Northern Soul’s Best Reads of 2014
There’s little doubt that 2014 has been a cracking year for literature, whether it’s new authors, old favourites or re-issued classic works.
During the year, you’ve probably discovered a fresh talent, gotten around to reading that book that’s been sat on your shelf for years, or enjoyed a novel you’ve been meaning to read for ages. Northern Soul knows all about that. Here are our best picks for 2014.
I first came across Jessie Burton‘s debut novel while listening to a Simon Mayo broadcast from the Edinburgh Festival. In the same way that Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life enthralled, mesmerised and surprised, The Miniaturist drew me in from the first page and wouldn’t let go. Recently named Book of the Year by Waterstones (and Burton deservedly won New Writer of the Year at the National Book Awards), this magical tale set in 17th century Amsterdam is the bestselling literary debut hardback of the decade. A former actress, Burton has woven a historical thriller based on a simple yet inspired premise: a young bride is given a miniature replica of her own house whose contents seem to mirror real life. Thanks to Burton, I spent much of September with a literary hangover.
Another unmissable debut came courtesy of artist, film-maker and author Sophia Al-Maria. The Girl Who Fell To Earth is a searingly-honest memoir that redefined the way I think about the Arab world. Al-Maria‘s story is one of conflicting cultures, personal freedoms and, ultimately, a wading-through-treacle groping for identity. It’s an unvarnished account of a childhood which encompasses desert-dwelling Bedouin tribes, Pacific North West green valleys and Egyptian metropolises. But it’s Al-Maria’s ability to ally her unique life with the universal human experience that makes this book both exotic and achingly familiar.
Meanwhile, half a century after it was published with little fanfare, John Williams‘s Stoner has scooped up legions of fans, and with good reason. Dubbed “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of” by The New Yorker, Stoner is about an academic whose life is a litany of disappointments. It’s achingly sad and breathtakingly moving in equal measure; a novel written quietly and compassionately. Julian Barnes describes it thus: “It is a true ‘reader’s novel’, in the sense that its narrative reinforces the very value of reading and study. Many will be reminded of their own lectoral epiphanies, of those moments when the magic of literature first made some kind of distant sense, first suggested that this might be the best way of understanding life.” Spot-on. As someone who loathes Philip Roth’s writing with a fiery passion, this understated story of an American male college professor was a long drink of cold water.
First published three years ago, I finally got round to reading The Barbed Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War a few months back. I wish I hadn’t waited that long. If you’ve seen The Bridge on the River Kwai and are planning your annual viewing of The Great Escape, take a moment to consider this detailed and harrowing account of the Allies’ extraordinary fortitude by Midge Gillies; you’ll wonder what on earth Hollywood was doing with its time.
The author’s father was a PoW and her personal experience of a man forever tainted by his experiences in the Second World War adds a poignant tone to what is a valuable and heart-wrenching account of resourcefulness, courage, and friendship. I found the chapters on the FEPOWs (Far East Prisoner of War) the most moving and, many months after reading this book, still find it impossible to comprehend that a quarter of the 50,000 British servicemen captured in the Far East as prisoners died, exacerbated in many cases by forced labour and instances of unimaginable brutality. Compared to some of the Japanese camp guards and commandants, the Germans were relatively benign captors.
Another book on this theme, Eric Lomax‘s The Railway Man, has seen a surge in readership following the recent film adaptation starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. For a searing and unforgettable account of the cruelty endured by countless FEPOWs, Lomax’s personal history is an uncomfortable yet vital read.
Of all the pop-rave crossover acts of the early 90s, only one could trace their influences back through interstellar ley-lines, through post-punk Liverpool, through discordianism and synchronicity and into the heart of the Kennedy assassination. And it wasn’t D:Ream. This book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band that Burned a Million Pounds, which reaches way beyond conventional band biography, could have turned into a convoluted tale but John Higgs is the perfect guide: chatty, enthusiastic, both sceptical and a believer. When you’ve read this, maybe you’ll finally understand why the KLF was a band with money to burn.
Growing up in the 70s, I made certain assumptions about the way of the world. There would always be three television channels, flared trousers were eternal and, one day, everyone would live somewhere that looked like Sheffield’s Park Hill flats. In Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, a highly readable survey of post-war planning and architecture, full of personal reflection and detail, John Grindrod surveys the visions, ideals, successes and failures that made Britain look the way it does – much of which explains why I and many others turned out to be wrong.
At the 2013 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, my big discovery was Lauren Beukes and her book The Shining Girls. Her latest book Broken Monsters is an even more ambitious mash-up, a delirious investigation of crime, mania, horror, the mystery of creativity and the decline of Detroit. This year’s discovery at that wonderful event was Eva Dolan, whose first novel Long Way Home is a brilliant, provocative and profoundly political re-imagination of the classic police procedural, set in a Fenland Hate Crimes Unit. Second in the series Tell No Tales is, if anything, even better, so look out for it in the New Year.
I met award-winning artist and all-round top bloke William Stout aboard the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. His Legends Of the Blues is a brilliantly-illustrated, astutely-written celebration of 100 of the glorious men and women who created the blues. It will stir the soul of any fan and deserves to be experienced as a lovingly-printed artifact, whereas my other top music book of the year is only available as an e-book. Richie Unterberger has combined Turn! Turn! Turn! and Eight Miles High, his two previous histories of 1960s folk-rock, into one mighty volume Jingle Jangle Morning, with lots of additional material including an invigorating and intriguing new mini-book, the liner notes to an imaginary 8-CD box-set companion to the book.
The more I read of Scottish author Alan Warner the more obsessed I get. Set in the same remote port town as his seminal work Morvern Callar, The Sopranos features a day in the lives of a group of Catholic schoolgirls who hit the big city for a choir competition. But singing is the last thing on their minds as they squeeze into mini-skirts and hit the bars. It’s funny, poignant and incredibly perceptive – a middle-aged man writing so accurately about teenage girls is a fine achievement.
Despite taking an American novel option during my degree somehow I’d never read any Norman Mailer so I decided to put that right with The Naked and the Dead. At 700 pages Mailer’s 1949 debut novel goes into minute detail of a platoon of US soldiers posted on the Japanese-occupied Anopopei during the Second World War. Drawing on Mailer’s own experience in the Philippines during the conflict, what’s most impressive is how he shrugs on the skin of every character, from the tough working class mid-western Private Red Valsen to the closeted gay General Cummings.
A more recent conflict is depicted in Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. Canadian journalist Courtemanche was in Rwanda when the genocide/civil war began in April 1994 and this book is his fictionalised account. Following the murder of the Hutu president when his plane is shot down, the event triggered the unbelievable mass murder of thousands of civilians by warring Hutu and Tutsi factions in a country already being decimated by an AIDS epidemic. It’s an emotive and harrowing account of the brutality – and particularly pertinent considering that, 20 years after the events, fundamental questions still remain.
Liz Berry’s Black Country is an absolutely sumptuous collection. One of those collections that I will return and return to because the words, the musical quality of the poems, feel so beautiful in one’s mouth. A worthy winner of the Forward Prize for First Collection.
The poems in Rebecca Goss‘s Her Birth about the death of her baby daughter are at times almost unbearable to read. But that is testament to the power of the poet. She comes at her grief from all angles, never repetitive, always defined in pure, beautiful imagery and honesty – often brutal honesty. I found so much in here to connect with and my life is richer for reading it.
Daniel Sluman’s Absence has a Weight of its Own is a stunning debut; the poems are rich, intense, moving and powerful. My favourite from this collection, though many of them are my favourites, is Love Song to a Tumour. It’s rare that a poem will take one up and shake one about like this one does. Wonderful.
The Emma Press Anthology of Motherhood is a brilliant anthology. It’s not sentimental, it’s not sickly – it’s honest and loving and wonderful and funny and every emotion you can imagine. I’ve found so many new voices in its pages.
Meanwhile, Claire Trevien’s The Shipwrecked House is amazing. It creaks and shivers, speaking in wave song directly into the ear. I sunk into this book and didn’t come up for air again until the last page.
Before the all-conquering Watchmen, Alan Moore started The Bojeffries Saga with Steve Parkhouse, an occasional comic strip about a very peculiar Northampton family comprising vampires, werewolves and a sort of amorphous blob thing. It’s really a trenchant satire on its times – that is, the 80s and early 90s. It’s since become impossible to find, but has now been collected in this nifty new edition.
Musicians writing their autobiographies – that can go either way, can’t it? But Slits guitarist and punk scenester Viv Albertine writes with beautiful vivid simplicity in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys. She’s had an eventful life – it’s almost unbearably moving at times – and this plants you right in her patent leather Vivienne Westwood boots to impressive, memorable effect.
Having, inexplicably, never read Jon Ronson‘s work until his Frank Sidebottom book, I was drawn in and soon devoured the lot. Lost at Sea, a collection of assorted writings, might not be his best known or most recent volume, but it’s a truly fascinating, engrossing compendium which takes in artificial intelligence, real-life superheroes, religious cults and Robbie Williams.
Ah, the KLF – they weren’t exactly your average band – and this isn’t your average biography either. The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs looks to peer behind their cloak of mystery by the scenic route, by unpicking all their cultural influences and counter-cultural preoccupations. You may never find out what Bill Drummond has for his tea, but it’s all very enlightening and entertaining, nevertheless.
Simply Thrilled: The Preposterous Story of Postcard Records by Simon Goddard, is a hugely stylised take on the tale of the independent record label run on a shoestring by music obsessive Alan Horne from a Glasgow flat at the dawn of the 80s. They gave the world Orange Juice, Josef K and Aztec Camera, for which we should be eternally thankful. Reading this conjures up much of the contrary, immature, spiteful fun they must have had in the process.
I’m not usually a sci-fi fan but Zero, the debut novel by Lancaster-based writer J.S. Collyer, is an awesome adventure of space pirates in a not too distant future. With characters you can’t help but fall in love with, this is the first of a series and I can’t wait for the next instalment.
The Bone Clocks is one of those books you wish you could read again for the first time. David Mitchell is a wordsmith of the highest order and this latest offering is quite possibly his best yet. A statement on mortality, mixed with a metaphysical thriller, I was blown away by the scale of this epic.
Written almost 50 years ago, John Williams‘s Stoner enjoyed a renaissance late in 2013 and I loved its gentle pace following the life of William Stoner. It’s a heartfelt peek into life in 1960s America and how we seek our own identity in the world.
Easily my favourite book of the year, The Long Song by Andrea Levy had my emotions all over the place. It’s a story about the life of a black slave in Jamaica and is surprisingly upbeat and funny, with a strong voice prevailing throughout. I particularly liked the fact that the main character is not wholly likeable – this cemented her humanity and heightened empathy towards her during moments of joy and devastating tragedy. I would also recommend listening to the audiobook version; Levy reads the story herself and her expression and accents bring the characters and humour to life.
After Dark by Haruki Murakami is unlike any book I’ve read before. Cataloguing events taking place during the strange dark hours of the night, Murakami explores a world of which many of us are unaware. Some are believable, some are fantastical, but all are captivating in their own way. The progression of time throughout the book is a key theme. The reader is encouraged to consider how some events are affected by earlier goings-on, and though this may sound a little complicated it’s a page-turner and one you’ll want to revisit.
Another unusual read is Hotel World by Ali Smith which focuses on the viewpoints of several women who are connected, however vaguely, with each other. As each section is written from a different perspective they each have different styles. You’ll need an open mind for this one. It isn’t in chronological order, and you may need a minute to adjust as the writing changes style, but it’s a great read.
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