As we approach the end of 2023, we’re looking back at the things that have brought us immense comfort during the year.

For the team at Northern Soul, books were once again a great source of joy, and we spent an awful lot of time with our noses buried in brilliant books. So, we asked our writers and lots of lovely literary folk for their Best Reads of 2023. Some of these books were new publications, some were titles waiting patiently on our shelves, and some were old favourites. It’s an eclectic list and one that we hope will inspire you. 


Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul

In 2023, I was late to the literary party. For the past few years, I have blithely dismissed Richard Osman‘s Thursday Murder Club novels as twee detective farces not worthy of my attention. I’ve also ignored Mick Herron‘s Slow Horses spy series, despite a slew of glowing reviews including from members of my own team. Now, as it’s Christmas, I turn to the words of Gonzo from The Muppet Christmas Carol who, while observing Rizzo the Rat fetching his jelly beans, says “you are such an idiot”. 

I am, I’m an idiot. Osman’s glut of books based in a retirement community are beautifully observed, gently delineated, and acutely funny. I picked the first book off the supermarket shelf with a sneer on my face, quietly disbelieving that anything this popular could actually be good. Within a few weeks, I had devoured all four Thursday Murder Club mysteries and was hungry for more. Similarly, with a smash-hit TV series under his belt and accolades left, right and centre, I was suspicious of Mick Herron’s ascending star. Again, I’m an idiot. 

The Slough House books are rare beasts: belting stories, melting pots of hugely unlikeable characters and vaguely more tolerable individuals, and fizzing narratives which lead to literary hangovers. Herron paints a grey, grimy, unpalatable world and yet convinces his readers to wallow in the shallows, treading water. Unputdownable. 

When I needed to swim to the surface, I dipped into Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries. Released in 2022, it’s not clear whether Rickman ever intended to publish his private entries. Nevertheless, here they are and with a foreword by Emma Thompson. It quickly becomes clear that Rickman worked hard and played hard, often jetting in from one film set or another to a seat at the theatre and a post-show dinner. But isn’t this why we love actors’ memoirs? We want to immerse ourselves in their world and rub shoulders backstage. Rickman’s entries are unvarnished and searingly honest. Given that many diarists so obviously write for posterity, Rickman’s unflinching observations suggest they were written only for him. Of course, this adds to the voyeuristic appeal, and, no doubt, to the publisher’s sales target.


Andy Murray, Film & Music Editor at Northern Soul

As far as reading material goes, your tastes and inclinations are, of course, liable to change from time to time. This year, for various reasons, I’ve been very much up for books that can make me laugh.
If you’ve dismissed the Alan Partridge books as tatty tie-ins, you’re missing a real treat. As with everything Partridge in recent years – This Time on TV, the From the Oasthouse podcast – the books are written by Sandbach brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons (alongside yer man Coogan), and they nail, even gently expand, the essence of Partridge. In Big Beacon, deploying a bold dual narrative, the Gibbons knit together the recent strands of Alan’s career, taking in hisThis Time comeback (and, um, comedown) and a suspiciously selfless endeavour to restore a lighthouse in Kent. Along the way, there are setbacks, big dogs and a little romance (yes, a full-on Partridge sex scene). It’s very funny.
Himself a regular Coogan collaborator (and This Time star), Tim Key is also one of the best stand-ups we have. His books about living through lockdown (He Used Thought as a Wife and Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush) were highlights of those dismal times, feeding into and supplemented by his recent life show Mulberry. His new volume, Chapters, again designed and published by Emily Juniper at Utter & Press, shows Key at the peak of his powers as well as being a beautiful little artefact in its own right. Even minus the pandemic hook, Key’s formula – his trademark poetry interspersed with footnotes and dialogues (co-starring Juniper herself) – remains engrossing and delightful.
Few were expecting the return of Matthew Holness‘s horror writer character Garth Marenghi, now as the author of actual books you can read. But fair play, TerrorTome is an absolute hoot. Holness’s real-life love and understanding of horror, and his gift for comedy, shines through, resulting in a book that feels authentic and thought-through (as well as very funny). Read it and understand the bittersweet hilarity of the phrase ‘Then Bruford exploded’. A enticing follow-up, Incarcerat, has just been published too, and odds on it’s just as marvellous.
(Honourable mentions in passing for Nigel Planer‘s collection of gently affecting poetry Making Other Plans, Bob Stanley‘s expansive Bee Gees biography Children of the World, and William L. Weir’s nifty little 33⅓ volume on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.)


Emma Yates-Badley, writer and editor

For me, 2023 has been a year of predominantly non-fiction reads, particularly memoir. I have hoovered up some extremely well-written, inspiring and candid reads from sprawling family sagas to beautiful nature writing and everything in between. But none has impacted me quite as deeply as Hermit: A memoir of finding freedom in a wild place, the debut offering from Jade Angeles Fitton.

The thing that most impressed me about Fitton’s writing wasn’t the deft place writing (although it is worth reading this book for the evocative and often dreamlike descriptions of the places she inhabits) but the honesty with which she writes. Fitton is generous with her storytelling in a way that feels almost like a friend is confiding in you. It’s not just a book about the experience of inhabiting wild places solo and what it means to be a hermit in the modern world (and if that’s even possible given the increasingly digitalised world we find ourselves in). It is also a story about survival, about overcoming the worst things that have happened to you, the things you think have the power to break you, and the recovery that somehow brings you back to yourself.

While I did read some fiction titles this year, they were mostly (if not all) by the same author. In January, I discovered the work of Barbara Kingsolver through a friend and somehow managed to consume most of her back catalogue, and even have time to wolf her latest masterpiece, Demon Copperhead (in four days while on holiday in Crete).  At 560 pages, this novel, like many of Kingsolver’s doorstep works, is not for the faint-hearted – but I promise it’s worth the time. The premise? A powerful (and at times hard to read) reimaging of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, which follows one boy’s struggle to survive in Lee County, located in the Appalachian Mountains, Virginia. Demon navigates neglect, love, loss, and a country ravaged by opioid addiction.

Other standout titles from Kingsolver include Flight Behaviour, The Poisonwood Bible, and Prodigal Summer.


Bernard Ginns, former newspaper editor and author of Outcast: Cook Versus The City

“Reality is not enough, we need nonsense too. Drifting into a world of fantasy is not an escape from reality but a significant education about the nature of life,” wrote the scholar Edmund Miller in Lewis Carroll Observed. It is a fitting epigraph for The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds, reissued in 2023 as a 10th anniversary edition with new footnotes from the author John Higgs who casts a retrospective eye of providence over his breakthrough book. Where to start? The KLF begins as the story of a British pop act who found commercial success with a series of rave-inspired hits in the late 80s and early 90s but freewheels into a wide-ranging examination of Discordianism – which is either a religious movement devoted to the Greek goddess of chaos and disorder or an elaborate prank – as the author tries to answer the question of why the artists Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty decided to burn a life-changing sum of money. Higgs’ diverting narrative is populated by a merry band of characters including post-punk musician Julian Cope, counter-culture guru Robert Anton Wilson, experimental theatre director Ken Campbell, JFK death conspiracist Jim Garrison, and graphic novel legend Alan Moore. The KLF is an illuminating dive into a series of 20th century rabbit holes and the deeper recesses of the noosphere in the company of an entertaining guide in Higgs, who gave up a career in children’s TV to devote himself to writing books about British history. A choice well made, and my book of the year. 


Rob Martin, journalist, author and Northern Soul writer

I’ve been a fan of the actress and writer Sarah Polley for many years but a recent viewing of her brilliant, Oscar-award-winning film Women Talking lifted me into obsession. Her book, Run Towards The Danger – Confrontations with a Body of Memory, is a collection of six remarkable essays, each relating to a past or present trauma in Polley’s life. Within each, there’s insight, discomfort (she goes to some dark places), wit, danger, and an honesty that is genuinely brave. It’s a compassionate, moving and compelling read that makes me want to consume everything Polley has ever written.

Fiction was taken care of this year via the latest Brett Easton Ellis novel, The Shards. I’ve loved his writing since I first read American Psycho back in the early 90s and this latest, his first novel in 13 years, does not disappoint. Again, Ellis mixes his own life with a made-up version making this unreal story of his time at high school and the impact of a serial killer on young Ellis and his friends as funny and horrific as his best work.

Finally, as someone who worked for Manchester International Festival for a couple of years, the book of photographs and essays documenting MIF’s output and influence pleased me enormously. Everything That Happened is a reminder of some of the extraordinary people, performances and works of art this event has brought to the region over the years. It’s a bit of a love letter to something I love, so I loved it.


Adam Farrer, author of Cold Fish Soup (Saraband)

2023 was an incredible year for books and had I the word count I would draw your attention to a good 30 of them. But I wanted to focus on three titles that I’ve exhausted myself recommending during the last year, because they each did something unexpected.

Noreen Masud’s A Flat Place is a hugely absorbing mix of place and life writing, exploring flatlands from Pakistan to Orkney. Weaving a personal narrative through a study of landscape is not unusual in memoir, but Masud’s deft, incisive, and understated analysis of self and our relationship to environments makes it a memoir like no other. It’s so frequently astonishing in fact that I had to take regular breathers to think about what I’d just read.

The title of Richard Smyth’s The Jay, The Beech and The Limpetshell: Finding Wild Things With My Kids presents it as a book about sharing the joys of nature with your children, and while it is about that it’s about so much more. Avoiding the more Fotherington-Tomas clichés of nature writing, it emerges as a moving, approachable, and absorbing study of a connection forged with the natural world. And it also finds a way to reference Calvin and Hobbes. If you were once a child who came home covered in mud, you’ll adore this book. Smyth is an underappreciated giant of British nature writing.

Karen Powell’s Fifteen Wild Decembers, a bewitching reimagining of the life of Emily Brontë, was perhaps the biggest surprise of the year for me. I have a passing knowledge of the Brontës and this isn’t the sort of book I expected to engage with, but I was sucked into the living, breathing world that Powell had constructed for the family. It’s a bold, perilous move to mess with beloved literary figures but it paid off. Immaculate, compelling and full of seemingly effortless lyrical flourishes, it deservedly found itself on the fiction shortlist for the inaugural Nero Book Awards.


Alfred Searls, author and Northern Soul writer

It’s May 1945 and, after nearly six years of total war, Germany is in ruins. Millions are dead and injured, millions more are homeless or displaced. The country’s infrastructure is shattered, its people defeated and broken, and the horrendous crimes of Nazi Germany exposed for all to see.

Harald Jähner’s remarkable non-fiction account of life in the years following the defeat of the Third Reich encompasses fascinating accounts of rampant crime and a black market of vast proportions, of love and a sexual revolution amid the rubble, of poverty and politics, and art and propaganda. Aftermath manages to be epic in terms of scale and thoroughly accessible.


Sarah-Clare Conlon, freelance writer, editor and author of Lune

It’s not every Nobel Prize in Literature announcement that sparks me to leap up from my lunch and punch the air, but hearing Annie Ernaux’s name last year did just that. The award followed shortly after the French author published Le Jeune Homme in her mother tongue – and it’s just come out in English as The Young Man, translated by Alison L. Strayer and published by indie press Fitzcarraldo. As with other Ernaux explorations of difficult situations, approaching the most personal of experiences almost completely disconnected, this telling of her affair with a much younger man is toe-curlingly good. If experimental hybrid creative non-fiction is your bag, then this slender tome is well worth a punt.

In March, I encountered, and became besotted with, Zoë Skoulding’s poetry at one of Manchester’s longest-running reading series, the Saturday afternoon avant-garde showcase, Peter Barlow’s Cigarette. All year, I’ve been drip-feeding her experimental 2020 collection, A Revolutionary Calendar, which comprises 360 five-line poems gathered into 12 sections of 30 poems each, to represent a new-style year introduced after the French Revolution. But forget the numbers! The words are awesome: carefully chosen, expertly placed; naming nature with a nod to its beauty and a worry for its future. I’m now making inroads into her latest, A Marginal Sea, published by Manchester-based poetry indie Carcanet in 2022, and it has everything I could ever dream of: playful language, concrete formats, marine birds and celestial bodies. ‘Unsingable sound / unsoundable song’ – what’s not to like?

Concrete Fields is Cumbria-born, Manchester-based author David Gaffney’s fifth short story collection. Published earlier this year in the new Modern Stories series from Salt (keep an eye on Blackwell’s bookshops for regular showcase events), it will stick with you long after you put it down. Those paying close attention may recognise The Garages from a previous appearance in the Joy Division-inspired anthology We Were Strangers, published by Manchester-based publishing house Confingo, and from various mesmerising readings around town. In it, a man becomes oddly obsessed with empty spaces; other stories share similar themes of weird yet almost normal behaviour, disturbances in the urban-rural edgelands and sometimes even downright supernatural shenanigans. Do ghosts actually lurk in The Country Pub, could The Table really trap its new owner in an alternative existence, can your own hands conspire against you? If you’ve ever wanted to get out of a camping trip in the Lake District, this could be the book to help.


Chris Holmes, Northern Soul writer

Let’s not beat about the bush, I’m a massive Stephen King fan. In my eyes, he can rarely do wrong. Often viewed with haughty derision by the be-scarfed literary set, his characterisation and ability to pull you into vivid, fantastical worlds while grounding dense narratives with characters you truly care about is rarely matched. Dickensian, even.

So I approached Fairy Tale with gusto, and was not disappointed. It is King’s take on the classic form – an unwilling hero, hurled into a journey of self-discovery following a tragedy, leading to a series of increasingly dramatic and dark tests. We all know the tropes, but with King nothing is workaday. For an author so prolific, I’m always staggered by how incredibly fresh each of his books feels. Here, the quality oozes from every page as you are drawn inexorably down with our protagonist, Charlie, into a world of mystery, wonder and horror.

King increasingly seems to be able to face his own alcoholism in the rear view mirror through his work. His superb sequel to The Shining dealt with this subject in detail, and, in Fairy Tale, alcoholism is once more the catalyst for much of the early narrative thrust. King also ensures that a sense of jeopardy is established before the true journey begins, making sure that the seeds of unease are planted in the reader’s mind before things take a more fantastical turn. And when the stakes start rising, they don’t stop. Without descending into cliché, King is an absolute master of his craft. There is no whimsy here. Willow this is not.

To say more would be to tread into spoiler territory so I shall finish by saying that, when Fairy Tale finally returns us to reality, it left this ‘constant reader’ (as King refers to his devotees) breathlessly wanting to start the journey all over again.


Kevin Bourke, journalist and Northern Soul writer

Despite recommendations from all sorts of trustworthy folk, somehow Amor TowlesRules Of Civility and A Gentleman In Moscow had remained stuck on my increasingly-lengthy ‘must get around to reading’ list. Then a visit to Holmfirth’s admirable Read independent bookstore encouraged me to buy and read his The Lincoln Highway, a compelling novel of transcontinental adventure and camaraderie. What a wonderful book this is – and what a fool I’ve been to not have previously succumbed to his earlier books.

I needed no encouragement to dive into City Of Dreams by Don Winslow, the sequel to his brilliant City On Fire. As his epic ‘Cartel’ trilogy proved, Winslow’s novels may be big but they’re lean and thrilling – not a word is wasted in this sprawling crime family saga. I can’t wait for the third part, City In Ruins.

Another crime writer who’s apparently incapable of putting a foot wrong is Mick Herron. This year’s The Secret Hours was billed, and worked perfectly well, as a standalone novel but the many admirers of his ‘Slough House’ series will have been intrigued by glimpses of characters and storylines from those books and amused by the allusions to not very well disguised contemporary political villains, some of whom might even now be slithering their shameless way around questions at the Covid enquiry. 

As I’ve observed before, any fans of crime fiction are sure to have a high old time at Harrogate’s annual Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and I’m unashamed to plug books by folk I met there as part of an utterly ad-hoc quiz team, on my very first visit and before they’d had anything published (apologies then to teammate Domenica de Rosa but ‘Elly Griffiths’ doesn’t need any help from me). So do check out She’s Not There, a real labour of love by F E Birch, as well as any of former Glasgow sports journalist Lisa Gray’s accomplished and thrilling US-set thrillers, and the remarkably diverse brace of thrillers from Susi Holliday.


Isabelle Kenyon, director of Fly On The Wall Press

In her bold new novel HeavenMieko Kawakami plunges into the raw innocence and resilience of two young minds being bullied for their physical appearances and poverty. They feel they can’t be friends in public as they may be subject to further bullying, which was painful to read – they communicate in tiny passed notes at school, and find resilience in each other.

I was stunned by a chilling discussion with the boy and one of his bullies as to why they torment others – they discuss why he isn’t special, why him being chosen to be beaten up on the daily is not a personal affront. I didn’t want to believe that, sometimes, perhaps there isn’t a rationale for children’s cruelty, rather a generalised outcry of energy/a status game against the weak.

These starkly realistic portrayals of bullying are balanced by textured exposition on the philosophical and religious debates around violence against the weak. Through the voices of her young protagonists, Kawakami explores profound questions about human nature and morality with simplicity and wisdom.


Danny Moran, journalist and Northern Soul writer

One treads carefully in reading or recommending from the ‘Tin Hat Adjacent’ shelf, but Tom O’Neill’s 20-year investigation into the 1969 Manson Family Tate-LaBianca murders, a project which began with the humble film hack being commissioned for a feature by Premiere magazine but which spiralled into a life-consuming, apartment-remortgaging saga which outlived the magazine itself, has found ways of edging into the mainstream since publication in 2019.

Having snuck into the broadsheet books pages and done the rounds of the saner podcasts – bolstered perhaps by its gestation story, the author’s background in conventional arts journalism and the strength of the sources presented in the text – CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties boasts the advantage of chiming with other tropes currently making hay in the rabid margins (CIA black ops/mind control). 

Offered a lead with respect to a story he had no prior interest in, O’Neill begins to unpick the official version of the killings – the Helter Skelter/race war narrative offered by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi at the trial and in his subsequent book of that name, which remains to this day the bestselling true crime title in history. It’s nothing new to suggest that Charles Manson may have known the Cielo Drive set rather better than was disclosed in 1970, and Bugliosi’s case is gradually exposed as the work of a combustibly fraudulent blowhard. What gets the author juiced, though, is that in the year before the crimes, the murder icon was repeatedly turned loose by police for parole violations which would have returned anybody else to prison.

Once upon a time, you could get lost in a book about a whole load of scarcely believable bollocks and become one with the mystery without having to self-consciously audit one’s personal relationship with the idea of ‘conspiracy’. If nothing else, O’Neill’s book offers the pleasure of stepping into that strange twilight, trying it for size, and being left with the author and his sense – he has a winning way of holding his hands up at the end of a blind alley – that a lot of it is probably, frighteningly, ball-park accurate. 

CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties is what books should be like: quixotic, concerned with big things, reaching for the stars, falling on its arse, wrestling with lightning.

Meanwhile, I’d long understood the classics of the true-crime genre to be the likes of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, without ever appreciating what a piece of work Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son is. If O’Neill’s page-turner is a great read then Gordon Burn’s book is great writing, a procession of mundanity which begins with the landscape of the North and ends with the trial of Peter Sutcliffe, also known as the Yorkshire Ripper. It’s a part of the region’s literary heritage. Few books in any genre nail the condition of northern-ness with such unsparing acuity. I’d never read Jane Eyre before, and took the chance to rectify that this year, but it was Burn a little more than Charlotte Brontë who led me to see the landscape afresh.


Robert Hamilton, Northern Soul’s Opera Correspondent and Man About Town

Despite all the predictions of Armageddon in 2023, it appears that we’re still here. So on with a short recount of my best reads of 2023. One of the highlights of my year was to be present at a Q&A with Thelma Schoonmaker at Manchester’s HOME who was fresh from editing Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. While I have yet to see the movie, I am reading David Grann’s book of the same name and on which the film is based. As the subtitle indicates, it is a book about ‘oil, money, murder and the birth of the FBI’. It’s a really good read, full of period detail and original photos of all the main players. It might even convince me to see the film.

Is there anyone in Manchester who hasn’t read Manchester unspun by Andy Spinoza? It’s an insider’s account of the birth of modern Manchester. Well-written and full of great accounts of the deals which built the city, I suspect that more bodies are buried in the narrative – but Spinoza might be saving them for volume two. I bought a copy at the launch and, while I waited patiently for Spinoza to sign it, I rifled the index in search of my name. Like many who did the same, mine was not there.

Finally, in light of the impending Armageddon, I have returned to being a teenage existentialist. I am currently ploughing my way through the novels of Sartre and Camus in the vague hope of trying to figure out what it all means and finally living life as a true existentialist. Pass the Beaujolais and another Gauloise, Simone.


Susan Ferguson, Northern Soul writer

For as long as I can remember, I have subscribed to And Other Stories which publishes mainly contemporary fiction with an emphasis on translated works. It’s a great way to discover new writers and new worlds. Phenotypes by Paulo Scott introduces us to the very real problems of race and racism that exist in modern day Brazil, told through the lives of two brothers whose father is black and whose mother is white. Federico is light-skinned and passes for white while Lourenço is dark-skinned. This feeds into the lives that they go on to live, the privileges they have or don’t have, and the way they tackle the political situations put before them. And it’s impossible to talk about this book without referring to the exceptional work of the translator (and author in his own right), Daniel Hahn. He has written an afterword which anyone with even a passing interest in language should read. 

How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak is an essay published by the Wellcome Collection. She wrote it during the pandemic but it is the sort of writing that becomes ever more vital. I re-read it after the awful events of October 7, 2023 to help to find a way through the unswerving polemics. It is a book full of optimism which reminds us to listen to all sides of the story, not to get lost in our echo chambers, and ultimately to believe in a kinder and wiser future.

Finally, were it not for the recommendation by two different people, I would never have picked up ‘Number 1 Sunday Times Bestseller’ Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. This is a story of love and friendship told through the prism of the world of gaming. In the same way that Phenotypes transported me to Porto Alegre, this book spanning three decades took me into an unfamiliar world of gaming. Using this backdrop, Zevin tells stories of otherness, love, creativity, success, failure, wealth, betrayal, birth, death and tragedy – but mainly friendship and acts of kindness. It swings backwards and forwards between the decades and, on finishing it, I wanted to go straight back to the beginning. Has it given me the gaming bug? 


Eileen Jones, journalist and author

Three wonderful women have enriched my life, and my bookcase, this year. I’ll start with Kate Rawles, one of the bravest and most adventurous women I have ever met. An environmental campaigner and fierce eco-warrior, she decided to cycle the length of South America – that’s 8,000 miles through the Andes – to find out why biodiversity is so important and what can be done to protect it. The bike, Woody, was hand-built with a frame made of bamboo grown at the Eden Project.

Saddle-sore and enlightened, she arrived in Cape Horn 13 months later. When safely back home, she decided to write about the adventure. The Life Cycle has twin aims: to tell a cracking good travel story, and to leave the reader with an enhanced understanding of biodiversity, the astonishing variety of life on earth, and why its future concerns us all. In a journey bursting with excitement and fraught with danger, her tales of ten-hour days in the saddle and nights spent wild-camping leave the armchair explorer exhausted with tension. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of narrative and background  – who knew that armadillos can cross a river by holding their breath?

But what dominates, page after page, is her irrepressible joy of life, her love of the people she met along the way, and the utter exhilaration of her adventure.

Katharine Norbury also explores the natural world, but does so through the eyes and the words of a host of wonderful women writers. Women on Nature is a gloriously encyclopaedic compendium featuring female writers from the 14th to the 21st centuries, and her choices are alphabetic. So our contemporary hero Amy-Jane Beer, the naturalist, writer and campaigner, whose own book The Flow: Rivers, Water and Wildness won the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, appears before Charlotte and Emily Brontë but after Jane Austen and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

It’s a beautiful and lovingly curated anthology, a treasure trove of nature writing with extracts, essays and poems from more than 100 women. Norbury is the author of one of the most haunting and lyrical books I’ve ever read, The Fish Ladder, which is the story of her search for the source of a river and for her own birth mother. Her own contribution here is, obviously, just curatorial, but even in the introduction there are strong hints of her delicious style, her wry powers of observation, and her understanding of life. 

And so, farewell, Ruth Galloway, the forensic archaeologist protagonist of a wonderful series by Elly Griffiths. The Last Remains  is the final story in a series of 15 crime novels, though for most of her devoted readers, the murders are secondary to the development of the fascinating relationship between feisty feminist academic Ruth and the unreconstructed, Blackpool FC-supporting police officer, Harry Nelson. Of course it’s unlikely, even impossible, but so is the notion of a detective’s friendship with a latter-day hippy called Cathbad. The genius of Griffiths as a writer is that she makes you fall in love with them all, relate to them, hunger for the next stage of the saga, and re-read them over and over again.


Damon Fairclough, freelance writer and Northern Soul contributor

During the summer, I spent a few idyllic days at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland. Remember those ‘Phew! What a Scorcher!’ weeks back in June? As I boiled beneath tropical sunshine on the festival’s first afternoon, I fell under the spell of Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet who was discussing his 2021 novel, Case Study. Presented as a genuine case from the files of a charismatic 1960s psychotherapist called Collins Braithwaite, the book is an ingenious and dryly hilarious probing of a young woman’s mind as she investigates the hold that Braithwaite may have had over her sister – who is, alas, now dead.

According to Burnet, some readers have assumed that Case Study is fact, not fiction, based on the scholarly manner in which he presents his made-up material. This assertion was borne out there and then at the festival by the whisperings of the couple behind me; they had read the novel and still seemed to think it was an account of events that really happened. And that, I swear, is the truth.

While my favourite fiction of the year may have been falsehood play-acting as fact, my other two best reads were both grounded firmly in reality – as perceived by their authors, at least, which as we’ll see, doesn’t mean their pronouncements aren’t fiercely contested.

First up is an unexpected charity shop find, a memoir called Sum Total by the sadly-departed journalist and broadcaster Ray Gosling. First published in 1962 when he was a precocious young writer, the book is Beat Generation literature filtered through the grime, grease and fag smoke of the English midlands. It may sometimes be a bit too Kerouac for its own good, but it is, nevertheless, an evocative conjuring of pre-Beatles teen Britain – a world in which rejecting a pre-destined working-class future was like attempting to turn back the tides. Although maybe it still is.

The other memorable memoir I read this year is made of much more up-to-the-minute stuff. I didn’t even wait for publication before shelling out cash for Graham Linehan’s Tough Crowd (subtitled How I Made and Lost a Career in Comedy), preferring to pre-order a signed copy direct to my door rather than trying to hunt it down in shops which aren’t always overkeen to put it on display.

It isn’t the first portion of the book that makes booksellers nervous, of course. In elegant, often very funny prose, Linehan talks us through his early career as a music writer through to his emergence as a master of the studio sitcom, most famously the mighty Father Ted. But then comes the incendiary bit as he describes the dramatic downfall that followed his outspoken defence of women’s rights and belief in the reality of biological sex. Such was the success he’d achieved as a screenwriter that his mauling at the hands of a brutal industry is all the more painful to dissect.

Others will think differently, I know that. They will believe he has brought the last few years of opprobrium on himself. But the book’s final third is a fierce and funny counterblast to that judgement. And such is the force of his argument, I suspect that, not too long from now, at least some of those performers, producers and TV commissioners who have disowned him will be deleting past tweets, revising their opinions, and pretending they always thought Linehan was right.


Henry Liston, journalist and Northern Soul writer

Picked off my bookshelf in mid-August years after it was purchased in Edinburgh’s Waterstones, one of my favourite reads this year was One Day by David Nicholls. This most perfect of love stories broke and inspired me in equal measure.

“It feels powerful to him to put an experience down in words, like he’s trapping it in a hat and it can never fully leave him.” So says Sally Rooney in her book, Normal Peopleproving that books are better than the TV series spin-off. And if anyone has any recommendations for funny, fluffy, tragically romantic tales, please send suggestions my way. I’m a sucker for them.