Northern Soul’s Best Reads of 2018
We hoped that 2018 would be an improvement on a turbulent 2016 and an inexplicable 2017. But this year proved that [rubbish] things come in threes. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, 2018 was an incredible year for bookworms and writers alike.
From greater visibility for publishers outside of London (check out the shortlist for Northern Publisher of the Year from the 2018 Northern Soul Awards) to a Year of Publishing Women, and a female Man Booker Prize winner, the written word has been a hot topic.
At Northern Soul, we did a 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 2018 reads to expand your ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile. Maybe some of them made it to your top picks too?
Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul
2018 was the year I discovered crime – and I don’t mean nipping down the corner shop to nick a bottle of Rola Cola. No, this was the year I realised why crime novels and psychological thrillers, as revealed in April, are outselling other types of fiction for the first time. Crime really does pay.
I dipped my toe into the murky waters of murder and conspiracy last year when I binge-read Christopher Fowler’s detective series, Bryant and May. As brilliant as the series is, it’s crime-lite when compared to authors I have come to regard as giants of the genre: Nicci French, John Grisham, Susan Hill, Abir Mukherjee, and Louise Penny. That first one is actually two people – a husband and wife team comprised of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. I have no idea how they write books together but I couldn’t get enough of their Frieda Klein series which, to my dismay, came to an end with Day of the Dead, the final chapter in an eighth book. I read them back-to-back, scurrying down to my local second-hand bookshop for the early ones and scouring Amazon for more recent editions. I’ll miss Frieda.
Looking back, what many of my favourite protagonists had in common was an inherent unlikeability (except for Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache – he’s a Canadian delight) and a flawed core. Frieda is a bit of a cold fish, happiest alone in her central London house yet much-loved by her friends and family. Meanwhile, Susan Hill’s central character, Simon Serrailler, who made his first appearance back in 2004 and his ninth in October 2018 in The Comforts of Home, is an odd-bod – a solitude-loving copper, prone to breaking women’s hearts and taking himself off to remote Scottish islands at the drop of the hat. In some of her books, Hill doesn’t even solve the crime. I love the juxtaposition of respect for the crime narrative and complete disregard for it.
Then there’s Abir Mukherjee. A newcomer, he scored an immediate hit with his Sam Wyndham series, kicking things off with the award-winning A Rising Man in 2016 which introduced readers to a dissolute, drug-addled former Scotland Yard detective who arrives in early 1920s Calcutta, desperate for a new start. I polished off the trilogy (and there’s more to come) faster than you can say “you’re nicked!” in your best Sweeney accent.
In the odd moment when I wasn’t devouring death and destruction, I lapped up The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements. It fair gladdens my heart when a Northern Soul writer is on my list for best reads of the year. Clements’ book – a 17th century ghost story set in West Yorkshire – garnered great reviews from all manner of publications, including The Times, which it thoroughly deserved. Months after reading about her untamed moors and unleashed souls, I still bring them to mind.
Another Northern Soul-er who left an imprint on my literary heart this year was Wendy Pratt, our Poetry Correspondent. Her most recent collection, Gifts the Mole Gave Me, is a lingering, evocative selection of verse which, like so much of Pratt’s poetry, works its way into your soul and rests gently there, easily and permanently. Don’t believe me? Read her annual Northern Soul Christmas poem here.
Emma Yates-Badley, Deputy Editor and Literary Editor
I’ve read a lot of fantastic fiction this year so whittling down my list to a few was incredibly difficult. Having said that, there was no doubt that I’d include The Cows by Dawn O’Porter. I’m a huge fan of the author’s writing from her witty articles to the brilliant YA series following best friends Renee and Flo as they attempt to navigate the tricky world of adolescence.
The Cows is O’Porter’s first novel aimed at the adult market and it’s a good ‘un. Fearlessly frank and funny, The Cows (which has absolutely nothing to do with dairy farming) follows the lives of Tara, Cam and Stella, three women, all strangers, who are attempting to navigate a world where society dictates what a ‘successful’ and ‘together’ woman should look like – and chews up those who don’t comply. An incident on a train (what is it about novels and trains?) alters their lives and perspectives and creates a bond of friendship between the three. It’s a great novel all about being yourself, the power of female solidarity, letting go of judgement (of others, yes, but also of our ourselves) and not ‘following the herd’ which might, in anyone else’s hands, be a stilton-on-toast-fest. But O’Porter’s humour, warmth and desire to go where other authors don’t makes for a brilliant read.
Through my own writing and research, I’ve developed a taste for creative non-fiction titles. It’s a genre that’s dominating the bestseller lists and constitutes a mix of memoir, auto-biography and often (if the idea makes you feel like rolling your eyes, don’t) a little dose of personal development (previously known as self-help). I’ve greedily thumbed my way through an array of titles including Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet and Laura Jane Williams’ 2016 debut, Becoming.
Haig is undoubtedly my favourite author. Everything he writes is perceptive and human, and Notes on a Nervous Planet was no exception. It’s a sort-of follow up to memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, almost a ‘how to’ guide which explores a wide variety of issues influencing both our individual and collective psyches.
Laura Jane Williams is my favourite person to follow on Instagram where she regularly posts funny anecdotes about farting in yoga class and her dislike of over-the-top hen parties. Her writing reflects a down-to-earth yet slightly show-woman persona. Becoming follows Williams’ life after the man she thought she’d wed dumped her and married her friend. What follows is a romp – and I use that word deliberately – through Italy, America, Paris and, erm, Derby. It’s hilarious, sad, infuriating and relatable. Because what’s more universal than overcoming a broken heart, losing and then finding yourself in the process?
Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
The best book I read this year was by far the most intimidating. In the manner of famed Liverpool FC hard man Tommy Smith, Red or Dead by David Peace stared me out for four years, taunting me from the shelf on which it had sat ever since I bought it from the author himself at a book signing. But in January this year I took it down, cracked its spine, and set off on a startling football journey.
In summary, it’s a 720-page novel about the football manager Bill Shankly and his relationship with Liverpool – the team and the city. But it’s no languid dribble through a novelised life. This book is relentless in its repetition, terrifying in its singular poetic vision. Inherent in every line is the mud-caked drudgery of football in the 60s and 70s, a world of teak-sided tellies and fag smoke and beer. I feared that the repetition would break me well before the end, but instead it became a mesmerising incantation, a devastating evocation of the most bloody-minded football genius the British game has ever seen.
After finally putting that beast to bed, I was ready for a breezier read. The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell whisks the reader up to Wigtown in Scotland’s bottom-left corner – the country’s National Book Town, no less. It’s a place I know well thanks to fondly-remembered family holidays, so I’m familiar with Bythell’s shop – simply called The Book Shop – on Wigtown’s unfeasibly wide main street.
If making money is your thing, Bythell’s book will quickly convince you that opening a second-hand bookshop is not a passion you should pursue. But in spite of the bleak realities at its core (Amazon throws an enveloping shadow over his ever-struggling enterprise), his diarised year is full of charm, humour and resigned-to-the-future commercial stoicism. Not to mention a customer-baiting grumpiness that makes his shop sound like a Harry Enfield sketch.
A summer break in Berlin prompted the purchase of my third selection. No, not a Cold War spy thriller or some classic Christopher Isherwood. Instead, it was my fascination with the concrete precincts and post-war blocks of the former East Berlin that led to me pick up Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley.
From the long, wide boulevards known as ‘magistrales’ – designed expressly for glorious parades and displays of military hardware – to workers’ clubs, culture palaces and palatial metro systems, Hatherley journeys through the towns and cities that were once the real-life template for a future utopia, the physical relics that remain now the Eastern Bloc is no more. Combining an academic’s attention to detail with a journalist’s turn of phrase, Hatherley is the perfect guide on what is, as far as most people are probably concerned, a pretty perverse sightseeing tour. However, having now read about the concrete vistas of Kolobrzeg, Kharkiv and Katowice, I realise that Berlin’s Alexanderplatz is entry-level stuff in comparison. I’m already saving up for next summer’s trip to Tbilisi. Wife allowing.
Desmond Bullen, writer for Northern Soul
I don’t think I’ve ever read a Booker winner in admiration and delight before. That changed this year with Anna Burns’ Milkman, a book considerably less abstruse than some reviews might have you believe. While it’s true the narrative loops and snares around the unnamed protagonist, there’s nevertheless a discernible trajectory, both comic and tragic, as circumstances conspire towards a death foretold.
The tone, like a bemused Franz Kafka summoned from the afterlife to pen an episode of Derry Girls, isn’t entirely consistent but, for the most part, it’s a singular evocation of living through the contradictions of times that Brexit might yet re-enact; Catch 22 for The Troubles. Regrettably, like the novel’s unnamed protagonist, I’m something of a stranger to contemporary fiction, and so my other selections are not quite so of the moment.
That said, Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time, although written in 1976 with exquisite balance and eloquent anger, uses science fiction as a mirror to the injustices borne by those born out of privilege; the marginalised, the criminalised, the hospitalised. While it’s clear where Piercy’s own sympathies lie, Connie – the Hispanic heroine involuntarily admitted to a State mental hospital which rings considerably truer than the more straightforwardly allegorical One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – rails against the New Age Utopia in which she finds sanctuary from her asylum.
There’s a Utopia of a different stripe in William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter’s engagingly unselfconscious Golden Age Wonder Woman. Paradise Island is Marston’s sincere conception of a feminist society, filtered through the polygamous psychologist’s own interest in power dynamics, its kinkiness dilute enough to be swallowed by the young minds it was aimed at. It’s best not to dwell on the appalling depiction of the Japanese in war time, and savour instead a heroine who’s not above standing up for underpaid shop girls. Or, for that matter, disguising herself as the front half of a baby elephant to defeat an Axis plot.
Matthew Connolly, writer for Northern Soul
I don’t know if you have a fetish for motivational one-liners but I do. I’ve got them stuck all over the place – on my laptop, daubed on my hand, drawing-pinned to the walls. I’m even tempted by the idea of a motivational tattoo, maybe burnt in widening circles around my navel, with something like ‘An amateur lets the negative opinion of others unman him. He takes external criticism to heart, allowing it to trump his own belief in himself and his work. Resistance loves this…the professional self-validates.’
OK, that’s more than one line. If it weren’t for the word ‘trump’ in there (lower case or otherwise) I might get a quote (monetary) from my local tattoo artist. The textual quote is from The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, a book recommended to me by a man even more at war with himself than myself. And the one word in that circular navel tattoo I’d like to draw your attention to is ‘resistance’. It’s the author’s buzzword (do people still use the word ‘buzzword’?) and it signifies everything that conspires to stop creative people from working on their ‘thing’, and ‘everything’ can include everything from good old-fashioned laziness to The Devil Incarnate.
The War of Art hunts down and tries to kill off all forms of resistance faced by artists, entrepreneurs, athletes, and anyone else trying to do the creatively impossible. If you enjoy the painful, tough-love tingle of this kind of ‘kick in the ass for all of us with a tendency towards procrastination’ as one reviewer put it, then I heartily recommend, by the same author, Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t. Go on, treat yourself for Christmas.
Andy Murray, Film Editor of Northern Soul
Chris Park, writer for Northern Soul
If you received a phone call asking you to take on a herd of rogue elephants facing the death penalty, you’d probably glance at your herbaceous borders and say, no thanks. But the late, great Lawrence Anthony, who owned a game reserve in South Africa, said yes immediately.
The Elephant Whisperer is a wonderful memoir on how Anthony took on this family of hooligans and formed a bond so strong that he was almost part of the herd. It will have you laughing and crying in equal measure. The elephants all have their own characters, from matriarch Nana, gun-for-hire Frankie and big boy baby Mmunzane, the only male who is bullied mercilessly by the rest of the herd and turns to Anthony for some lads’ time.
Heathcliff. He was a devil wasn’t he? That’s as may be but he regularly tops lists as the world’s favourite literary character. Not bad for a psycho hell-bent on revenge. But what happened to the stable boy who left Wuthering Heights on that fateful rainy night and returned as a rich and suave man of the world? Ill Will by Bradford-based author Michael Stewart takes on the story, and it’s an adventure tour de force giving us new insight into the tortured soul of Heathcliff. Stewart has imbued new layers in a 200-year-old character which may change the way you read the Brontë classic for ever.
For anyone who has sat in a bar or coffee shop waiting for yet another stranger from an app to turn up, this next book is for you. It’s a thankless lottery and The Last Romeo by Justin Myers is a real life-in-fiction affair of what happened when Myers became an anonymous blogger, going on dates and reporting back to a hungry world. We never find out what is fact or fiction, and it doesn’t really matter. But this is a perfect look at the world of dating and our responsibilities on social media, especially when it brings unexpected fame to your door. Known as the gay Bridget Jones, it’s a bit of light relief from an increasingly depressing world.
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