As we always remind ourselves, ‘Not all readers are leaders; but all leaders are readers’ (Harry Truman). This year, more perhaps than any other, we need some books to escape into. Here’s my collection of fiction, non-fiction and poetry which I hope you’ll enjoy during a Christmas break unlike any previous ones.
William Boyd | Trio
Three interwoven but secret lives set in the swinging sixties: in his new novel, William Boyd is as funny and tender as ever
Elly Griffiths | The Ghost Fields
For fans of grisly thrillers, Elly Griffiths’ latest is as beautifully plotted, atmospheric and utterly readable
Isabel Hardman | Why We Get the Wrong Politicians
A fascinating, gritty account of why our social structures make it so difficult nowadays to have effective political leaders
Noreena Hertz | The Lonely Century
A book about the world we’ve created, with so much deep-rooted fragmentation and isolation, with ideas of how to rebuild a sense of community
Penelope Lively | How It All Began
It begins with an act of violence and then, with characteristic skill, Penelope Lively weaves a brilliant thread of interconnected relationships across unexpected lives
Derek Mahon | New Selected Poems
Until lockdown, I didn’t really know the late Derek Mahon’s poetry. Then I read ‘Everything is going to be all right’ and was smitten by the beguiling simplicity and reassuring optimism of his work
Patrick Ness | A Monster Calls
A heartbreaking, heartwarming children’s book about a boy dealing with his mother’s cancer diagnosis
Barack Obama | A Promised Land
Part one of Obama’s memoir is beautifully upbeat, elegantly written and a reflective exploration of what leadership is
Michael Pye | The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us
A fascinating social history of the UK’s island status, how the ocean has defined and shaped who we are
James Suzman | Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time
An anthropologist’s fascinating account of how fire, farming and our move to towns and cities reshaped the human experience of life
As you hurtle (I hope) into half-term, you need to escape. Here’s my bookshelf of suggested texts designed to help.
Fredrik Backman | A Man Called Ove
These days, we’re all grumpy. Follow the quirky story of Ove, and feel some redemption
Bridget Collins | The Binding
A strange, evocative tale of how books might define who people are in the real world
Guinevere Glasfurd | The Year Without Summer
In 1815 in Indonesia, Mount Tambora erupts and much of the world experiences no summer. This novel tells that story.
RJ Palacio | Wonder
A simply joyful novel that celebrates the wonder of human beings, whatever they may look like. It is, indeed, a wonder.
John Steinbeck | Of Mice and Men
Until a few years ago, every student would have read this book for their GCSE English exam. Quite right too. It’s a simple, mesmerising text that holds a mirror up to who we are. If you've never read it, now's the time.
Non-fiction and poetry
Deborah Alma | The Emergency Poet
During the past 6 months, we’ve seen a craving for wise words. Here’s one of my favourite, life-affirming poetry anthologies.
Kate Clanchy | Some Kids I taught and what they taught me
A life-enhancing celebration of being a teacher. It brims with classroom joy.
Melinda Gates | The Moment of Life
An inspirational and ego-free account of Melinda Gates’ manifesto to create a more equal world.
David Goodhart | Head Hand Heart
From the author of the brilliant ‘Road to Somewhere’, here’s another powerful manifesto for why our society needs to recognise knowledge and skills beyond the narrowly academic.
Simon Heffer | Staring at God
A magisterial account of the home front in World War I - the politics and the people amid a world in crisis.
Rarely have we craved a break so much. And escaping into good books has never felt so important. So here, once again, is my annual list of recommendations for the beach or, more likely, your garden. I hope you’ll find something here to transport you from these strange times.
Nickolas Butler | Shotgun Lovesongs
A schmaltzy but entertaining account of four male schoolfriends and how their lives in a small Midwest town develop and unravel
Katerina Diamond | The Teacher
Recommended by Mrs B. If you like dark thrillers (and she does), brace yourself for one that’s not for the faint-hearted
Robert Harris | The Second Sleep
Harris is the expert in thoughtful thrillers, this one linking the dark ages to our own times of anxiety and the ever-present threat of social collapse
Delia Owens | Where the Crawdads Sing
One of those life-affirming novels that are perfect for a holiday read
Anne Tyler | Redhead by the Side of the Road
A wonderful, evocative portrait of Micah Mortimer, a middle-aged man whose life appears to have stalled
Pragya Agarwal | Sway: The Science of Unconscious Bias
An unexpectedly personal look by a behavioural scientist at the unconscious influences that affect our everyday decisions, including racism and bias against women
Craig Brown | One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time
An entertaining, affectionate, anecdotal biography of the Fab Four
Thomas L. Friedman | Thank You for Being Late
From economics to climate change to changing technology, Friedman reassuringly and optimistically guides us through an era of bewildering change
David Kynaston | Austerity Britain
A magnificent, detailed, nuanced portrait of a country emerging from the crisis of World War II
Jonathan Sacks | Morality
This is deep thinking conveyed with the lightest of touches – a book in dark times to help us navigate our way through to hope in humanity.
There’s probably not been a time in our lives when many of us have needed toe space into a good book. Here’s my latest list of five fiction and five non-fiction texts. Thanks to my good friend, ASCL member, and voracious thriller reader, Helen Neal, for the first three suggestions here - they are very dark thrillers.
All of the choices will transport you to different worlds. I hope you enjoy them.
Liz Lawler | Don’t Wake Up
Alex Taylor wakes up tied to an operating table. The man who stands over her isn’t a doctor …
Carla Kovach | The Next Girl
You thought he’d come to save you. You were wrong.
Helen Phifer | Dark House
A shadowy figure in the dark was dragging something heavy behind them. Lizzy pulled the covers over her head, then realised what was being dragged...
Penelope Lively | Consequences
I’ve mentioned this before. It’s simply a beautiful - just beautiful - novel set over three generations.
Colm Tóibín | Brooklyn
The film was good; the novel is magnificent - the story of a life that begins in Ireland, then through emigration moves to Brooklyn. The Observer named it as one of the top 10 historical novels.
Francesca Segal | Mother Ship
Memoir of having premature twins - the staff, the other people, the wards. Compelling and uplifting.
Graham Swift | Here We Are
A wonderful account via shifting narrative voices of the three main members of a musical hall and magic act. It has a beautifully elegant ending. Heartbreaking.
Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff | The Coddling of the American Mind
A brilliant polemic on how parenting, schools and especially universities are leaving us emotionally weakened and socially atomised
Hillary Clinton | What Happened?
A candid and often darkly funny account of her presidential campaign
Doris Kearns Goodwin | Leadership
Lessons from the Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson for Turbulent Times
For your Christmas 2019 holiday reading, I’m suggesting ten titles that have entertained, disturbed, provoked and moved me. Once that well-earned break arrives, curl up with a good book.
William Boyd | Waiting for Sunrise
Regular readers will know how highly I rate William Boyd. This is a sophisticated thriller that begins in an evocative twentieth century Vienna and then takes us on a thrilling adveture
Michelle Paver | Wakenhyrst
A gothic horror story, set in Suffolk – ideal (if unnerving) fireside reading
Maggie O’Farrell | When First I Held Your Hand
A story of two couples, and the cleverly emerging connections between their separate lives
Elizabeth Stroud | Olive Kitteridge
My book of the year – a compelling, detailed story of a community and a marriage shaken to its core
Oscar Wilde | The Selfish Giant
A nineteenth century short story for children, brimming with an optimism we adults currently crave. Find a picture book version to read to a child – but read it yourself first, with a box of tissues at the ready
Malcolm Gladwell | Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know
Gladwell is always thought-provoking and entertaining. This new book explores why we shouldn’t trust our instinctive views of other people
Lemn Sissay | My Name is Why
An extraordinary true story of a child loved, then rejected, then finding his true self. He’s now Chancellor of Manchester University. Sissay will join us at conference on March 2020 to tell his tale
David Wallace-Wells | The Uninhabitable Earth
A book that moves us from the rhetoric of climate catastrophe to the scientific realities. Spoiler: it’s even worse than we realised
Laura Cumming | On Chapel Sands: My mother and other missing persons
It begins with a kidnapping from a Lincolnshire beach: a most extraordinary and beautifully written memoir
Sabrina Cohen-Hatton | The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter
This life story moved me deeply – from homeless child to PhD student to chief fire officer. She writes with such passion and a powerful moral conviction. She’ll join us at ASCL Conference 2020
‘Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers,’ said US President Harry Truman. Once again, here are ten suggestions for your holiday - a mix of fiction and non-fiction titles, none of them about education, and each of them compelling in a different way. Enjoy!
Ian McEwan | Machines Like Us
McEwan’s novels are always thought-provoking as well as entertaining. This one is fascinating for its chilling exploration of how the lines between humans and robots may one day blur. It’s especially enjoyable for its depiction of an alternative 1980s, in which Britain has just lost the Falklands War.
Gerladine McCaughrean | Where The World Ends
We are in a golden age of writing for teenagers and young adults: here’s a novel that delivers an unusual story with great clarity and style. Quill and his friends arrive once again on a remote island to hunt birds. But this particular summer, 1727, no one arrives to take them home. McCaughrean’s novel charts what happens next.
Sue Hubbard | Rainsongs
A lyrical, haunting account of Martha Cassidy, staying at her cottage in western Ireland and trying to come to terms with the death of her husband, before getting drawn into local disputes in a community she isn’t part of.
Chris Hammer | Scrublands
In an obscure country town, a priest suddenly opens fire on the congregation: if you’re a fan of crime thrillers, here’s one of those dark, breathless thrillers that provide essential escapism for holidays.
Anne Griffin | When All is Said
84-year-old Maurice Hannington sits at a bar in an Irish town and offers up five toasts. Collectively, they reveal the people and events of his colourful life. This is a beautiful, poignant novel, recommended to me by an assistant in Waterstone’s. It has resonated ever since.
Juliet Blaxfield | The Easternmost House
Blaxfield lives in a farmhouse on edge of the Suffolk coast, one of England’s most easterly points. And the land it is on is falling relentlessly into the sea. She uses this stark context to reflect on the seasons and the rhythms of life. A gentle and quietly moving read.
James O’Brien | How to be Right
Radio talkshow host James O’Brien takes various themes - political correctness, LGBT issues, Trump, Brexit - and uses his many telephone encounters with the public to explore how easily people create their own versions of the truth. It’s feisty in style, but makes serious points with a lightness of touch.
Robert MacFarlane | Underworld
MacFarlane writes in a mesmerising way about his journeys beneath the earth - under forests, into caves, and through hypnotically strange antechambers deep below the streets of Paris. It’s a haunting depiction of the unfamiliar worlds beneath our feet.
Emily Maitlis | Airhead
BBC2’s ‘Newsnight’ has been revitalised this year since Emily Maitlis became its main presenter. In this book she explores the on-screen encounters she has had with politicians and others, filling in the backstory in an entertaining, often waspish way.
David Goodhart | The Road to Somewhere
This is the book that has most influenced me over the past year - a compelling account of polarised attitudes in the UK. Goodhart’s analysis compares the Anywheres - people like us who leave home, go to university, see ourselves as global citizens - and the Somewheres - rooted in communities and values that they frequently see criticised and denigrated. Essential reading.
Holidays are a time to escape, to reflect, to nourish our minds and souls. And as we always remind ourselves: “Not all readers are leaders but all leaders are readers” (Harry Truman). So here’s my list of fiction, non-fiction and poetry that you might enjoy over immersing yourself in over the Easter break
Sally Rooney | Normal People
The shifting relationship between two young people from different backgrounds, told chiefly through dialogue. It’s warm, funny and (be warned) racy
Jonathan Coe | Middle England
A laugh-out-loud funny account of middle-aged life, though please note: it mentions Brexit
Sue Townsend | Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years
Moving back to Leicester has reacquainted me with the great comic author, Sue Townsend. Adrian is a national treasure
Max Porter | Grief is the Thing with Feathers
A haunting, heart-wrenching meditation on love, loss and living
Ellie Griffiths | The Crossing Places
For fans of crime fiction, here’s a writer who sets compelling stories in the haunting landscapes of Norfolk
Jennifer Palmieri | Dear Madam President
An elegantly written, and inspiring, reflection addressed to a future female US President.
Michael Jago | Rab Butler: The Best Prime Minister We Never Had?
Some 75 years on from Butler’s 1944 Education Act, a biography that shows us what politicians can achieve in adversity
Michael Barber | How to Run A Government
A wonderfully optimistic reminder of things governments can do to make life better
Darren McGarvey | Poverty Safari
A stark personal account of an upbringing steeped in poverty
Mary Oliver | Devotions: Collected Poems
Inspiring, sustaining poetry to rejuvenate you for the term ahead