Northern Soul’s Best Reads of 2019
As we approach the end of 2019 (and the beginning of another decade) it’s tricky to remain optimistic – what with Brexit, a general election and a climate crisis. Nevertheless, this year wasn’t all fire and brimstone. If you’re a bookworm or a writer, 2019 was full of great news and excellent reads.
From not one but two women winning the Man Booker Prize to the exciting announcement that Hachette Children is opening a Manchester office in 2020, not to mention a whole host of thrilling titles hitting our bookshelves (check out reviews from our Northern Soul writers of some brilliant new titles), it’s been a terrific year for the written word.
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 2019 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
In Spring 2019, I came to dread the knock of the postman. I’d agreed to be a judge for the Historical Writers’ Association Crown Awards which, squeeeeee, meant lots of lovely books. Lots would turn out to be nearly 100. At one point I had to divide the pile of hefty hardbacks into multiple towers, convinced I would come home one day to find a cat flattened by Giles Kristian and Kate Mosse. Still, as first world problems go, it was an agreeable one. It also meant I was introduced to a wealth of authors previously off my radar.
And so 2019 became the year I discovered – and devoured – Diane Setterfield. Winner of the HWA Gold Crown Award for Once Upon a River, Setterfield infuses her novels with mysteries that she invites the reader to tackle. A gothic undercurrent flows through all three of her books, in particular Once Upon a River which mirrors the twists and turns of the Thames as those who live along its banks try to make sense of a seemingly dead little girl who returns to life. As with The Thirteenth Tale (Setterfield’s 2006 bestselling debut) and Bellman & Black, the author marries the unknowable with the knowable and, with a sleight of hand which only becomes apparent at the end of each book, refuses to solve the central question and thereby reveals the universality of the human condition. Spellbinding.
I also have the HWA to thank for an introduction to Hazel Gaynor whose retelling of the heroism of Grace Darling, the young woman who rescued shipwreck survivors off the North East coast in 1838, had me wiping seawater from my cheeks while reading The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter. However, I needed no gentle push to gobble up Abir Mukherjee‘s latest Wyndham & Banerjee offering, the fourth in a series which exposes the dark underbelly of India in the 1920s told from the perspective of a dissolute narrator. I feel my skin prickle with the heat when I read Mukherjee’s books, and I’m desolate when I come to the final page and realise there is no more. In Death in the East, he employs a dual narrative which, despite being set a century ago, draws disturbing parallels with society today.
One book which finally made it off my ‘to be read’ pile was All the Time in the World by Rebecca Gethin. Published by Cinnamon Press in 2017, this poetry collection is an imagined conversation with Gethin’s mother who died from lung cancer when she was two. Half a century later, a handful of brief letters surfaced, written by the dying woman to her mother and sister. This is grief writ large and small, recognisable to anyone who has been bereaved, and especially acute to those who know of a life cut short. I’ll never forget Gethin’s words on the importance of memory and the fragility of immortality:
So when I die that will be
the end of my mother.
Emma Yates-Badley, Deputy Editor and Literary Editor
During a particularly fraught year (a climate crisis and divisive election, anyone?), I’ve found solace in the pages of books. I’ve devoured so many creative non-fiction titles this year that it’s hard to pick a favourite but The Sisterhood: A Love Letter to the Women Who Have Shaped Me by Daisy Buchanan is a strong contender. Through her relationship with her sisters – Dotty, Maddy, Beth, Grace and Liv – Buchanan discusses wider female friendships, interactions and stereotypes. The good, the bad and the downright ugliness of it all. The book is a celebration of the bond between women but also explores how these bonds can drive us to the point of distraction. It’s a laugh-out-loud, tender tale about the reality of sisterhood, biological and otherwise, and the need for women to cut each other a bit of slack.
Calypso by David Sedaris is an absolute triumph of a read and I couldn’t put it down. Each essay is poignant, funny, and wonderfully honest. I’m in awe of Sedaris’s ability to spin a good comic yarn and his commitment to sharing his version of events – warts and all. I’ve also been reading a lot around the subject of the climate crisis and two great titles are No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, a collection of the history-making speeches of climate activist (and Time‘s Person of the Year) Greta Thunberg, and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Both books are real food for thought and guided me to make some important changes.
While I know it’s not for everyone, although it is increasing in popularity, I’ve wolfed a fair few books from the personal development side of the bookshop. I’m a greedy reader, always eager to learn more about a subject and there are bonus points if I discover something new about myself in the process. This year’s stand-out titles are oldies but goodies including The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer (a frank discussion about consciousness) and A New Earth by Eckart Tolle which shatters modern ideas of ego and entitlement, self and society (and couldn’t be more timely) and shares how he believes humans can achieve real happiness. Both left me with much to think about as well as thoroughly underlined and highlighted texts.
Fiction-wise, I scared myself witless with Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucy McKnight Hardy (think Shirley Jackson-esque) which centres around 16-year-old Nif and her family who, during the heatwave of 1976, move to a small village on the Welsh borders after the accidental drowning of her sister. As her family grieves, Nif begins to put together her own form of witchcraft, collecting talismans and performing rites, until she meets Mally, her seductively strange neighbour, who offers up his own secrets and rituals. It’s proper scary stuff and so well-written. And there’s some slightly grim bird-related content if you’re a bit squeamish (like me). I also loved Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney – the characterisation is flawless – and deeply enjoyed David Constantine’s latest collection of short stories, The Dressing-Up Box.
Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
One of the wonderful things about books is the way they open up access to words from every corner of the globe. So, this year, why did my three favourite reads transport me no further than the times and places in which I grew up? No, don’t answer that. I’m afraid it says rather a lot about me.
In her debut novel, Black Car Burning, the poet Helen Mort gives voice to locations and landmarks around Sheffield and its knobbled Peak District hinterland – a slice of National Park that falls just within and without the city’s South Western border. In so doing, she connects the city not to Yorkshire’s Compo-in-a-tin-bath mythology – those dales and moors of the North and West Ridings with which I’ve never felt Sheffield has much in common – but to the craggy edges and millstone grit of Derbyshire’s crumpled Northern verge.
It’s this proximity to crags and crevices that has helped Sheffield become the UK’s climbing capital, and Mort’s novel is set within this lithe fleece-clad community. But it’s far more than simply a novel about climbing. It’s a deeply internalised tale about love and yearning, trauma and loss, and springs from a place where the whispered thoughts of both people and places intersect in unsettling fashion. The fact that there’s also a powerful Liverpool connection – meaning the novel gets a tight fingerhold on both the cities I’ve called home – just adds to my fear that my mental horizon terminates a few feet in front of my face.
If part of the pleasure I derived from Black Car Burning can be traced back to its recognition of Sheffield/Derbyshire cross-border bonding, Join the Future by Matt Anniss could be thought of as Yorkshire’s revenge. Subtitled Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music, Anniss focuses on the distinctive bottom-heavy brand of dance music that emerged from the county (primarily Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford) around the turn of the 1990s, and which went on to exert a powerful influence on a variety of homegrown hypnotic grooves.
My interest in this topic is more than academic. Arriving back in Sheffield in 1989 after three years away, I plugged into this local sound and did my best to keep up to speed with the rapidly evolving scene – a network that connected clubs, dancers, DJs and promoters across South and West Yorkshire, and which spewed out a series of gut-churning, bass-hefty, bleep-driven cuts by the likes of Unique 3, Forgemasters, Ital Rockers, Nightmares on Wax, Sweet Exorcist and LFO.
When music’s evolution is at its most hectic – as it was there and then – its tangle of rivalries and influences becomes almost impossible to unpick, but Anniss does a great job of giving voice to those involved and helping to make sure the enduring reverberations of this undersung era are forever fixed in paper and ink.
Join the Future is clad in a vibrant purple cover, and those who know their A side from their B side will understand why. Many of the initial wave of Yorkshire techno tracks were released on a fresh-faced Sheffield label called Warp Records – an imprint whose 12-inch singles came in an arresting purple sleeve the same colour as the book. That sleeve, along with Warp’s retro-futurist sci-fi logo, was created by a young Sheffield design studio called The Designers Republic, an outfit that was changing the way in which musicians from the city and beyond represented themselves on the shelf.
Thirty years on, both Warp Records and The Designers Republic are still thriving, with the latter celebrating three highly influential decades by finally unleashing its long-promised masterwork, A-Z of The Designers Republic™. Less of a favourite read and more of a favourite look, this unfeasibly beautiful publication is easily the most precious object I held in my hands this year. Not that I’ve ever kept it aloft for long, as the sheer weight of its dayglo inks, metallic finishes and thick, silky paper ensure that an idle flick through its pages soon leaves the biceps twitching and arms feeling heavy as lead.
But no matter. With the aid of an improvised plinth made of cushions, I’ve spent countless happy hours gazing at its collection of era-defining record sleeves, posters, flyers and other images, and ingesting the informative, evocative prose written by the Republic’s supremo, Ian Anderson. Time was when I would seek out and buy music I’d never actually heard simply because it was clothed in Designers Republic artwork, and this mighty book is a glorious reminder of those days. But more than that, it gives me the perfect answer should anyone question my claim that Sheffield has produced some of the greatest pop culture artefacts ever made.
Not necessarily by virtue of its content, though that’s persuasive enough. Nope. If anyone dares dispute my assertion, I’ll just smash its 500 fearsome pages in their face.
Andy Murray, Film Editor
This year I got new bookshelves – yeah, cheers, I’m really pleased too – which means that I can actually get at all the books I’ve loved before and all the ones I’ve been meaning to read. In particular I’ve relished revisiting The Great Caper, Michael Coveney’s biography of stage maniac Ken Campbell. Also, Moondust, Andrew Smith‘s account of his quest to speak to all the surviving Apollo astronauts, not so much to find out what it’s like to walk on the moon as to ask what you can possibly do in this life for an encore.
First-time reads I’ve enjoyed include Paul Hanley’s Have a Bleedin Guess about his life in The Fall during the making of the Hex Enduction Hour album, and Richard King‘s Original Rockers, a strikingly spare and lyrical evocation of his time behind the counter of Bristol’s Revolver Records as an eager young music fan. My favourite though might be Bob Stanley’s Sleevenotes, a collection of assorted recollections from before and during his St Etienne days that make up something like a pint-sized autobiography and which proved to be terrific company during a hair-raising journey on a Pembrokeshire local bus service.
Desmond Bullen, Northern Soul writer
Coronation Street creator Tony Warren’s front doorstep of a novel, The Lights Of Manchester, written in 1991 weighs in at almost 800 pages and begins with the disclaimer that the central character, a tempestuous flame-haired soap lead, is not Pat Phoenix and that her best friend, a homosexual show-runner of a Manchester-based continuing drama is not Tony Warren. Whether such a denial is disingenuous is for the reader to decide. Overlong and peculiarly prudish, it is nonetheless an inevitably soapy melodrama, fascinating in particular for its depiction of Canal Street culture before sexuality was decriminalised.
Less obscurely, like – I suspect – other contributors, I found it hard to deny the style and conviction of Lara Williams’ Supper Club, a kindred spirit to Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals in its tragicomic depiction of female youth in revolt against compromise. While the occasional false note is struck, I found it oddly refreshing to read a novel in which a male character is an underdeveloped dramatic device.
Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that I won’t be joining a chorus of praise for Jenn Ashworth‘s biopsy without anaesthesia, Notes Made While Falling. Lacerating and discursive, both well and closely read, it’s a brilliantly composed autofiction about the limitations of the novel which undermines its own arguments by arguably overcoming them. Importantly, it’s also far more readable than that description makes it seem.
Danny Moran, Northern Soul writer
I’m researching Mancunian literature (that’s literature set in Manchester) and a lot of reading this year has been devoted to regional crime fiction. Manchester University Press published a local lit primer called Postcolonial Manchester a few years back – in it the academic Lynne Pearce argues that what is particular about Mancunian crime fiction is a fixation with the transience of ‘place’. In the murky hinterlands of Manchester murder stories are the crimes of the city fathers who’ve made the streets mean through cynicism, avarice and neglect.
Maurice Procter wrote Hell Is A City, of course, made famous by the 1960 film with Stanley Baker and the cliffhanger ending on the roof of the Refuge Assurance building. The synopses to Procter’s ‘Granchester’-set police procedurals – very popular in their day – can read as slightly risible on the dust jackets (“The city is rocked when a conspicuously handsome rapist strikes…”) but they tend to be terse gangland capers written by an ex-bobby with a feel for how crime investigations unfold.
A consequence of researching and interviewing Val McDermid (having read about two dozen of her books this year) was a certain insight into the relative merits of her various series and standalones, plus a sense of her own feelings on the matter into the bargain. The Manc PI Kate Brannigan books may have had a limited shelf life, but Tony Hill’s psychological capers have resisted retirement for far longer, thanks in part, no doubt, to the popular TV series. Some of McDermid’s most mature work can be found in the Karen Pirie series – the cold case investigator’s dogged anti-authoritarianism and the elegiac arc to the tales make for a richer, deeper mix, as no doubt the author knows. A personal predilection for the standalone A Place of Execution, set in the early 60s with the shadow of the Moors Murders hanging over it, was reinforced by McDermid too: it’s commonly cited as a readers’ favourite, she told me, and understandably so.
Crime aside, I got a lot out of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Ugandan epic Kintu, telling of a cursed bloodline across multiple generations, while her follow-up collection of short stories, Manchester Happened, is a richly nuanced set of tales which report back to the homeland on the iniquities of Brexit Britain.
Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
On the January 10, 1906 two men met for the first time in a room in the Queen’s Hotel in Manchester. Their conversation changed the world. One of the men was Arthur Balfour, lately Prime Minister of Great Britain, the other was Chaim Weizmann, a chemistry lecturer at Manchester University. Weizmann says he expected to get 15 minutes with the great man but was granted an hour and a half. He impressed Balfour with the absolute necessity of Palestine as a homeland for the Jews and, 11 years later, it was Balfour who gave his name to the Declaration which became the basis for the British Mandate in Palestine and the foundation of the State of Israel.
But the journey from the Queen’s Hotel to the Declaration was far from straightforward. Of the books that explore this territory, The High Walls of Jerusalem: A History of the Balfour Declaration and the Birth of the British Mandate in Palestine by Ronald Sanders is the most detailed and least partial that I have read. It explores the motives of all the participants including the widely held belief in high British political circles that the Bible said the Jews would return to Palestine and that would signal the beginning of the end times. Why they might want to hasten the coming of the end times is not clear but given the current state of middle eastern politics, they may very well have succeeded – although not in the way they expected.
Write from what you know, they say in all the best creative writing classes. And Gypsy Rose Lee did. The G-String Murders begins by saying that “finding dead bodies all over a burlesque theatre isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to forget” and becomes more lurid by the page. It’s got lots of professional detail, a jolly good plot and is still available from the Feminist Press (hoorah!) and on Kindle, too. In case you don’t know her, Gypsy’s early life is the subject of the musical Gypsy which ends in 1933 when she became the highest paid burlesque artist in the US. But there was a lot more to come. In 1941 she moved into the attic of a house in Brooklyn owned by George Davis, literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Her fellow tenants were Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, and Jane and Paul Bowles. And that’s where she began to write.
Mark Connors, Poetry Correspondent
2019 was another great year for poetry. I loved Zaffar Kunial’s Us (Faber & Faber, 2019), a poignant and lyrical journey from Kashmir to the Midlands via Orkney. Throughout the collection, Kunial raises questions about identity and memory in the context of family history. “And maybe it’s a midlands thing / but when I was young, us equally meant me.” Through beautifully crafted poems, Kunial tussles with these notions of language and identity. His originality, authenticity and precision mark him out as being one of the most important poets writing in the English language today.
As a managing editor of the independent publisher YAFFLE, it was particularly pleasing to see so many small presses such as 4Word Press, Half Moon Books and Maytree Press put out a brilliant variety of pamphlets and books written by a wide range of emerging poets. Emma Storr’s Heart Murmur, published by Calder Valley Poetry, was a favourite of mine in 2019. Storr is a retired GP and takes us behind the scenes in the doctor’s surgery with funny poems about stools and hypochondria to complex and candid portraits of the personal challenges GPs face daily. A wonderful debut.
The Result is What You See Today, edited by running poets Kim Moore, Paul Deaton and Ben Wilkinson (Smith|Doorstop), is a fabulous read, a poetry anthology dedicated to running. I have to disclose that the book features a poem of mine, but it’s the contributions by poets such as Helen Mort, A. E. Housman, Geoffrey Hill and Northern Soul’s own Wendy Pratt, alongside emerging voices like Mike Farren, Pat Edwards and Many Sutter who make the book what it is – a reflective and entertaining anthology which shows us why runners run. Whether you’re a poetry reader or not, as running legend Jo Pavey confirms on the back cover: “You’ll find words to inspire and entertain.”
Chris Park, Northern Soul writer
The Book of Dust is the latest from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series and is as wonderful as ever. Putting aside the slightly disappointing BBC adaptation of the earlier story, the books still follow our hero, Lyra, but now she is 20-years-old. As an adult she faces a whole host of new problems including her previously bulletproof relationship with daemon, Pantalaimon. It’s also a rollercoaster of an adventure, which we have come to expect from Pullman and his world of dust. If you’re already a fan, you won’t be disappointed with this instalment. And if you’re not, why not?
Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame) writes a fascinating insight into how childhood inequalities can fester and come back to wreak havoc in later life. Gentleman and Players is set against the backdrop of a private boy’s school where the main character is a teacher who is nearing the end of a career. He has devoted his whole life to this school and the fear of existing without it is a spectre on his horizon. Throw in someone looking to destroy the school and you have a page-turner filled with characters that are bizarre yet perfectly plausible – which is Harris’s expertise.
Hide by Matthew Griffin is a bleak but heart-warming story of two elderly gay men in America’s deep South. Wendell and Frank meet at the end of World War Two and, due to society’s lack of acceptance of their love, create their own world on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Fast forward 60 years and this bubble is crashing down around their ears as they struggle to cope with Frank’s fading health and the fact that Wendell can’t keep things together. At times it can be a challenging read, but it’s worth the emotion as the characters are so lovable especially Wendell who is devoted to Frank. It’s the perfect curl up on the sofa under a blanket kind of book.
Robert Hamilton, Opera and Gin Correspondent
As I write this, I have just got off the plane from Barcelona where I spent a great weekend eating in my favourite restaurants. This is obviously a subject for another article, but it does lead to one of my favourite reads of 2019 which is a novel first published in 1945 (but which I read about in the Sundays about forgotten women writers). It is Nada by Carmen Laforet, a bleak tale of the naive Andrea who comes to stay with her relatives in Barcelona while she studies at university. Her relatives live on the borders of civil society, half crazed with poverty and the daily grind of life under the shadow of Franco’s fascist regime. Her youthful optimism slowly ebbs away as her obsession with her relatives grows. It is a story as dark as the narrow streets of Vila de Gracia. Which, oddly, is where I stay in Barca.
Gracia is a small and independent barri west of the old city. I read about it in Barcelona by Robert Hughes, another great read of 2019. You might remember Hughes as the gruff Australian who wrote and presented The Shock of the New. His book Barcelona begins with the walled medieval city of the Ramblas and the Barri Gothic and ends with Gaudi and the Modernists. It is an easy read packed full of buildings, politics and history. My other favourite architecture book of 2019 is Fiona MacCarthy’s engrossing biography of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. As someone who went through an art school foundation course, Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus was fascinating on the origins of modern art education.
It’s a shame to see the art school ethos all but submerged and destroyed in today’s neo-liberal university economy where creativity is constantly under threat from the new generation of higher education managers who know the value of nothing but the price of everything. Which brings me to The New Treason of the Intellectual: Can the University Survive? by Thomas Docherty. It’s a terrifying glimpse into the workings of the £9,000 a year public institution that we used to call universities. An urgent read.
I must declare an interest here as I left the employ of a Northern university recently for many of the reasons cited in Docherty’s fine book. But it is a paragraph in a book I return to every year that brought my academic career, such as it was, to an end. The book sits, well-thumbed, on a shelf in the apartment in Gracia. It is Stoner by John Williams. Like many before me, I thought it was the story of a toked-up hippie. It is, however, the melancholic story of William Stoner, an ordinary scholar in an unremarkable mid-western university in the 1950s. The book drips with profound sadness and thwarted ambition. When I read this, I knew I was done: “He [Stoner] could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.” A remarkable book that is my absolute favourite read of 2019, as it was in 2018 and will be again in 2020.
Wendy Pratt, Northern Soul writer
Choosing the best reads out of all the books I’ve loved this year is one of the toughest things. It’s like choosing between your cat and dog, or wine and gin. But choose I must.
I read Lowborn, writer Kerry Hudson’s memoir, in two sittings. Hudson’s background is one of UK poverty, parents who lacked the skills to be parents, and moving from place to place. Hudson is one of those people who puts her money where her mouth is; I worked with her on the Womentoring project helping disadvantaged women and she is a genuine helper. She sends the elevator down. This book inspired me. I come from a working class background and while I didn’t grow up in poverty, we were not well off, not at all. I recognised a lot of that poor person shame in Lowborn and it made me cry. But it also made me want to get up, fight back and claim what I want from life. Everyone should read this book.
Milkman by Anna Burns is a dense, powerful, thrilling, frightening narrative about a community living under long term pressure and violence and how normality warps under such pressure. Although the town is not named, and the time it is set in is undefined, it is clear to see that it is set in a place which mirrors Belfast in the 70s, during the Troubles. There are other themes here too – sexism and misogyny, spousal abuse, romance, self-identification, and self-awareness all play a part in the overall structure, but all are layered up and woven in with the oppression of a whole community. I love it when I come across a book that is pushing the boundaries of what literature can do, and this is doing just that. It is an incredible book which gets under your skin as you’re reading, it makes your chest tight. Despite the dense style and layout, which a lot of readers I’ve spoken to have found challenging, I couldn’t put this book down.
Poetry is the toughest category as I am generally late to the party. So apologies for the time travel as we zoom all the way back to 2013 and Steve Ely’s Oswald’s Book of Hours from Middlesbrough publisher, Smokestack Books. I came across this book while doing research for a writing project and I am so glad I did. Every page is exciting, clever writing. The poems take the shape of a series of eulogies and elegies which skip between voice and time and place. It is a brutal, bloody, earthy book from a writer who obviously knows the countryside, nature and the earth. I absolutely loved it. I’ll go back to this over and over to know that earthiness again and recognise it.
Main photo by Emma Yates-Badley
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