The North is vastly underrepresented in the publishing industry, both in its workforce and amongst the writers it sources its books from. Last year, a survey found that only 10% of people working in publishing were from the North of England. Calls to diversify the industry are valid and by doing so, we can actively encourage the publication of more books that are regionally diverse. I think the issue is partly underpinned by classism and elitism, both making publishing jobs and writing careers inaccessible to people unable to work unpaid internships or write freely without circumstantial distractions.
As a working-class woman growing up in the North, I struggled to see myself in many books, and whilst I enjoy reading in part because it allows me to learn about other experiences, it is special when I find a book I can relate to in that sense. The books on this list are all incredibly written, exploring varying themes to a stellar degree of writing power.
Supper Club by Lara Williams (Hamish. H)
Where do I start with this one? Supper Club is a thought-provoking first person narrative which follows the life of Roberta. The book explores many of her experiences, including her time at university, her virulent relationships with men and her friendships with the erratic women in her life. She forms the Supper Club as an escape, a safe space for women to take back the power by gorging eclectic combinations of foods whilst venting their problems. Williams’ keen observations allow her to depict female friendships in a new way, one which recognises their imperfections and toxicity but also sees our need for intimate love between friends. If you like elaborate food writing that captures the minutiae of cooking and are interested in the links between hunger, love and joy, this book is definitely for you.
Saltwater by Jessica Andrews (Sceptre)
I’ve already written extensively about my love for Saltwater by Jessica Andrews, winner of the Portico Prize 2020. The story follows Lucy, a working class girl growing up in Sunderland, North of England. She longs for something more, something she thinks is beyond her. It’s a coming of age story all about finding who you are, moving away from home, our relationships to the places we visit, mothers and daughters and working class communities. It’s poetic, beautifully written and continues to surprise me when I return to it.
Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son by Gordon Burn (Faber)
Burn’s Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son is one of those non-fiction books that genuinely makes you sit back and think: okay I’m never going to be a writer. With microscopic attention to detail and a journalistic style that keeps you turning the pages, Burn really did something incredible here with the life story of Peter Sutcliffe, the North’s most famous serial killer. The Yorkshire Ripper murdered thirteen women and attempted to murder seven others during his reign of terror across Yorkshire and the north west of England. There were police failings galore, rooted in misogyny, classism and a desperation to close the case. Burn documents these as if he himself thought the story up. It reads like a true work of art and explores what could drive a man to commit such crimes, holistically and without speculation. I’d also highly recommend Happy Like Murderers, his true crime centering the horrors of Fred and Rose West. Truly horrendous but an excellent read for any true crime fanatics.
Boy Parts by Eliza Clark (Influx Press)
I was lucky enough to receive a proof of Boy Parts from Influx Press who are releasing the book this summer. It is genuinely one of the most brilliant books I’ve read for a long time and I devoured it in a matter of days. The story follows Irina, an erotic photographer from Newcastle. She’s a flawed, unlikeable protagonist who gets the chance to exhibit her work in a big time gallery space in London. It’s a weird, wonderful and experimental narrative that explores everything from drug abuse to body image. There’s some really interesting moments which provoke thoughts on consent, sex and intimacy and where the line can be drawn between art and reality. Highly recommend everyone to read this when it is released in July, you won’t regret it.
And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando (S&S)
Between the ages of about twelve and sixteen, I completely fell out of love with reading. This meant that I completely missed the boat with YA, and can probably count on one hand the amount of them I’ve actually read. However, this book by Danielle Jawando has made me realise that it’s probably not too late to start. It’s a tender, heartfelt and contemplative story about mental health and bullying, narrated from the perspective of a fifteen year-old boy who has lost his brother to suicide. Jawando uses Nathan’s character to explore various themes such as grief, anger and masculinity, particularly the societal expectation of men to conceal their emotions. I was lucky enough to be part of Danielle’s book launch in her home city of Manchester and it was a really emotional and heartwarming event to work at. There was also lots (and lots) of rum punch so we had a wonderful time…
Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley (John Murray)
Starve Acre is the most recent book by Andrew Michael Hurley who I have a special place on my shelf for since I attended (and reviewed) his very first book event in my hometown, aged 15 or 16. Much like his debut, The Loney, Starve Acre can be easily defined as a modern gothic classic. It seems to be set in a timeless setting in the Yorkshire Dales, although you couldn’t be blamed for thinking it’s probably set in the 70s. A man and his wife, existing in a suffocating and oppressive environment, are forced to come to terms with their grief following their son’s death six months earlier. It is a silent, eerie read full of spectacular place writing and explorations of human relationships.
Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker (Virago)
This is possibly one of my all time favourite books, by one of my favourite authors. Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down is loosely set during the time of the Yorkshire Ripper and is written from the perspectives of the sex workers who the Ripper often targeted (for their vulnerability, not because he had ambitions to cleanse society as the 70s media made out). The women are explored in great detail and their working class communities are brought to life in a way that I am yet to experience from many other books. Barker humanises their stories and offers an antithesis to the media’s coverage of the Ripper saga during the time of the investigation. It’s written with intelligence, tenderness and an ability to tell stories like no other.
Physical by Andrew McMillan (Cape Poetry)
Andrew McMillan is up there with my favourite poets, and this collection truly sold me on him. Physical explores many themes but the two which stand out most are its discussion of intimacy and modern conceptions of masculinity. There are some really funny and satirical moments in the poems which get darker the more you think mull over them, like men crying in gyms whilst swigging on their protein shakes. The collection draws contrasts between gender and sexuality too, interrogating gay intimacy and how this is infiltrated by masculinity. McMillan is a poetic genius and if you get the chance to hear him speak at an event anytime soon (always around in Manchester), I highly recommend visiting.
Ironopolis by Glen James Brown (Parthian Books)
Ironopolis is the debut novel from Glen James Brown and was shortlisted for the Portico Prize 2020. It’s a stunning look at life in the post-industrial town of Middlesbrough in the North East of England and interrogates the working class communities living on a council estate over five generations. The generational style reminded me a lot of D.H Lawrence’s The Rainbow, except a million times better. I really enjoyed Brown’s writing style and loved hearing him read from the book at the Portico Prize shortlist ceremony. Can’t wait to hear more from him and his wonderful indie publisher, Parthian Books.
Us by Zaffar Kunial (Faber Poetry)
I really enjoy poetry collections that have a clear thematic thread running through them, and Us is a great example of that. Through absorbing and unique observations, Kunial explores identity and what it means to have an identity. His poetry is ‘plain’ in the nicest way possible, constructed carefully whilst reading casually and concisely for maximum impact. The collection provides a lot of space for reflection and this was something I really enjoyed about it. I’m excited to read more from Faber’s Kunial in future, especially after being lucky enough to be taught by him for a seminar on my creative writing course at uni.
Theft by Luke Brown (And Other Stories)
I was really excited to hear about the publication of Theft from And Other Stories, firstly because of the seagull on the front and more importantly, because it is set in my hometown. The fylde coast doesn’t appear often in literature so when it does, it goes straight to the top of my reading pile. Theft is a witty, sarcastic and heartfelt story which follows Paul, a literary journalist. His sister has gone missing in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum following the death of their mother who owns a small house in Fleetwood. There’s also romance at play in the novel between Paul and a famous writer, Emily Nardini. I loved this book which has a unique style that makes you want to laugh and cry a little at the same time.
Exit Management by Naomi Booth (Dead Ink)
Naomi Booth’s Exit Management is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I haven’t even finished it yet. It’s written in the most entrancing poetic style and with a tenderness that makes you feel as if you might know the characters in real life. The book spans many themes, dissecting social class, xenophobia in the wake of Brexit and a hunger for something more. The story follows Callum and Lauren who end up in a situation that gets darker with each page turned. As always, Naomi Booth has really achieved something incredible with this book.
The Book of Newcastle ed. by Angela Readman and Zoe Turner (Comma Press)
The Book of Newcastle, published as part of Comma Press’ city series, is a collection of wonderful stories by writers from the North East, including Jessica Andrews, author of Saltwater. These books that Comma curate are always staples in my collection of short stories and The Book of Sheffield is another example. This collection embodies the spirit of Newcastle, from its powerhouse heyday to its post-industrial disparate landscapes. The stories are all unique and brilliant in their own right and this book is a wonderful testament to the writing power the city has to offer.