Books: Best Northern Reads (Part One)
Where would we be right now without books? For all my enthusiasm to gobble up the latest series of Brooklyn Nine-Nine or bingewatch The Tiger King (if you haven’t given into the hype, then do so immediately), the only thing that quells my internal anxiety and settles my soul is reading. There’s something reassuring about the weight of a book in my hands and the steady back-and-forth of lines on the page. When we’re feeling clipped and stifled, books allow us to fly.
Northern Soul asked our writers and lots of lovely literary folk for their Best Northern Reads. We kept the criteria simple: a Northern Read can be anything from a Northern writer to a book about the region or even a brilliant publishing company located up North. It’s an eclectic list, one that we hope will inspire you to pick up something new, support the local literary industry but, mostly, offer you some respite from lockdown feels. Here’s Part One.
Desmond Bullen, Northern Soul writer
In days that can seem desolate and uncertain, there’s a lot to be said for windows into a better world and, ultimately, joyfully, that is exactly the view that The Night Brother by Rosie Garland affords. Not that its window seat is cheaply achieved. Far from it.
Rooted with disbelief-suspending specificity in Manchester at the end of the 19th century, Garland’s novel blossoms compellingly from the exquisite simplicity of its central conceit, one which owes the tiniest debt to the 1971 horror film Dr. Jekyll And Sister Hyde. Edie and her brother Gnome are joined in a very particular symbiosis, so that their singular sibling rivalry threatens to be the undoing of both. Themes that could be leaden in other hands emerge from the premise with a beautiful lightness of touch, developing into a persuasive fable of inclusivity and self-acceptance. This is a book that sings a rainbow at its end.
Supper Club is a brilliant book by Manchester author Lara Williams (winner of The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize in 2019). It follows a group of women who hold a monthly supper club that becomes an outlet for subversive ideas and female freedom. It also contains some of the finest food writing you’ll ever find, with mouth-watering recipes dotted throughout.
The novel explores fascinating topics: the pressure we put on ourselves as women with food, weight, friendships, relationships, and does so intelligently and intimately. It’s dark and twisted, funny and delicious, just like the striking cover. I can’t wait to read more from Lara.
Chris Holmes, Northern Soul‘s Gaming Editor
As a huge horror fan with the memory of a goldfish, my best Northern read is my most recent, The Scarlet Gospels by one of Liverpool’s finest exports, Clive Barker. There may be higher profile works by Barker but Gospels hits the spot as his first adult horror in 15 years, providing an epic, shocking finale to the character arcs of his two most iconic characters: the Cenobite Hell Priest, unaffectionately nicknamed Pinhead, and the reluctant supernatural PI ripped straight from a noir, Harry D’Amour, as they face off in the underworld.
Chock-full of the brutal and fantastic, this novel is Barker at his most visceral, and his playful evocation of Hieronymus Bosch lingers long after you turn out the light. While Barker is sometimes overlooked in ‘Best Of’ horror lists, The Scarlet Gospels is a master of the genre on top form, providing an unforgettable finale for Pinhead and D’Amour as he brings Hell itself to its knees.
Andy Murray, Northern Soul’s Film & Music Editor
The most impressive piece of fiction I’ve read in a long, long time is Adelle Stripe’s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile. An extraordinarily evocative fictionalised account of the life and tragic early death of Bradford’s Andrea Dunbar, it conjures up the innermost thoughts and feelings of the working class playwright of Rita Sue and Bob Too, to highly moving effect.
Very different, but every bit as vivid, is Julian Cope‘s Liverpool memoir Head-On. The prose fair fizzes from the page as Cope tracks his transformation from relatively sober young music fan to freaked-out, drugged-up Top of the Pops regular in his capacity as The Teardrop Explodes’ frontman.
And it’s probably cheating, but for sheer escapist entertainment value I recommend I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan, the best autobiography of an Anglia-based, ‘sports casual’-clad broadcaster ever to have been written by three lads from the north (Sandbach’s own Neil and Rob Gibbons and yer man Coogan). No tatty TV tie-in, this: it’s expertly done, full of well-crafted detail and genuinely very funny. Partridge’s haughty dismissal of Clive Anderson’s career as a barista still makes me chuckle.
With small businesses facing immense challenges as a result of Covid-19, it’s more important than ever to support independent publishers. Bluemoose Books are a tiny husband and wife team operating out of Hebden Bridge who punch well above their literary weight with a raft of shortlistings and wins for top prizes. Published this month, I’m looking forward to Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught, though the novel I’m recommending is Sharon Duggal’s The Handsworth Times.
Set in inner-city Birmingham in the early 1980s – a time of mass unemployment, racial divide and riots – it paints a colourful, touching portrait of the Agarwal family and a community that ultimately pulls together in the face of tragedy. A story of transition, loss and hope, it seems to me to be a perfect read for our times.
Short story collections tank when their characters—old, young, rich, poor, man, woman, animal, vegetable, mineral—end up sounding like the authors who scratched them into thin existence. Russ Litten’s We Know What We Are (2018, Obliterati Press) does not commit this sin. The voices in his 15 stories snarl, bellow, croon and cringe through a vision of contemporary Hull bearing little relation to the one recently given sparkly but essentially meaningless ‘City of Culture’ status.
What I love here is that Litten takes the everyday (a troubled kid waiting for Chinese food, a stoned father ballsing up Christmas, two lovers in the aftermath of a terrible assault) and holds it up at fresh angles to the light. Tenderness and optimism are revealed in the most surprising of places. He can also be very, very funny. The character of Rawlings—misanthropic spud deliveryman in the story The Last of the Redskins—is the single greatest bit of grotesquery I’ve read in years; think every belligerent old-timer in every clock card job you’ve ever had, distilled into one tooth-picking, capital punishment-advocating bastard. He is a monstrous, obsidian black comic masterpiece.
Danny Moran, Northern Soul writer
I’m going to sell you a rabbit hole, only you’re not going to want to come out of it. Passing Time (1956) by Michel Butor isn’t the easiest book in the world to get into, but once you’re there the extent of its mysteries is such that you could expend a long lifetime trying to figure them out. Quite appropriately, in fact, because perhaps the one thing which can be said about the novel with any certainty is that it’s about how we look at life, and how we somehow regard it erroneously.
It’s the great Lost Mancunian Novel, written by a young French academic who came to teach at the university in the 1950s having lived through the unspoken night-time of wartime Paris, and – more recently – the burning sun of north Africa. In Manchester he found darkness, damp and ash overlaid on the disintegrating remains of what had been the first industrial city. A city like a labyrinth which the novel evokes with the name ‘Bleston’, where a young Frenchman takes up a position as a clerk. Somehow the city seems to oppress him. He can’t escape it. He is regarded suspiciously. Fires break out. He falls in love but his love is unrequited. He meets a man who has written a detective novel, The Murder of Bleston, and becomes suspicious that a real murder is being concealed. To make sense of these things he begins a diary, meticulously recording the events a full seven months after they occurred.
In circles of spiralling prose – the sense of poeticism with which the novel unfolds is unmistakably Proustian – Butor sets out an enigma which is never resolved. Is the city alive? Is our hero a psychopath? Is there something we’re not being told? Or is there a fault in the mechanism by which we relate meaning time to time? At first reading you may end up none the wiser, save for the sense of having been led by poetry through a labyrinth of the mind.
Compiled by Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.