Northern Soul’s Best Reads of 2015
At Northern Soul, we’ve done a lot of reading in 2015. Some of these books have been new publications, some have been titles sitting in our houses begging to be read, and some have been classics languishing on our wishlists.
Here are our favourite 2015 reads. Maybe some of them made it to your top picks too?
Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul
My mum is 69-years-old and often falls asleep of an evening in front of the tele. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I frequently do the same, waking up to discover I’ve missed the crucial denouement for DCI Banks/Lewis/Vera or, if I’m with my niece, Doc McStuffins. So when I lent my mum The Secret Baby Room, a new book by Scottish writer D.D. Johnston, I was surprised to learn that she’d read the whole thing in one night.
But The Secret Baby Room, Johnston’s third novel released back in the Summer, is that kind of book. It’s the unputtable-downable type of book, the one where you are loathe to finish, loathe to leave those characters behind, disappointed that reaching the last page means you have to leave their world and go back to your own.
Set in a shiny new housing estate in Manchester (Johnston lived in Hulme in the mid-noughties), the story focuses on Claire Wilson, a young woman who has recently miscarried, quit her job and moved up North with her Mancunian husband. I suppose it’s best described as a ‘classy psychological thriller’ but, as we said in our review, ‘The Secret Baby Room’s political and cultural themes are woven into a driving narrative like dye in cloth’. Claire sums it up when she says: ‘welcome to suburbia: everyone has a secret’.
Meanwhile, there’s a very different kind of family life in Melvyn Bragg‘s A Son of War. Published back in 2001, I’ve been holding onto this book for a while. It’s the second in his Cumbrian quartet, widely regarded as some of his best work and the most auto-biographical. The first in the series, The Soldier’s Return, tells the story of Sam Richardson, newly returned from the ‘Forgotten War’ in Burma to his hometown of Wigton (where Bragg himself grew up) in Cumbria. A Son of War picks up where the first book left off, this time looking more closely at the life of Joe, Sam’s son.
Life for returning soldiers after the Second World War was immeasurably difficult. Most had been irrevocably changed by their experiences, and the women they left behind had forged new paths without them. Bragg captures these hardships perfectly while expertly detailing day to day lives which, at first glance, seem perfectly ordinary. I have the final two books in the series but I won’t be rushing to read them – literature this good deserves to be savoured.
Cathy Rentzenbrink‘s searingly honest account of her brother’s accident, and the subsequent years spent coming to terms with it, moved me beyond words. When you read The Last Act of Love, there is no doubting the unremitting pain and horror of those years and no doubting the strength it took to write about the experience.
Rightly nominated for the Portico Prize, the North’s leading literary award, Rentzenbrink describes a highly personal and hugely traumatic event. But her fearless determination to set it down in writing will undoubtedly help others mired in their own grief. It’s not an easy read (and you can read here why it was particularly difficult for me) but it is an infinitely rewarding one.
There have been memoirs about hidden lives in closed worlds before – including the Freemasons, the Foreign Legion and MI5 – but compared to The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall, those books look about as revelatory as one of Katie Price’s many autobiographies. Less a rock band, more a perennially touring fiefdom, The Fall have been constructing brittle-but-brilliant music for almost four decades. However, despite their famously high turnover of musicians – over 40 at the last count – the band’s members have been pretty tight-lipped about what it’s really like to work with singer/despot Mark E. Smith. Now though, thanks to Steve Hanley – the man who played bass in The Fall for 17 years – and co-writer Olivia Piekarski, we get to peep behind the band’s battered Transit doors. The result is one of the best music books I’ve ever read. It’s a hair-curling yet deeply thoughtful look at life in Smith’s grip, and despite all the eye-popping tales it contains, it made me wish with all my heart that I’d had chance to be sneered at, sworn at and humiliated by the most rancorous musical genius of them all.
If there’s one thing everybody knows about the causes of the First World War, it’s that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. His killer was a Serbian nationalist, but the technique – a murderous ‘spectacular’ designed to grab headlines in an age of mass printed media – was common to any number of groups, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies that had flourished throughout Europe since the Paris Commune.
In The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists & Secret Agents, Alex Butterworth makes it clear that although we now think of Marxism as having been the dominant force on the revolutionary left, it was once just one strand among a knotted web of anarchists, socialists, communists and other ideologues hoping to fight back against exploitation and oppression. Add in the provocations and deliberate confusions created by Europe’s intelligence services – particularly by the shadow-shifting Peter Rachkovsky, head of the Tsar’s Okhrana secret service – and you have an endlessly fascinating tale of subversion, reprisal and ingenious misdirection. It takes some skill to untangle these sometime-phantom narrative strands, but Butterworth’s book – published in 2010, but enjoyed by me this year – tells the best kind of history: it’s all true, but it’s still a thriller at heart.
When I first started going to pubs, deciding which beer to buy was the least of my worries. Being of a fresh-faced persuasion, my under-age attempts to procure ale involved sweaty palms, nervous glances and the liberal use of tippy-toes just to see over the bar. By the time I caught the landlord’s eye, a strangulated utterance of the word “bitter” was all I could manage – with the only alternatives being lager or Guinness. Pity then today’s under-age drinker who must go through the same emotional wringer and then decide what to choose from the dazzling array of porters, IPAs, lambics, weissbiers, saisons, altbiers, dubbels, tripels…not to mention extra-potent treats like imperial stouts and double IPAs. Well before I began making my first forays into the world of the public house, it seemed that British beer was doomed to fizzy homogenisation. However, in the wonderful Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer, Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey tell the heart-warming story of how that doom-laden journey towards beery blandness eventually became a fantastic voyage into our current hop-scented golden age.
I was already familiar with Laura Dockrill’s middle-grade Darcy Burdock series and could not resist picking up Lorali, her first venture into Young Adult fiction. Mermaid-themed novels might not be everyone’s cup of tea – magical, whimsical storylines and shiny covers certainly aren’t to all tastes – but not only does Lorali break that mould, it depicts an incredibly clever and at times a much darker storyline than you might originally imagine.
Told from three points of view (Rory, Lorali and The Sea), it narrates the story of Princess Lorali who has surfaced among humans as well as the journey of those seeking to capture her. Think The Little Mermaid played out on social media and scrutinised in the column inches of UK tabloids. Dockrill’s characters are so beautifully thought out and real and this is why Lorali will appeal to both teenagers and non-teenagers alike – Dockrill has a way with words that can attract anybody.
Only Ever Yours is one of those books that stays with you long after you’ve read the last page. Think 1984 meets The Stepford Wives with a big bitchy dose of Mean Girls thrown in for good measure. Louise O’Neill’s debut novel is one of the more unusual, disturbing, infuriating and terrifying books I have read this year.
Originally published as a YA novel – and later republished for an adult audience with a new cover– Only Ever Yours is a satire about society’s obsession with how women look and behave, and is quite possibly one of the best dystopian-esque novels I have ever read. This book left me feeling furious, bereft and longing to know more about the fate of its characters. What more could you ask for?
Although not a 2015 newcomer, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things should be at the top of everyone’s ‘To Be Read’ pile. It is a story about the childhood experiences of fraternal twins whose lives are destroyed by the ‘Love Laws’ that lay down ‘who should be loved, and how. And how much.’
Roy’s only full-length novel (published in 1997 and winner of that year’s Booker Prize) is so powerful that I revisit it every year. It’s a melancholy tale depicting the breakdown of an illustrious family in 1060s Kerala, India. Full of lush, gorgeous prose, The God of Small Things is one of those books that sucks you in with its mystery and misery. You can’t stop seeing and smelling everything and it’s all so exotic and rich. Just make sure you have a box of tissues handy.
I discovered the wonder that is Wilkie Collins this year and absolutely loved The Woman In White. It has everything you want from an 19th century suspense tale: a strange uncle who never leaves the house, mistaken identity and elaborate plots to steal inheritance. Imagine Jane Eyre meets Pride and Prejudice with a dollop of Tales of the Unexpected thrown in for good measure.
I really enjoyed Frog Music by Room author, Emma Donoghue. It’s totally different from Room but Donoghue’s gripping style is present on every page. It focuses on women from the wrong side of the tracks and the shocking lack of rights they had in newly-settled America. But it’s by no means a borefest. Instead, Donoghue cleverly weaves this around a murder mystery based on a true story.
I was looking for something to read that was set in Rome for a working trip to Italy this October. I had some ideas but put a shout out on Facebook for other people’s. Strangely I’d overlooked I, Claudius by Robert Graves and you can’t get much more Rome-set than a fictionalised tale of Roman Emperors. I largely knew it from the 70s serialisation starring Derek Jacobi that I’d heard loads about but never actually seen.
Graves pens his narrative from the perspective of the stuttering, largely ostracised but highly intelligent and considered Claudius who watches and catalogues the doings of his mostly horrible ruling family culminating in the heinous nephew, Emperor Caligula. That is until Caligula’s assassination brings about Claudius’s own succession to the ruling role. Now for the DVD…
Having already read Alan Warner‘s book about six teenage friends on the hunt for a good time on a trip to Edinburgh from their small port town in The Sopranos, my chosen Scottish reading while I was at the Edinburgh Fringe this year was his follow-up The Stars In the Bright Sky. Now in their 20s, the friends decide to reunite for a holiday. They are leading disparate lives – most notably some are at uni while the others remain in the port.
The novel brilliantly portrays the complexities and dynamics of friendship, particularly between those who find themselves on very different paths in life. It’s compelling, compulsive reading despite largely taking place in a Kafka-esque Gatwick Airport while waiting for a flight.
Another Scottish tale for my time in Edinburgh this year was Booker Prize winner from 1994, How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman. It’s not difficult to see why it won. Written in a stream of consciousness, it tells of Glaswegian Sammy. He likes a tipple or several but, after waking up after a three-day bender, he clashes with some ‘sodjers’ (plain-clothed police) and finds himself the victim of a kicking. As a result, he is blinded. The style intensifies the claustrophobia of his newly-blind state and the colloquialisms and accented language conjure reality. It also serves to maintain the Scottish accent that my interior monologue seems to develop every August when I’m reviewing at the Fringe.
The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse was so unputdownable that I read it over two days. Praised for its descriptive writing, it conjures a convincing image of the marshes in which it takes place, and the action is fast-paced and gripping. It’s easy to read and reminiscent of gothic romances, though occasional scenes (usually only a page long) are truly gruesome. And the crescendo. Oh god the crescendo. The anticipation builds as you see all of the major characters heading blindly to the same destination leaving you desperate to discover what will befall each of them. A truly satisfying read.
As the original inspiration for Jurassic Park and written more than a hundred years ago, I was looking forward to reading The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle. Following the journey of two antithetical professors – an adventurer and a reporter as they venture to a hidden plateau in the Amazon rainforest – it’s almost plausible to believe that there really could be prehistoric creatures lurking in the (still) vastly unexplored jungle. Written in the form of narrative letters, the book presents the classic voyage in a simple format, without oversimplifying the imaginative ideas put forward. Why couldn’t a pterodactyl live in the same world as giant anacondas and poison dart frogs? And how would humans who had evolved alongside dinosaurs live and behave? It does, of course, suffer from archaic stereotypes that would be deemed non-PC these days, but they are fairly infrequent and can be stomached for the sake of the story – a good old-fashioned adventure.
Although World War Z by Max Brooks is now famous as a movie starring Brad Pitt, I think that – strong as it is – the film doesn’t do this book justice, and it works far better in an epistolary format. Each small take allows you to get unique, individual looks at the zombie apocalypse from literally all sides, and the cultural differences and international reactions are exceptionally well observed. Not to mention it’s damn good writing, and manages to revitalise the horror in a monster that’s been (pardon the pun) done to death.
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks is exceptionally fascinating because it’s virtually a study of communication, drawing deliberate allusions to the ‘language’ spoken between the eponymous Player and his opponents as they battle. Banks talks of each move being not just a means to an end (victory), but a message to the opponent – as each player makes their move, so they ‘speak’ to each other in a conversation only the two of them share.
You can check out our best reads from 2014 here
Main image: Chetham’s Library by Chris Payne
Northen Soul Awards 2017
The Northern Soul Awards 2017, hosted by Lemn Sissay MBE, will celebrate and reward cultural and artistic excellence in the North of England.