We have fewer novels in our selection this year and none were published in 2022. They are diverse and cover themes of identity and life changing events. Two of our books are about refugees, one biographical the other fiction and both timely given the current political climate. Data and privacy (and how to protect it) are themes in the non-fiction section. There are also two books about people and place and a review of Gary Barlow’s autobiography. We finish with a book by one of our own Yorkshire writers, and a book that is a eulogy to the first glacier lost to this world.
Grief is a Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
Reviewer: Salli Martlew
This is Max Porter’s debut novel. It speaks about the grief of a young family who have lost their mother, each affected differently by their loss. The ‘thing with feathers’ is the crow of Ted Hughes’ mythological poem, as the father is obsessed with Hughes and his poetry. The two sons miss their mother, turn to each other, watch their father, and then join him as he finds a way forward. The crow visits them in their grief to empathise, to counsel and to cajole them into coming to terms with their loss. Then he leaves.
The tapestry in such a short story, written in poetry and prose, is heartrending; often very dark, sad, funny and a remarkable reflection on love and loss. The emotion and imagery linger long after the story ends. I read it. And immediately read it again.
Paperback, 128 pages. Published in 2016 by Faber and Faber.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Reviewer: Alex Toal
This book was recommended to me by a friend with impeccable taste, and once again they delivered.
On Beauty, loosely based on Howards End, traces the conflict between two families: the Kipps and the Belseys. While the patriarchs of the family are set up early on as bitter rivals as two academics from staunchly different academic, religious and ethnic traditions, the families’ supposed rivalry is complicated with friendship and attraction between its various members.
The book is simultaneously a beautiful exploration of love, lust, and trust, and at the same time is biting in its satire. Even though it was written 17 years ago, all its tropes and humour are remarkably topical. Most of all, the novel is notable for its flowing prose, distinct voices, and effortless weaving of art, music, and poetry, into a compelling interpersonal narrative.
In a fast-paced year full of change, this trip back to early 2000s Boston and London was a welcome trip to another, simpler time.
Paperback, 446 pages. Published in 2005 by Hamish Hamilton.
The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
Reviewer: Michael Hindley
The Passenger is the harrowing and tragic story of a Jewish businessman’s attempts to escape Nazi Germany. The main character is assimilated; he has succeeded in business, is married to a Christian and has ‘Aryan’ features. Only his name ‘Silbermann’ indicates his ethnicity. After Kristallnacht, and as his life descends into panic as he tries to flee, his desperation is exploited. His business partner forces him to sell his share of the business at a rock bottom price. He is robbed, cannot seek refuge with his wife’s family for fear of implicating them and when he manages to cross the Belgian border, he is forced back by border guards. Finally, Silbermann collapses into madness and is incarcerated. The book reads like a thriller, but a hauntingly tragic one.
Boschwitz’s own flight and the recent rediscovery of his novel is as remarkable as his fictional passenger’s fate. Boschwitz escaped Germany to Britain but when the war broke out he was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man. When returned to Britain, the ship on which Boschwitz he sailed, the MV Abosso, is sunk by a German torpedo and Boschwitz perished.
Paperback, 288 pages. Published in 2021 by Pushkin Press (first published in 1938, 1940 in the UK).
Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
Reviewer: Stella Perrott
In 1792, Lizzy Fawkes is recently married to John ‘Diner’ Tredevant, a builder, whose plans to develop a crescent of fine Georgian houses above the Clifton Gorge in Bristol bankrupts them. The French Revolution, supported by Lizzy’s radical pamphleteering family, has a devastating impact on Diner’s property development aspirations and runs as the backcloth to their deteriorating relationship. The weight of her husband’s impending ruin and increasingly oppressive attempts to control her is compounded by her mother’s failing health and death.
Lizzy is politically indifferent and entered a traditional marriage, despite parental reservations, to a man with whom she has almost nothing in common other than physical attraction. But she has inherited her mother’s independent spirit and chafes at the restrictions Diner tries to impose on her movements. As she becomes increasingly fearful for her own safety, she plans to break free, but Diner catches her as she is making her escape.
Paperback, 416 pages. Published in 2017 by Hutchinson.
The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Matthieu Atkins
Reviewer: Natalie Bennett
The term ‘gonzo journalism’ was invented in 1970, for a then wildly unconventional, first-person style of reporting, relying on an often unreliable and drug-addled reporter who was nonetheless revealing some fundamental truth about society through his (or more rarely her) experiences.
It has come a long way. And it feels almost insulting to include in this category Matthieu Atkins’ powerful tale of putting away his own, safe, Western identity to accompany his Afghan friend on the dangerous, uncomfortable journey across Europe – unsafe sea crossings and awful refugee camp stays included. This helps redefine the genre.
Unlike earlier efforts, this is a fact-checked, carefully recounted tale; Atkins at its centre provides a rich tapestry of stories of Afghans and others in the epic search for safety and a secure life that marked 2015, while being acutely aware of his own privileged option of escape at any time.
Although set in 2016, sadly, it remains relevant as EU nations continue to construct ‘fortress Europe’ and the UK pursues its ‘hostile environment’ refusing to allow refugees safe, orderly routes to apply for asylum.
Hardcover 336 pages. Published in 2022 by Harper Collins.
Towards Industrial Freedom by Edward Carpenter
Reviewer: John Carlisle
Edward Carpenter wrote this astonishingly insightful book in 1917. It comprised, rather like Ruskin’s Unto this Last, a series of papers on the political economy. Today, unfortunately, interest in Carpenter’s unusual (for the time) personal life has overshadowed his massive contribution to economic thinking. His socialist critique of industrial capitalism matches that of John Ruskin and Aneurin Bevan’s In Place of Fear.
The subjects range from a study of China to the case for a minimum wage. The writing is clear, and the examples are apposite. Misleadingly, the preface says the book would be of interest to students of sociology. It is, in fact, an economic treatise on the ills of the industrial revolution, compounded by what the Guild Socialists called ‘wage slavery’ and Carpenter’s own original concept, ‘internecine competition’. Few have made as good a case against what the late David Graeber called ‘bullshit jobs’, central government and greedy financiers. And even fewer have made as good a case for enjoyable work, local government and small holdings.
Paperback, 224 pages. Re-published 2016 by Routledge Revivals.
The Little Black Book of Data and Democracy: How social media threatens our very way of life and what you can do about it by Kyle Taylor
The Little Black Book of Lying Boris Johnson: from journalist to prime minister, how one man’s lies re-shaped modern Britain by Kyle Taylor, Dawn Butler and Peter Stefanovic
Reviewer: Salli Martlew
In The Little Black Book of Data and Democracy, Kyle Taylor provides a clear and honest explanation of complicated issues. One person’s internet history is worth nothing but, put together with everyone else’s on that platform, there is a wealth of knowledge about us. ‘Big data’ provides ample opportunity for ‘them’ to sell the information and others to act on it. At the end Taylor tells us what we can do – get off Facebook, say goodbye to Alexa and move onto more secure forms of texting.
Taylor’s accessible style is also evident in Lying Boris Johnson. He shows how Johnson connived and manipulated through language, half-truths and downright lies as a journalist, a politician and a Brexiter to get to Number 10. Accompanied by Dominic Cummings, Matt Hancock, Priti Patel and Owen Paterson he ascended to his ‘rightful place’. This book is very well researched, so prepare to be angry when you realise how we have been duped over the past decade. Again, Taylor provides practical solutions, a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. What to do: cut out the social media, look for information that is researched and reliable, then speak the truth out loud. To have a fair and democratic government read Kyle Taylor, understand his message and act on it.
The Little Black Book of Data and Democracy: paperback and eBook, 147 pages. Published March 2021 by Byline Books.
The Little Black Book of Lying Boris Johnson: paperback 110 pages. Published December 2022 by Byline Books.
The Privacy Mission: Achieving Ethical Data for Our Lives Online by Annie Machon
Reviewer: Barry White
Our lives are increasing dominated by the world wide web and being online, but how much thought do we give to our online rights? In this well-researched book Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer and now a political activist, shows us how to future-proof our personal and professional lives against threats to privacy and online safety The subject of data ethics has never been more urgent. The author asks:
- Who controls access to the hardware, who runs the software, who can spy on us, hack us, data farm us?
- What are the threats that we need to mitigate against?
- Can corporations protect us, and can that help advance their bottom line?
The Privacy Mission aims to answer these questions and summarise both the overarching concepts and principles about why data ethics are important to us all. It offers practical solutions for individuals, companies and policy makers.
Hardback, 226 pages. Published September 2022 by Wiley.
Finding the Mother Tree: uncovering the wisdom and intelligence of the forest by Suzanne Simard
Reviewer: Frances Cole
A gem of a book, an autobiography of a forest scientist from a family of foresters in Northern British Columbia who knows and understands the redwood and conifer forests through generations. The book takes you from childhood experiences of living in the forests, learning Grandpa’s wisdom and the sacredness of trees, to the unfolding excitement of discovering the science of how trees are intelligent communicators. Suzanne Simard’s life story is shared between her ‘how do trees talk?’ experiments that track the trees’ mycological communications, and the challenges she faces in managing a family, becoming a scientist, being a 900-kilometre weekend commuter and addressing breast cancer. Her discoveries enthralled people and foresters but, sadly, not the forest producers as their ongoing search for profit still threatens the integrity of the planet. The Mother Tree experiments engage the reader’s curiosity and you become amazed at nature. Great holiday book!
Paperback, 348 pages. Published in 2021 by Penguin.
One Man and his Bike by Mike Carter
Reviewer: Paul Bright
A restless middle-aged Guardian journalist on his daily bicycle commute, is struck by the thought that if instead of turning left at a set of traffic lights he continues straight ahead, keeps the Thames and then the sea on his right-hand side, he will eventually return to his starting point having ridden anticlockwise around the British mainland.
The ride tells a story of often breath-taking landscapes, of a country in need of ‘levelling up’, of post-industrial neglect, of towns with boarded up shops and fleets of mobility scooters contrasting with resort towns with bijou expensive cafes, souvenir shops, yacht marinas and eye-wateringly expensive real estate.
Above all there are the inspiring people he meets, and the kindness and hospitality offered by strangers along the way – monks and priests, fellow cyclists, lighthouse keepers, ferrymen and many with alternative lifestyles. On his travels he becomes aware that he had slipped into a mindset of ‘assuming goodwill’.
Paperback, 352 pages. Published in 2012 by Random House.
A Different Stage by Gary Barlow
Reviewer: Graham Clark
Take That, led by Gary Barlow, is one of the most successful boy bands to come out of the UK. They have survived breakup and are recording and touring 30 years since their formation. A Different Stage is a celebration of Gary Barlow’s life in music. Inspired by his acclaimed one-man autobiographical stage show, which toured the country in 2022.
The book is a colourful entertaining read. From his childhood in Frodsham, Cheshire to being the opening act at Talk of the Coast, Blackpool in 1988, we re-discover the first successes of the band; the breakup which led to his solo career; the weight gain that came from eating too many pies … and learn how he wrote some of the biggest hits in popular music. It talks of his difficulties but also shows that, though determination, talent and luck, things can be reversed, and success can return.
The book contains previously unseen photos taken over many years as well as recent, exclusive back-stage photos from his stage show. It will appeal to Barlow and Take That fans alike. For non-fans this book gives a good account of the career of a pop star. It is warm and humorous, rich with nostalgia and surprisingly intimate detail which is hard to put down once you start.
Hardback, 286 pages. Published in 2022 by Michael Joseph.
Northerners: A History, from the Ice Age to the Present Day by Brian Groom
Reviewer: John Heywood
Although the cover of Brian Groom’s informative, entertaining, and enjoyable read is illustrated with a train passing over a viaduct, it reminds me more of a coach tour through the history of the North of England. As with most coach tours, so much is packed into the itinerary that you find yourself wishing that you could spend an extra half day in a particularly interesting place. In parts of this significant work, you wish to have delved a little deeper. That said, this is a thoroughly researched, excellently written book by a former top journalist whose passion for the North shines through. Covering over two thousand years of the area’s history, this book is a long-overdue look at our past, our present and indeed our future.
Hardback, 432 pages. Published in 2022 by Harper North.
Norky’s Ramblings by Peter Norcliffe
Reviewer: Hester Dunlop
Norky left school with an aversion to education, and particularly to reading. But what school overlooked – his sharp intelligence, ability to hold an audience with humour, humility and self-depreciation – is found on every page of this collection of tales from his younger and not-so-younger years.
He has never had any ambition for fortune. He worked, married young and raised a family, all within a few square miles of a small patch of Huddersfield. Here we find a world familiar to many but now as arcane as ginnels, back boilers, flat caps, and pints of mild. A world less innocent and wholesome than the nostalgia industry would have us believe but where family, neighbours and workmates live, eat and play within a mucky landscape written on by a century of industrial might. Mill, mines, and terraces rising and falling across moorland and valley. Dirty rivers and canals. Trolley buses and two wheels instead of four, sometimes powered with fascinating internal combustion engines. And lots of smoke, dust and congestion. Peter’s stories make you glad to know the place and spend some time here. Enjoy them. Enjoy the company. It’s like spending time with a good friend.
Paperback, 274 pages. Published in 2022 by Peter Norcliffe.
On Time and Water by Andri Snӕr Magnason
Reviewer: Brian McHugh
“Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument acknowledges that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”(Memorial plaque on the Okjökull Glacier-Magnason, 2019)
This memorial to the lost glacier can surely be compared to Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” in 1969. Just as Armstrong’s words are etched in history as an expression of humanity’s triumph, so will these words on the memorial to the first glacier to be lost, be etched as an expression of the threat to our existence – all within the short span of 50 years.
In this book, the author of the words on the memorial, Magnason, takes us on a personal journey using language, mythology and memoir to explore glacier loss, climate communication and our debt to future generations.
For every parent wishing for a better life for their children, Magnason’s book is a gift, as we reach the climate crossroads and the choices that must be made.
Paperback, 352 pages. Published in 2019 by Serpent’s Tail.