English with Suzie

7 Sizzling summer reads to improve your English

There’s nothing better than getting lost in a good book during your summer vacation. However, when you choose to read in English, not only you are getting all the thrill and adventure, but you are also learning lots of new vocabulary and your brain makes links with the grammar rules you’ve learnt and the grammar rules it sees…

Reading for language learning purposes is a fantastic way to:

  • Increase your vocabulary skills
  • Support your grammar knowledge
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Improve your memory
  • Help you think more in English
  • Activate your creativity and imagination in English

So, if you are looking for great books to read in English, I’ve got you covered with these books recommended by English learners and teachers from around the globe.

Not sure how to best learn new vocab while enjoying your favourite read? I explain it in detail here.

Learning through reading/listening to stories is very different to memorizing facts. Brain scans show that stories activate both left and right hemispheres of your brain, forming neuronal connections between the factual and creative/experiential parts of your brain. Thanks to this, brain activity from story-based learning shows on scans for days, unlike in the case of regular memorisation. As suggested by psychologist Jerome Bruner, this impacts the long-term memory, making you up 22x more likely to remember facts that are given in a story. It is thanks to the powerful mixture of meaning, memory, and emotion that you remember things you learned through stories for so much longer than from plain memorisation.

However, there are things you need to know about choosing the right book that can do the magic…

To start with, reading will be nothing but frustrating if you don’t read on your level. If your English is not very strong yet and you chose a difficult book that is meant for native speakers, you are very likely to just get frustrated after translating every fourth word, not following the story, and feeling ‘stupid’.

Trust me. I still haven’t returned to my Spanish book purchased in excitement at the airport in Mexico City because of the recommendation of my native speaking friends. I had no idea what was happening in the book, it made me feel stupid, and now it’s been collecting dust on my shelf for years. Let’s be smarter than that!

Choose a book on your level. There are books called ‘graded readers’ which are written with language learners in mind, using simpler language adequate to challenge you but not overwhelm you on your level. You can often find your favourite stories rewritten in an easier to follow language.

However, my favourite graded readers books are:

1. Short Stories in English by Olly Richards

Unlike the rest of the suggestions on my list, Olly’s books have been created specifically for the purpose of language learning in the most natural and effective way. Olly himself swears by his ‘StoryLearning’ method which helped the Brit to learn 8 languages and counting. Each of his short stories consists of three chapters where the plot gradually develops. As the text is written for specific levels, certain words which you are not likely to yet know on your level are highlighted for you. You will find their explanation at the dictionary input at the end of the chapter. What’s more, you will also find a summary of the chapter and a reading comprehension test (with answers on the next page) to see how you are doing with following the story along. Each book will present you with 8-9 of these stories.

I personally have read everything that Olly published in Spanish, from beginners to advanced as I continued with my learning. While I cannot say the stories are exactly my cup of tea, the method does work and I felt really accomplished at the end of every chapter, getting much more learning done much faster than I would ever have been able to do with my book from the Mexican airport…

Here, someone has done all the thinking for me, emphasizing which vocabulary I should look out for on my level and is regularly checking if I’m absorbing the information.

Better yet, if you get the book in kindle version, you can click on any word and kindle will show you the translation. Nice, easy, and straight forward. As your learning should be. This is why I recommend Olly’s work to my students.

2. Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

The story: Young Harry Potter lives an unfortunate life serving his step family, staying in a tiny closet under a staircase. One day, he receives an invitation the school of magic in Hogwarts and learns his parents were sorcerers. His life changes forever.

The language: The Harry Potter series is written for young adults so the writing is simple enough but full of life, really stirring your imagination. It is a good read especially if you are focusing on British English as you can find some UK-specific expressions here.

Many of my students have read the whole series and absolutely loved it!

3. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

The story: The only non-fiction book on the list, this story is a memoir which has been made into a popular movie with Julia Roberts.

After a painful divorce, Elizabeth decides to undertake a year of travel and describes what she has learnt and encountered along the way. She eats her way to happiness in Italy, prays her way to devotion in India, and in Bali finds unexpected love that, unlike her previous relationships, is to last. If you love to travel and explore new cultures, as well as genuinely expressed thoughts and emotions, you will fall in love with this read.

The language: This book is more complex and contains some high-level vocabulary as well as idiomatic expressions. I would therefore recommend it to more advanced English readers.

4. The hundred year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The story: Allan Karlsson is a 100-year-old explosives expert who is so bored in a retirement home that he jumps out of a window. As he begins an unexpected adventure, he reminisces about key moments in his life which were also key moments in world history.

The language: Once again, this story is not for beginners. Especially because there are such unexpected twists and turns in the plot, a reader which is not advanced enough could get lost. However, if your English is advanced but you want to learn more, this story, full of fun idioms and unexpected events will not let you take a break until you finish.

This book has become one of my absolute favourites. Totally outside of what I would normally go for, the story was so tangled, so surprising, so unexpected and funny that I literally couldn’t put it down! A much recommended read!

5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The story: A very engaging read about WW2 narrated from the perspective of Death itself, offering interesting perspectives on the events of the war from German perspective, following the life of a German girl fostered by a family who was hiding the Jews in their basement. Between the constant danger of being discovered and executed, hunger, illness, oppression by Nazis and constant bombing raids, this story will not let you rest until you are done with it.

The language: Completing this 600-page novel truly fills you with a sense of accomplishment! Nevertheless, it can be tackled from intermediate level on.

6. It Started with Paris by Cathy Kelly

The story: It all indeed does start at the top of the Eiffel Tower where a young man proposes to his delighted girlfriend. From that moment on, their lives and the lives of their friends and family awaiting their return in Ireland will be completely changed.

With her warmth and insight, Cathy Kelly weaves a delightful tale spinning out from a once-in-a-lifetime moment, drawing together a terrific cast of characters who feel like they’ve been your friends ever since you can remember. No wonder this book has been ranked as No.1 bestseller!

The language: The language in this book is suitable from level B2 onwards. Despite its length, the story flows nicely and is easy to follow.

7. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The story: Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece tells the mystical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who desires to travel the world in search of a treasure. His quest leads him to riches far different—and far more satisfying—than the worldly treasures of gold that he was seeking. Combining magic, mysticism, wisdom and wonder into an inspiring tale of self-discovery, The Alchemist has become a modern classic, selling millions of copies around the world.

The language: The book with its enticing story is written in an easy to understand, well flowing language, understandable for readers from level B1 on. While the message is deep and each of us will relate to it differently, the story is easy to follow and the book itself is thin, so you will finish it before you even know it.

What I personally love about this publication is that every time I read it, I understand it differently, seeing another meaning behind the same words. Such is the wisdom of Paulo Coelho, the best-selling author influencing whole generations.

Bonus - the Blinkist app

If you are into self-development, you can use this passion of yours to your English learning advantage. A lot of the books you are likely to be interested in are originally written in English.  If you don’t have the time to read so many books, there is a (paid) app that does the work for you.

Blinkist summarises all the most popular and influential books into 15 min extracts of the key ideas the book provides. You can either listen to the summaries as you drive, commute, or cook, or if you prefer, read them from your phone at your leisure…

I myself like this app very much and highly recommend it. However, it is an investment. So consider if this is something YOU would enjoy and get the value out of it. Otherwise, do not subscribe. The app does offer a free trial if you wanted to give it a go and see for yourself…

You can read more about the app and the subscription costs in this Business Insider article.