As we approach the end of 2020 and look back over the past 12 months, it’s hard to be optimistic. But we can reach for the things that spark joy and provide solace. For the team at Northern Soul, books were a great source of comfort in 2020 and we did an awful lot of reading. Some of these books were new publications, some were titles waiting patiently on our shelves, and some were old favourites. Here are our 2020 best reads to expand your ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile. Maybe some of them will bring you a sense of comfort too.
Helen Nugent, Editor
As 2020 ground on, I slowly realised that my concentration levels were waning and that reading – my greatest pleasure in life – was becoming difficult. And so, in a world where reality was bone-crushingly awful, I reached for the storytellers. I needed stories, I longed for parallel universes where a global virus wasn’t tearing everything up. And I wanted can’t-put-you-down-even-if-it’s-3am books written by authors who know how to tell a bloody good tale. If you believe that novels offer an escape while reminding us of who we are, you’ll understand why storytellers are the heroes of 2020.
And so I devoured Lisa Jewell. She started out as a rom-com author and, in recent years, has morphed into something entirely different. I’m not sure her later novels fit into easy categories but, my god, she knows how to shape a story, how to craft characters that embed themselves in your subconscious, and how to keep you feverishly turning the pages into the early hours. I’m an early devotee but so far I can recommend Watching You and The Third Wife.
Then there’s the Canadian author Louise Penny, whose latest Chief Inspector Gamache thriller, All the Devils Are Here, was published in 2020. In a year when community meant more than ever, her series of detective novels focusing on a tiny and close-knit village in Canada struck a particularly resonate chord. I gobbled up her book in two days.
And John Grisham whom I’d consigned to the ‘you were once brilliant and wrote about women really well but now you don’t’ imaginary pile. It was with a certain reluctance that I accepted A Time for Mercy, the latest instalment in his A Time to Kill series, from my mum. I don’t do well with books made into films if I haven’t read the novel previously, preferring to conjure up my own ideas of the characters’ faces and nuances. And, let’s face it, the Time to Kill movie knocks it out of the park. You only have to see a few frames before you’re sweating like Matthew McConaughey and wishing you’d packed a spare linen shirt. But, in A Time for Mercy, Grisham’s genius kicks in. McConaughey’s matinée idol good looks fade gently into the background and this remains: a superlative storyteller at the height of his powers. Glorious.
Emma Yates-Badley, Deputy Editor and Literary Editor
Back in March, I lost my love for reading. It was the start of the first COVID-19 lockdown, chaos permeated the air and I found it difficult to concentrate on anything that required real thinking power. Books were out, and streaming old 90s teen dramas on Netflix was all I could handle. But then summer came, the nights got lighter and time spent under a blanket in front of the idiot box was replaced by quiet evenings in the garden engrossed in a good read. I was incredibly relieved.
The first book that helped to rekindle my love affair with all things bookish was Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I absolutely adore Ngozi Adichie (her novel Half of Yellow Sun is one of my favourites) and Americanah did not disappoint. Following the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, who are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West, it’s a powerful, tender story of race, identity and love which spans decades and continents. I felt incredibly sad when I turned the last page of this beautifully written tale, so I immediately ordered Purple Hibiscus, her first novel, and proceeded to wolf that down with the gusto of a professional competitive eater.
Another of my favourite reads from 2020 is Girl, Woman, Other, the Booker Prize 2019 winner by Bernadine Evaristo, which follows the lives and struggles of 12 distinctly different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers across the country and through the years. It’s an extraordinarily clever book and written in such rhythmic prose that it’s almost song-like.
I also loved The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri which follows the life of Nuri, a beekeeper, and his wife Afra, an artist, as they flee the Syrian city of Aleppo when it’s destroyed by war. It’s a hard read and left me in floods of tears during particularly gruelling moments in the narrative, but it’s an important one nonetheless. The Beekeeper of Aleppo was born out of Lefteri’s time working as a volunteer at a UNICEF-supported refugee centre in Athens which makes it all the more poignant.
I seem to have also hoovered up a fair amount of non-fiction over the last six months including The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson, an exploration of the human body, how it functions and its remarkable ability to heal itself, and Life in Pieces by Dawn O’Porter. I’ve always loved O’Porter’s humorous musings on Instagram and this collection of daily diary entries penned during the early months of lockdown is a great read for those who have felt a little thrown off course during 2020. It covers the big things – love, family, grief – but, in typical O’Porter style, it also looks at bad hair days, snaffling a fair amount of weed gummies, and a whole lot of cooking. Funny, frank and full of relatable moments.
But the stand-out non-fiction title has to be Untamed by the wonderful Glennon Doyle. Part inspiration, part memoir, the book explores the joy and peace we discover when we stop striving to meet the expectations of the world. It was perfect food for thought during an unprecedented period of time when I was able to slow down and re-evaluate my life. Author and researcher Brené Brown referred to the book saying “wake up! I love you” and it’s the perfect description. Doyle’s latest offering gives everyone a much-needed kick up the bum, but also welcomes you with open arms.
Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
My last social event before lockdown was a theatre trip, but sadly, nights spent in darkened auditoriums have been lacking since then. Reading Modern Playhouses by Alistair Fair made up for it a bit though. As an architectural history of Britain’s post-war theatres, it’s less concerned with those who trod the boards than the stuff those boards were made of, but if you’ve ever wondered how so many concrete cultural temples came to be built in the plazas and precincts of our post-war world, Modern Playhouses has all the backstage buzz.
I’m not acquainted with its author, Alistair Fair (OK, we share half a surname), but my other two choices are both by people I know. I usually try and avoid reviewing friends’ work, but I’m afraid nothing else this year entangled my soul quite like these two whisperingly wonderful books.
Ghost Town by Jeff Young is billed as ‘a Liverpool shadowplay’, which hints at the overlapping layers of Mersey-scented memory that pass across its pages. Few cities weave myth, magic and melancholy into their self-told stories quite like Liverpool, and Young transforms this entrenched civic tendency into a memoir fit for a misty port city of the mind.
Like Young’s book, Kokomo by Victoria Hannan springs from some deep thinking about family relationships, but whereas Ghost Town flickers like a poetic magic lantern, Hannan’s debut novel is sharply focused contemporary fiction in which love and obligation come face to face. As it tells the story of a young Australian woman suddenly plucked from her busy London life and deposited back home in Melbourne, its narrative feels sparky enough. But once it twists to reveal a previously shadowed character, that’s when the power of Hannan’s storytelling really hits home and Kokomo leaves its imprint on your heart.
Andy Murray, Film and Music Editor
Like most of us, I suspect, my habits have been very changeable this year. There have been times when I’ve just not been in the mood to read. Podcasts have come in handy here, my 2020 favourites being Alan Partridge: From the Oasthouse and Funky Si Wolstencroft’s A-Z of Manchester.
At other times, though, I’ve wanted to do nothing but disappear into a book. In that respect, John Cooper Clarke‘s memoir I Wanna Be Yours didn’t disappoint. As funny as the man himself, it’s candid and hugely evocative. And I think Alan Garner’s Where Shall We Run To? is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read, a beguiling series of autobiographical snapshots from his childhood in Alderley Edge during and just after World War Two.
As for fiction, Robert Shearman’s extraordinary We All Tell Stories in the Dark is a labyrinthine collection of 101 short stories that you’re guided through in the manner of a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book. There’s a sense of melancholia marbled through it and the subject matter – from love, language, faith and death to food, parties, balloons and the fate of Snoopy – is wide and wildly imaginative. It’s a remarkable read.
Chris Park, Northern Soul writer
When I saw Lady Glenconner on Graham Norton, I was determined to read her book, Lady in Waiting. She didn’t disappoint. You’d think being Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting would be enough, but we go deeper into her life including her son contracting AIDS in the 1980s, her other son battling drug addiction, and her difficult relationship with her husband. Lady Glenconner’s humour shines through and it’s a fascinating insight into a world we usually only see in The Crown.
Leonard & Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession is a beautiful story of two kind men who struggle with their place in the world. Their friendship helps them to overcome life’s obstacles like losing parents, finding love and pushing for acceptance. This year has been difficult for all of us but to lose yourself in this feels like chocolate cake for the soul.
In The Foundling by Stacey Halls, we find ourselves in a brutal London of the 1700s. Bess leaves her baby at the Foundling Hospital. It takes her six years to save enough to claim her back. She arrives to find the child was claimed the day after she left her. We see the story through the eyes of two very different women and it keeps you guessing until the very end.
Desmond Bullen, Northern Soul writer
More than his actual novels, Les Dawson’s autobiography, A Clown Too Many, suggests the kind of novelist he wanted to be and, with the right editor, could well have been. Reining in the weakness for a quick gag or an easy pun that often compromises his published fiction, he displays a real eye and ear for the telling moment informed by empathy that ensured there was never any actual malice in his humour. Indeed, this is the two-word philosophy, borrowed from a blinded miner, that steers him from the terraces of Collyhurst to the Palladium stage: ‘Be kind.’
Kindness is in notably short supply in Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts, a debut cocksure enough to grind the tropes of a certain kind of contemporary literary fiction like an exhausted dimp beneath its killer heels. Its black heart is Irina, a protagonist as much of her times as dead set against them. To unpick it into its constituent influences would both do it a disservice and hint at its logical conclusion. It’s better, then, to observe that Clark’s voice is distinctive enough to deserve being read on its own undoubted merits.
Jake Murray, Northern Soul writer
I have always loved D.H. Lawrence. I first came across him at university and the first two books I read – The Rainbow and Women in Love – were like nuclear bombs going off in my head. For the first time, I was reading someone who wrote about life as I experienced it. The energy and the passion were indescribable. The imagery was extraordinary, especially in Women In Love, which seemed to base every chapter around some central image: a man throwing stones into a moonlit lake, an African statue, a party in which everyone is caught in the light of a Chinese lantern, a letter read aloud in a fashionable restaurant, an icy mountain.
Reading Sons and Lovers last, I felt it was a poor relation to the other two, probably because it was written first and so stylistically it seemed more traditional. At the height of COVID-19 I decided to look at it again. It blew me away, just as the others had done. Thirty years on, I can appreciate it better. Sons And Lovers is the first great working class industrial novel written by someone from a working class background in English. The language is amazing, the evocation of a Nottingham mining family and its world is so vivid you can inhale the smells and see everything in your mind’s eye as if it were real.
I also ound myself moving away from my familiar poetry comfort zone and started to branch out into poets I had never heard of or read. Denise Levertov was one of those poets. Reading her work was inspirational. It is beautifully humane, sensitive, spiritual and mystical but also very much involved with the world as we experience it. Her language is almost see-through it is so simple and unobtrusive, almost like piano music, or as close to the subtlety of silence as you can get.
When I told my brother that I was going to read A Journal of A Plague Year, his response was ‘are you mad?’ But it was reading Defoe’s brilliant piece of fictional reportage that helped me get through the worst of COVID-19. Why? Simply because everything in Defoe’s book has its mirror image in what we have been going through this year. The pattern is exactly the same: the first traces of the illness appearing from overseas somewhere in London, nations closing their borders to prevent the disease spreading, quarantines and lockdowns and then, more eerily, the same story of economic collapse of the service industry, the same refusal among some to observe any kind of health and safety measures, the same bailing out of populations by the authorities, the same bravery of front-line health workers, many of whom died trying to save lives, even the same daily presentation of death tolls for the public to know what is happening.
Sound depressing? It really isn’t. Defoe didn’t live through the plague, but his grandfather did. He grew up hearing stories about it and decided to make some money writing a book assembled from meticulous research about it. The result is an absolute masterpiece, an utterly gripping read. Defoe’s masterful prose means the terror going circling the narrator never induces panic. What helped was the way the book helped me get a handle on what was happening during COVID-19. We weren’t in uncharted territory. Everything had happened before, and we came through. A Journal of A Plague Year helped me to find my bearings.
Mark Connors, Northern Soul writer
The Forward Book of Poetry 2021 was particularly strong this year and a great year for young women. Caroline Bird (the eventual winner), Ella Frears and Martha Sprackland all made some of the most notable contributions, with poems ranging from the surreal and raunchy to juxtapositions between personal contemporary issues with wider historical associations.
My novel of the year was Richard Powers’ masterpiece, The Overstory. I was a little late to this tree party (it was originally published in 2018), but it’s a magnificent read. The story involves nine Americans and their various life experiences with trees, be it via personal relationships or through political activism. The Overstory also tells us the understory, pretty much everything you need to know about trees but were afraid to ask from how they communicate through roots and networks and how stronger trees provide life-saving nutrients to other trees when they fall sick. A fascinating read.
Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent
In 2018, I took myself off to Lyon to eat for three days. Initially, I was going to go to Paris but after some research (and costings) I decided on Lyon. The flight was cheaper as was the hotel. But the thing that convinced me was an episode of the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown where he went to Lyon, “the culinary capital of France”. He spent some time with Bill Buford, an American in Lyon. Buford had been the editor of The New Yorker and Granta before moving to Lyon with his family to learn how to be a chef. He planned to stay six months but ended up staying for five years. The result of his experiences is Dirt: Adventures in French Cooking and my best read of 2020.
It is a witty and well-written account of his move from New York and his immersion into the hard and uncompromising world of the Michelin-starred restaurants of this beautiful city. He works his way up from Bob’s boulangerie, baking bread for the cafés of Lyon, getting to know the right people before studying at L’Institut Bocuse (named after the best chef in France) and working on the line in some of the best places in town. It’s a brilliant read and, as the restaurants in Manchester are still closed, it was the closest I’ll get to a good lunch. Because of Buford’s book I’m saving up to go back to Lyon.
Kevin Bourke, Northern Soul writer
With sales going through the roof, I’m evidently not the only person to have been reading a lot of crime novels throughout this benighted year. One of the finest is A Song For The Dark Times, the 24th book in Ian Rankin’s best-selling Rebus series. Despite its portentous title, it was, he told me as publication loomed “finished pre-COVID-19, at a time when all sorts of things were happening that were making the world seem an even uglier place. So ‘the dark times’ as I envisaged them was a time of Trump and Brexit, a time of political extremism that I thought was about as dark as it was going to get. I certainly didn’t know then that COVID-19 was around the corner and everything was going to get even worse.”
Rankin isn’t the only crime writer to have pointed out that, along with the pleasure and entertainment to be had from a gripping plot set within a reassuringly familiar formula in a world where justice might actually triumph, the crime novel can equally be the perfect vehicle for a discussion of contemporary issues. Fresh, authentic and gritty as well as thought-provoking, The Man On The Street, the debut crime novel from Newcastle-based Trevor Wood, is centred on Jimmy Mullen, a homeless veteran, grappling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and living on the streets of Newcastle. One night, he witnesses a murder but he’s so far beneath most people’s radar that nobody believes him. The book won this year’s Crime Writers Association John Creasey New Blood Dagger, one of the genre’s highest accolades, and an equally thrilling second adventure for Jimmy, his dog (only called ‘Dog’) and his growing band of irregulars, One Way Street, appears in print March next year. Although thanks to the vagaries of publishing combined with a worldwide pandemic, it’s already available as an e-book and audiobook.
Just published, Don’t You Want Me by Manchester-based author Richard Easter is an imaginative and immersive crime thriller set in 1981 and loaded with musical references to the time. New Romantics dress up the pop charts and rioters take to the streets, as the media obsesses about a Royal Wedding and an elusive serial killer roams the streets of London. It’s as compelling as it is clever.
Not a crime thriller but a really great read (especially if you’re a film fan) is Jonathan Coe’s beguiling Mr Wilder & Me. Both a coming-of-age story and an affectionate portrayal of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, complete with some terrific Wilder witticisms, it’s a compassionate and warm-hearted portrayal of ageing, creativity and cultural change.
Stephen Lucas, Northern Soul writer
Polari, the innuendo-heavy ‘language’ spoken by ‘mainly’ working class gay men in 1930s to 1960s Britain, is lovingly spotlighted by Paul Baker in Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language. It’s the Lancaster University professor’s embrace of Polari’s complexities and messiness that makes this book such a bona read. And what a denouement. After an undignified death, the language enjoys a fabulous afterlife that peaks in Manchester.
Bluets is Maggie Nelson’s meditation on the colour she’s sick with love for. Shot through with bone-dry humour, it’s academic in its rigour but tips more towards poetry. The paragraphs (bluets?) that the book is divided into are like little touchpapers that start to fizzle when you finish reading them. I spent a lot of time stopping and staring into space (in a good way) as I read this.
Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales is my last choice. Just wow. Jackson crashes already dark scenarios into new circles of hell with the most whispery sleights of hand in these stories. Via the grammar of the closing line of The Man in the Woods, for instance, she somehow makes the protagonist’s already bleak situation heart-poundingly worse. “She writes not with a pen but a broomstick,” says one cover blurb. Hmm.
Karen Connolly, Northern Soul writer
I love an autobiography and this year I read My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay, a tough read at times and more than once I found myself thinking ‘surely this couldn’t have happened’. It’s Sissay’s story of neglect, cruelty, misfortune and then determination and triumph. It’s so unflinchingly honest that you want to scoop the little boy into your arms and give him a comforting hug, and is told frankly but with humour.
I Wanna Be Yours, by John Cooper Clarke is also a superb memoir – wry, funny, moving and vivid, a wild ride through a life full of music, books, family, clothes, hairstyles and narcotics. I found myself reading it in his sardonic Salford drawl but you don’t have to of course. That he’s survived to tell the tale is pretty miraculous. I’m glad he did.
New York by Edward Rutherfurd tells the story of my favourite city in the world, and it’s the way it’s told that make this such a unique and fabulous book. Rutherfurd recounts the story of this great city taking generations of the same family through four centuries from Manhattan’s Indian settlements, the wars, Wall Street and finishes with 9/11.
Susan Ferguson, Northern Soul writer
Kae Tempest’s first work of non-fiction On Connection is a gem of a book, pulsating with positivity packed into just over a hundred pages. Read it in one sitting and let your own creativity unfold.
One Day I Will Write About This Place by the late Binyavanga Wainaina is a wonderful story of growing up in 1970s Kenya beautifully combining memoir with history, politics, a smattering of the Six Million Dollar man plus a view from the other side of Bob Geldof (‘a dirty pale man who has wild eyes’) and Band Aid. I discovered this writer through the brilliantly searing piece he wrote in Granta in 2005, How to Write about Africa, which succinctly and smartly mocked a white, homogenised representation of the continent.
And finally, just out in paperback The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Manchester’s very own Okechukwu Nzelu. Set mainly in Manchester, it tells the story of Nnenna growing up in a household with her white mother who seems reluctant to talk about Nnenna’s Nigerian father. The story unfolds with genuine charm and humour told through a multitude of characters.