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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.
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.
A heart-breaking, unforgettable and incredible story that will stay with you long after you've finished it. It is difficult to believe it's a debut as you read the travails of young Shuggie, his alcoholic mother Agnes and see inside their dysfunctional family life in 1980s working-class Glasgow. It's a powerful story with unflinching honesty that will no doubt make you cry. It shows the power of love and despite the bleak subject matter, it's incredibly tender, hopeful and oh so readable. It's a triumph.
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.
A collection of Kafka's greatest short fiction, translated by Michael Hofmann Kafka's masterpiece of unease and black humour, Metamorphosis, the story of an ordinary man transformed into an insect, is brought together in this collection with the rest of his works that he thought worthy of publication. It includes Contemplation, a collection of his earlier short studies; The Judgement, written in a single night of frenzied creativity; The Stoker, the first chapter of a novel set in America; and an eyewitness account of an air display. Together, these stories, fragments and miniature gems reveal the breadth of his vision, his sense of the absurd, and above all his acute, uncanny wit. Translated with an introduction by Michael Hofmann
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.
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. Visit our 'Women's Words - 60+ works of feminist-minded fiction' to explore our collection of feminist-minded fiction from around the world, and across centuries.
Thirty-year-old Shalini has lived a privileged life, but one beset by uncertainty. She was her erratic mother’s “little beast” and is struggling to come to terms with her tragic death. Adrift from work and the wider world, Shalini journeys to find Bashir, a travelling salesman she and her mother befriended through her childhood, tentatively hoping this will provide some understanding of her mother’s death. As Shalini’s journey unfolds in the present, a second narrative reveals her past with raw poignancy. On the road, Shalini’s faltering need to belong somewhere is revealed through her romantic imaginings of being part of a stranger’s family. And then, in Bashir’s remote Himalayan village, she becomes caught in a complex political situation, with the tangled conflict between her heart and conscience made powerfully palpable. While she feels “I had chosen this place, these people, this life, with its secrets and its violence, it’s hardness and its beauty”, Shalini recognises that she’s thrown Bashir’s family “into disarray with my invasion and my probing questions”. The writing is so exquisitely magnetic that I struggled to draw myself away from it, especially as Shalini’s story rose to an unexpected, pulse-quickening climax. This is the rare kind of novel that lingers long in the heart and mind, like a dream one feels compelled to return to.
Everything changes for rural lad Emmett Farmer when a gloriously grouchy wise woman compels him to be her bookbinding apprentice. While this line of work is generally shrouded in superstitious fear, Emmett is shocked when his mentor explains that they “don’t make books to sell, boy. Selling books is wrong”. Rather, their gothically intriguing trade involves binding unwanted memories into books: ”Whatever people can’t bear to remember. Whatever they can’t live with. We take those memories and put them where they can’t do any more harm”. Most clients are wealthy; well-to-do gentlemen who have their servants and wives bound so they forget what wrongs their masters and husbands have done to them. No wonder then, that Emmett is horrified to discover a book bearing his own name, and so a tempestuous tangle of secrets unfurls. The novel is also fragrantly spiced with witty references to literary history and the novel as an art form: “It makes one wonder who would write them [novels]. People who enjoy imagining misery, I suppose. People who have no scruples about dishonesty”. Yet through the duplicity of her exquisitely crafted characters, and luminous storytelling, this novel’s author reveals truths of the human spirit in a most entertaining and absorbing fashion.
Crossing genres in style, this just has to be one of my favourite novels of the year. Set in the marshlands of North Carolina, the majority of this story takes place in the 1950’s and 60’s. The prologue begins in 1969 with the body of Chase Andrews being found in the marsh. The first paragraph of the prologue introduces surprising beauty, the marsh simply sings, it settled into my mind and became a part of me. The central character is Kya, we meet her as a child, and the truth of her life is immediately apparent. As the novel moves backwards and forwards in time, Kya emerges as the Marsh Girl, and suspicion begins to hound her after the body is found. Author Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who has worked in Africa and written non-fiction, this is her debut novel. Descriptions entered my mind in wafting movement, I fell in love with the marsh and the girl who lived there. Where the Crawdads Sing is truly touching, almost hauntingly beautiful, and opens a doorway to a different world. It has been chosen as a LoveReading Star Book and a Liz Robinson Pick of the Month.
Acclaimed as an editor of unparalleled ingenuity, the late, great Diana Athill was herself a remarkable writer. Her memoirs and this - her only novel - are compelling, candid and affectingly meticulous, with a precise style reminiscent of Jean Rhys, whose work Athill edited and championed. Indeed, Meg, the main character here, with her self-critical wit, lodging house living and misfortune in matters of the heart is somewhat reminiscent of Rhys’s characters. The daughter of a poor pastor and distant mother, Meg found school “hateful and humiliating” and “knew that the adjectives most often used in connection with my name were ‘conceited’, ‘superior’ and ‘affected’”. But it’s here that Meg discovers her talent for drawing and befriends grown-up, glamorous, wealthy Roxane, to whom she remains complicatedly connected for many years. After attending art school in Oxford, Meg defies convention and moves to London where she finds some happiness in the chaos of a shared house. While Meg becomes a sought-after illustrator, her existence always feels precariously unsettled. She falls in love with entirely the wrong man and their passionate affair renders her impotent in many regards. “Two sayings which I detest”, she declares: “You must face facts” and “You can’t have your cake and eat it’”. And herein lies Meg’s fundamental struggle to find ease (her needs and outlook are at odds with the world), which Athill explores to intense affect in this luminous coming-of-age treasure.
Not necessarily an easy read, but a fascinating, sad and rather tragic story. Written as Moll Flander's autobiography, it was originally published anonymously with Dafoe only being linked to the novel after his death. Visit our '50 Classics Everyone Should Read' collection to discover more classic titles.
From childhood in Germany and England to young womanhood in Ghana, this enthralling novel follows a steadfastly thoughtful Ghanaian forging her own identity in the face of fractured family ties, tragedy and colonial imperialism. Though of illustrious heritage, Maya’s childhood as an émigré is complex, uncomfortable and evoked with lyrical precision. Her beautiful mother is self-absorbed, always scented with “powdery luxury” and critical of Maya. ”It’s a pity my child did not take my beauty”, she tells her reflection before counselling Maya to “always look more than perfect. Not just good enough, but perfect”. And Maya receives conflicting messages from her father too. “Boys will not like you if you are too clever”, he tells her, while also criticising an eight out of ten mark: “Why not ten out of ten? You must always do your best.” The arrival of cousin Kojo changes everything. His impassioned talk of Ghana fuels Maya’s understanding of her mother country, her parents, and her own identity. She observes that Kojo’s knowledge “gave him the power to upset the order of things,” leading her to wonder, “Could I learn these secrets and codes, even though I did not grow up in our country?” When she and Kojo are sent to schools in England, Maya experiences the racism of peers who “touched my hair and stroked my skin and passed me round on their laps like a doll”, and Kojo is bullied. No wonder then that he decides that, “this is nothing but a small shitty island that doesn’t work properly. It’s a cold wet Third World country, but they made us think they were all powerful.” Later back in Germany, Maya is maddened by the cultural imperialism of her education: “I could not think of much that was more frightening than fitting into this pinched-in sterile world.” Maya’s story is at once arresting and nuanced, and suffused in an elegant sense of triumph when she returns to Ghana, where Kojo has been struggling to set-up a museum, and in time finds her voice and purpose through navigating a tangle of personal misfortune and cultural complexities.