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This is where you will find stunning books from literary masters past and present. Literary fiction doesn’t just mean good or valued, as brilliant writing can be found in any genre. These are serious stories with high artistic qualities that strike at the heart of what it is to be human.
Beautiful, brutal and raw - I cannot praise Michael Crummey’s The Innocents highly enough. Set in an inhospitable isolated area of the Newfoundland coast in the nineteenth-century, it’s a remarkable Garden of Eden, Babes in the Wood masterwork in which we witness age-old nature-nurture conflicts ebb and flow as we observe two siblings living on the edge, in every sense. Through their poignant passages to adulthood we see humanity at its most elemental, and we’re compelled to consider what it means to become a human adult Siblings Evered and Ada have survived the loss of their mother and baby sister Martha, though Ada still hears and speaks to Martha. Now their father has died and there’s no one but them to remove his body from their home. No one but each other to ensure they survive. Equipped with very limited knowledge of the world, and facing perilous poverty, the siblings fish and cure their catch, as their father used to, but the catches come either in unmanageable excess, or not at all. They are never far from the ravages of starvation, or wild storms. As time passes, Ada and Evered derive secret knowledge from their bodies, as well as from infrequent interactions with outsiders. Once a year, men come to collect the sibling’s paltry cured fish, dropping off scant supplies as payment. Then there are chance visits from seamen surprised to find them living alone in this precarious way. The siblings assimilate new knowledge from these unexpected visitors – knowledge of brewing, hunting, history and human relationships - who in turn leave indelible marks on Ada and Evered, leaving them changed to the extent that “each in their own way was beginning to doubt their pairing was requisite to what they might want from life.” Inspired by a story the author found in local archives, this is an incredibly haunting novel – the language powerfully pure, the story uniquely thought-provoking.
From the detailed domestic scenes dappled with loss, love, hardship and hanging on, to sweeping waves of war, the rare power of Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King creeps up on you, catches you unaware, becomes compulsive in the manner of complex classics of the ancient world. It’s 1935 in Ethiopia and newly-orphaned Hirut is employed as a maid by an officer in Emperor Hailie Selassie’s army. In her previous life, Hirut’s father taught her to use a gun: “This, he says, you do not touch unless you are prepared. Prepared for what, she asks. He slips the bullet back into his pocket. Prepared to be something you are not.” And this is what Hirut is prepared for when Ethiopia is invaded by Mussolini’s vengeful army. Not content to merely care for the wounded, she devises a plan and rouses women to rise up and fight. As they shift from being housewives, to nurses, to warriors, their stories are haunting, harrowing and stirring, and this novel confirms Mengiste’s status as a writer blessed with lyrical bravery and unique vision. Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.
Our August 2020 Book Club Recommendation. Click here to see our Reading Group Questions. Glorious! A novel of such startling sincerity, clarity and eloquence it feels as though the narrator herself is stamped onto every page. A Room Made of Leaves is inspired by letters and documents on entrepreneur and pioneer John Macarthur and his wife Elizabeth. They left England in 1788 for New South Wales in Australia when he was posted as Lieutenant to the penal colony of Sydney Town. This is Kate Grenville’s first novel in a decade, she is the author of the 2006 Man Booker shortlisted novel The Secret River. Elizabeth narrates, headstrong and wilful she nonetheless finds she is folding herself smaller and smaller in order to not be observed. Each chapter may be short but they are full of suppressed emotion, candour, and are as compelling as can be. The chapter headings, if all joined together, would create a story in themselves. As each word, as each sentence and chapter flowers, the inner being of Elizabeth opened to allow me to see, and also feel her emotions. The cover is gorgeous and the understanding of the title when it came, made the beauty resonate all the more. Australia is obviously much loved, and I in turn loved reading between the lines of history. Unique and spirited, A Room Made of Leaves truly is a beautiful novel, it also deservedly joins our LoveReading Star Books.
If everything in your life was based on a lie Would you risk it all to tell the truth? At Montverre, an exclusive academy tucked away in the mountains, the best and brightest are trained for excellence in the grand jeu: an arcane and mysterious contest. Leo Martin was once a student there, but lost his passion for the grand jeu following a violent tragedy. Now he returns in disgrace, exiled to his old place of learning with his political career in tatters. Montverre has changed since he studied there, even allowing a woman, Claire Dryden, to serve in the grand jeu's highest office of Magister Ludi. When Leo first sees Claire he senses an odd connection with her, though he's sure they have never met before. Both Leo and Claire have built their lives on lies. And as the legendary Midsummer Game, the climax of the year, draws closer, secrets are whispering in the walls...
Based on her great-great grandparents’ experiences, Tammye Huf’s A More Perfect Union is a heart-rending, soul-stirring story of the love between a black slave and an Irish immigrant. A lucid, bold tale of the despicable brutality of slavery, personal conflicts, and a bond that will not be broken. Henry O’Toole fled Ireland in 1848 to escape the famine. On arriving in New York, “America stabs me with homesickness” and he can’t find a job - “Every day it’s the same. No Irish”. Compelled to flee the city, he changes his surname to the English-sounding ‘Taylor’ and heads to Virginia. House slave Sarah is separated from her Momma and brother when she’s sold as a “quick-cleaning-slave-who-don’t-get-sick”. She and Henry meet when he comes seeking work as a blacksmith at the plantation she’s been sold to. Here Henry is moved by the sound of slaves singing at night, while Sarah paces her hoe in the kitchen garden to “the rhythmic strike of the blacksmith’s hammer”. The stirring attraction between them is palpable, but theirs is a forbidden relationship - inter-racial marriage is illegal, and viewed as an abomination. What’s more, she’s owned by another man. The couple are in an excruciating situation, their complex personal conflicts evoked with shattering clarity. Sarah has to reconcile loving a man whose white skin represents her oppression, and she’s also ostracised by fellow slaves. Then there’s the searing exchange when Sarah sees Henry making neck rings and shackles. When he protests that he has no choice, that he needs to earn money, that he knows what it is to be shackled by poverty, Sarah’s response captures the despicable inhumanity of enslavement: “’I know you been through a hard, hungry life,’ she says. ‘I want you to understand that slave suffering is a different thing. When somebody owns you, there ain’t nothing they can’t do to you.’” Both their voices are conjured with brilliant authenticity, and their story builds to an agonisingly edgy crescendo as the risks they take are as immense as their love. I cannot recommend this enough. Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.
Hauntingly tender, and written with powerful grace, Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures is an absolute joy from start to finish. It’s 1957 in suburban Kent, where Jean writes for a local newspaper with every aspect of her life still dominated by her contrary, controlling mother as Jean approaches forty. No post-work drinks with colleagues. No friends. No romance. Enter Gretchen Tilbury, an elegant Swiss woman who writes to the paper claiming her daughter was the result of a virgin birth. As Jean investigates the case, she becomes close to Gretchen, her kind, witty husband Howard, and the alleged miraculous daughter, all four of them finding comfortable joy in each other’s company. “You’ve stirred us out of our routine,” Howard remarks, to which Jean responds, “I would have thought it was the other way about.” While researching Gretchen’s youth, Jean inadvertently sends shockwaves through the Tilbury family when she reconnects Gretchen to a powerful figure from her past. At the same time, she and Howard find themselves falling for each other, both of them remaining faithful to Gretchen, graciously skirting their attraction - until it’s right to act. The novel features some of the most finely drawn, endearing characters I’ve encountered in recent contemporary fiction. For all her lonely frustration, Jean isn’t one to wallow. She’s pragmatic, with ripples of not-quite-regret lapping beneath her smooth, reasoned surface - a woman “who took pride in her ability to conceal unruly emotions.” Her domesticity pieces for the paper have something of Carrie Bradshaw’s musings about them, albeit without any in-your-face sex in the city (or the suburbs, in Jean’s case), with their apparently humdrum themes humorously paralleling soul-stirring events in her own life. Laying bare a quivering three-way tug between obligation, propriety and passion, and the inexplicable way thunderbolt-bonds are formed between similar-souled individuals, Jean’s conflicts and chance to love truly get under your skin. What a remarkable book, with a dagger-sharp climax that will pierce your heart.
“For the last thirty-two years, you’ve not once trotted out for a run around the block. And now you tell me with a straight face that you want to run a marathon.” So begins this scathingly amusing novel that sees 64-year-old Remington - recently forced to retire early after an unsavoury employment tribunal – develop an unhealthy obsession with extreme exercise and his hideously competitive trainer, Bambi. Remington’s wife, sixty-year-old Serenata has always been a solitary exerciser (“I find large numbers of people doing the same thing in one place a little repulsive”), so the fact that her “husband had joined the mindless lookalikes of the swollen herd” comes as a shock, and an insensitive affront too, given that she was recently compelled to give up a lifetime of running after a diagnosis of osteoarthritis in both knees. Their spiteful bickering begins immediately, with neither party displaying themselves in a favourable light. Indeed, both characters are largely unlikeable, which makes their sniping all the more entertaining. Remington bemoans accusations of privilege, thus revealing said privilege: “I’m a little tired of being told how ‘privileged’ I am... How as a member of the ‘straight white patriarchy’ I have all the power. I’m supposedly so omnipotent, but I live in fear, less like a man than a mouse.” After (eventually) crossing the finish line of his first marathon, Remington signs-up for a gruelling triathlon, with his farcical persistence in spite of serious incidents and injuries making this novel both hilarious and excruciatingly cringe-worthy, albeit with an unexpectedly bittersweet upshot.
What if Jesus had married? What kind of woman would he marry? Who would marry him? These questions are at the heart of Sue Monk Kidd’s sweepingly inventive The Book of Longings. Ana, with her “turbulent black curls and eyes the colour of rainclouds” and a narrative voice that sweeps you up in its bold passion, was born into a wealthy Galilean family. Sharp-minded and a gifted writer, Ana secretly transcribes the stories of matriarchs in the scriptures, women omitted from the records: “To be ignored, to be forgotten, this was the worst sadness of all. I swore an oath to set down their accomplishments and praise their flourishings, no matter how small. I would be a chronicler of lost stories.” Ana seems destined to marry an elderly widower to further her father’s career (he’s the closest adviser to Herod Antipas, whom Ana despises), until she encounters eighteen-year-old Jesus and is emboldened and aroused by his revolutionary ideas: “I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder.” Jesus understands Ana’s longings, her “life begging to be born,” and she loves his kindness, his capacity for listening. Of course, we know how the real-life narrative plays out, but this affecting story gets under the skin as familiar events unfold through Ana’s eyes, as a proto-feminist, as wife of Jesus, as sister of Judas.
Ancient gods and the elemental spirit of an island are interwoven with modern reality in this remarkable debut that begins with a family impoverished by the decline of the sugar cane industry. In the pounding, poetic words of Augie, the father of the household: ”I was once the sugarcane. I was the cane and clacking and the sugar-sweet smoke of the reaping season.” Amidst escalating money struggles, a shiver of sharks save seven-year-old Nainoa from drowning, which the family embrace as a sign from Hawai’i’s ancient gods, especially when Nainoa also seems to have been bestowed with healing powers. Throughout the writing is majestically powerful, from punch-packing phrases that slam you in the gut, to monumental descriptions that rise, crash, roar and swell like Big Island waves, not least when life unravels again after Nainoi – now a young adult - and his siblings leave the island for various parts of the USA. Sister Kaui captures one of the novel’s core themes when, relocated to San Diego, she speaks of being, “A person of here and there, and not belonging in either place.” Meanwhile, in Portland, struggling with his healing gift, and the failings of this gift, Nainoa recalls the shark incident and memories call to him: “Home. Come home.” With its sweeping sense of myth, this multi-voiced family saga is a brilliant, involving exposition of how the places we inhabit also inhabit us at bone-deep level. It rings and rages with the wrath, revival, healing and hope of its characters. Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.
Glorious, simply and beautifully glorious! Inspired by Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, this is the imagined story behind the writing of Hamlet, which was written between 1599 and 1601. Hamnet and Hamlet were apparently “entirely interchangeable in Stratford records in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries”. Maggie O’Farrell says she wanted to write this story for over thirty years. “What did it mean for a father to name a tragic hero after his ( ) son. What was this unusual act telling us?” The cover design is beautiful, it called to me. On opening, I slipped into and fell in love with this tale. Hamnet has an almost otherworldly feel, and yet is as earthy and believable as can be. Two time frames sit side by side, Hamnet becoming ill in 1596, and then the earlier story of Shakespeare and Agnes meeting and falling in love. The descriptions became clear bright images in my mind. I could feel the words, they echoed deep inside me, creating pools of emotion. I cried on finishing, all the feelings that Hamnet created slipped out of me and trickled down my cheeks. I adore Hamnet, it now sits on my list of favourite books, and will be one that I reread each year. Chosen as a Book of the Month, LoveReading Star Book, and Liz Pick of the Month.
Set in 1980s Atlanta, Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow is a rich tour de force that sparkles with wit, warmth and candid lyricism. Exploring the weight of secrets and the complexities of love and family life through the compelling coming of age stories of sisters estranged by their father’s bigamy, this novel lingers long in the soul. “The truth is a strange thing. Like pornography, you know when you see it.” This potent proclamation cuts to the novel’s core, for Dana and her mother Gwen are the other wife, the other daughter, of bigamist James, and they know this truth while his first wife and daughter remain oblivious. Upset when James tells her that being his second daughter “You are the one that’s a secret,” Gwen poignantly informs Dana that rather than being secret, she’s simply “unknown. That little girl there doesn’t know she has a sister. You know everything.” Knowledge that she possesses the truth offers Dana consolation, of sorts. While James’s other family is financially better off, both wives have a distinct lack of agency. Indeed, the novel is sharp on showing how women often have to make their lives from what men decide, such as when Gwen remarks that when you’re four weeks late, “All you can do is give him the news and let him decide if he is going to leave or if he is going to stay.” The novel is also powerful on elemental love and the nature of memory, such as Dana’s response to being gifted a fur coat her father won in a card game: “To this day and for the rest of my life I will always have a soft spot for a man with rum on his breath.” In time, during her own tempestuous teenage years, Dana orchestrates encounters with her sister and they become friends, with tension rising as the secret threatens to detonate. With finely drawn, flawed characters that pull readers’ loyalties in different directions, this commanding, compassionate novel confirms the author’s exceptional gifts. Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.
This is an astounding novel telling the stories of twelve characters living across the country and through the years. Each character is vivid as they take centre stage to share their story with us. Whether it's the sassy, argumentative Yazz, or the devastating narratives of Carole and Dominique. This book is filled with humour, culture and passion and I think it is a must-read for everyone. Composed as poetic prose, Bernadine Evaristo's lyricism throughout makes the sections flow, hammers home key points and gives each character their own unique tone. This is a book that will stop you in your tracks as you find out more about the characters but will also stop you reading as you contemplate the beauty in Evaristo's style of writing. "It's a novel about who we are now". Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.
Goosebumps still compete in a race down my arms when I think about The Snakes, it is remarkable, truly remarkable, so please just trust me when I say this is a must-read. Bea and Dan rent out their flat so they can travel, stopping off at her brother’s hotel in France on route. When Bea’s parents unexpectedly visit, Dan can’t understand why Bea has kept them at arms length and refused their financial help all of these years, surely it can’t hurt to get to know them? Sadie Jones is a master storyteller, apparently simple sentences gang together to create a slicing tension. There is a purity to the writing, even though the very darkest of human attributes are so wonderfully and tellingly observed as the tale unfolds. This isn’t a comfortable read, but gosh it’s compelling, I sat and read it in one heady afternoon. I felt on high alert, my mind unclouded as I tasted, tested, scrutinised both the thoughts of the characters, and my own. ‘The Snakes’ is powerful and provocative, not in a shouty, boastful way, it slid into my mind, creating and filling secret spaces, and when I reached the last few pages, and read the final words, I just stopped and sat in wondering heart-hammering silence.
Beginning in rural Jamaica in the late 1950s with the island on the verge of independence from Britain, A Tall History of Sugar is an all-consuming story of love, history and self-determination whose author, Curdella Forbes, possesses a majestic ability to evoke the big from the small. Rich details of dialogue, of time and place, of inner states and the outer world, intermesh with a sweeping sense of history, with its pertinent opening line referencing the state of contemporary Britain: “Long ago, when teachers were sent from Britain to teach in the grammar schools of the West Indian colonies (it was Great Britain then, not Little England, as it is now, after Brexit and the fall of empire)…” At the heart of this mythic tale is Moshe, whose appearance and biblical discovery as a baby in a twist of sea grape trees shrouds him in mystery, and elicits much mockery and fear. “With his pale skin, one sky-blue eye and one dark-brown eye…people said the boy just looked like sin. Big sin at work when he was made.” After spending his first years in the company of the childless woman who found him, Moshe forms an unbreakable bond with fellow outsider Arrienne. At school, “with the large girl sitting silently beside him, he felt that he would die of happiness.” While both Arrienne and Moshe excel in their studies, artistically gifted Moshe leaves his politically-engaged soul mate and arrives in England during the hot, fractious summer of 1976, where he hopes to find his birth father. His search takes him from Brixton, borough with a “thousand faces”, to Bristol, where he encounters the incongruity of former slave-owners being celebrated as hero philanthropists, with the urge to be close to Arrienne remaining a constant draw through all his experiences. Complex, compelling and luminously lyrical, this tells a powerful tale I know I’ll return to over and over. Read our 'Book-aneers of the Caribbean' listicle to find more unforgettable books by Caribbean writers. Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.
An incredibly engaging, fascinating, and rather beautiful read, this book will stay with me for some time. A couple seek refuge after the Spanish Civil War and end up in Chile, where years later they again face exile. Covering the period from 1938 through to 1994, this is a story that crosses continents, examines topics such as fascism, war, and migration, yet is as intimate as intimate can be. I entered and thought no more about the fact that this was translated from Spanish by Nick Caister and Amanda Hopkinson, it is so clearly, simply, and fabulously done. Within the first few pages there were tears in my eyes. I couldn’t stop reading, thoughtful and sensitive, yet not afraid to focus on unbearable sorrow, this feels as though it could be a biography. As Isabelle Allende explains in the acknowledgments, while this is a novel, with fictional characters (though based on people she has known), the historical events and people are real. She says: “This book wrote itself, as if it had been dictated to me” and I truly felt that. A Long Petal of the Sea opened my eyes and my heart, and has left me wanting to know more. Coming as highly recommended by me, it has also been chosen as a LoveReading Star Book.