Best Books of 2021

For the third year in a row, I met my goal of reading 50 books in a year. These are the five best ones of the year for me:

The first book that I want to tell you about is a book called The Storm Keeper’s Island. It is written by Irish writer Catherine Doyle and is it is the first of a trilogy. This book is so beautifully written; the writer’s use of simile and metaphor, in particular, is wonderful as she paints a vivid picture of the magical, mysterious (and fictional) island of Arranmore off the coast of Ireland. The characters have so much feeling and emotion and seem so realistic and yet there are also fantastical elements that make this a wonderful chapter book for children. 

I read it on my own first and was so enamoured with it, I told my daughter she must read it straight away. For some reason though, it just didn’t seem to grab her attention and in the end, I managed to convince her to let me read it to her as a bedtime story; this was a lovely experience in itself as it’s been some time since I’ve read her at night now that she’s such a proficient and prolific reader. It gave us that special time together enjoying a story and feeling it together. 

I really can’t wait now to get on with reading the second book which I had to hold off until I re-read the first one.  It is called The Lost Tide Warriors.

Another of my top five books for 2021 was Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, an imagined telling of Shakespeare’s family‘s life, set in Stratford-upon-Avon during Shakespeare’s lifetime although with him very much an absent figure as he spent his time in London, leaving his wife and the children behind in Stratford. I found the book utterly fascinating but also very emotional as it tells the story of Hamnet’s tragically short life.  As it is based on real events, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it follows Shakespeare’s children, one of whom, Hamnet, died in childhood. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet quite soon after. 

O’Farrell did a remarkable job of making this world of Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 1500s come to life including details of daily life that I hadn’t really considered before. It help me to really imagine the lives of these people who lived just 15 miles down the road but centuries away in time.

Another book in my top five last year was a fun read by Jojo Moyes called The Giver of Stars. Another book inspired by real events although this time very much fictionalised in the actual storytelling, it tells the story of a group of women in Kentucky who provided a library service in very isolated rural communities in the mountain there. It was so enjoyable reading about these strong women who braved discrimination as well as natural perils to ensure that everyone had a chance to read. You can see why I was so taken with it! 

Along with beautiful descriptions of landscape, compelling human stories are happening with strong, interesting, complex characters who kept me gripped right until the very end.

A book I was very thankful for 2021 was Laura Tremaine’s Share Your Stuff I’ll Go First. This book was illuminating and thought-provoking in that it asked a series of searching questions about life. By pre-ordering the book, I was included in an exclusive Facebook book club group; this led me to meet some amazing women who were in a similar position to me: unable to join in with Laura‘s book club discussions as they took place in the evening US Pacific time. As we were all based in the UK or Europe, we decided to set up our own monthly online club to discuss each chapter of the book. Laura even managed to make it to one of our meetings which was a blast. When we had finished, we continued with the conversation and we are still in touch today. I’m sure we’ll have a meeting soon to discuss whatever we are reading, watching, listening to next.

Laura has just announced that her 10 Things to Tell You podcast is coming to an end with the last episode just released this week. I look forward to what comes next.

The last book I read in 2021 was actually a Christmas gift from my mum and dad. It’s called The Cat Who Saved Books by Japanese writer Sosuke Natsukawa, translated into English by Louise Heal Kawai. This is a philosophical book that explores what the love of books means, challenging us to think about why we really like them. Through an original narrative, it highlights the different ways that we as humans supposedly treasure books, for example locking them away to keep them safe. Although it took me a few pages to get my head around the concept, I was so pleased that this is the last book I read of 2021 because it really made me think about my own reading and made me reflect on what’s important.  In truth, I had picked up the book so that I could complete my 50 book challenge (I finished this 50th book at 1am on 31st December!) – just the kind of thing that seems to be in some ways judged in this book: reading just a tick off a list. 

However, this book did make me think about how I read and made me want to read in a more meaningful, purposeful way which is why one of my reading resolutions for this year is to annotate my books more, something I very much enjoy doing for work but rarely do when reading for pleasure. And I’m still going to participate in my usual 50 book challenge in 2022, as I find it a very useful way to track my reading; the goal helps me keep focused and encourages me off my phone when I have the time to read. It’s all too easy to fritter away any spare minutes that we do have on this tyrannical device in our hand.  

My reading resolutions for 2022 are as follows:

  • no new books before March – I have so many books to read already I don’t need any new ones so I am not buying any more before March. Wish me luck with this!
  • read beloved by Toni Morrison– this was one of my items for 21 things for 2021 which I didn’t manage to do – I’ve been wanting to read this book for years so this year is the year!
  • use the library more – I really love visiting the library.
  • start a new book series – any ideas anyone?
  • annote and highlight more.
  • keep a reading journal.

Tell me, what you’re reading at the moment or what you would like to be this year? Do you have any reading resolutions?

Happy reading!

Planning your non-fiction writing

One of the challenges that my students face is developing their ideas so that they are not just skimming the surface. Asking them to ‘develop further’ usually leaves them unsure how they can extend their writing to give it the requisite depth.

Teachers often encourage students to mind map their ideas but I know I don’t always make it explicit why this technique (and using spider diagrams in particular) helps to train students to brainstorm ideas and turn them into honed, structured points.

Let’s take the following debate question as a starting point:

Is social media a good thing?

I am sure that this will bring out ideas on both sides of the debate. But how do we start to extend the initial thoughts into a meaningful argument?

First, a simple pro/con list (for and against):

As a user social media myself, I would naturally want to argue FOR it but looking at this list, I can already see that it is the AGAINST side that carries a more weighty argument.

So now I need to develop each of those points further. I do this using a slide diagram:

Within each main point, there are subpoints to be made to help strengthen the viewpoint.

Not only will this provide a great reference for writing under pressure in the exam but it also naturally organises the ideas into a sensible, cohesive essay which would work for an article, a speech, a letter or whatever form is expected in the exam question.

If you work with me, you can learn more about how to structure your writing here.

Expanding Your Vocabulary through Reading

The best way to expand your vocabulary is to read. This is the advice that is always given and it can be frustrating either because a) reading is not something you enjoy or b) you already read a lot. Here are a few tips to help you whether you are a reluctant or enthusiastic reader:

  1. If you are a reluctant reader or think it is boring, you probably have not yet found the type of writing that really appeals to you. You need to experiment with different types of writing. Don’t worry at first about the quality of what you are reading. Graphic novels, crime stories, football magazines, they are all valid choices. Just find something that you are interested in.  Try asking a librarian, teacher or bookseller for help with choosing.
  2. Try reading before bed – go to bed a bit earlier if you need to. Not only will this give you a regular reading time, it will also allow your mind to unwind from screens before you go to sleep which will give you a better night’s sleep (this is good advice for students and adults – we all need to shut off those screens about an hour before we go to sleep).
  3. Even if you already read a lot, you might need to widen your reading so that you are exposed to different styles and more sophisticated vocabulary. See the reading list below.
  4. Keep a notebook when you read to make a note of interesting words or phrases or any thoughts you have while you read on the structure of the writing. If you are more mindful while you read, it will train you to spot things when you get to the exam and help save time. You can jot down quotations which you find inspirational or interesting.
  5. Check out the hashtag #bookstagram on Instagram for lots of inspiration for what to read next.
  6. You can learn a word a day from a list of more ambitious vocabulary. If you have access to my restricted resources, you can find some lists here. Write the word on a post-it note and stick it to your wall; try to use it in conversation that day; in a journal or your reading notebook, write down the word and definition and use it in a sentence.
  7. Read broadsheet newspapers. Read an article once a week and if you are able, discuss the article with your family or friends. Focus on how the viewpoint has been conveyed. Look at what perspective the writer is coming from.

Fiction Reading List for Enthusiastic Readers:

19th Century:

  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • The Sign of The Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

20th Century:

  • To Kill and Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding


  • Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve
  • His Dark Materials trilogy  by Phillip Pullman
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  • More Than This by Patrick Ness
  • Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
  • Every Day by David Levithan
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • A Fault in our Stars by John Green
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • Stone Cold by Robert Swindells
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak


  • Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
  • 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
  • Notes from a Small Island by BIll Bryson
  • I know the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
  • I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Online News Resources:

A Poem

Tuesday was World Poetry Day so I just wanted to share with you this little gem of a love poem I just found called ‘Love Poem’ by Lemn Sissay:

You remind me
define me
incline me.

If you died


What poem do you love to read or which poet is your favourite?

Revision Guides

With so much to remember on the new syllabus, it is definitely worth investing in some revision guides (you can also check them out of a library although they are in high demand the closer you get to Easter/exam times so get in there now). I often buy these myself as they make useful when planning lessons or revision session.


My favourite guides for Literature are York Notes – they do a Study Guide and a Workbook for each of the GCSE set texts and they are both good although I would start with the Study Guide. Make sure you pick up a ‘New for GCSE (9-1)’ version so it has guidance for the new specification.


CGP also produce material for revision and study – their style is somewhat irreverent and I suppose may appeal to students. I personally find them a bit cringy – like they are trying too hard – and not as in depth as I would like.


I also recently invested in some Oxford AQA books – they cover developing skills and going over the new assessment. These are very useful but also quite expensive. I have only just bought these so I have yet to delve into them in any depth but so far, I like what I have seen!

Hygge, Crime and a Gothic Fairy Tale

So far in 2017, I have started well with my quest to read 50 books in a year. Last year, I only managed to equal my previous personal best of 41 books. I am so determined this year.

I really do want to concentrate on reading for pleasure – after all, I am always encouraging my students to do the same. I also want to read more of a variety, especially more crime books because I do so enjoy them but they tend to get passed over for more ‘worthy’ selections. I started the year reading an Ann Cleeves book called Hidden Depths which was very enjoyable if a little disappointing in the final denouement (it seemed to me to have been built up so much that the eventual culprit was far too boring and so I didn’t really care when he was caught).


Book number two was a total change of pace: The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking. This was a very soothing and pretty (if not particularly weighty) and definitely has made me a) want to live a more Hygge-style life and b) visit Copenhagen on holiday.

A few days ago, I  read with my daughter the second half of Neil Gaiman’s version of Hansel and Gretel (with atmospheric illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti). I know it probably seems like cheating to include children’s books in my count but I have decided that I will include those of length or particular literary significance or merit. This is a gorgeously written version which I may well use in class to show as a wonderful example of descriptive and figurative language. It will be fun to analyse (English teachers always do this when they read something ‘good’, I think!).

I have also read two books for work: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. I am teaching the latter to my Year 9s at the moment and their enthusiasm for it far exceeds my own. I just can’t seem to enjoy it.

Student tip: did you notice that all the book and play titles are in italics? This is the convention to show titles in typed work. If you are handwriting a title, underline it (instead of using quotation marks).

Meeting Margaret Atwood

On Saturday, I had managed to get a ticket to see Margaret Atwood at the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre. She was talking about her new book Hag-Seed which is a retelling of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

I teach this play to our Year 7s but because of the level of the students, we do not delve as deeply into this play as we do others higher up in the school. As a result, it is not a play I have examined closely. Listening to Atwood talk, it makes me want to spend time enjoying the play in detail. I am also very much looking forward to reading the book; I was able to buy a signed copy with the ticket.

We had expected to pick up pre-signed copy as per the information on the RSC website. In actual fact, Margaret Atwood actually signed them for us personally. It was a weirdly awkward exchange – I wanted to say something but I also didn’t want to sound inane (which I totally did, by the way). In the end, I thanked her for the fascinating talk and she looked me blankly in the eye. It was quite unsettling. It doesn’t affect how I feel about her – after all, she was signing book after book with people saying almost exactly the same thing to her. And I definitely get the feeling that unoriginality and banality are things that she abhors. She is a brilliant woman with a brilliant mind. I am very glad to have (albeit very briefly) met her and hear her speak.

September Reading

This month has been a bit of a slow one, reading-wise. I have just finished Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this book but I have not yet managed to get them organised in my head or on the screen.

I am currently reading a much lighter book called The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George which is charming and perfect for a bibliophile (lover of books) like me.

I also have the autobiography of Malala Yousafzia, I am Malala, on the go. This is an important book and I am enjoying dipping into it chapter by chapter.

What are you reading at the moment?