I love going into Waterstones and just having a root around their shelves to see which black writers they have in store. Some days I’ll discover a new author, other days I get to rejoice over a familiar book that’s been reissued with a new jacket design. It’s been quite a few a while since my last visit to my favourite Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus so there was plenty for me to appreciate this week.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
Two fantasy novels. Two black authors. Both highly anticipated and buttressed with serious marketing dollars. I hope this is a taste of things to come.
Children of Blood and Bone
Zélie remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. When different clans ruled – Burners igniting flames, Tiders beckoning waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoning forth souls.
But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, anyone with powers was targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope. Only a few people remain with the power to use magic, and they must remain hidden.
Zélie is one such person. Now she has a chance to bring back magic to her people and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must learn to harness her powers and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Danger lurks in Orïsha, where strange creatures prowl, and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to come to terms with the strength of her magic – and her growing feelings for an enemy.
In the opulent world of Orleans, the people are born grey and damned, and only a Belle’s powers can make them beautiful.
Camellia Beauregard wants to be the favourite Belle – the one chosen by the queen to tend to the royal family.
But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favourite is not everything she always dreamed it would be.
Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that her powers may be far greater – and far darker – than she ever imagined.
When the queen asks Camellia to break the rules she lives by to save the ailing princess, she faces an impossible decision: protect herself and the way of the Belles, or risk her own life, and change the world forever.
Straight Outta Crongton by Alex Wheatle
Did you know Alex Wheatle is the UK’s most read Black British author? Well, now you do. This children’s chapter book is the third in a trilogy set in the fictional South Crong council estate.
Alex Wheatle says he turned to YA fiction initially because he felt he wasn’t making progress in adult publishing. He told the Guardian:
“Even though I had a good reputation, I always felt a resistance. I didn’t feel like I was making inroads. I felt like I was this token black writer who writes about ghetto stuff.”
I happen to think children and YA publishing is making a marked effort to publish more diverse voice, while adult publishing seems to be pottering on as though there is no problem. I think this chimes with Alex’s experience of finding YA publishing more accommodating for a black author.
The good news is, the move from adult to YA has paid off for Alex. The second installment of the Crong series, Crongton Knights, won the 2016 Guardian children’s fiction prize. I’m really hoping we’ll see the series on school reading lists before too long.
Life’s a constant hustle for Mo. Her mum’s boyfriend Lloyd is just another man who likes to beat down women; the South Crong streets are fraught with hazards and nasty G’s; and when it comes to matters of the heart . . . she’s still hung up on Sam.
No wonder she’s vexed so much of the time.
Thank god her sistrens, Elaine and Naomi, are on her side: if one of them falls then they all fall.
But when badness goes down and a life is left hanging in the balance, Mo has to face her hot urge for revenge . . . and she might end up losing more than she wins.
The Friend by Dorothy Koomson
Waterstones isn’t quite sure what to do with Dorothy Koomson. Most of her books are under Romance, which makes sense for her early work like Marshmallows for Breakfast and The Chocolate Run. But Rose Petal Beach and The Girl From Nowhere, with their murders and psychological brain-twistyness? Not so much. I think it’s because her publishers insist on giving her pastel coloured, candy-sweet book jackets. The booksellers have no idea about the darkness Dorothy has hidden inside.
Well, her latest release might mark a change in the tide. I found The Friend looking very comfortable in the Crime section.
After her husband’s big promotion, Cece Solarin arrives in Brighton with their three children, ready to start afresh. But their new neighbourhood has a deadly secret. Three weeks earlier, Yvonne, a very popular parent, was almost murdered in the grounds of the local school – the same school where Cece has unwittingly enrolled her children.
Already anxious about making friends when the parents seem so cliquey, Cece is now also worried about her children’s safety. By chance she meets Maxie, Anaya and Hazel, three very different school mothers who make her feel welcome and reassure her about her new life. That is until Cece discovers the police believe one of her new friends tried to kill Yvonne. Reluctant to spy on her friends but determined to discover the truth, Cece must uncover the potential murderer before they strike again . . .
Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence
I remember Patrice’s debut novel, Orange Boy, winning a basket-load of awards when it landed in 2016. That story was about a teen pushed to embrace the violence of the streets after becoming the target of a ruthless gang. Indigo Donut came out in July 2017 and seems just as powerful and fearless about taking on tough topics.
Seventeen-year-old Indigo has had a tough start in life, having grown up in the care system after her dad killed her mum. Bailey, also seventeen, lives with his parents in Hackney and spends all his time playing guitar or tending to his luscious ginger afro.
When Indigo and Bailey meet at sixth form, serious sparks fly. But when Bailey becomes the target of a homeless man who seems to know more about Indigo than is normal, Bailey is forced to make a choice he should never have to make.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The last Oprah book club selection I read was The Twelve Tribes of Hattie in 2014. I’m still haunted by the opening scene where 17-year-old Hattie sits crumpled on the floor of her bathroom, desperately trying to save her twin babies from pneumonia. Spoiler alert: She loses.
That scene broke off a piece of my heart. I sense a comparable level of heartbreak coming my way with this meditation on marriage from Tayari Jones.
Newlyweds, Celestial and Roy, are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is artist on the brink of an exciting career. They are settling into the routine of their life together, when they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.
Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
I found this gem on the Young Adult floor. It came out in Feb 2017 so it’s still pretty new. The set up of a black girl being bussed out of her black neighbourhood to a faraway white private school reminded me of the situation for Starr in The Hate U Give. There are no police shootings in this novel, just a black girl who wants to be treated like a fully whole human, and not a broken object.
I love the collage, school-art-project feel of the cover. I also had to marvel at the dark-skinned model. Boy, we’ve come a long way from the days of whitewashing, when publishers would put images of white girls on the covers of books about black girls to ‘help them sell’.
Jade believes she must get out of her poor neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother tells her to take advantage of every opportunity that comes her way. And Jade has: every day she rides the bus away from her friends and to the private school where she feels like an outsider, but where she has plenty of opportunities. But some opportunities she doesn’t really welcome, like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Just because her mentor is black and graduated from the same high school doesn’t mean she understands where Jade is coming from. She’s tired of being singled out as someone who needs help, someone people want to fix. Jade wants to speak, to create, to express her joys and sorrows, her pain and her hope. Maybe there are some things she could show other women about understanding the world and finding ways to be real, to make a difference.
Small Island by Andrea Levy
New cover! I know nothing about art, it looks like some kind of sponge print-effect has been used. I don’t care, the result is stunning.
It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh’s neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but Queenie doesn’t know when her husband will return, or if he will come back at all. What else can she do?
Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he finds himself treated very differently. It’s desperation that makes him remember a wartime friendship with Queenie and knock at her door.
Gilbert’s wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London shabby, decrepit, and far from the golden city of her dreams. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was…
Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo
Another gorgeous cover. I like the way the artist has incorporated the title and author name into the street furniture of this Lagos street. You’ve even got a portrait of Chibundu and her magnificent hair on the billboard. The cover is a joyful reflection of the colour and frenzy of Lagos life. I’m particularly enamoured with the beautiful print fabrics the characters are wearing.
Deep in the Niger Delta, officer Chike Ameobi deserts the army and sets out on the road to Lagos. He is soon joined by a wayward private, a naive militant, a vulnerable young woman and a runaway middle-class wife. The shared goals of this unlikely group: freedom and new life.
As they strive to find their places in the city, they become embroiled in a political scandal. Ahmed Bakare, editor of the failing Nigerian Journal, is determined to report the truth. Yet government minister Chief Sandayo will do anything to maintain his position. Trapped between the two, they are forced to make a life-changing decision.
Full of shimmering detail, Welcome to Lagos is a stunning portrayal of an extraordinary city, and of seven lives that intersect in a breathless story of courage and survival.
The Same Earth by Kei Miller
The vibrant cover caught my eye first. That mustard yellow all but leaps off the front. I’m assuming the novel has been reissued as it originally came out in 2008 but the jacket design feels very fresh and contenporary.
I flipped over to the back and read: In the small Jamaican village of Watersgate a thief stirs – no fewer than three pairs of Tessa Walcott’s panties have gone missing.
I’m laughing already! Who doesn’t love a small town crimewave? This is the kind of cozy mystery you enjoy on a rainy night with some Jamaica ginger cake and a teapot of black tea.
It all begins with the theft of Tessa Walcott’s panties…
After the hurricane of 1974, Jamaica is devastated. Imelda Richardson is sent to England, without a place to stay or a plan of what to do. Luckily she is taken in by Purletta Johnson, a member of the ex-pat bourgeoisie who has decided to become more Jamaican than any Jamaican: sucking her teeth, sporting a gold tooth, and growing ganja on her balcony.
But when her mother dies Imelda returns to Jamaica. When Tessa Walcott’s panties are stolen, she and Imelda set up a Neighbourhood Watch. But they haven’t counted on Pastor Braithwaite who denounces them in Church. The church-goers turn on Imelda, and when the river suddenly floods her home it is seen as a punishment from God. A Pentecostal fervour sweeps through the village of Watersgate, fuelled by Evangelist Millie. In her last great crusade, Miss Millie organises ‘fire to burn their sins away’, equipping the villagers with kerosene as they set about burning everything. Now they are marching on the gay man’s house and only Imelda can save him.
Vauxhall by Gabriel Gbadamosi
You had me at Vauxhall. Why? Because it was up the road from my childhood home in South East London. Just goes to show the power of a title. This novel originally came out in 2013. The author is Irish-Nigerian and a poet and playwright.
1970s London: Young Michael runs past the railway arches and terraces of Vauxhall. Reaching the street on which he lives, he witnesses a young girl fall from a window, her sari floating down behind her. Her lifeless body lies crumpled on the ground. This incident marks the beginning of a period in which Michael s life threatens to unravel. From his sister s taunts to a series of house fires, police harassment, his parents crumbling marriage and the realisation that the council intends to clear out the slum he calls home, he learns to navigate his way through an array of obstacles, big and small. An extraordinary debut novel, Vauxhall tells a warm and hopeful story of a young boy and the city that surrounds him.