Books We Love... 

that you need to read


We’re at the end of October and the books are coming in thick and fast, but there’s still time for publishers and writers to send in their books with the hope of winning the 2021 Jhalak Prize and Jhalak Children’s & YA Prize. This incredible unique prize is for writers of colour born, living or working in the UK.

I’m reminded of the joy of reading so many quality books of 2019 – these were my narratives, people I recognised, who looked like me, stories that were familiar to me, reminding me of things I knew but more importantly opening doors to new knowledge and worlds I had never experienced or imagined. So, just to give you a taste of the quality, beauty and depths of writing, I’m writing my final blog post for the series of Books We Love…that you need to read. The books that I thought got away, that any other year I believe they would have been longlisted.

In 2020 sports have certainly come to the forefront, supporting Black Lives Matter; Premiership matches starting off with the bending of the knee; Lewis Hamilton; Naomi Osaka, to name a few all actively evoking anti-racisms messages. No Win Race by Derek A. Bardowell, explores the Black British and Black diaspora experience through the lens of sports, embedding it with his own personal journey asking the question can Blackness and Britishness ever be compatible? Derek begins his journey in the 80s with the Minter vs Hagler bout, the fight which became so racialised, that at the end of the bout Hagler had to be escorted under a rain of missiles and racist slurs. This book is an informative and personal look at racism in Britain seated in the sporting arena, celebrating and exposing the heroes and villains contributing to the conversation and issues of racism. From the 1980’s to 2019, it seems apt that the penultimate chapter explores engaging in activism and how sports stars have often walked alone and suffered in the wake of their belief like Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the playing of the national anthem.

Wunmi Mosaku who plays Ruby Baptiste, the love interest to the main protagonist with power and sensuality in Lovecraft Country is not your usual thin waif light-skinned model. Talia Hibbert’s quaint and quirky novel builds on a similar body image in Get a Life, Chloe Brown. Chloe Brown has a chronicle illness, she’s a computer geek, meticulous planner, and very abrupt in conversation. Chloe’s family members are equally unique, a joy to read, her grandmother Gigi who, in response to a near accident Chloe experienced, says, “Would you like some Xanax, darling?” Then there’s mum, auntie and two sisters, making a loveable, odd and engaging phalanx of sisterhood (more please, each with their own book). This book explores the lives of broken people, vulnerable, experiencing each day as a daily struggle to get out of bed, almost impossible to trust anybody who comes close and a shield that will take all the skills of a handyman to find an opening. Lucky enough there’s Red, the apartment handyman and concierge and here begins a beautiful, funny, erotic, intense romantic journey. A lively, exciting page turner, characters we care for and subtle in the way that race is in the background but not necessarily ignored, a world where the heroine is black, big and sexy, andwe’re rooting for her, right down to the last page.

Shame on Me by Tessa McWatt, takes a different approach to race and belonging. Tessa is driven by the perennial question that often plagues the journey of people of colour: “Where are you from?” In Tessa’s case as an eight-year-old in an elementary school in Toronto she is confronted with the question “What are you?” It is this interrogation of self as an outsider which evokesher to explore stories of slavery, indentured labour, independence, and migration.Narratives of the Chinese, Indian, Arawak, Portuguese, French-Jew, African, Scottish and Canadianwoven in her DNA. Tessa navigates the landscape of the black/other body (eyes, lips, nose, etc.,) mapped by the fragile yet powerful history of race as a social construct. We travel across the globe as she enquires and searches for her identity within her multiple-rootslike a prayer along this journey: “O my body, make of me always a man who questions.” Here amongst memoirs, myths, history, literature, philosophy and black intelligentsia we find a sense of rupture and fluidity in identity but always a desire for healing and a place to find rest.

The following book would not be a book I’d automatically pick up off the shelf but I’m indebted to the process of judging and the joy of finding something so different and enthralling. If it’s adventure you’re looking for Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee is a rollicking, rollercoaster of a ride (Editor’s note: Congratulations Abir for winning the Crime Writers Association Sapere Books Historical Dagger award even as Roy was writing this blog post). This is the fourth in the historical crime novel series of Captain Sam Wyndham and Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee. We get a beautiful, intoxicating insight into Empire, set in 1905 East London and 1922 India. Abir makes you run through mud, experience weeks of withdrawal from opium, slip down hills, makes you hear the crunch of bones and murdered bodies along the way, visceral, vicarious and vivid in his description. This was an enjoyable read and I can’t help thinking of the quote from the late great A. Sivanandan,“we are here because you were there.”

Updated: Oct 30

This is a message of love and solidarity for the trans and non-binary community. Culture is, and should always be, at the forefront of societal change, and as writers, editors, agents, journalists, and publishing professionals, we recognise the vital role our industry has in advancing and supporting the wellbeing and rights of trans and non-binary people. We stand with you, we hear you, we see you, we accept you, we love you. The world is better for having you in it.

Non-binary lives are valid, trans women are women, trans men are men, trans rights are human rights.

From members of the UK and Irish publishing community:

Updated 1st Oct - download PDF for full list

updated letter and names oct 1st 2020
Download PD • 136KB

Kiran Millwood Hargrave (author), Daisy Johnson (author), Juno Dawson (author), Jeanette Winterson (author), Robin Stevens (author), Sophie Anderson (author), Hellie Ogden (literary agent), Joanne Harris (author), Nikesh Shukla (author), Tom de Freston (writer and artist), IrenosenOkojie (author), Lex Croucher (author), SarvatHasin (author), Meena Kandasamy (writer), Sara Collins (author), Caroline Lea (author), Malorie Blackman (author), Elizabeth Day (author and podcaster), Carrie Hope Fletcher (actress and author), Dom&Ink (illustrator and author), Katherine Webber Tsang (author), Charlie Morris (publicist), Clara Amfo (broadcaster), Professor Sunny Singh (writer and academic), ZebaTalkhani (author), Kerry Drewery (author), Patrick Ness (author), Sam Missingham (book marketer), Kevin Tsang (author), Alice Sutherland Hawes (agent), Alex Wheatle (author), Emma Pass (author), Sallyanne Sweeney (agent), Darren Stobbart (author and editor), Melinda Salisbury (author), Kat McKenna (marketing and brand consultant), Dave Rudden (author), Charlie Craggs (author), Nick Coveney (Pride in Publishing), Michelle Elman (author), Kate Weston (author), Celine Kiernan (author), Keris Stainton (author), Aaron Gillies (author), Deirdre Sullivan (author), Elizabeth Macneal (author), Catherine Johnson (author), Alice Broadway (author), FaridahÀbíké-íyímídé (author), Amy McCulloch (author), Susie Day (writer), Arun-Blair Manget (actor), Françoise Harvey (writer and editor), Connie Glynn (author), Cheryl Hole (Ru Paul’s Drag Race), Courttia Newland (writer), Paul Black (publicist), Sophie Williams (author), David Owen (author), Iesha Small (writer), Nina Douglas (publicist), Anna James (author and journalist), Eve Ainsworth (author), Alex T Smith (illustrator), Sarah Maria Griffin (author), Katherine Woodfine (author), Kim Curran (author), Sam VH Reese (author and lecturer), Sue Rainsford (author), Jaime Windust (author and model), Chris Wellbelove (agent), Emma Patterson (agent), Eishar Brar (editorial director, Knights Of), Rebecca Rideal (author), Tanya Byrne (author), Hamza Jahanzeb (Pride in Publishing), Monisha Rajesh (author and journalist), Chloe Seager (literary agent and author), KishaniWidyaratna (commissioning editor, Picador), Niamh Campbell (writer), Alba Arnau (foreign rights executive), Guy Gunaratne (author), Sara Helen Binney (editor), Kwaku Osei-Afrifa (personal assistant to the CEO, Hodder Books), Laura Dockrill (author), Andrew James (editorial director, Jessica Kingsley Publishers), Abigail Mitchell (editor), Matt Casbourne (publishing consultant), Maisie Lawrence (editor, Hachette), Cleo Favaretto (desk editor, Bloomsbury), Halimah Manan (editorial assistant), Fiona Dunbar (children’s writer), Divina DiCampo (Ru Paul’s Drag Race), Henry James Garrett (author/illustrator), Ingrid Persaud (author), Lea Albrechtsen (editor), Louisa Danquah (publicity assistant), Madeleine Bennett (sales), Beatrice Cross (publicist), Elaine Feeney (author), Ana Fletcher (editor), Rachael Lucas (author), Nicole Burstein (author), Jessica Andrews (author), Chris Gould (Designer), David Stevens (co-founder, Knights Of and Round Table Books), AiméeFeloné (co-founder, Knights Of and Round Table Books), Dean Atta (author), LD Lapinski (author), Isobel Sheene (sales operation executive), Antony De Rienzo (key account executive), Polly Lyall-Grant (commissioning editor), Ali Gitlow (acquisitions editor, Prestel Publishing), Emma Jones (editor), Amina Youssef (assistant editor), Laura Callaghan (editor), Hayley Webster (author), Bea Fitzgerald (assistant editor), Alice Duggan (book designer), Ellie Drewry (editorial assistant), Elizabeth Lovatt (book buyer and writer), Emily Noto (publishing professional), Jasmin Atkins (international sales assistant), Lily Lindon (Editor), Erika Koljonen (editorial assistant), Poppy Mostyn-Owen (editor), Anna Baggaley (SEO manager), Liam Drane (book designer), Roisin O’Shea (marketing manager), OkechukwuNzelu (author), Sophie Mackintosh (author), Leonora Craig Cohen (assistant editor), Katherine Rundell (author), Marian Womack (author), Lauren Ace (editorial director and author), Izzy Everington (assistant editor), Maz Evans (author), Callum Kenny (editor), Megan Carroll (literary agent), Louie Stowell (publisher and author), Sophie Robinson (editor), James Mayhew (illustrator and author), Lucy Ayrton (author), Sharna Jackson (author), Stephanie King (commissioning fiction editor), Imogen Morrell (literary agent assistant), Barry Timms (children’s author), Michael Langan (writer), Kate Neilan (marketing executive), Matthew Casbourne (publishing consultant), Lizzie Huxley-Jones (author), Rachel Snider (writer), Rob Farrimond (junior publicity and marketing officer), Catherine Doyle (author), Alice Moloney (editorial assistant), Louise Rickwood (assistant editor), Katrina Northern (senior marketing executive), Becca Wright (editor), Dan Holloway (journalist/poet/novelist), Aimee Oliver-Powell (marketer) Wei Ming Kam (marketer), Zainab Juma (brand campaign manager), Marigold Atkey (senior project editor), Sarah Shin (publisher and co-founder, Silver Press and Ignota Books), Matt James (assistant editor), Emily Ball (children's book editor), Sarah Hagger-Holt (author), SiofraDromgoole (book scout), Rochelle Dowden-Lord (sales executive), Maxine Davies (author), Allegra Le Fanu (editor), Josie Day (TV writer and producer), Naomi Greenwood (senior commissioning editor), Harriet Moore (literary agent), Brianne Bellio (project editor), Lauren Whybrow (editor), Joseph Elliot (author), Bethany Rutter (author), Alice Slater (writer and reviewer), James Smythe (author and screenwriter), Alison Hennessy (editor), Angelique Tran Van Sang (commissioning editor), Lauren O’Hara (illustrator), Natalia O’Hara (author), Ellie Slee (production editor), Mia Quibell-Smith (publicist), Hannah Trevarthen (events manager), Alex Reeve (author), Jennifer Tighe (marketing and publicity director), Carmella Lowkis (communications assistant), Olivia Sudjic (author), Dr. Sharlene Teo (author), Marion Rankine (writer) Bryony Gordon (author and journalist), Clare Bogan (publicist, Fitzcarraldo Editions), KesiaLupo (author and editor), Phillipa Neville (editor), Lucy Scholes (critic), Kirsty Logan (author), James Birkett (editor), Rory Gleeson (writer), Will Forrester (editor and cultural manager),DoireannNíGhríofa (poet and essayist), Beth Watt (writer), Heather Parry (writer, editor and co-director of Extra Teeth magazine), Lilly Gottwald (senior designer), Juliet Mushens (Mushens Entertainment), Louise O’Neill (author), Ella Risbridger (author), Jo Morris (librarian), Samantha Shannon (author), Emma Glass (author and nurse), Julia Armfield (author), Jo Lloyd (author), Mary Watson (author), Krystal Sutherland (author), Lisa Williamson (author), A. N. Devers (writer and owner of The Second Shelf bookstore), Ibrahim Zanta (Pathways project manager), Holly Bourne (author), Molly Aitken (author), Natasha Pulley (author), Lucy Powrie (author), Alexa von Hirschberg, (editorial director), Carrie Plitt (literary agent), Lisa Gillespie (D&I Programme Manager, DK),Naoise Dolan (author), Max Porter (author), Sinéad Gleeson (author), Jacques Testard, (publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions), Lucia Osborne-Crowley (author), Peter Bunzl (author), Eloise Williams (author), Dr Mary Jean Chan (poet), Sinead Gleeson (poet and essayist), Debbie Taylor (editor), Sophie Jonathan (editor)

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  • Jhalak Prize

Roy McFarlane ruminates on fatherhood, raising a Black daughter, inter-generational memories, a parent’s worst nightmare and the book he is giving his daughter as she goes off to university. These are books all parents...indeed all of us must read:

It’s that time already, time to send in the books that you think could win the 2021 Jhalak Prize. This incredible unique prize for writers of colour born, living or working in the UK.

As a former judge, anything goes; non-fiction, fiction, essays, poems and prose, YA books, children books, graphic novels, even cooking books, every genre that you can imagine has found its way onto my door mat. So just to give you a taste of the quality, beauty and depths of writing that I had the good pleasure to read, I’m continuing the series of Books We Love…that you need to read, the books that I thought got away, that any other year I believe would have been long listed.

As a father taking my daughter out as a child, the numerous times strangers would reach out to touch my daughter’s hair and hesitate in the cold stare of my disapproval, is unbelievable. Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair is a personal journey from Ireland to London to Africa, drawing down on her heritage and history of the African-diasporic hair. The fascination, fetishism, exoticism and even a period of romanticism, are untangled and equally weaved with her own Irish-Nigerian experience. Emma places hair in the centre of the discourse on colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism and re-claiming her beauty and identity, taking us back to Africa, pre-western influence to understand the philosophy and theology of who we are and who we can be.This is a well-researched book across the African diaspora, that pulls apart and debunks the Eurocentric, negative understanding of the African hair. Emma provides us with amazing facts, such as ‘Fairy Mae’s inky version of Rapunzel’s locks,’the hidden story behind the Madam C J Walker’s multi-million hair empire. There’s something profound in knowing,“Through African hairstyles we can observe beauty standards and aesthetics, spiritual devotion, values and ethics, and even, quite literally maps from slavery to freedom.”

Wow, all of that encoded in a hairstyle. It’s time to let that halo of afro bounce and walk like deities crowned with braids of hair.

Her Lost Language by Jenny Mitchell is a reclaiming of words made flesh in this collection. This is a garnering of tales from the Windrush generation, lovingly and tenderly laid down on the page.Jenny no doubt relies on the oral traditions of the elders, squeezed memories of stories told in passing, and gleaned tales from traveling back to Jamaica. “I’ll be the dress she never owned…”This book covers the nakedness of a generation of black folks with a rich garment of words. Jenny takes us back as far as she can to slave plantations where ‘breeze made escape easy for birds.’ The poem ‘Lost Child’ is a harrowing beautiful lament for a child thrown overboard made so real through the finding of a necklace of small stones by the sea. This collection is a beautiful necklace of poems, pearled between the Caribbean and the British Isle, each poem shinning, singing, lamenting ancestors, family members, mothers and fathers. There’s a lyrical danceto be found in the stories of the past when she imagines enslavement and post slavery in Jamaica. But when the poems find their way to England, The Big Freeze, her mother working in the NHS and bringing up a family, there’s a raw truth telling of her experience and her parents’ lived reality in Britain. Jenny has just begun with this debut collection and I’m certainly looking forward to her next one.

We know about Shamima Begum through headline news, snapshots of a story in the blaze of anger at the idea that someone would leave a comfortable life, ungrateful in light of what British citizenship affords her and travel miles to join a terrorist group. And yet Shamima was a young girl aged 15 on the cusp of so much hope and opportunity. Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of Isis by Azadeh Moaveni asks you to take a breath and read into the many lives of young women caught up in this life changing moment and walk the thin line of victim and/or collaborator. She begins with the stories of Djamila Bouhired and Leila Khaled resistance and liberation fighters who earned celebrity status in the 60s and 70s internationally, so what about the present? You’ll never know the journey of these women of the Islamic State until you’ve walked in their sandals (I’m paraphrasing). Azadeh tries to remedy that by following thirteen women; young, old, working class, well off, some educated, some not, some aspiring to Western ideals, some seeking a better understanding of being a Muslim. These are the stories of our daughters, falling in love, ambitious, pushing the boundaries, forming an identity, but most of all the profound need to belong. At times due to no fault of their own; ‘as though her hijab did not simply cover her hair but cloaked her in invisibility,’ we fall down the rabbit hole with these women. Sometimes faith can be a solace, a sanctuary, a soothing in the heat of rejection, racism and sometimes there are those who manipulate souls into individuals full of rage and hate. But if we call ourselves a civilised state, then this book entreats and implores us to have a better understanding of the plight of women such as Shamima Begum.

I’ll be running my daughter down to London to start her second year at university, after the stop and start of the last academic year. To add to her full-length mirror, matching rug to her duvet cover, I’m throwing in her suitcase Taking up Space by Chelsea Kwakye & Ore Ogunbiyi. How to survive the rigours of the education system not designed to be user friendly to people of colour, Taking up Space is a manifesto for change, an act of resistance. I loved how this is an open letter of affirmation: you’ve earned your place in higher education, however minute the representation of colour may be seen amongst your peers or worse amongst the faculty member. There’s a collective responsibility to be aware of the conundrums and problems that young people of colour might face. The book is made up of discourses with students of past and present, alongside facts, statistics and lived experience, shedding light on institutional racism, decolonising the curriculum, mental health, a black sisterhood, loving oneself, black activism and many more subjects which are explored in this well thought out collection. I feel safe in the knowledge Taking up Space is a timely companion piece for my daughter to turn to whilst she manages and negotiates her place as a black woman in the hallowed halls of academia and society.

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