PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Impressive ... The writing, resplendent with streetwise Jamaican-English, illuminates a gritty urban realism ... McKenzie’s prose, especially the dialogue, wrestles with a conundrum: how to navigate the tension between instances where the language is heightened by a vernacular that lifts it above the ordinary, and the majority of exchanges, which have a soap-opera banality. It succeeds, largely, in being closer to The Wire than EastEnders, though at times the author betrays his inexperience by telegraphing future dramatic turning points ... An Olive Grove in Ends is a fable, peppered with biblical and Qur’anic epigraphs, and with Jamaican proverbs that inform its spiritual tone. Announcing the arrival of a promising 23-year-old author whose work is wise beyond his years, the novel is both a tale of redemption and a guide for how young, disaffected Black Britons – especially descendants of the enslaved – might, as Bob Marley advises, emancipate themselves from mental slavery.
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
RaveThe Guardian (UK)On each page, My Monticello amplifies William Faulkner’s famous reflection: \'The past is not dead. It’s not even past\' ... Short, precise sentences match the urgency of the story, and this economy seems also to inform the dialogue. Brief exchanges are incomplete; the dialogue at times more closely resembles a series of monologues, as each escapee is consumed with worry about the likely outcome of their situation ... Notwithstanding the fervour of the tale, the narrator’s tone is cool and unruffled, even as she’s riven with the secret of her pregnancy ... My Monticello is a bleak story but reading it elicits the same kind of sensation that comes from listening to a poignant blues song: there is pleasure in its creation without denying the pain of the subject.
Honoree Fanonne Jeffers
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Uncle Root’s mischief gives a welcome boost to an otherwise sober novel, fuelling the sputtering engine of humour that intermittently powers the book ... Jeffers captures the compromises and delusions of the \'talented tenth\'. Their lives, though, have been rendered regularly by equally able authors. Less well known are the stories of Afro-indigenous people and the inner lives of the enslaved that Jeffers tenderly evokes. In doing so, she chimes with Ailey’s ancestor, who aims \'to praise the blood that calls out in dreams, long after the memory has surrendered\'.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... dazzling ... the language here is wiseguy crisp, zinging with street vernacular ... Whitehead flexes his literary muscles further, extending the boundaries and expectations of crime writing ... The book is also a social drama interrogating the nature of prejudice and how an environment limits ambition. The nuances of Manhattan’s topography drive much of the action ... Part of the book’s pleasure is that it keeps you guessing. By the end, I felt, as Ray does of Harlem: \'Its effect was unmeasurable until it was gone.\'
RaveThe Guardian (UK)[An] erotic and fearlessly explicit debut ... the impact of Mendez’s frank descriptions of sex acts is not amplified through multiple tellings. Rather, it suffers diminishing returns. The prose is more rewarding when recounting, with tenderness, how Jesse arrives on the streets ... The most successful areas of this immersive semi-autobiographical story are where it explores the intersection between Jesse’s performance of sex and his performance of blackness ... his emotional intelligence is stunted, and Mendez shows how it’s possible to find a route to self-knowledge through an excited interrogation of song lyrics. The downward slide of unprotected sex and hedonism, which results in physical injuries, leads Jesse to have an epiphany of sorts.
Les Payne and Tamara Payne
RaveThe Guardian (UK)\"Previous works have often relied on conjecture and redacted, declassified FBI files, but the Paynes have assiduously sought primary sources. Drawing on thousands of hours of first-hand interviews, eye-witness accounts and personal documents, they assemble a more holistic picture of Malcolm X’s evolution ... Malcolm emerges as a vengeful critic of black and white detractors, nursing a deep well of hurt and unmasked seething resentment towards white supremacists, the cause of so much tragedy for his family ... the most compelling section of The Dead Are Arising focuses on his breach with the movement, following its leader Elijah Muhammad’s instruction in 1961 that he negotiate with the Klan ... unprecedented testimonies show how, in publicly denouncing Muhammad, Malcolm incensed former allies who plotted his murder with the \'advance knowledge\' of the FBI ... this 640-page book...captures the uncompromising clarity that speaks to this moment of Black Lives Matter.
RaveNew Statesman (UK)In her latest book, Just Us: An American Conversation, she invites readers to stand in for her discomfited students ... The book begins with a troubling thought. At this inflection point in our culture of \'racial reckoning,\' when privileged assumptions are being shredded and long-term structural injustices more rigorously challenged, \'What if in the long middle of the wait… nothing changes?\' ... Rankine is the interrogator throughout Just Us, conducting a probing survey of attitudes by inserting herself into the text as a participating observer ... Each page offers richly rewarding anecdotes and insights into the quagmire of race and race relations in the United States ... Rankine quotes the theorist Saidiya Hartman, who argues that the task of \'educating white people about racism has failed\' ... Just Us is an attempt to narrate this process, one instinctively understood by black people ... Just Us is a provocation and, if read closely, will make difficult demands on the reader. But they’re demands that Rankine is determined not to shirk from in challenging the continuing pathological inequalities of the United States.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)One of Caste’s signature strengths is its tweaking of the usual language of discourse on race. The reimagining of familiar tropes underpins the book’s thesis ... It’s refreshing to read a popular North American writer reach beyond her country’s solipsism regarding race to imagine the system replicated elsewhere – part of a worldwide effort. In doing so, she also resists the centrifugal tug of her own culture ... Wilkerson spins a tale that is necessarily brutal and bruising, but always suffused with tenderness for America’s Black citizens and the ignominies they continue to endure.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)The omniscient authorial voice is gentle and compassionate in a tale that inverts and confounds expectations ... Bennett ably shows the superficiality of suburban civility. Come crunch time, the attitude of the comfortable residents of upper-middle-class Brentwood, LA, is little different from Louisiana bigotry ... The Vanishing Half may seem old-fashioned but it’s cleverly constructed to both match and critique the conservativism of the 1950s and 60s: the attenuated tone chimes with the restrained language and style of the period. Ultimately, it’s a quietly damning account of acquiescing to an imitation of life and the delusion of the American dream.
RaveNew York Review of BooksMcBride’s novel evolves as a rich, polyphonic symphony. His cast of characters includes a tragic yet amusing Greek chorus of African-American and Latinx residents of the projects, representative of the 3,500 people crammed into its 256 tiny apartments ... Sportcoat is a survivor, known for his remarkable catalog of injuries. McBride outlines the assaults, both accidental and surgical, on his body in one of many dizzyingly inventive passages reminiscent of an improvised jazz riff or an endless Afrobeat track ... The novel, written with tenderness and gentle humor and the implication that even those guilty of despicable acts might yet deserve compassion, suggests that Sportcoat and especially Clemens and his cronies are a product of their environment. McBride is clearly drawing on personal experiences as he frames the moral dilemma ... McBride handles the slapstick with a deft touch. In less able hands the tonal shift at these moments might jar, but the change in register is subtle, and the cartoonish characterization of the hitman is offset by a continued sense of menace.
PositiveThe New York Review of Books... a daring work of nostalgia, sex, and violence populated with pimps, prostitutes, and \'bistro bandits\' (barflies) ... In the first few short chapters, Lafala is so thinly drawn that McKay risks making him appear merely a cipher for a governing idea of a black everyman subjugated by inhumane and racist corporations. He’s saved from that reductive interpretation through his association with a fellow patient called Black Angel, the only other black man in the hospital ... a pitiful tale, but McKay said his intention was not to write \'a sentimental story.\' He succeeded ... Writing and language that had appeared self-conscious and stilted, even a little pedestrian, in the earlier chapters becomes looser and more confident as the novel advances, fired especially by the complexity of Aslima’s character. The monochromatic world of the New York hospital ward gives way to the exuberant Technicolor of Marseille, even if Lafala still seems at times a colorized version of a black-and-white self ... McKay ably depicts the reversals and disappointments that induce a kind of learned helplessness among the seamen, vagabonds, and other formerly itinerant adventurers ... a tender tale, a mounting litany of loss and regret.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Harvey’s examination of her year-long insomnia is an excavation of the emotions that might cause sleeplessness. It’s a kind of philosophical detective story strewn with submerged clues ... Just as much as insomnia, though, The Shapeless Unease is a meditation on the nature of creativity (writing in particular); how it emerges even in the course of a fractured life ... Her countless aphorisms...are a delight to read. And she has great comedic timing ... The fragmentary style of the memoir chimes with the temporal nature of Harvey’s condition; it is an account of her slippery present life that’s suffused with the sense of a timeless fable.
Zora Neale Hurston
RaveThe Observer (UK)All of these 21 stories are enlivened by the author’s wickedly funny, sprightly dialogue ... the editor of Hitting a Straight Lick… has wisely chosen not to tamper with grammatical idiosyncrasies or the Florida vernacular of Houston’s home town, Eatonville, giving an edge to the tales that whistle and sing ... Though there are no white characters, Hurston subtly illuminates the self-loathing and deference to whites that pervades black communities ... On literary and ethnographic expeditions, Hurston packed a pistol along with her notepads. These stories share that same wild spirit – unnerving at times, they are always a thrill.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksOne of Mengiste’s strengths is her determination to capture not just the Ethiopian patriots’ mindset but also the invaders’ point of view ... short, crisp chapters, with writing that is by turns as succinct and precise as a military dispatch and as lyrical as a poem ... the novel burns with shame and dishonor ... Mengiste proves a careful navigator of the horrors of the past, bringing the reader close to the limits of what can be borne. It’s uncanny because at times the novel can feel as if a photographer’s filter has been placed in front of it ... Sometimes historical novelists suffer from a nervous tendency to flag their research, leading to a separation, especially in tone, between the factual and fictional. But everything in The Shadow King, whether invented or not, seems plausible ... This historical novel characterizes the past not as a faithful reproduction, a fact subjected to a photographic fixative, but rather as a negative that develops over the book’s course so that some lasting and vivid truths emerge, perhaps only hinted at in the beginning but unassailable by the end.
PositiveThe GuardianIn quiet yet forceful writing Alexander, a legal scholar, outlines how the Reagan government exploited 1980s hysteria over crack cocaine to demonise the black population so that \'black\' and \'crime\' became interchangeable. It was a war – not on drugs – but on black people ... Notwithstanding improvements to the US judicial system, this distressing book offers important lessons for all societies that claim colour-blindness but enact policies that scapegoat marginalised groups. Colour-blindness leads to denial, believes Alexander; better to strive for colour-consciousness.
Ibram X. Kendi
RaveThe Observer (UK)It’s a mark of the transformative and unsettling power of Ibram X Kendi’s writing that I relaxed into How to Be an Antiracist with the comforting and self-righteous knowledge that the title was not addressing me. After all I am black; I couldn’t possibly be racist, could I? By the book’s end, I wasn’t so sure ... How to Be an Antiracist offers a way out from the tangled disingenuousness of mainstream narratives around racism ... At its simplest, the book argues that to be an antiracist is to take an active and persistent stance against racism ... In the course of How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi moves from his rigid framework and selective perception of the inequalities endured by black people as primarily explained through the prism of race; he’s increasingly inclined towards the view held by Martin Luther King Jr...of the intersection of racism with capitalism ...This vital book asks...age-old questions: When does silence become complicity? Why do we fear taking action more than the devastating consequences of inaction? Kendi’s writing is a search for a language to enable the antiracist that resides in all of us.
A K Benjamin
RaveThe Guardian... after just a few pages of dazzling writing, this book’s form changes, and it begins to seem not really a set of case notes after all, more the mischievous jottings of a cartographer, mapping the neural connections of his own disturbing thoughts ... full of the provocative reflections of a discontented, challenging mind ... In this book, the medical curtain is pulled back and our stand-in for the avuncular Sacks is revealed to be a bluffing circus ringmaster with a megaphone ... Insanity has often been depicted in literature as a descent – a one-way ticket to a mental underground. But in considering the subject while he is himself in the midst of madness, honestly portraying and displaying it with great humour and skill, Benjamin achieves a miraculous feat of psychiatric mountaineering. Among his achievements is to write a book that itself performs the encroachment of mental ill-health, as it skips between transparency and a rising mania-fuelled obfuscation. The author still manages to be a reliable witness – just.
RaveThe GuardianIn this enthralling collection of interconnected short stories, Washington vividly portrays the interior lives of his marginalised fellow citizens, often overlooked in literature save as characters sketched to elicit pity and despair. These are tough yet tender tales of uncertain existences, stalked by the certainty of future violence and the shadow of homelessness ... In subtle but bruising prose, Washington deftly conjures an idiosyncratic world in which people live cheek by jowl ... As the stories follow and contextualise each other, the sense grows of the characters’ inability to escape the closed circuits of their desperate lives ... A number of these stories stop abruptly in the midst of a profound realisation; far from being irritating, Washington’s technique here mirrors the fleeting lucidity of his characters, who are usually in a fug of alcohol, and their casual acceptance of disastrous events ... Washington...already possesses a compelling and seasoned writer’s voice.
David W. Blight
PositiveLondon Review of Books....[an] excellent new biography ... Blight painstakingly examines the story Douglass tells in the Narrative ... in one of the most vivid sequences of his biography, Blight shows how close Douglass came to the gallows: after Brown’s assault on the U.S. arsenal, Douglass’s name appeared in newspapers as one of the co-conspirators, and in his later autobiographical works ... Blight argues persuasively that Douglass’s manicheanism was personal and emotional—deriving from a deeply felt need for purgation, to be achieved by revenge on the slave-owning class.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
RaveThe Guardian\"... a surreal, startling debut collection of short stories ... Throughout, these uncanny tales – recognisable but unsettling, like nightmares or secrets you dare not share – draw on real events, such as the mass murder of children. They are rooted in soil where reality is already dialled up to 11: this is America, after all ... Composed with brio and rare imaginative power, Friday Black recaptures the strange fear and excitement we first feel as child readers, when we begin to learn that Grimms’ fairytales are approximations of the real world.\
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksDouglas is concerned with the fragility and deepening injustice of society that lead to the coarsening of human relations; in her novel, Jamaica is a country where families leave newborns on the steps of churches to be adopted by whoever passes, and where adolescents demonstrate their manliness through gang allegiance, robbery, and murder. Its population is lost and in need of salvation. The spiritual and revolutionary fervor once displayed by preachers seemed to diminish after Marley’s death; The Marvellous Equations of the Dread is a stimulus toward its revival ... Revolutionary lyrics to several of Marley’s songs...are seeded throughout the novel as if they were clues to a secret code, which adds to the complex structure of the book ... Douglas offers a compassionate portrayal of Selassie as a pious Christian, a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church who has taken his rightful place in Zion ... By bringing Marley back as a street Rasta, Douglas has restored him to his presanitized state and accents his simple but revolutionary message that Babylon is bent on the destruction of the poor.
RaveThe GuardianHer tales focus on snobbish characters whose parents’ wealth has made them \'somehow unfit for black people\' ... Thompson-Spires examines the black upper middle class who find themselves often isolated in historically \'white spaces\' such as Ivy League colleges. She portrays the emotional challenge to their mental health that is the downside of privilege ... These coolly ironic and grimly funny tales brim with snap and verve, and this is a debut collection of daring and aplomb.
John Edgar Wideman
RaveThe GuardianLaced together, the stories in American Histories read like an immense jazz riff. The writing is fractured; words are excised, reflecting vernacular speech patterns and also Wideman’s aim of getting more quickly to the truth ... Like a negative yet to be printed, characters yearn for the possibility of an alternative history. They’re stripped naked emotionally ... The acutely immersive world of American Histories is irresistible, and these profoundly moving stories will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading.
RaveThe GuardianIn So Much Things to Say, a title taken from the anthemic Marley song, linking Jesus Christ to Marcus Garvey, Steffens identifies many more pieces of the man than have ever before been put together in one book … Steffens marshals his sources with skill, and we’re left with a complex representation. At the core of the book is the inimitable Wailers trio – Tosh, Marley and Bunny Livingston … Occasionally, Steffens ventures a critical assessment, employing words such as ‘disingenuous’ when introducing a fanciful tale; but he rarely adjudicates on the accounts presented. If Marley is at the celestial centre of reggae, then Livingston is the brightest satellite. He emerges as a rancorous, mystical and magisterial guardian of Marley’s reputation, as keen as ever to convey the spirit and greatness of his fallen brother. In that task he is aligned with Steffens, the consummate fan.
RaveThe GuardianThe story of Bedward at the centre of Augustown, a partially fictionalised version of August Town, is given a much more richly nuanced and empathetic telling in Kei Miller’s vivid modern fable. An admired poet, Miller, like his compatriot the Man Booker prize-winning Marlon James, has mined a rich seam of Jamaican history ... although the narrator challenges any conclusion the reader may draw that the book is a version of magical realism, Augustown gives more than a nod to Gabriel García Márquez as a chronicle of a death foretold. It is this tension that drives the story towards an unbearably dramatic denouement ... Miller shows how the dominance of its brutal history lies just beneath the surface of everyday life; it runs through the island and Augustown like water. But his is a slippery tale, an old-time story. The beguiling simplicity of the narrative and prose yields to the profound realisation that for the people of Augustown, the only way to 'fly away to Zion' is through death; and some indeed are prepared, are 'ready fi dead.'
RaveThe Guardian...readers may be as surprised as I was by the rich range of the seasoned literary voice – modern, confident, emotionally intelligent and humorous – that emerges from the pages of the posthumously published Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? ... The stories were written in the late 1960s and 70s, when black power exploded, and have a persistently delightful quality of spring awakening, with sassy flower-bedecked students in bell-bottomed trousers and rollneck sweaters. Their free spirits are contrasted with their anxious, middle-class fathers, for whom the revolution has come too soon ... The stories speak to each other, eliding time, allowing characters who are versions of each other to reveal and deepen aspects hinted at previously ... Collins’s health betrayed her art; she died from breast cancer aged 46 in 1988. But 30 years on, her abandoned stories seem fresh and distinctive and, in a new age of anxiety and crisis of identity, startlingly prescient.
PositiveThe GuardianAs its title suggests, this is a bold and defiant work that enumerates the credits and deficits of black life; Jefferson’s reflections are leavened by a sharp wit and a literary rolling of the eyes when dissecting the nuances of prejudice ... Jefferson largely eschews fury but charts other shades of resentment – showing, for example, that working-class black Americans can better deal with white privilege than with black ... Self-pity forms no part of Jefferson’s writing palette. Her memoir doesn’t linger on grief: it’s mostly breezy and conversational, and every so often she breaks off to address the reader conspiratorially, like the protagonist in a film speaking directly to the camera. It serves the book well.