As we approach the end of 2022, we’re looking back at the things that have brought us immense comfort during the year.
For the team at Northern Soul, books were once again a great source of joy, and we spent an awful lot of time with our noses buried in brilliant books. So, we asked our writers and lots of lovely literary folk for their Best Reads of 2022. Some of these books were new publications, some were titles waiting patiently on our shelves, and some were old favourites. It’s an eclectic list and one that we hope will inspire you.
Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul
This was the year I discovered Susie Steiner. A former national newspaper journalist, Steiner writes with an honesty and wit I associate with journos I admire, and she reminded me of another hack turned novelist – Helen Fielding. Imagine a brusque Bridget Jones who solves crimes, is relentless in her pursuit of justice, and you’re close to Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw, Steiner’s protagonist in three gripping books. On the cusp of her forties in her first outing, Missing, Presumed, Bradshaw is clever, flawed and very, very funny. I’ve rarely read a character I understood as deeply as Steiner’s creation, and so I duly hoovered up Persons Unknown and Remain Silent. After all, a female police officer who says things like “I am in constant preparation for sitting down” is my people.
As I was wondering about the woman, the writer, and what she would do next, I was devastated to learn of Steiner’s death in July, aged just 51, of a brain tumour. Just look at her beautiful – and effortlessly accessible – prose: ‘The older you get, the less choppy life becomes. But Miriam misses it too—the lurching outer edges of feeling that accompany youth. Nothing is exciting anymore.’ If you haven’t read Steiner’s books, I urge you to do so, but take your time. Savour her words. I know I will.
I couldn’t get enough of crime writers in 2022, but I was most excited about the latest in M.W. Craven‘s Washington Poe series. The Botanist is the seventh Poe book (including a Quick Reads novella and a short story collection) by Cumbria-based Craven and is Northern Noir at its finest. Poe is a man with few friends and his sidekick Tilly is a social hand grenade. But they work, especially when a merciless poisoner is targeting the UK’s most loathed individuals. One to read with the big light on.
Meanwhile, Brian Groom doesn’t do things by halves. One of the first authors to be commissioned by HarperNorth, Groom set about writing Northerners: A History, billed as ‘the definitive history of the North as told through the lives of its inhabitants’. The book’s cover announces that this biography of the North of England begins in the Ice Age and ends in the present day. And so it does. One can only imagine the breadth and depth of reading undertaken by Groom, former assistant editor of the Financial Times and ex-editor of Scotland on Sunday. When the first reviews came out, The Times dubbed it ‘Bede to The Beatles’ which isn’t a bad summation. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
With chapters titled ‘Witchcraft and the Civil Wars’, ‘Why the North?’ and ‘Trouble at th’Mill’, I was poised to like it from the get-go. Everything augured well when, just a few pages in, I learned that the first identifiable Northerner was a woman – Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes. The rest of this meticulously researched new history didn’t disappoint, with Northern historical gems scattered throughout, even if some of them felt like opportunities lost: ‘Britain could have been a northern-centred country, but is not’.
Bethany Smith, Editorial Assistant at Northern Soul
I didn’t always want to be a journalist. In fact, I was adamantly against it. However, when I was younger my dad thought that I would make an excellent one. I have a passion for justice, I love writing, and I’m nosy – all the qualities of a good journalist (or so I am told by people more established than me). It wasn’t until I read this book – my book of the year – that I felt the spark to start down the path I am on today. That book is She Said: The true story of the Weinstein scandal by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.
The two New York Times investigative journalists broke the story that lit a fire in every corner of the world. Every industry, every news outlet, everybody was talking about it. A much needed and long overdue conversation began – how do we begin to stop male violence, harassment, and abuse against women? I knew right there and then, as soon as I had finished chapter one, that this was what I wanted to do.
I re-read She Said this year, and I would recommend it, especially to young female journalists. The determination, strength, and perseverance displayed by Kantor and Twohey changed the world.
Gaynor Jones, writer (and winner of the Northern Writer of the Year at the Northern Soul Awards 2018)
I knew Adam Farrer and his work from the Manchester spoken word scene, so I was already a fan and was excited for his book, Cold Fish Soup. Adam is very, very funny and so I was expecting to laugh while reading Cold Fish Soup, but I didn’t know I’d also be moved to tears. It is such a genuine story and a rare insight into male, and particularly adolescent male, mental health. The serious subject matters are given weight and treated with care, and it’s all balanced with tremendous moments of light, warmth and humour. I treated Cold Fish Soup as an interactive read, with my laptop open, listening to songs, looking at pictures of Withersnea and – perhaps most memorably – watching Adam’s mum striptease on national TV.
Meanwhile, Dead Ink Books is one of my favourite Northern publishers and has never let me down with a book. But The Hierarchies by Ros Anderson went above and beyond my expectations. The plot is as fast-paced as any Hollywood movie but the writing is exquisite. Told through the voice of Slyv.ie, a synthetic robot designed to cater to her husband’s every whim, there are dark moments and, as with the best dystopian fiction, the novel asks questions about humans and how we relate to those we see as ‘lesser’. I became very attached to Slyv.ie and her journey and I know I will re-read this book many times.
Nancy Collantine, artist and Northern Soul writer
An aristocrat’s incarceration inside the Hotel Metropol in Moscow following the Russian Revolution in 1922 is the premise of Amor Towles’ novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. In Count Alexander Rostov, Towles creates a hero who adapts and thrives inside a small world where alliances are forged, enemies are deposed and life is made large. A warmth pervades this book, thanks to the charm, wit and humour of our hero who holds onto his belief that the smallest action has restorative powers. Through his eyes, we observe the comings and goings of guests and we, like him, build a picture of what Russian people are going through on the outside, and from the inside our hero builds his own small yet powerful island of resistance and humanity. A rich and beautiful lesson in what we can each be in our own worlds.
Damon Fairclough, Northern Soul writer
If your primal TV memories involve teak veneer, a static-charged screen and a gazillion spattered cathode rays, Rob Young’s The Magic Box is the book to make your ageing valves hum again. As a survey of certain strands of post-war British television (and some cinema too), it’s a fact-packed feast of folk horror trippiness, kitchen sink grittiness, time-twisting nostalgia, and puppet shows made from cotton reels and sadness.
It’s no slim volume so do give yourself a little time if you’re tackling it cover to cover – and don’t forget to add a generous streaming allowance for good measure. Not sure what that is? It’s to cover the fact that Young’s text is so stuffed with references to long-gone programmes that you vaguely recall as if in a dream – or that were on way after you went to bed – that barely a page goes by without the urge to put down the book and jump onto YouTube instead.
Daphne du Maurier’s The Apple Tree is exactly the kind of short story that could have become one of the BBC’s famous Christmas ghost tales back in the mid-1970s, although I can’t find a record of a TV version having been made (my research amounts to little more than a quick skim through Rob Young’s index). It’s a strange and mesmerising chiller about a widower whose curious post-wife contentment gradually begins to decompose, and is my favourite pick from du Maurier’s wonderful collection, The Birds and Other Stories.
I haven’t read much memorable fiction this year, but at their best, du Maurier’s shorts are like unwelcome visitors. They hang around long after you try to wave them goodbye.
Amy Stone, author and Northern Soul writer
I practically inhaled Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I can’t remember the last time I read something so irresistible. Set in 1950s Mexico, Mexican Gothic follows feisty socialite Noemie Taboada as she investigates her cousin’s claims that her new husband is trying to kill her. Noemie travels to her cousin’s new home, an isolated, decaying mansion on the outskirts of a rural town, and soon discovers that the place is seething with a dark secret that consumes the house and its occupants. Can she rescue the people she loves from its grip? Will she resist the poisonous power that flows through every fibre of the house? Read it, find out. You won’t regret it. Sensuous and revolting in equal measure, this lush horror absolutely *has* to be adapted for screen by Guillermo del Toro and I for one can’t wait to see it.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is unlike anything I have ever read. It follows Ní Ghríofa’s work, over a decade of snatched moments between the domestic drudgery of raising four children, to translate the 18th-century Irish poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. The Caoineadh is a ‘keen’ written by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an 18th-century Irish noblewoman, in rage and grief over her murdered husband. Where to start. This book got me right in the chest. In the back of the head. In the throat. I feel as though it should come with a warning to anyone who has been through babies, breastfeeding and everything that goes along with it: this will take you right back there and twist the knife of trauma. As someone who is trying to write alongside raising young children, it was all very close to home. This is a female text, it begins, a refrain that repeats throughout the book – and it is. Close to the bone and devastatingly beautiful.
The novella A Good Year by Polis Loizou is set in British-occupied post-World War One Cyprus, and follows newlyweds Despo and Loukas and their fractured relationship as they await their imminent first child. Despo is due to give birth any day, but is desperate to hold out through the 12 days of Christmas until after Epiphany to avoid harm from the Kalikantzari. These demonic goblins of Cypriot folklore emerge from the underworld over the festive period to wreak havoc and prey on the new born. She finds no support from her husband Loukas, who is fighting his own demons – a forbidden desire for another man. The setting is a real strength of this book. Cyprus offers a treasure-trove of tradition and tales you may never have heard of if you grew up elsewhere. The adrenaline of fear pulses through this macabre folk-horror as much as tragedy tinges the fortitude we bear witness to, and the uneasy redemption of its end. A beautiful book.
So far, I think my journey reading this notoriously hefty tome (Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman and totalling more than 345,000 words) can best be described as a labour of love. I saw the #ReadQuixote hashtag on Twitter in early January and thought, ‘I’m sure I read that for my degree…yeah, why not?’ I was wrong. As I lifted the house brick from the shelf at Waterstones, I realised I had only read enough extracts and online summaries to blag my way through a seminar and that this would in fact be one hell of an undertaking. I was in good company, however, and the handful of us who were foolhardy enough to accept the challenge of reading one chapter a week set off on our quest. We’re still not even halfway through yet. #ReadQuixote will probably take until this time next year to complete but, dammit, much like our eponymous hero, I’m determined to fight my way through to the bitter end even if I have to leave my dignity and sanity at the door. Grossman’s achievement in translating the text is absolutely staggering and continues to blow my mind. At times laugh-out-loud funny – if Cervantes had been around to see Monty Python’s Holy Grail, he’d have been well within his rights to sue – this book has been a constant comfort to me in 2022, and I’m genuinely glad that I’ll still be reading it this time next year.
Sarah-Clare Conlon, freelance writer and editor
I’m partial to a short read (less weight to lug about in my handbag), so poetry is always on my grab-and-go pile near the front door. While I’m usually doing my best to savour each tasty bite, two collections this year saw me devour them whole in one sitting. One was Joelle Taylor’s C+nto, which won the TS Eliot Prize 2022. The other was Padraig Regan’s debut full book, Some Integrity. Published by Manchester’s Carcanet, Some Integrity is quite foodie, with glossy pavlovas and pans “foamy with liquid butter”, and certainly sensual. Smells are heady, colours vibrant, fabrics tactile, even cities have erogenous zones and pitcher plants a certain frisson. It’s clever, too, with nods to literature, and history, art and the classics, but the reader never seems to get left behind, poems often finishing up with a nonchalant, sometimes even self-deprecating reflexion: “A mojito or a mint julep? I suspect it doesn’t matter much.”
Another Manchester-based publishing house which has been busy this year is Confingo, putting poetry, prose and original artwork under our noses with its bi-annual magazine and regularly bringing out short story collections, album-inspired anthologies, and novels. Representing the latter, Out of the Dark, David Gaffney’s third full-length work is a sophisticated mystery incorporating film noir motifs and the effect of a play-within-a-play. Set mainly against a backdrop of Brutalist Birmingham, think British noir Hell Is A City, but with more motorway interchanges. There are also more laughs, but equally plenty of pathos, and a story that won’t let you rest until you’ve reached The End. Like cinema? Like slip roads? This could be right up your street.
Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor at Northern Soul
I spent July in Atlanta where it was too hot to go outside during most of the day and, unusually for me, I had a lot of time to read. On my Kindle I had a copy of Slow Horses by Mick Herron, which I had bought ages ago on the recommendation of a friend but had never had the time to read. I used to produce Book at Bedtime for Radio 4 so I had read a lot of crime and spy fiction looking for material, and most of it was disappointing. Quite often, even with well-known writers, they wrote themselves into a corner and had to produce a deus ex-machina to get themselves out of a hole. Others, and I’m thinking particularly of The Snowman by Jo Nesbø, have plots that are so convoluted it’s impossible to keep track. What you want in this kind of fiction is to turn the last page and go ‘oh, of course, why didn’t I realise that?’. This is also true to some extent of spy fiction, but it happens rarely, so I approached Slow Horses with a degree of trepidation. Four weeks later I finished the last of the eight books in the series and am still eagerly awaiting the next so I can find out what happened to one of the central characters.
Robert Hamilton, Northern Soul writer
While reading Oliver Bullough’s Butler to the World. I was intrigued to discover that the lawyers who tried to stop Kleptopia (Tom Burgis’s book about dirty money flooding the global economy) were British and that the case was pursued through our courts. What Bullough does is to trace post-Empire Britain as its place on the world stage decreases. It became a butler to the world. It provides legal services to corrupt bankers, financial services for money laundering, and golden visits for international criminals. This is a disheartening but vital read.
This led me to to Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West by Catherine Belton. The subtitle is self-explanatory as it plots Putin’s rise through the ranks of the KGB to become President of Russia and reputedly the world’s richest man. It also suggests that the KGB siphoned billions of roubles from the Russian economy to fund the continued destabilisation of the West. It includes how it allegedly financed various other leaders and political parties.
These books opened my eyes to the extent of plunder, corruption and theft at the heart of capitalism. Read them and weep.
Matthew Frost, Commissioning Editor, Literature, Theatre and Film at Manchester University Press
During Manchester’s Pyschfest 2021, I accidentally gatecrashed a book club in the little snug of the Lass O’Gowrie. It so happened that in there was a friend of mine and frequent visitor to my gallery, Paul. The book they had been discussing was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, first published in 1958. Paul kindly gave me his copy recommending that I read it. It took me almost a year to do so but I was very glad that I did.
Although something of a classic, I was, I admit, unfamiliar with the trilogy or with Achebe, and it is fair to say it is not the kind of book I may have been naturally drawn to. Set in early Colonial era West Africa, it centres on the story of Okonkwo, a renowned warrior and the greatest living wrestler, and is a parable about male pride, the price that comes with power and position, and the power of family and belonging. Achebe writes beautifully about humanity and all its flaws, and we sympathise with Okonkwo even when he is violent, rash and stubborn.
Another book that had previously escaped me, and by all accounts most other people, is Kay Dick’s 1977 neglected classic They, republished in 2022 by Faber. A dystopian nightmare that is all the more deeply disturbing for its understated quiet portrayal of ordinary lives lived under a never fully defined threat from a group of people or creatures (or something more ethereal) and only ever referred to as “they”. For a book written almost 50 years ago, it seems eerily prescient about our 21st century unease over invisible and uncontrolled global forces.
A much more recent novel that I enjoyed a great deal was Out of the Dark by Manchester writer David Gaffney, published in 2022 by Manchester independent publisher, Confingo. It’s a story of obsession and the blurring of reality and fiction – in this case the fiction is a British film noir titled Out of the Dark. Gaffney cleverly intertwines the plot of the film with the protagonist’s own slowly unwinding and unsettling mystery.