Summer Reads 2022
This is everything a novel should be, as you’d expect from a Nobel Prize winner. A compelling narrative exploring the devastation imposed on individuals and communities by colonialism. The focus is on the after-effects of the First World War in East Africa. With strong characterisation and evocative setting, the book moves towards a deeply moving conclusion.
A great summer read to sink into – widely recommended this summer but still worth mentioning. Elizabeth is a young academic attempting to make her way in the sexism-riddled environment of a chemistry department of a minor university in 1950s America. Excluded from the life she feels she should be living - being at the cutting-edge of research - she sort of accidentally finds herself presenting a cookery programme for American housewives - and in the process changing their lives. It sort of is as ridiculous as it sounds but is very enjoyable and satisfying.
Depressing, entangling and vital, the latest from the founder of the Everyday Sexism project is a passionate reminder that staying safe while going about their lives should not be the responsibility of women. The discussion of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa is particularly thought-provoking.
Another recommendation for Laura Bates (see Fix the System, Not the Women, above). Not one that’ll help you relax over summer but an important and timely read: an investigation into the (not so) hidden corners of the internet where misogyny finds solace and encouragement, by Laura Bates, who started the Everyday Sexism project. Split into chapters about the different identities of misogynist groups such an incels and pick-up artists, Bates could add an extra one based on the online reviews alone...
The first in a sci-fi/fantasy trilogy which contains all my favourite things about this genre: fascinating world-building; fully-realised characters; intriguing plot; a slant-wise angle on real-world issues (race, gender, sexuality, our relationship with nature). Any writer who has the skill to get me empathising with a character who is, essentially, an immortal pile of rocks, is a pretty good one as far as I'm concerned. The other two in the trilogy are The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky.
This is the story of Lia’s life after being diagnosed with cancer, a cancer that has returned and will become untreatable - and includes all the things you might expect: the effect on her daughter and husband, her relationship with her mother (and her childhood), how you live the everyday stuff with such a diagnosis running in your veins. But it’s not just this. Interwoven with and alongside the ‘family upended by cancer diagnosis’ is a much more experimental story: the story of the body, told in a fragmented but increasingly powerful voice. Both a compelling story and stylistically interesting.
Volume 1 of this high concept graphic novel is a disturbingly promising opening to this horror/sci-fi series. A group of friends and acquaintances are invited to the house of the title for a gathering but soon realise that all is not as it seems… So far, so obvious, but the twists and turns and the hints of menace created through the art and the vast, apocalyptic backdrop that’s painted are what make it really interesting.
A short novel of two halves: the first half an extremely funny take on being a social media celebrity; the second an extremely moving return to the ‘real’ world.
This novel is a bit overlong – sprawling across different time periods and following a somewhat convoluted investigation into a series of brutal murders. But read it for the sharp writing, the totally convincing depiction of Soho at different points in history, the crackling dialogue and the vivid cast of characters.
Over the years I feel I’ve recommended lots of slight, experimental novels exploring contemporary life and love from the perspective of young women. This brilliant short novel is the story of a breakup from the male perspective - experimental (in an easy-to-read-and-get-absorbed-in sort of way).
This is a delicate, tender novel about precarious relationships and precarious black masculinity in 21C London. Unusually, it's a second person narrative, which works brilliantly to amplify the tentative quality of negotiations between people and identities, because even the most intense emotions are experienced as outside observations. It feels a bit Sally Rooney with the suggestion that this kind of self-awareness is the condition of the lover and the artist (he's a photographer and she a dancer) but more powerfully significant here is the how this also represents the internalised feeling of surveillance experienced by the young black protagonist. Really thought-provoking, and really good.
A superb nature autobiography and the very best account of the experience of anxiety and autism that I’ve read.
I’ve cheated and put three novels in here but that’s because one of the best things in life is finding a writer that you really love, discovering that all their books are excellent and having some time to devour them all. North writes in what you could see as a kind of magical realism genre and some of the themes – fears for the future, making sense of the past, understanding how we connect - overlap across her novels, but each one stands alone and offers a different kind of insight. One involves repeated reincarnation, another a curse that the main character has to outrun for the rest of his life and in 84k it’s a dark vision of a near future world where money can get you out of anything – even murder. They are all carefully plotted, thoughtful and very readable.
This is a short, powerful novel which has been a bestseller in Korea and around the world. Protagonist Kim Jiyoung's life story is told by her psychiatrist - underlining how she has been forced to the margins of every environment we see her in. The relentlessness of this, and its dispassionate telling, make it bleakly comical and Kim Jiyoung's madness the only sane response.
The author of The Outrun, a memoir of the healing powers of wild nature (and the partying which preceded it) moves to Berlin. Along with sharing her experiences of German dating apps, she describes the urban nature, she sees, centred round an increasingly obsessive search for a raccoon.
Twisted and macabre shorts with a strong, feminist twist – think Edgar Allan Poe with a large dose of South American magical realism.
I decided to read this novel when an EMC colleague used a page from the very beginning on her course and its style intrigued me. Lyrically written, the title reflects the fragmented process of the narrator recalling sometimes disparate memories of his 1920s childhood as short vignettes – some dark and difficult, some light-hearted. It’s a powerful novel about growing up during The Troubles in a family filled with dangerous secrets.
Someone has kidnapped your child. The only way to get them back alive is to kidnap someone else’s child. What do you do? It’s a simple but compelling hook which makes for a page-turning read.
In her debut novel, Adebayo chooses 1980s Nigeria as the backdrop to her story of a young married couple’s struggle with infertility and polygamy. It’s a time of change in the country and that’s reflected in the tension between the frustrating generational expectations. The novel moves backward and forward between the 1980s and 2008 with Yejide and Akin sharing the narration. Beautiful prose, sympathetic characters: it keeps you turning the pages.
A great short story collection - these are the sort of stories which seem to tell a novel’s worth of story and where you immediately feel you know the character, despite the pared back style.
If you enjoyed John William’s Stoner, then I think you’ll love this: the fictional life of Ragnar Johanssonn, a Swedish man born in 1932, and the country he loves - but is increasingly frustrated with. Told in a very simple, direct style this novel is moving, funny and illuminating.
The opening chapter, set in the immediate aftermath of the Aberfan disaster is astonishing - powerful and immediate. The novel follows William, a young embalmer, bringing together the long-lasting effects of this experience and the mystery of his alienation from his mother.
Written in the aftermath of Covid, this short book (by the author of Adventures in Human Being and Shapeshifters, previously recommended) highlights the importance of recovery and the terrible effects - social as well as individual - of our work and productivity-obsessed society. Bringing together medicine, history, personal stories and politics, it is a beautifully written reminder of the importance of rest.
This was leant to me by an EMC colleague. I raced through it after deciding it was predictable – only to be proven wrong and really enjoy it. I’m the same age as the narrator and maybe it was the familiarity that was part of the enjoyment: there’s lots of astute observation about what it’s like to be a thirtysomething woman today. The main character is Nina. She’s 31, single, a former English teacher turned food writer. Her dad’s dementia is worsening while she’s app dating and attending the endless hen dos and weddings of her friends. It’s funny, sad, charming and believable.
A treat for any fans of Olive Kitteridge and Lucy Barton and The Burgess Boys. The latest in Strout’s novels circling these characters, Oh, William brings to the fore Lucy’s first husband. The wry, understated, yet somehow generous style is perfect for Strout’s stories of her flawed but sympathetic characters. I love the way that each novel fills in gaps in the others or offers a different perspective on the same event.
I was late to this – I see it was recommended by one of my colleagues in 2018 – but I think it’s worth a repeat mention. It’s a wonderful saga by contemporary writer, Min Jin Lee, spanning four generations of a family of Korean migrants to Japan and opening my eyes to a fascinating history through an engrossing, beautifully crafted narrative. An absolute classic!
Solnit manages to offer something new on Orwell in her trademark erudite style. The starting point is a rose garden that Orwell planted in his Suffolk home and which still grows today. This prompts a sequence of explorations about where and how to find joy in life in spite of the gloom that so often seems to dominate. Bread AND roses.
This is the third memoir from the writer of Run like a Girl and Leap In, both of which describe the writer's journey conquering competitive running and swimming. Somebody to Love picks up from just after Leap In, which was written whilst undergoing successive rounds of IVF. Now she is pregnant and just when she achieves the perfect family unit she has been striving for, she experiences an upsetting sexual assault and subsequent court case and, before her son turns one, her partner Dee comes out as trans. An extraordinary memoir of fortitude and forgiveness.
A book that collects some well-known and some ‘forgotten’ women writers’ supernatural stories. I love the premise and some of my favourite stories are 'The Moonstone Mass' by Harriet Spofford and 'Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse' by Louisa May Alcott. Great to inject some female representation into any Victorian units of work you might teach!
Brilliant exploration of the body and freedom, via the life stories of prominent artists, activists and public intellectuals, all framed around the work of a relatively forgotten figure, Wilhelm Reich (the inspiration for the Kate Bush song, 'Cloudbusting', if you’re looking for a hook!).
Bringing together personal experience and science, this is a great, engagingly written argument for the importance of the natural world to our health. A good reminder to get outside walking, gardening and mud pie making.
For your students:
There are some excellent children’s and YA books around about the refugee experience at the moment, but this accessible graphic novel stood out for me – perhaps because it’s closely based on interviews with one person about their childhood in a refugee camp, rather than featuring composite characters emerging from research by someone who hasn’t been a refugee. The story does not shy away from the difficulties: the horrors of civil war; the long-lasting effects of trauma; the harshness of camp life; competing for scarce resources; the complicated mix of jealousy and joy when someone you know gets to leave. But we also see people supporting each other practically and emotionally, keeping their culture alive, and finding ways to survive extraordinary pain and loss. A quick read with a lasting impact.
As an adult reader, I was startled and thrilled by the twist part-way through this novel for 8-12 year olds. It should elicit the same reaction in young readers, as well as giving them space to engage with a strong storyline about friendship, trust and dealing with traumatic experiences.
Great world-building and lore with a slightly different take on magic. The main character has dyspraxia, which is beautifully handled.
Intense, speculative fiction graphic novel, written in response to the Syrian refugee crisis but with many resonances. Joe Brady, in an interview about inspiration for the novel, quoted Warsan Shire: ‘no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark'. It shows not only why people might flee their homeland, but also why resisting a totalitarian regime is so difficult.
Another book in the 8-12 year old category, this should become a classic of children’s eco-fiction, as a young girl, living on a remote Arctic outpost with her research scientist father, befriends the island’s last polar bear.
A Wimpy-Kid-type illustrated diary about growing up in the UK in the 80s as a Chinese teenager. The teen experience and the family relationships ring true and you can tell this is based on the author’s life. Overall this is a witty/whacky/feel good tale, and it’s an accessible read, but be aware that it also touches on darker themes – bullying, racism, neglect and domestic abuse.
Lily is having a tough time, but she finds comfort and inspiration in her great-great-grandfather’s WW1 diaries. Another brilliant book from specialist publisher Barrington Stoke who consistently demonstrate that, in the right hands (like Tom Palmer’s), a book can be accessible to a reluctant or struggling reader while packing a powerful punch.
Set in the 16th century, this is a swashbuckling adventure taking Awa, daughter of a noble West African family, and Will, kidnapped from the streets of London as a small boy, from Istanbul to Italy to the court of Elizabeth II. First in a series called 'The Chronicles of Will Ryde and Awa Maryam Al-Jameel'.
Smart page-turner with high school drama, larger-than-life characters, tarnished reputations and unpredictable twists. Also explores institutional racism and bullying. Begging to be made into a Netflix Series.
Capitalise on the Heartbreakers obsession by recommending another great read from Alice Osman. This one is a novel exploring what it means to be 'aroace' with a joyful message of self-acceptance. Good for KS4/older teens as Georgia and her friends are starting university.
Bubble Boy author Stuart Foster seems to have cornered the market in warm, uplifting, funny books featuring characters learning how to live with the cards life has dealt them. This time it’s Felix, struggling at school because of his ADHD. For Year 7.
The complex dual narrative explores the impact of intergenerational trauma and the legacy of conflict in Ireland, but this is a classic, hopeful love-over-adversity story at its heart. It’s for older YA readers as there is some violence, as well as swearing and sexual references.
When our Reading Teachers, Reading Pupils group (run in conjuction with Cheltenham Festivals) was reading the popular YA book, Cinderella is Dead, we brainstormed other ‘twisted fairy tale’ versions of Cinderella and easily came up with six. Here are three of them. Cinder – cyborg Cinderella. Ash – another LGBTQ+ retelling. Stepsister – told from the point of view of one of the stepsisters.