At Northern Soul, we can often be found with our nose buried in a book. As a team, we are notorious bookworms and are passionate about championing all things literary.
For some years now, we’ve been sharing our Right Good Mid-Week Read across our social media accounts. We’ve had a great response and, given how much we love reading, we’ve decided to launch a book club: Northern Soul’s Right Good Reads. Some of these books are new publications, some are titles which have waited patiently on our shelves, and some are treasured favourites. Here is the fourth instalment of Northern Soul’s Right Good Reads to expand your ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile.
So, make yourself a brew, grab some biscuits (our recommendation is a dark chocolate hobnob for extra dunk-ability) and feast your peepers on these great titles.
Coasting by Elise Downing (Octopus Books)
In 2015, Elise Downing announced that, at the age of 23, she would attempt to run 5,000 miles around the coast of Great Britain, carrying her kit on her back. Prior to this, the highlight of her sporting career had been running a marathon dressed as a Crayola crayon. A stranger to solo-adventuring and ultra-running, Downing embarked on a truly life-changing experience. What follows is a story of resilience, redefining the word ‘adventure’, and lots and lots of cake breaks. In August 2016, after 10 long months on the road, Downing became the first woman and youngest person to run a lap of Great Britain self-supported.
Coasting is Downing’s recollection of that journey, written a few years later using the journals and vlogs she’d created along the way. It’s more diary than memoir and, at times, I was left wanting to know more about what happened after she’d hung up her running shoes (I feel like the real juicy moments are glossed over and all the great, messy, human stuff is never explored). It seems like a missed opportunity but it’s a compelling read, nonetheless.
Downing has also amassed an impressive social media following, with people regularly snapping photos of her books out in the wild. Coasting charts a truly impressive feat and one that will certainly inspire lots of budding adventurers out there, particularly women. I’d recommend this book for fans of running and outdoor activities, but if the thought of donning a pair of running shoes and heading out into the world is enough to bring you out in a cold sweat, I’m not sure this book is for you.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (Little, Brown Book Group)
There aren’t many books that, halfway though, make you totally rethink every page you’ve just read. But that’s the genius of Sarah Waters, the author of many memorable works, not least her explosive debut Tipping the Velvet. It’s nigh on impossible to write a review of a novel which relies on a reader’s personal reaction to the narrative, and I certainly wouldn’t want to divulge any crucial plot points. Yes, you could watch the superlative TV adaptation starring the forever lambent Sally Hawkins, or perhaps sneak a peak at a Google summary of the plot. Don’t though. And don’t expect me to say anything other than read it, read it NOW.
The Reactor by Nick Blackburn (Faber)
I’m often drawn to non-fiction titles, particularly memoir, which explore ideas of grief, mental health and recovery. So I was instantly attracted to The Reactor, the debut memoir from Nick Blackburn, which is pitched as ‘a book about grief and repair’ and has a cover quote from Olivia Laing. Blackburn, who is also a therapist specialising in LGBTQ+ issues, wrote the book following the sudden death of his father. At first glance, this book immediately struck a chord. But while I wanted to love The Reactor, it mostly left me feeling disorientated.
“It’s a bit like reading jazz,” said a friend who’d read the book and also felt somewhat confused by its form and premise.
It’s not that the book isn’t good, it’s that I’m left doubting my ability to judge whether I think the book is any good. When I read experimental writing, which isn’t too often, I sometimes begin to doubt my own opinion. But like understanding contemporary art or learning to parallel park, maybe this is just another thing that I’m not smart enough to ‘get’. While I’m game for a challenging read, I’m not the biggest fan of literature that frustrates and leaves me feeling muddled and, well, a bit daft.
But I do like that Blackburn isn’t trying to sell a solution. He isn’t trying to make us feel better or coddle us through the stages of grief. We are on our own, in the aftermath of a nuclear reaction, just trying to make sense of it all. ‘She lies on the ground and she feels the carpet on the backs of her calves and beneath the palms. And she feels – completely – OK. Which is to say that the workings of grief are unconscious, invisible. Like radiation,’ he writes, and there’s something oddly comforting about that idea.
Read our full review here.
Almost Everything – Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott (Canongate Books)
I believe that we often attract the things we need the most – a film, a book, a conversation with the person you were just thinking about. And, during a time when the world feels sad and overwhelming, this book appeared to me as if by magic.
After a couple of weeks spent doom-scrolling before bed, I knew I needed to put down the phone and do something to extinguish my anxiety. So, I started leaving my phone in another room and picked up Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything: Notes on Hope instead. I’d bought the book months ago, but somehow it had made it to the top of the ‘to be read pile’ next to my bed. I don’t remember putting it there. But I’m glad that’s where it ended up.
This book works like a warm hug and a stiff drink. I felt both comforted and galvanised by Lamott’s words. She’s like a wise, funny aunt, one that has lived to tell the tale and is ready to help you hold on when you’re feeling adrift.
Lamott shows us that even when life feels bleak, we can find hope and wisdom. The book is divided into short chapters, so you can either read it in short bites or wolf it whole like I did. She writes: “Some days there seems to be little reason to hope, in our families, cities, and in our world. Well, except for almost everything.”
And slowly, I started to look for the good again. I began to focus on the humanity behind the headlines, reading tales of immense courage, and I began find ways that I could help. I credit Lamott’s words with reminding me that there’s so much good out there in the world, even if it can sometimes feel hard to find.
The Stasi Poetry Circle by Philip Oltermann (Faber)
If the past is, in L.P. Hartley’s endlessly quoted observation, a foreign country, then how much more disorientating must it be to attempt to find one’s bearings doubly lost, adrift both in the past and a foreign country? Philip Oltermann uses the specific, almost comedic, contradictions of a secret police force indulging its poetic sensibilities to prise open the cracks in history and, in doing so, to craft a guidebook to the East Germany of the 1980s. It might seem like the premise of fiction, but East Germany’s secret police really did convene a poetry circle, and this is their story.
While it’s accurate to observe that Oltermann frequently wanders outside the circumference of his titular writer’s circle, making connections on a tangent to it, these deviations often add depth and weight to the sphere they were constrained within, whether they draw attention to Dynamo Berlin, the Stasi’s own elite football team, or to the counterintuitive intelligence that homosexuality was decriminalised in East Germany a good five years before its western counterpart followed the D.D.R.’s lead into the right side of history.
Indeed, Oltermann’s achievement is in his eye for such details, ones which tell against the stereotypes of Cold War East Germany and allow the reader to look at it afresh. Much like a poet, you might say.
Read our full review here.
The Letters of John Keats
In the grand literary scheme of things, John Keats is best known for his poems. I have no argument with this, after all this is the 20-something who wrote Ode to a Nightingale, Isabella, or the The Pot of Basil, and To Autumn. I mean, how do you top ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun’?
But something happened to Keats which changed everything. People living in the 19th century were well used to communicating via letters but George Keats’s marriage to Georgiana and their subsequent move to America meant that correspondence was severely limited. And so Keats embarked on a epistolary endeavour with his brother, almost by accident.
You may think that some of Keats’s most famous phrases and ideas come from his poetry, but that’s not the case. Consider, for example, his concept of ‘negative capability’. His much discussed and much argued over understanding of the purity of uncertain truth was expounded on in a letter to George, as were many other thoughts which have since entered the popular lexicon, not least ‘O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!’ and ‘Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?’
This was a young guy who trained as an apothecary (a pharmacist) with a mind as bright as his Bright Star. He was incredible, even though some of his fellow Romantic poets didn’t think so (I’m looking at you, Byron). But when it came to Keats’s brother emigrating to the US, Keats’s misfortune was history’s gift.