Northern Soul’s Best Reads of 2016
There’s little doubt that 2016 was tumultuous, what with Brexit, Trump and the passing of all those lovely celebs. But it was also a cracking year for literature.
At Northern Soul, we did a lot of reading. Some of these books were new publications, some were titles waiting patiently on our bookshelves, and some were old favourites. Here are our 2016 reads to expand your ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile. You’d do worse than make it your 2017 resolution to read a few of them.
Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul
In 2016 I discovered that being late to the party isn’t such a bad thing. A literary party, that is. The sensation was akin to the time I stumbled across The West Wing. That wondrous, beautiful and ohmigodthisisthebestthingever experience when you realise there’s a series of such perfection and nuance that life suddenly seems worth living. And, being late to the party, you can box set-binge said show to your heart’s content.
While Josh, Toby and Leo are still my tele box friends, I admit to casting them aside in favour of Jasper Fforde. A prolific writer whose bio reveals that he traded a varied career in the film industry for ‘staring out the window and sucking the end of a pencil’, this guy is a genius. But I nearly didn’t read him at all.
A few months back, an old friend shoved The Eyre Affair into my reluctant hand. On the surface, it espoused everything I loathe in literature: it messed with the classics, claimed to be a detective story and hinted at the fantasy genre. But, in deference to my pal, I tried it. Since then I’ve read nothing else. I mean, I’ve really read nothing else. I scoured secondhand bookshops, trawled online for used volumes, and before long I had all seven of the Thursday Next novels. For good measure, I bought The Big Over Easy too, a spin-off focusing on the murder of Humpty Dumpty. And then I watched Sky’s adaptation of Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer. In many ways, this was a betrayal of everything I stood for when it came to literature. But I didn’t care. Fforde’s novels were a drug. I was binge-reading.
This heady period only came to an end when my Mum bought me Alan Bennett‘s Keeping On Keeping On for Christmas. Now, it may not be the done thing to nominate a book I’ve not yet finished for a read of the year but needs must. After all, Bennett only produces these thick volumes of diary, plays and commentary approximately every ten years; there’s so much packed into the hardback that just picking it up threatens RSI. But it’s worth the risk. In the book, for example, Bennett expresses frustration at the Radio 4 broadcast during which one of the commentators calls him ‘twee’. I can understand why the national perception might dub him thus, but anyone who opts for this description clearly hasn’t read Smut or seen Enjoy. I’ll just say this: opening a Bennett compilation is akin to slipping into a warm bath, albeit a bath with a glass of Scotch teetering on the rim and a scratchy towel hanging on the rail.
Earlier in the year, before I started hoovering up Fforde novels, I Saw a Man landed on my doormat. Although I’ve long admired Owen Sheers as a poet, I never thought to give his fiction a go. Then I read a newspaper review, and having interviewed Sheers a couple of years’ back, I thought, why not? I Saw a Man is Sheers’ fourth novel and, if it’s anything to go by, the previous three should be on my Amazon wish list. The story of a man struggling with bereavement, the book had added poignancy for me thanks to its setting. Perched on the edge of Hampstead Heath (much as I was during my early years in London), the protagonist befriends his neighbours. It’s an unsettling story of polarity, wanting to belong, and simply wanting. Read it if for no other reason than the lyricism on every page.
Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
For a book that was first published in 1999, Phil Scraton’s masterful Hillsborough: the Truth could hardly have been more relevant in 2016. This is a book that coolly and skilfully walks readers through the bright Sheffield sunshine of April 15, 1989 and into the pitch-black hell that followed; a hell constructed from concrete and steel, from 96 dead, from provocation and lies, and from the deadening silence of the cover-up. It is the book that first laid bare the process of ‘review and alteration’ that police statements underwent following the Hillsborough disaster, a revelation that should have rocked the establishment but which the authorities managed to sidestep until the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report in 2012 (of which Scraton was the primary author). And now, having been updated yet again following the Hillsborough inquests, it is the book that tells the full story, from tragedy and injustice through to the fans’ ultimate vindication.
Scraton has devoted many years to researching the disaster, fuelled no doubt by a fearsome urge to right the wrongs but also, surely, facing the ever-present possibility that those wielding power would win. If there’s any pleasure at all to be derived from reading this important yet heart-breaking book, it’s that they didn’t win. Hopefully, 2017 will be the year when accountability finally kicks in.
Of the other books I read this year, my two favourites were both about music. In Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany, David Stubbs tells the story of the wildly inventive strain of rock music that put down roots in Germany around the mid-1960s and flowered over the subsequent two decades. One of these bands, called Kraftwerk, went on to become one of the most influential groups in the history of post-war pop but, for the most part, the others were denied their rightful place in pop’s narrative thanks to the prejudices and shrunken horizons of the British and American music press.
Post-war Germany was a nation in which the underlings of Hitler’s regime – the local administrators and party members – were still in positions of power as judges, teachers, lecturers and the like. For the country’s youth, enraged by the older generation’s sudden amnesia about the recent past, it was a time to hit back against this old order and create new art forms that were distinctly German but gave no quarter to the national tendencies that had motivated the Nazis’ rise to power.
In the field of music, this meant rejecting Anglo-American conventions and starting rock music afresh, experimenting with structures, technologies and methods but without becoming academic or dull. Stubbs does a great job of tying these big themes and personal histories together, not to mention unifying bands and artists that could be stylistically very different. After all, ‘krautrock’ was never a genre, nor was it even a particularly satisfactory name (having originated as a British music press taunt), but in Stubbs’ hands, it becomes abundantly clear that whatever you choose to call it, this was some of the most exhilaratingly creative music ever made.
Of course, when it comes to giving pop music a quirky creative twist, Germany doesn’t have a monopoly. Russell Senior’s book Freak Out the Squares: Life in a Band Called Pulp shows how a stubborn Sheffield band emerged to give the world a space-pop-disco makeover during the often dispiritingly rockist Britpop years.
Senior was a member of Pulp from the back-rooms-of-pubs days of 1983 until 1997 when he turned his back on the band. The group may have been at the peak of its powers when he returned to the ranks of the common people but, with its career-defining album Different Class behind it, he sensed that the truly inspired years were probably in the past. However, having been something of a creative director within the group, often acting as self-appointed guardian of its drip-dry nylon aesthetic, he was far from being just another also-ran band member with a view from the sidelines. I get the sense that while Jarvis Cocker may have been the actual face of Pulp, Senior feels that he himself might have been the keeper of its day-glo soul.
I always suspected that the cool and inscrutable Senior would be able to tell an interesting tale about Pulp’s protracted rags-to-riches rise, and this book confirms that he is an elegant storyteller with an eye for the less obvious details. Pulp were never puritans, but in no way is this a regular pills ‘n’ powders rock biography. Instead, we cut back and forth between the band’s winding road to stardom and the triumphant reunion gigs of 2011, acting as witness to a story that’s more Silk Cut and Babycham than rock and roll babylon. But one that’s no less enjoyable for all that.
Wendy Pratt, Poetry Correspondent
In 2016 I returned to The Rialto magazine after a couple of years and was, again, incredibly impressed by it. Aesthetically it looks and feels like something you’d want to pay for, lovely tactile matte covers and striking, colourful designs. The poetry is often challenging, but always engaging and the quality is supremely high. There’s always a thought-provoking editorial. I genuinely looked forward to receiving it over the year. I’ve also been impressed with e-zine The Compass, which is one of those magazines I pop on to read a couple of poems to kick-start my day, and end up spending two hours reading.
Of the stack of poetry collections I found time to read in 2016, I can highly recommend Kim Moore’s The Art of Falling from Seren. I’ve been a fan of Kim’s since I read with her at the now, sadly, defunct, Poetry by Heart poetry nights in Leeds and picked up a copy of her If We Could Talk Like Wolves, which is also incredible. Her style is direct, she uses natural, powerful, song like rhythms and an uncompromising use of language, but not harsh. It never feels harsh, or brutal, rather it is striking, honest poetry. The poems are often on painful issues, dealing with physical and emotional abuse, but they are beautiful. Definitely one of those poets that make me want to work harder.
I’m also late to the party with Hannah Lowe’s Chick, which came out in 2013 from Bloodaxe. It’s incredible. She handles form so well and keeps surprising me with sonnets. She’s an inspirational poet; her poems are street scenes, family scenes, unworldly, ethereal, often dark, often funny, always beautiful.
For an absolutely stunning collection and another aesthetically pleasing publication, you can’t go wrong with Antony Dunn’s new work Take This One to Bed, with Valley Press. It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Dunn and this has been absolutely worth waiting for. Dunn is not afraid to weave a little surrealism and magic into his poems, and in this collection the poems are dropped like pebbles into still water, to ripple back against themselves, connecting and resonating.
And for something compelling and different, there is Keith Hutson’s Routines, with Poetry Saltzburg. Routines is a collection of sonnets based on music hall performers. They are so well crafted, so earthy and accessible, that even people who don’t like poetry love them. It’s because they’re funny, clever and touching well-crafted poems. Hutson is touring all over the place and is side-splittingly funny so see him if you can.
Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent
As an avid Nordic Noir fan, when TV or film runs out I turn to the printed page. As someone who found the Martin Beck television series a bit plodding, I began reading the ten-book collection by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Communist sociologists, they began writing Martin Beck as a way of examining the dark underbelly of Swedish society via the police procedural. They are the Mother and Father of Nordic Noir.
Andy Murray, Film Editor
They All Love Jack by Bruce Robinson is not going to be for all tastes – it’s a forensic look at the Jack the Ripper murders that’s knocking on for 900 pages. But what makes it so very readable is Robinson himself, best known as the writer-director of Withnail & I. Robinson is clearly enraged about the injustices at the heart of Victorian society. The tale is told with fierce intelligence and complete irreverence. It’s quite an undertaking, but if you can go the distance, it’s not unlike being harangued and educated by a very angry Withnail.
By no means a brand-new book (it was first published in 2004), Bloody Foreigners by Robert Winder felt well worth reading during 2016. Winder recounts the full history of migration to Britain in measured, purely factual terms, making it self-evident that, far being a threat to its existence, a lively cultural mix is what made this country so interesting in the first place. A point well worth making, then. Needless to say, the title is ironic, though that didn’t make it easy to read in public.
With his stand-up work, Stewart Lee does a fine job of chronicling life in contemporary Britain. Over the past few years, that has often involved feeling scared, lost and bewildered. Content Provider collects Lee’s occasional columns for The Observer during this tumultuous time. There is dark comedy gold here, though, as Lee, with his trademark blend of self-ridicule and self-aggrandisement, skewers the issues of the day. And not always the obvious ones, either: he covers the perils of giving up crisps for New Year, his time selling live maggots with Grant Shapps and the sad demise of Eddie Redmayne’s mobile phone. All told, it’s a belter.
And Alan Moore’s newly-published epic novel Jerusalem gets my vote for the Book-I-Wish-I’d-Found-Time-to-Read in 2016. I’m sure it’ll be brilliant.
Chris Park, Travel Editor
I love a good showbiz autobiography (yes, it’s a guilty pleasure) but Spectacles by Sue Perkins transcended the standard ‘look at me’ fodder in 2016. Perkins comes across as entirely wonderful and someone you would trip off on holiday with in a heartbeat. The way she shares her family with the reader is honest and endearing, so much so that you skim over all the celeb bits to get back to what her parents are doing and how they will react. Highly recommended.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara stayed with me for weeks after I read it. It might not be everyone’s idea of a holiday read but I was totally hooked when I went away last summer. It’s been ages since everything went on the back burner for a book. The characters that Yanagihara creates instantly wheedle their way into your heart and I found myself worrying about them when the book was closed. In fact, it totally ruined a trip to Valencia when I wished that the tourist bus would get a shift on so I could get back to my book.
Do you ever wonder whose footsteps you walk in? Historians tell us about the heroes of Manchester but what about the bad-uns? Crime City by Joseph O’Neill expertly brings to life the Victorian underworld of Manchester and there are some real gems in here. This will change a walk around town forever.
Stephen Longstaffe, writer
Rob Chapman’s 2015 Psychedelia and Other Colours is, in part, a scholarly history, tracing the 18th century origins of the psychedelic light show towards the West Coast psychedelia’s roots in 1940s avant-garde. There are fascinating forays into how the pioneering pop-culture scholarship of Nicolete Gray and Barbara Jones fed into the 60s’ Penny Arcade of Victorian typography and high-Empire ephemera. As well as being a brilliant cultural history, this is a breathtakingly original take on the 60s music you thought you knew. Instrumental surf music morphs in Chapman’s hands from macho physical Zen into proto-psychedelia.
My favourite novel of 2016 was Jenn Ashworth’s Fell. Set in the Morecambe Bay resort of Grange-over-Sands, Fell is a tender ghost story told by the ghosts themselves, Netty and Jack, who ran a guest house in the 1960s. They’re brought back into consciousness – and language – by the arrival of their daughter Annette, who has inherited the building. In telling the story as ghosts, Netty and Jack observe their own past lives, and in particular the shifting impact of Tim, a supernaturally charismatic stranger who seems to have the power to heal Netty’s terminal illness. The novel beautifully melds realistic narrative of both the 60s and the present day with disturbing incarnations, visions, and a haunting story-within-a-story.
Helen Mort’s second poetry collection, No Map Could Show Them, takes you into the mountains, often in the company of pioneering women climbers from the Victorians to the present. There is visionary nature writing: Black Rocks imagines Alison Hargreaves, who climbed Everest alone and died the same year descending K2, abseiling in the dark (‘and every rock/you pass might be/a face, hidden/by starlessness’).
Marissa Burgess, Comedy Editor
A re-read this one. A book so beautifully evocative and the voices so vivid that they stay with you long after closing the cover. I picked up a copy of Desiree Reynolds’ debut novel Seduce after hearing her read from it at a diversity event; it turned out she was at Bretton Hall in Yorkshire on the creative writing course at the same time as me, but in a different year.
Written entirely in patois, it is the day of Seduce’s funeral and the people of the small Caribbean island on which she lived gather to pay their respects and, in many cases, makes sure she’s gone. A disparate collection of voices give their take on the controversial woman’s life lived as a prostitute, mother and woman just trying to get by in a community where church and sin collide.
Given I now have family in the States, and despite the recent catastrophic events in American politics, I’m continuing my exploration of US literature and history. In this case, it’s a book by Gore Vidal. In the first of his Narratives of Empire series, rather than focusing on the somewhat dull Washington, Vidal chooses the far more interesting founding father Aaron Burr. During his life, Burr was an officer in the continental army fighting for independence, served as Jefferson’s vice president in his first term of office, was a New York senator and an all-round controversial figure.
Back to the Caribbean with Andrea Levy’s The Long Song. I’d been meaning to read another of Levy’s novels since enjoying the excellent Small Island which explored the experience of Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s, and the extraordinary prejudice that greeted them in the UK. The Long Song heads further back into Jamaica’s brutal colonial history following the story of July, a woman born into slavery. The daughter of a cane cutter who barely has time to stop and give birth, July is taken to work in the plantation house where she has a child by her master, but subsequently finds herself cast out to seek her own survival. The novel painfully captures the horrors of slavery, and conjures in the reader an incredulity that humans can be this cruel to their fellow beings in the name of land and profit.
Jeff Prestridge, writer
I am annoyed that it has taken me so long to discover Georges Simenon outside of Maigret. His books are masterly – looking at issues we don’t often like to discuss: deceit, betrayal, victimisation, extra-marital sex. The Hand was the trigger for the National Theatre’s Red Barn production in 2016. It was also the trigger for me reading a number of other Simenon books – including the Blue Room and the Mahe Circle. Given he was writing in the 1950s and 1960s, his books were way ahead of their time. They are addictive and as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.
Jack Stocker, writer
I’ve read Rivers of London several times before, most recently as little as 18 months ago. But I moved house recently, and when I unpacked, I found it sitting on top of a suitcase, staring at me. How could I not? Rivers of London is an intensely British book. The author, Ben Aaronovitch, is fascinated with the history and geography of London, and expresses that by weaving historical vignettes and trivia seamlessly into his narrative. Aaronovitch cleverly uses real-life events, architecture and even bureaucratic structures as the basis for his fantasy universe, lending it a unique sense of authenticity.
The story’s protagonist is Peter Grant, a mixed-race constable in ‘that organisation known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Force, and to everyone else as the Filth’. Grant’s distinct narrative voice is a large part of the story’s draw – he is witty and sarcastic, but still embodies the characteristics of hard work, strong morals and politeness-at-any-cost that are the staples of British culture. Grant isn’t necessarily brave, but his personal morals combine with his police training and a natural impulsiveness to place himself in situations where he’s frequently called upon to commit heroic acts. He doesn’t always succeed, but always tries to do the right thing, and that’s what makes him so fascinating.
With Grant as a mouthpiece, Rivers of London thoroughly embraces the image of a modern, multicultural Britain. Among celebrating the history, geography and people of our great isle, the book is also not afraid to take some sidelong pot-shots at the uglier aspects of our national culture, such as classicism, snobbery and racism – but all with a cheerful touch of humour and self-awareness. It’s not all perfect, it seems to say, but we love it anyway. In this, Rivers of London is not only a great read, but makes you proud to be British.
You can check out Northern Soul’s best reads from 2015 here
Main image: John Rylands Library by Chris Payne
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