Northern Soul

Books: Northern Soul’s Best Reads of 2021

December 17, 2021 Books Comments Off on Books: Northern Soul’s Best Reads of 2021
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As we approach the end of 2021, we’re looking back on the things that have brought us immense comfort during another turbulent year.

For the team at Northern Soul, books were once again a great source of joy in 2021 and we spent an awful lot of time with our noses buried in brilliant books. We even started our own book club, Northern Soul’s Right Good ReadsSo, we asked our writers and lots of lovely literary folk for their Best Reads of 2021. Some of these books are new publications, some are titles waiting patiently on our shelves, and some are old favourites. It’s an eclectic list and one that we hope will inspire you. 


Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul

I ended up with some unexpected time on my hands this summer after I slipped in the garden and broke my ankle in three places. It’s the most agonising pain I’ve ever felt, and I have my eyebrows threaded on a regular basis. A hospital stay, operation, and pity party later and I found myself bedbound with only prescription painkillers and a cat for company. So I embarked on The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), the final part of his historical Spanish quartet The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. At more than 800 pages, it’s one of those weighty tomes that’s hard to hold up in bed. Woe betide anyone who falls asleep while reading and lets it slip – that’s a broken rib right there. Cracked bones aside, and I know plenty about that now, The Labyrinth of the Spirits is a mighty achievement and a genre-bending colossus of a novel. I’m not to going risk any spoilers suffice to say that, if you read it, you’ll be as devastated as I was to learn that Zafón died aged just 55 in 2020. This was his last book.The Labyrinth of the Spirits

With its 486 pages, State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny (Macmillan) seemed like a novella compared to Zafón’s magnum opus. As a devoted Louise Penny fan (I’ve hoovered up all 20 of her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series), I’ll read anything by her. Her co-author for this gripping political thriller is a former Presidential candidate but she could collaborate with Kermit the Frog and I’d be placing a pre-order. Thankfully, this two-hander is a match made in heaven, or in Washington anyway. A page-turner of the highest calibre, it’s all the more compelling for its roots in reality. The blurb on the back says that Penny once asked Clinton about her time as Secretary of State and what had been her worst nightmare. Apparently, State of Terror is the answer to that question. Throughout the book there’s a palpable sense that much of what’s on the page isn’t fiction. Chilling.

The Hunt and the KillWhen it comes to fact versus fiction, the same could be said of The Hunt and the Kill by Holly Watt (Raven Books). An investigative journalist who worked at a number of national newspapers, Watt has clearly and cleverly drawn on her wealth of experience in her portrayal of Casey Benedict, an ambitious young undercover hack who races around the world in search of the next big exposé, never forgetting her moral centre and often leaving her heart on her sleeve. The Hunt and the Kill is the third in the series and somehow manages to combine a breathless and twisty-turny pace with a meditation on the looming threat of antibiotic-resistant infections. And if you’re looking for an uncannily accurate picture of what really goes in a newsroom, I’ve rarely seen it drawn better than here.


Emma Yates-Badley, Deputy Editor and Literary Editor of Northern Soul

During a particularly tense year, which has featured an ongoing global pandemic, a worsening climate crisis, and a government which doesn’t appear to care much about anyone or anything, I have often found myself seeking solace in the comfort of books. When the world feels ominous, overwhelming or even downright petrifying, I turn to stories for guidance. This goes some way to explain why I have demolished so many new books in 2021.

Adventures in Opting OutWhile I couldn’t possibly choose a favourite, Adventures in Opting Out by Cait Flanders (Trigger) certainly provided me with much food for thought. In more usual times, I’m an avid traveller and someone who is drawn to the outdoors. Lockdown was stifling and, like many people, I was desperate to get outside. I picked up Flanders’ book thinking that as a fellow hiker her words would provide me with a few hours of escapism. But what I got was so much more. Adventures in Opting Out not only offers a trail map to help you navigate solo adventures, like scaling mountains or making the move to another country, but how to apply this advice to every facet of your own life, particularly when you feel called to take the road less travelled.  

Other non-fiction titles that I would highly recommend include Think Like a Monk (HarperCollins) by Jay Shetty, a former monk who draws on his time spent as a monk in the Vedic tradition to show us how we can clear mental roadblocks and live a more fulfilling life. I also loved Life in Pieces (HarperCollins) by Dawn O’Porter, which is a collection of reflections penned during lockdown. O’Porter looks at grief and identity, bad hair and parenting, sleep and spirituality, and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasieven the things we can control and the things we cannot. While it touches on a number of heavy subjects, it is an incredibly life-affirming and relatable read. 

I found it difficult to get into fiction titles this year, but there were a few books which managed to capture my full attention. I’d been strangely reluctant to pick up Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin Books), the debut historical fiction novel by the Ghanaian-American author (published in 2016), even though it has been sitting on my bedside table for some time. I’d been warned that it was a hugely sad read and, after the events of the past 18 months, I wasn’t sure I could handle it. However, although the warning was correct, this is probably one of the best fiction books I’ve ever read.

It’s a sprawling tale, featuring many different characters and points of view, and yet each chapter is tightly structured and (relatively) easy to follow. The book had a profound effect on me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it long after I’d turned the last page. This is a real testament to Gyasi’s phenomenal writing ability. I immediately ordered her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which was shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, and gobbled it up with equal enthusiasm, delight and the same sense of indescribable awe and sadness.

Castles from CobwebsAnother standout fiction book is Castles from Cobwebs by J.A. Mensah (Saraband), winner of the inaugural NorthBound Book Award in 2019, part of the Northern Writers’ Awards. It’s yet another sprawling tale of loss, love and identity. Set against the backdrop of the rugged Northumberland coastline, the bustling city of Accra and the village of Dosu in Ghana, Mensah invokes a clear sense of the environment. She clearly possesses a remarkable talent for place writing. This is a thoroughly well-crafted debut, and I cannot wait to see what the author delivers next. 


Henry Normal, poet and writer

The most engaging and, indeed, the important book I’ve read this year is Lemn Sissay’s My name is Why (Canongate Books). It is a book everyone should read. It is powerfully affecting, fast moving, intriguing and is instilled with Lemn’s sense of fun, joy and optimism. 

It tells his story from birth through childhood in the care system, to his teens and his independence as a budding writer. It tells of his search for family and connection. It tells of challenges no child should have to contend with. 

My Name is WhyWhen I first met Lemn he was around 19-years-old and already an accomplished poet and captivating performer. We gigged together many times and those gigs are some of the happiest memories of my life. At no time did I ever imagine the full story of what Lemn had to live through growing up in so-called ‘care’. Others may have turned out differently but somehow Lemn has, in all the years I’ve known him, kept an openness to every person he meets, an unshakable faith in human kindness and an undeterred giving personality. Even now, looking back in this book Lemn is generous and forgiving. This book is a great gift to us all. 

What Girls do in the Dark (Nine Arches Press) by Rosie Garland is my favourite poetry book of the year. Garland was a singer in the 1980s post-punk/goth band The March Violets. More recently, she’s established herself as a poet and novelist with several titles. I had the honour to read with her in Birmingham a while back, so when her new collection was released I was already interested. From the first poem I was captivated. She has a way of keeping one foot tentatively in the world we know with the other searching for a foothold in an unseen or imaginary world. I was inspired and transported by these poems in a way I’ve not experienced since first getting excited by the possibilities of poetry in my teens. I suspect it would not be good form to choose one of my poetry books for this feature but even if it was, I would choose Garland’s What Girls do in the Dark.

The Naked JapeA book which came out a few years ago that I’ve re-read this year is Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves’ book The Naked Jape – Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes (Penguin). If ever I’m asked to suggest a book for fellow comedy writers or lovers of comedy, this is the book I always recommend. It reminds me why I was inspired to spend most of my life in the comedy business. 

I was lucky enough to be given a proof copy prior to its original publication and it sits in pride of place, with my all-time favourite books (a first edition Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe and a well-thumbed The Mersey Sound by the Liverpool poets). To me, this mostly undiscovered gem The Naked Jape is not out of place in such good company.


Gaynor Jones, writer (and winner of the Northern Writer of the Year at the Northern Soul Awards 2018)

There’s always a danger when a book is hyped that it won’t live up to the promise, but Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt (Cipher Press) really, truly does. I’ve been reading horror for more than 20 years and during the pandemic I’ve turned to it even more, but it still takes a lot to scare me. Yet if you took only the haunted house element of this debut novel, it still would have been one of my books of the year. It is genuinely frightening. When you add in the layers that Rumfitt builds – fascism, politics, gender, sexuality – it takes the book to a whole new level.

The narrative is also creative; sometimes we hop forward to see a glimpse of a minor character in their future, other times we are firmly rooted Girl Ain the past. There’s also a stream of consciousness element to much of the book but it never feels unwieldy or out of control, so tight and skilful is the writing. Do heed the content warning at the start of the book, though. Yes, it is violent and disturbing, but it’s also challenging, thought-provoking and beautifully written.

This year I made a concerted effort to expand my reading away from short story collections. Girl A by Abigail Dean (HarperCollins) was one of the first ‘big’ novels I’ve read in years. The plot centres around the surviving members of an abusive family, mostly our Girl A. But the story isn’t really about a house of horrors, it’s about the ripples, the aftermath, the ways in which people do and do not cope. What surprised me throughout the novel was the subtlety employed. In a different author’s hands this might have been an exploitative tale, and although parts were painful or difficult to read, ultimately I found it to be incredibly moving.

Dead RelativesNext up is Dead Relatives by Lucie McKnight-Hardy (Dead Ink Books) I’m aware I’ve chosen three fairly gloomy books, but what can I say? My tastes run dark. Plus, as a good 95 per cent of my reading is short story collections, I must include one. I’ve long been a fan of McKnight-Hardy’s fiction, so I was chomping at the bit to read this collection. She is a master at drawing you in with character and details, almost making you forget you’re reading a scary story and then pulling the rug out from under you. The title story in particular is a slow build where things get creepier and creepier by the moment until the awful dénouement is revealed. My favourite in the collection, The Pickling Jar, is short but tense and darkly comic with elements of folklore and echoes of traditional village fetes. I found myself asking, ‘that’s not going to happen, is it?’ as the hints and suggestions crawled under my skin. At the end I chided myself: ‘Of course that happened, look who you’re reading.’


David Nolan, music writer and author of the ‘Manc Noir’ crime fiction books Black Moss and The Mermaid’s Pool. His next novel, The Ballad of Hanging Lees, will be published in 2022. 

The TJM StoryFancy a book about a record label boss called Tony who’s acted as a touchstone for the Manchester music scene for decades? Then I have just the thing for you: The TJM Story by Tony Davidson. Which Tony did you think I meant? This a handsome, hard-backed beast of a book, a 1970s love letter to a Manchester that no longer exists. This is the Manchester where every musician seemed to owe a debt (of one kind or another) to rehearsal room kingpin and label owner Tony Davidson. Famously, Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart video was shot at TJ Davidson’s rehearsal rooms and Davidson has helped many of the great and the good along the way. But it’s The Unusual Suspects that make this a fascinating book. Tales from the likes of The Curbs, Thunderboys and The Pathetix are what makes the book really shine. Need one last recommendation to get you to open your wallet? All proceeds go to Manchester United star Lou Macari’s homeless charity

The Life and Times of Malcom McLarenI do like humongous great doorstopper books. And they don’t come much more humongous and doorstoppy than The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren by Paul Gorman (Little, Brown). It’s an 855-page whopper that chronicles the many lives of the arch-provocateur who was such an interesting human being that being the manager of the Sex Pistols wasn’t really in the top ten of his best bits. It’s also the opposite of most music biographies in that the early years are as good, if not better, than the later stuff. It’s worth buying for the introduction by Alan Moore alone. I think it’s probably the best book intro I’ve ever read.

I interviewed Will Sergeant of Echo and the Bunnymen for a Granada TV documentary about the band many years ago. He seemed pleasantly potty. His autobiography Bunnyman (Little, Brown) runs along similar lines (yes, I am going for three music books). This is part one and the scenes from his childhood have a tugging sadness to them. Your heart aches for the lad. Later he paints a detailed picture of the Liverpool music scene which exploded in the late 70s and early 80s, bringing together all the larger-than-life characters that made up its messy, creative whole. Weirdly, he never mentions Pete Wylie (Crucial Three, Mighty Wah!) who was right there in the thick of it. Not once. Stirring up SheffieldSometimes it’s the things they leave out that tells us as much about the author as the things they include. 


Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent for Northern Soul

The quickest way to stir up Sheffield these days is to suggest that Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce might be nicer than Henderson’s Relish, the locally made and much-mythologised brown condiment of choice. But half a century ago, it was the shape of the brand new Crucible Theatre’s innovative thrust stage that was prompting punch-ups in the local papers – a controversy that split the city more decisively than United and Wednesday have ever managed.

This improbably polarised dispute is at the heart of Stirring Up Sheffield (Wordville) an adventure story of sorts telling the tale of the Crucible’s genesis, Kitchenly 434construction and early life. Written by founding artistic director, Colin George, and completed by his son, Tedd George, it’s both densely detailed and rivetingly told – a must for anyone who holds this special venue close to their heart.

Microscopic attention to detail also defines my other favourite read of the year, Alan Warner’s wonderfully odd novel, Kitchenly 434 (White Rabbit). This bittersweet and quietly funny book somehow manages to be both a butler’s memoir and an evocation of the dying days of prog rock. It’s like The Remains of the Day set in the late 1970s, a world of stately homes, unfeasible wealth and unswerving loyalty, but one in which the music of Gary Numan is not so much a period detail as a synth-driven existential threat.


Helen Monks Takhar, author of That Woman

This year, I’ve found myself lodged deep in a fiction slump that started back in lockdown. I’ve tried and tried to prize myself free with old books, new proofs, books I bought years ago and never got round to, but I still struggled to connect with stories other people had concocted from their minds. Was it post-lockdown fug or the fact that producing my second book has proved pretty tricksy if ultimately rewarding (out June next year and available for pre-order now, in case you’re interested)? Regardless, 2021 was a non-fiction reading year for me and one of its highlights was Francis Bacon: Francis Bacon RevelationsRevelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (William Collins).

It’s a forensic examination of Bacon’s work and his personal pathology. An extraordinary character study of an extraordinary life, Revelations unpicks the many and complicated twines of Bacon the man to understand how he accessed the visceral, often ghoulish yet somehow beguiling art within. It’s not just the layers of Bacon’s character that are enthralling, from his Anglo-Irish aristocratic roots, the jagged relationship with his racehorse trainer father, the lovers, their deaths, the self-sabotaging and the charm of the artist, it’s the cast of supporting characters. Lucian Freud and George and Sonia Orwell light up the pages, but so does Nanny Lightfoot, the childhood carer who remained at Bacon’s side, enabling his daily existence and many hustles until her death.

Another incredible life I found myself immersed in this year was Robert Maxwell’s through John Preston’s relatively slim but punchy biography Fall (Penguin). I’m with Robert Harris, who wrote in The Sunday Times that Preston’s work here is ‘at turns engrossing, amusing and appalling…it slips down as richly, easily and pleasurably as a tablespoonful of Beluga caviar’. The book bounces through the many incarnations of the amoral press magnate, but also lets us see into the world that allowed Robert Maxwell to happen.

A Woman in BerlinFinally, I’ve just started re-reading A Woman in Berlin (Virago Modern Classics) by Anonymous/Marta Hillers, an account of the fall of Berlin at the end of the Second World War, where mass rape by Russian troops appears to be both tool and product of war. The author’s matter of fact stoicism rings through, even as she faces multiple assaults, but it’s more often the phosphorus quality she brings to her existence and her words that startle: ‘…every threat to your life boosts your vitality. My own flame is stronger, I’m burning more fiercely than before the air raids. Each new day of life is a triumph.’

Perhaps those of us made it through 2021 could bring some of this spirit into 2022, myself included.


Aisling Holling, Marketing and Editorial Executive at Saraband Books

A book that saved me in more ways than one this year was Gargoyles by Harriet Mercer (Cinder House). It’s not quite a memoir and not quite essays either, but I’m not one for pigeonholing books anyway. It’s an illuminating meditation on illness, memory, pain and self-knowledge that captures the ghostly experience of life-changing illness or trauma. Case StudyIn beautiful prose, Mercer weaves her personal experience with cultural commentary, elevating the book beyond individual experience with compassion and hope. If you’ve gone through something that has made you question who you are and what your place in the world is, then I highly recommend this book as healing. We all live with demons.

Another book that’s made my year, both professionally and as a reader, is Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Saraband). I love to be completely absorbed when I read fiction and on this Macrae Burnet always delivers. It’s London, 1965. A young woman believes that a charismatic psychotherapist has driven her sister to suicide. There’s an element of cat and mouse, but mostly the captivating mystery comes from multiple unreliable narrators. He plays with the novel form in a way that allows the reader to play investigator, which had me completely hooked. 10/10.

GhostedFinally, Ghosted by Jenn Ashworth (Sceptre) was a great read. It’s ‘a love story’ with a difference. An addictive, funny and sometimes unsettling novel of a relationship between a woman and a man told from Laurie’s perspective after her husband Mark disappears. This perspective, centred around someone’s absence, forces our narrator to face realities that she’s been running from. It’s about love for another, yes, but it’s also about our relationship with our inner self, and how grief and loneliness affect those relationships. I loved it.


Adam Farrer, author of Cold Fish Soup (to be published by Saraband in 2022)

I’ll occasionally hold off on reading certain books, particularly memoirs, fearful that they’ll be almost too good and will force me to question my own abilities as a writer. So, having heard so many good things about it, I’d particularly put off Séamas O’Reilly’s Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? (Little Brown). But with reading being key to becoming a better writer, I knew that I’d eventually have to succumb and, once I did, I found it to be every bit as wonderful as I’d feared.  

Séamas O’Reilly’s Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? (Little Brown)The book begins with the death of O’Reilly’s mother when he was five, leaving him and his 10 siblings to be cared for by a father obliterated by grief. With that starting point, the narrative is understandably rich with sadness, but this is far from a misery memoir. In fact, it’s the frequently joyful story of the loveably eccentric O’Reilly family as they navigate life in the aftermath of their mother’s passing. Like a perfectly pitched stand-up set, the writing tumbles along in a controlled chaos of reminiscences and anecdotes, phrased with the perfect balance of warmth, humour and an emotion that is never undermined by the frivolity that surrounds it. In the same way you can sense when a comedian is about to hit you with a great punchline, O’Reilly’s writing quickly teaches you to brace yourself for masterful similes, knowing another is always just around the corner.  

As I suspected, I was a better, humbler writer by the time I’d finished this book. And now, in the same way that people still dared to be musicians while Prince was walking the earth, I can give it my all on constructing a comic sentence, despite the knowledge that O’Reilly is out there somewhere, performing the written equivalent of Purple Rain at the Super Bowl by describing an Irish fruitcake. 


Sarah Jasmon, author of You Never Told Me and Summer of Secrets

For me, one of the benefits of lockdown has been becoming a little detached from the marketing of new books. I’ve stopped following the latest publication trails, instead going back to random browsing and happenstance. Not that my top book of the year was from an unknown – I remember listening to Jane Harper’s debut The Dry on the radio some years back and being captivated by the characters and setting.

The Lost ManThe Lost Man (Little, Brown) is even better. I’m a sucker for a well-written crime thriller, and this one is pitch-perfect. We’re in the kind of outback world still recognisable from Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice. Local cattle rancher and all-round good guy, Cameron Bright, has been found dead, miles from the safety of his air-conditioned and water-stocked truck. How, and why, did he get there? And what was he worried about in the weeks leading up to his death? The book explores, with beautiful atmospheric detail, the family dynamics of the Bright family through the eyes of elder brother Nathan. The tension Harper builds is both delicate and unrelenting and builds to a quiet yet devastating climax. Don’t read this expecting the much over-used ‘twist you won’t see coming’, its conclusion is much better than that, and far more satisfying. I was reading it during a platelet donation and found myself willing the flow of blood to slow down so I’d have time to finish.

Other notable reads deserve a mention. I’ve just finished a re-read of Barbara Pym’s exquisite Some Tame Gazelle (Little, Brown), which I appreciated more at 51 than I did at 21, and, in a year where I’ve read a lot of beautiful creative non-fiction, Jenn Ashworth’s Notes Made While Falling (Goldsmiths Press) stands Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworthout as an exceptional addition to the genre.


Matthew Frost, Commissioning Editor, Literature, Theatre and Film at Manchester University Press

At the beginning of the year a friend of mine, Professor Avril Horner, asked me to look over the proposal that she had written for a biography of the novelist Barbara Comyns. I’d not heard of her but, having read the synopsis of the biography, I was immediately inspired to find out more. Avril suggested that I start with Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, Comyns’ third novel from 1954. It starts with the damage encountered by a flood, ruining the house occupied by one Ebin Willoweed and his three children, a house owned and remorselessly ordered by his tyrannical grandmother. It begins:

‘The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.’

Who Was Changed and Who Was DeadThere was something about the repetition of ducks and quacking, of the pleasure taken in something so estranging, that hooked me straight away. The novel, set in Warwickshire 1914, quickly became one of those books that made me wonder – why have I not heard of her before? As I read her other novels and learned more about her, I found that she has been reclaimed a couple of times, once by Virago in the 1980s, and again in the past couple of years as her books are once again coming back into print. She has also been praised and prized by any number of other writers, including Jane Gardam, Sarah Waters, Anthony Burgess, Margaret Drabble, Alan Hollinghurst, and her first publisher, Graham Greene, who remarked on her ‘strange, offbeat talent…that innocent eye which observes with childlike simplicity the most fantastic or the most ominous occurrence’.

Who Was Changed… was read in an afternoon. I won’t spoil the plot, but the book is full of lines like: ‘That evening the baker’s wife ran down the village street in a tattered pink nightgown. She screamed as she ran’; ‘Old Toby’s body was wrapped in sacks, so recently used for forcing rhubarb, to prevent the limbs from falling from the body, and carefully lifted into back seat of the doctor’s car’; ‘[The woman] changed a record on the gramophone and a grunting, wailing organ filled the air. “How I hate organs,” thought Emma. ‘”I’m sure people who like organs eat cheese cakes and call their drawing rooms lounges.” She lay on her back imagining the golden haired woman sitting in her lounge, eating eternal cheese cakes and listening to a fruity organ.’

The House of DollsThe incidental details, the matter-of-factness when detailing with the grotesque, the wit, the narrative drive, kept me turning page after page, but slower and slower as I didn’t want to finish.

I’ve since read another six of her novels, all of which are recognisably Comyns (pronounced Cummins apparently), but all of which are different. One can see, having looked into her biography, where the inspiration arises: her story is one of those 20th century lives that would be impossible in the 21st century. Brought up with five siblings by a father, ‘an impatient and violent man’ and a ‘mother who lived the life of an invalid’, educated by governesses, there was a sudden change of fortune (the first of many) and thereafter jobs including kennelmaid in Cornwall (where she survived on dog biscuits), a cook in a country house, an artist’s model, a commercial artist, a painter who exhibited with the London Group, an antiques and vintage car dealer, a restorer of grand pianos, a breeder of poodles, a black marketeer…and she was married to a spy and was friendly with Kim Philby.

The range and accomplishments of her novels are many, from the Gothic The Vet’s Daughter and The Juniper Tree, to the freewheeling, episodic autobiographical Sisters by a River and The Skin Chairs, an extraordinary novel set in the Second World War. Then there’s Mr. Fox, and the hilarious The House of Dolls, with its cast of ageing ‘companions’ who are ‘addicted to tight trousers and drink’. Every one of them I would recommend, and I am looking forward to reading her others this Christmas.


Robert Martin, author of Joe and Dusty Save the World

FactfulnessDuring lockdown, I wrote a book. It’s in rhyme and for children. So, you’d think I’d have been searching for inspiration in the pages of early Harry Potter, The Gruffalo and Roald Dahl. But no.

The book that gave me the biggest boost in 2021 was Hans Rosling’s Factfulness (Hodder & Stoughton), 350 odd pages that are life-changing. I think everyone would benefit from reading it because, unlike lots of (good, I’m sure) books about self-help that encourage you to feel more at ease with yourself, this is about achieving that by looking at the bigger picture, the ‘10 reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think’. The nice quote on the cover is from Barack Obama, so he clearly agrees with me.

Rosling was a world leader in health but he was also extremely funny, as anyone who has seen his TED talks (and they’ve been viewed more than 35 million times) can testify. He identified and proved the huge gap between what people believe to be true, what the media reports (bad news travels fast, but good news? forget it) and what the reality is. In this book he examines areas such as poverty, education, where our tendency towards believing negative things against positive ones comes from, and generally does a great job of making you feel a whole lot better.

The book doesn’t suggest that everything is hunky dory, but for those lying awake at night thinking we’re doomed, it does provide some wonderful and humorous solace. He completed Factfulness just before his death in 2017, calling it “the stress-reducing habit of only carrying opinions for which you have strong supporting facts”.

This book will change the way you see things. That’s a fact.


Nichola Smalley, Publicity Director at And Other Stories

Fit by Sammy WrightFit by Sammy Wright, which was published by And Other Stories to acclaim in October after winning the 2020 Northern Book Prize, explores the fallout on a local community after a local girl leaves town and hits the big time. It brilliantly captures a multitude of perspectives and has a rare empathy with its characters.

Tice Cin’s Keeping the House (And Other Stories) is ostensibly about a plot to import heroin in a shipment of cabbages, but really it’s a love letter to a community and a fantastic portrait of three generations of women, written by a stupendously talented writer/musician/all-round artist, and edited for us by the wonderful writer Max Porter.

And Somebody Loves You (And Other Stories) by Mona Arshi is a beautiful vision through the eyes of a young girl who chooses silence as a way to deal with her mother’s mental illness and the tiny traumas of everyday life and the casual racism it brings. Mona worked for ten years as a human rights lawyer for the charity Liberty before becoming a full-time poet and writer. 

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