Books We Love... 

that you need to read


Peter Kalu, novelist, poet, essayist, critic and educator, was on our judging panel in 2021. In the second of his blog posts, he recommends the books he read and loved, and that are essential additions to the canon.

Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us About Love and Relationships by Dr Camilla Pang

A pop science book written by someone on the autistic spectrum. Chapter 1 on the virtues of tree thinking over box thinking is excellent. I have not come across the comparison before. It actually makes a deeper and cogent point of the expression ‘to think outside of the box’ and many of the other common sayings the author focuses on. Of the ‘Help’ books I’ve read this year, this is one of the most impressive.

Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power by Lola Olufemi

A series of essays from a radical black feminist perspective and containing within its arguments firm challenges to consumerist feminism and neo-liberal feminism. The style is not academic: it does not have that drily, sideways crawl – that ‘scholastic stink’ that James Joyce noted adhered to much of academic writing to carry; nor is it journalistic – it eschews any needy, look-at-me flamboyance of style, wit or aphorism. Instead, the style is almost self-effacing in service of a series of well-argued essay-polemics that as a whole point out the deficit in analysis from standard liberal feminism and show the insights gained through examining the same issues using a radical black feminist lens. Feminism Interrupted quietly gets on with doing the intellectual work of challenging feminist orthodoxy. These are closely-argued essays that are intellectually stimulating, and Olufemi’s is a voice to listen out for.

The Geez by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

A collection of poems, with energies and themes that range from the experimental to language to the blues. The gimbal poetry featured in the collection is worth noting, with its inherent considerations of movement, migration, circulation and stasis: to create a new poem is one thing, to create a new poetry form – one that works for the centrifugal 21 century in the way the sonnet must have worked for the iambic 16th century – is something else.

To language. It’s been a puzzle for me why polyglot poets write their works in one language only, when they possess two or more. The Ghanaian language, Ga features in Geez. There are poems I don’t fully understand but which I feel, and the lacunae open up rabbit holes of speculation.

Towards the end of the collection are a series of superb 12-line praise songs for well-known blues players. These form a mini book in themselves, and, what a launch it would be if musicians were found to play the poems’ rhythms on piano and strings, and Parkes, or a succession of singers, caressed the mic and howled the lines. As soon as this Covid time is over, let us hope the publisher, Peepal Tree hold this evening. As the ‘he’s a fool’ doctor in Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U says: ‘You gotta have fun!’

Black Spartacus by Sudhir Hazareesingh

An excellently researched study of Toussaint Louverture using French, Spanish, English, American and Haitian sources, Black Spartacus gives a new insight into the life, thoughts and tactics of Touissant L’Ouverture. Black Spartacus’s broad thesis – of the innate originality and creativity of the Haitian thought and its primary influence on L’Ouverture represents a strong challenge to CLR James’ The Black Jacobins emphasis on French Enlightenment theory’s influence on L’Ouverture. The book’s argument that the Haitian Revolution – and not the American Revolution or the French Revolution – was the true harbinger of emancipation is a revolutionary toppling of orthodox Western thought that will gather and make waves for decades to come. This is a brilliantly written history with a radical, closely argued core.

Lote by Shola von Reinhold

Lote is a great intellectual banquet. Black Modernism is one of things it explores, particularly modernism’s rejection of neat endings, of consistency of character, its embrace of randomness and of a sense of an ordered world being unachievable. Lote also exhibits many tropes of postmodernism: multiple registers, multiple tones, multiple stylistic references. Its embrace of these modernist and postmodernist devices renders conventional/realist concerns with plot and character development secondary within its text. Instead, the book as a whole ripples with linguistic extravagance, rococo thought chains, esoteric research and methodological invention.

Ultimately, Lote as a text resists categorisation. It is fiction. But there is no hard-driving plot. It does have a fictional main character, Mathilda. But many other figures are actual historical figures rather than inventions and there significant sections of biography. The text can switch register easily from novel to art history to biography to news report to diary. For this reason, as well as the density of erudite references (the main character’s principal vocation is biographical research) it is not the kind of book that demands it be read in one sitting. But it is no lesser thing for that. Ultimately, qua literary text, the issue of polemics matters little here. The book is a triumph, a celebration of black oddity, extravagance and flamboyance. Lote is a breath-taking and singular addition to the weltering multiplicity of black literary voices/texts: a sauntering, sparkling, deep-diving joy of a novel.

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Peter Kalu, novelist, poet, essayist, critic and educator, was on our judging panel in 2021. In this two part series, he recommends the books he read and loved that did not make it to our longlist but are essential additions to the canon.

Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Afterlives is the work of a master storyteller. It has an intricate weave of plot and a depth of historical references as well as an epic sweep and ambition. One of Afterlives many felicities is the way in which it breaks free of the vice of monolingualism – German and Kiswahili are employed as well as English and add to a sense of verisimilitude: reflecting the polyglot nature of diverse communities – indeed of the world in general – in a way few books seek to do. The novel is also an exemplar of how to tell the big colonial story through the eyes of the ordinary individual. By centering that individual, it gives them (and so all of us) dignity and reminds us how the big convulsions of history affect those at the bottom of power structures. The socialist historian, E. P. Thompson would very much have approved. Afterlives, of all the book submitted to the Jhalak Prize 2021 had the largest sustained historical sweep. This makes it a grand novel and it deserves wide acclaim.

I am not your baby mother by Candice Brathwaite

A thoroughly engaging book, part memoir, part guide that looks at the trials, traps and joys of being a black British mother. After an essay-like opening, it follows the chronology of pregnancy, birth, newborn, early schooling. Along the journey, the book opens out engagingly about the tensions, and idiosyncrasies of the author’s close and wider family. The focus is on the particular challenges faced by this black mother rather than mothers in general. The investigation is rare and captures a popular demand. A statistics nugget often begins each chapter. This is then elucidated by personal experience. I am not your baby mother is a vital and necessary book, written in a very accessible style, with very personal touches ensuring it may be actually read rather than, like most guidebooks, merely gather dust on a shelf.

The Actual by Inua Ellams

An exhilarating collection of prose-poems / poems linked by the word fuck carrying the meaning of ‘this is not good’. Ellams finds dazzling ways of entering into ideas. Often the movement from one metaphor to the next is startling and yet apt.

It is a magisterial demonstration of linguistic brilliance, of a mind capable of dazzling feats of imagination: Ellams is brim-full of talent.

We have to explete if we are not to explode. Ellams- very powerfully, skilfully, expertly and movingly - expletes on our behalf.

Moving away from the swaggering cool of an entire book of poems that begin with ‘fuck’, this is an inspired charge of splintering verse, beautifully cadenced, completely original verse.

It makes poetry of the anger we carry as black folks within us, the anger we have to suppress in order to negotiate the white world, perhaps too the existentialist anger we all human beings carry the anger we decant, filter from our verse. Ellams gathers it all and with lighter in hand, sparks it. Then Boom the actual fuck. He excels at qualia, at images that hit the spot unexpectedly but so bang-on that we say yes, that’s it, that’s that feeling I’ve been chasing but could never put my finger on, Ellams has got it, has trapped it in words.

Form-wise, it is blank verse with prodigious use of the forward slash as its punctuation mark. That decision alone deserves acclaim. A thinking, breathing feeling poet, global, local, oscillating in tone between black Jesus and Malcolm X. Yeah. What the actual fuck. I love this shit.

A charge, if you want to see the sizzle of cordite, the rippling run of a fuse in verse, this is it.

Trivial Pursuits by Raven Smith

This collection or articles is a breathless, hyperventilating, free-associating, deliciously narcissistic, consumerist ticker-tape of the zeitgeist. Glorious and highly distinctive: sardonic, whizzing in all directions with riffs, escalations, surprising pull-backs, occasional, fleeting candour. Simile-laden, first to second-person switching, breathless, Trivial Pursuits is best read this in chunks rather than attempted it all at once.

What we don’t talk about by Charlot Kristensen

Brilliantly presented graphic novel of inter-racial love in England. It will appeal particularly perhaps to the 16 to 25 year old demographic and makes some strong points on the trials that such a romantic relationship might undergo: the white young man’s ‘polite racist’ parents prove hostile and when the white man downplays the problem this gaslights the young black woman. The visuals are sumptuous and the balance between text and visuals extremely well done. It would make a brilliant short film, especially if the graphic novel’s colouring can be replicated.

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Patrice Lawrence, winner of the inaugural Jhalak Children’s & Young Adult Prize for her rich YA novel, Eight Pieces of Silva (Hachette Children’s) recommends five books that influenced her development as a Black woman and a writer

The Fat Black Woman’s Poems by Grace Nicholls

Every book that has had a profound impact on me has been discovered by accident. My mother loves poetry, but it’s the poetry of the English Literature curriculum that formed the foundation of her colonial education in Trinidad. I love that poetry too – but I also grew up believing that poetry couldn’t be anything else. I found Grace’s anthology in a second hand bookshop in Brighton. It showed me that poetry could be something different – and that womanhood could be something different from the ill-fitting mould of young white womanhood that seemed to be all that was on offer to me.

Pig-Heart Boy by Malorie Blackman

Did I ever think that someone that looked like me could be the main character in a children’s book? I never thought it. I never thought about thinking it. It was beyond my point of reference. Children’s books were full of white children and written by white people, often women and usually dead. That was fact. (Though obviously not at the time of writing.) Pig-Heart Boy appeared in my life when I had just become a new mother so was feeling hyper-sensitive to the way that my child would experience the world. It was about a Black family that wasn’t from the US and wasn’t about gangs, racism or crime. It was about love and ethics and validated the importance of my own perspective. Until then, all the characters in my stories were white.

So Much by Trish Cooke illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

An early Amazon buy that algorithms threw unexpectedly in my direction. The words, the pictures – a snapshot of mid-1990s Caribbean fashion. The tramlines! The desert boots! The joyfulness of Black family love. More than twenty years after buying it, that book is still on our shelf.

Random by Debbie Tucker Green

A script of a play, so cheating? It’s definitely purchasable in book form. I have friends who are great at booking theatre trips and before this, I hadn’t heard about Debbie Tucker Green. It’s a one-woman play about Black working class woman whose teenage brother is killed by a knife. It’s a mistress-class in dialogue, rhythm and characterisation – saying so much with so little. It thoroughly changed the way I used dialogue in my books and gave me the confidence to celebrate the resonances of young people’s words.

Tell Me Your Secret by Dorothy Koomson

A Black woman from Brighton reading a thriller about Black women in Brighton? How many ways can I say ‘yes’ to this! I hate cultural snobbery across the board – classical music being superior to pop, art-house films superior to the Marvel Universe. (As if.) In my twenties, I filled myself full of literary fiction. This, I believed, was what writers were supposed to aspire to even though I’ve always loved crime and thrillers. Writing exemplary commercial fiction like pop music is a wonderful skill – you have to swivel around cliches while embracing the tropes that fans expect. It has to say something new while having a touch of the familiar. Dorothy is an absolute queen at this.

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