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Whip-smart, incisive and incredibly gripping, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl presents a powerful exposé of publishing’s unpleasant underbelly - the elitism, nepotism, poor pay, and petty power-play some senior editors exert over their assistants. Think The Devil Wear Prada with edge - its young editor protagonist wants to publish writers whose voices matter. It’s a world of white gatekeepers, white privilege, with displays of (cue tiny violin) white affront when poor behaviour is called out. And all this is done through twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers, the only Black employee at New York’s prestigious Wagner Books publishing house. After feeling isolated and exhausted by the everyday micro-aggressions of her workplace, Nella is delighted when Hazel, the “Other Black Girl”, starts working next to her - until Nella starts receiving threatening notes telling her to leave the company, while having to deal with increasingly problematic office politics. Though the novel is set in the publishing world, it will resonate with anyone, for example, who’s doubted the authenticity of their workplace’s commitment to diversity. In Nella’s case, she was part of Wagner Books’ diversity group, but company interest soon waned, with no one really getting the point, or understanding why representation matters - why it matters to get it right. The brutal reality of the company’s lip service attitude to equality and representation is exposed when Nella speaks out about a white male author’s offensively clichéd portrayal of a Black female character. When he (cue another tiny violin) gets upset, feeling accused of racism, she’s expected to apologise. Never mind about his lazy, dubious characterisation - the poor man’s feelings have been hurt, goddammit! That this is nothing new is revealed through the interwoven story of Kendra Rae, Nella’s editorial heroine who blazed inspirational trails before her - but what happened to Kendra after editing a huge bestseller, she wonders? It turns out that as Nella faced a backlash after (gently) calling out her author’s caricature, Kendra’s “sin” was also telling it like it is, being “someone who rejected what was expected of her as a Black woman in a predominantly white industry.” Chiming with wit and vital commentary, this debut is a thrilling feat of fiction, with twists that are impossible to see coming.
Like the very best short stories, Wandeka Gayle’s Motherland and Other Stories are multi-layered, long-lingering, and delivered in a deceptively simple style - vivid vignettes of life from varied corners of the globe with lasting impact that grows over time and draws you back. Many of the tales take turns down unexpected paths - purposeful detours and changes of direction that reveal new truths. Others present intimate, intense portraits of their protagonist’s complex relationship to home (Jamaica). All of them exude elegance and insights into the human condition. In my book, that’s pretty much short story perfection. Though distinct, the twelve stories are united by the courage of their protagonists, and an exploration of what it is to be black in white worlds. In Motherland we meet compassionate Roxanne, who moved from Jamaica and works in a London care home. She encounters racism, but strikes a bond with an elderly writer resident. Then there’s Ayo in Finding Joy, who leaves Jamaica to study in Louisiana and finds agency through personal upheavals “in this foreign place.” Each story, and each woman’s experiences, had me utterly in their thrall.