fascinating and thought-provoking titles from EMC — I've never read anything they recommend that I haven't greatly enjoyed — just a pity the summer isn't longer! By Jonny Rodgers on 14th Jul 2021
Wonderful - thank you. I have added a couple of these to my list, found my next audio-read and ordered a new novel for my son. My top recommendation is Pete Paphides' memoir Broken Greek - particularly perfect for music fans of 50ish and brilliant for anyone to read on a Greek island (or pretending to be on one). By Jane Branson on 14th Jul 2021
Thanks. Always some essential recommendations on here!
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is fabulous.
By Sue Dymoke on 15th Jul 2021
The audiobook of Dominicana is a good listen as well. By Mary-Jane Kerr on 15th Jul 2021

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