Book Reviews: Summer Reading

Like many English teachers, I will be starting lessons this term by talking about what I read over the summer. @_codexterous, @SPryke2, @FreyaMariaO, @AlwaysLearnWeb, and others have written about how they plan to promote reading from the outset, and many of these tweachers are going to start the term off by showing slides like the one below.

But before I get into this blog post properly – a confession. I can be a very chaotic reader, with multiple books on the go at any one time. So whilst there are 10 books on my summer reads slide, I cannot claim to have read the entirety of these over the 6 week break. Some of them I started beforehand (I began Hidden Figures in the autumn of 2020), and one of them I have not yet finished (I am half-way through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). When I read crime fiction – like The Dinner Guest – I do so in furious bursts, sometimes finishing the book in just a couple of sittings. When a book troubles me – like There, There – I can take weeks over it, and if it’s non-fiction I know it may take me up to a year to reach the final page.

I think it is important to acknowledge these different modes of reading when we are talking to young people about the books we have enjoyed (or not, as the case may be). Yes, we want to encourage students to read widely and voraciously, but we also need them to be lifelong readers, who are self-aware enough to know that it’s perfectly acceptable to take a break from reading, or that they might want to read a different type of book depending on the time of day. So for my autumn reading, I have gathered a range of books which might fit particular contexts and I will be having regular conversations with my classes about what and how I am reading them.

If you are looking for something to fill your shelves in this new term, here are a few thoughts on the books I have been reading this summer – hopefully you will be inspired to give one of these a go!

  • Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club

And after a tricky summer term at school, I needed a relatively easy read – something that would carry me along without too much effort. This light-hearted detective story was the perfect novel to do this, although the stereotypical presentations and the sometimes stodgy dialogue were irksome. If you are looking for something to read before you fall asleep after a long day at work, then this is probably the one for you.

  • Milan Kundera – The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Czech author Kundera’s postmodern collection of narratives is philosophical, bizarre, satirical, personal, unsettling, melancholy, and joyous. Using elements of magical realism, Kundera considers the concept of forgetting in one’s own mind, personal life, and in the political sphere. A relentless paranoia of being watched and trapped overshadows the whole text, evidence of the impact living under communism had on Kundera. “You begin to liquidate a people”, one character explains, “by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it.” In the face of such political and cultural erasure, the book insists on the power of laughter and the individual’s active struggle to preserve memory.

  • Agatha Christie – Dumb Witness

When I was a young teenager, I loved reading Agatha Christie novels and I have a full set (purchased in the second hand bookshop on weekend days out with my granny, who was also a bibliophile). Yet, having seen some debate over Christie online, I realised that I hadn’t read one in years. So I picked up Dumb Witness at random to test whether these detective stories still held any charm for me. Three English degrees – much of which focussed on post-colonial analysis of Irish literature – separate me from my 12 year-old self, and so details which I must have skimmed over as a child hit me right between the eyes this time. The classism, xenophobia, sexism, and references to the former British Empire rankle on almost every page – so much so that I doubt I will read another one.

  • Catherine Bond – One Split Second

This novel tells of a group of families whose teenage children are involved in a late night car crash. Reeling from the trauma, the survivors and the relatives find themselves in a time of anxiety, recriminations, anger, and despair. Despite being a quick read, this novel articulates how grief can seep into every corner of existence, impacting profoundly on relationships and the daily grind. There are moments in this novel – like when one of the victim’s parents is clearing the plughole and finds her hair – which remind us that the resurgence of grief can happen at any time, and possibly most often during prosaic moments.

  • Stephen Fry – Mythos

As soon as I read the first page of this retelling of classical mythology, I wondered how on earth I had failed to read this before. An absolute masterpiece, Fry’s book moves seamlessly between narrative and commentary, and from humour to the depths of despair. As Fry writes, “what we really discern is the deceptive, ambiguous and giddy riddle of violence, passion, poetry and symbolism that lies at the heart of Greek myth and refuses to be solved. […] It is human-shaped and god-shaped, not pure and mathematical”. Despite the age and unbelievability of the stories, their power lies in this very profound understanding of what it means to be human. If you are going to read one new book this year, this should be it.

  • BP Walter – The Dinner Guest

This is another quick read – a crime thriller whose wealthy protagonists exist in a tangled mess of infidelity, love, hate, guilt, and desire for revenge. Although the ending is largely predictable, the intervening pages are enjoyable – another one for the beach or dark winter nights!

  • Margot Lee Shetterly – Hidden Figures

There is really only one word for the achievements recounted in this book: phenomenal. Shetterly has painstakingly researched the lives of numerous black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the 1940s and 1950s, highlighting how employment in this system opened doors that many of these women never thought possible. Yet, despite being able to find stable and intellectually-stimulating work, these mathematicians faced a daily struggle against discrimination, racism, and sexism. In one particular incident, Mary asked her white colleagues where she could find the toilet, only to be sniggered at because of the perceived absurdity of the question. In the juxtaposition of such humiliating, appalling moments with the retelling of these mathematicians’ incredible successes, Shetterly highlights the strength of character and the support of others which are fundamental to the fight for equality. This is a truly inspirational read.

  • Riley Sager – Last Time I Lied

This was my fifth quick read of the summer, and another crime thriller. Well-written and with all the ingredients of a page-turner (a complex mystery, whispered love-affairs, a remote setting, an isolated protagonist, an unreliable narrator), this is an enjoyable read. Its exploration of family relationships, loss, and mental health is thoughtful, even if the ending requires the willing suspension of disbelief.

  • Tommy Orange – There, There

This novel weaves together the voices of a group of Native Americans, whose lives, loves, frustration, anger, and anxieties converge at the Big Oakland Powwow. In the prologue, Orange explains that Native Americans “have been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people”. There, There presents the reader with this “current state” – which is complicated and painful, but which is also joyous and creative. The quality of the writing is also sensational.

  • John le Carré – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

This is the novel I am currently reading, and so I am not going to make any attempt at sketching out a final judgement. I enjoy Cold War thrillers, with all the machinations and the paranoia the plots entail. In this particular incarnation of the genre, these conventions are allied with anxieties about aging, as the lead characters from other le Carré works are fearful that approaching retirement means they have lost their edge – which adds an extra level of jeopardy to the silent handing over of papers on a dark street corner. However, despite my enjoyment of reading this novel, I am troubled by the relegation of women to peripheral roles and the frequent comments on their physical appearance (so far, they are beautiful and sexually available, or old and hysterical/calculating). I have yet to decide whether the novel is reflecting, critiquing or complicit with these stereotypes.

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