Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

IMG_2211Nigerian fiction has carved out a permanent place on British bookshelves and for good reason. I’ve read a fair few Nigerian authors of the last 25 years and I’ve yet to encounter a bad book.

This one definitely didn’t break that streak even though I wasnt sure about the subject matter. It explores the marriage of Yejide. A woman who married for love and is desperate to have a child. Her mother-in-law is probably even more desperate. She has tried everything – medical treatments, arduous pilgrimages, dances with prophets, appeals to God. But nothing. Then her in-laws insist upon a new wife.

As much as I love a good character driven novel I was worried that this could become either unremittingly maudlin or too peppy for its own good. But set against the social and political turbulence of 80s Nigeria, and infused with honesty and humour Stay With Me is a tour de force. It deserves it’s place on the shortlist of The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Personally I prefer it to the winner this year (The Power by Naomi Alderman).

Ayobami Adebayo’s book is full of the life that Yejide is so desperate for. As her marriage and sanity is threatened she finds friends in unexpected places. But there are other plots afoot that she has no idea about, unexpected gifts and unmeasurable threats.

5 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

IMG_2428This is the story of a black man standing in the Supreme Court for the most shocking charges. He is a black man accused of segregating the local high school and reinstating slavery!

But did he really do such things? After all he was born and bought up in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, he’s a typical lower-middle-class Californian. And his father was a controversial but liberal minded sociologist performing psychological studies on the impact of racism.

After his father dies and he discovers that he’s been left no money at all the narrator loses heart, all he can see around him is the downtroddeness of his neighbours, the general disrepair of his hometown and then Dickens is literally to be removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident – the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins – he decides on a daring plan to save the neighbourhood. Will it work – or has being the subject of all his father’s experiments had an unexpected impact?

This is a funny book. Beatty’s turn of phrase and sharp mind have created a scenario that at first seems absurd but then seems to make perfect sense within the context of the historical and current treatment of pretty much anybody that isn’t white but lives in the U.S. The characters are varied, believable and a lot of them have sharp minds and witty comebacks too.

But underneath this levity the impact of racism is utterly dissected. Every aspect of it is pulled out and placed under the microscope. We see how one part of the system needs another and are left knowing that just ripping out organs hasn’t been enough to kill racism – the system hobbles on and the maiming of it makes it just as dangerous. I was left thinking that if there had been more positive actions, if instead of ripping out the organs of racism they had been removed carefully and replaced with a healthy ones, maybe we wouldn’t need the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Maybe it would be obvious and accepted by all that black lives are as important as white. As it is America continues to fail it’s citizens, but at least it provided the climate for a mind like Paul Beatty’s to create something extraordinary.

5 Bites

 

 

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing
Click here to order from Waterstones

A woman gives birth, then sets a fire to run away leaving her child behind. The child Effia grows into a great beauty and is given in marriage to a white man, a slave trader.

Her mother gives birth to another daughter, Esi. While Effia is living above the slave dungeons her unknown sister is beneath her, laying beneath other women and feeling their urine run down between her own legs before she is dragged away on a slave ship to America.

The story follows their descendents, showing us vignettes that highlight the most important moments of their lives – the moments things changed or coelesced into their true essence. We meet them picking cotton in Mississippi, at political meetings in Ghana, in the coal mines of Pensylvania or the missionary schools of Ghana through to the dive bars of Harlem and the universites of Ghana and America.

I really enjoyed this book, it takes the one fault I found with Roots and redresses it. We stay with each character long enough to care about them and get real insight into their lives but the book also keeps moving down the generations steadily. There’s roughly equal time spent with each character whether male or female. Often characters pop up again in their children or grandchildren’s stories which feels very natural and allows the reader to feel part of the story.

The descriptions are excellent also, I’ve never been to Ghana but I feel like I would recognise parts of it now if I was lucky enough to visit. For that matter I haven’t been to most of the U.S but I’ve seen it and read descriptions of it so often that I didn’t really notice those descriptions so much, they weren’t jarring though so they must have been good.

There are some very visceral scenes in this book, and some really uplifting ones. It does a good job of showing how slavery branded people on both sides of the trade. But at the same time it shows how strong the human spirit is.

4 Bites

 

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

swing-timeTwo young girls attend Miss Isobel’s dance class in Kilburn in the 80’s. They are drawn to each other by their physical similarities being the only 2 brown girls in the class.

But the girls have their differences as well as their similarities, Tracey, is a talented dancer, lives with her white mother while fantasisng that her black father is a back-up dancer for Michael Jackson instead of in jail. Our narrator can sing but has flat feet and is overshadowed by her political black mother and ultra-supportive white father.  As their friendship grows it gets more and more complicated before they start to drift apart. Then Tracey does something that our narrator decides is unforgiveable. Their friendship is over, but she can’t ever quite forget Traey, not even when she lands a glamorous job or later when she is helping build a school in West Africa.

I loved the first half of this book. Smith’s portrait of the girl’s lives and friendship is exceptional. The narrator is very perceptive and seeing Tracey, and all the other character’s that populate her life, is a vibrant and vivid  experience.  London in the late 80’s and 90’s was my town and I can confirm that Smith sums up the city I loved so much and the people in it perfectly.

But the narrator has a blind-spot, it’s not an uncommon one, she can’t seem to see herself. She is perpetually shocked every time anyone suggests to her that life isn’t all about her. It’s forgivable when she’s younger but by the time she’s in her 30’s I started to find her exasperating. When I finally found out what Tracey’s ‘crime’ had been I lost all respect for her. I could understand how it might have upset her at the time, but to be holding a grudge for that long wasn’t something I could sympathise with. People do get stuck and fail to grow up, but this didn’t seem to me to be an adequate trauma for that.  Therefore by the end of the book, when the one last chance I gave the character to come to her senses failed to materialise, I finished it feeling short-changed.

I know it’s not the novelists job to give us neat resolutions all the time and this did provoke me so I can’t say it was bad, but there was just that spark of inauthenticity in the second half and for me it burned the book down.

3 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

img_2282If you’re familiar with James’s work, you’ll know that when you start one of his books you enter into a pact with him. He reveals all the terrifying parts of humanity, things normally hidden from view. You accept that during the course of the book you will be appalled, sickened and eventually numbed by reading about violence that is beyond horrifying.

The Book of the Night Women begins in 1785 on a Jamaican plantation. Lilith, a child of rape, is given to an unwilling prostitute and a kind but mentally ill man to parent. In her mid-teens, she is nominated by to become a member of a select group of because she killed a white man (in self-defence) and had set a fire which killed a sadistic and murderous white magistrate and his wife. The Night Women are morally ambiguous, they sow ferment in their community through curses, plot rebellion against whites and revenge against any one threatening to betray them.

Lilith feigns innocence but is privately tortured by thoughts of the children and slaves who burned to death. She is thrown into the arms of an Irish overseer. He really cares for her, and insists that they are equal in the private space of their home, despite the scars he inflicted on her back when she was younger. Both ruthless survivors, the love they share gives them a sense of absolution and it drives her to try and convince the night women that responding to violence with violence can only escalate it to everyone’s cost.

The book has an eventful and tight plot and the story is told from a seemingly omniscient viewpoint in patois. There is no mention of who the narrator really is until the final pages, but James’s technical mastery of point of view is unquestionable. His brilliance as a writer makes Lilith’s incredible character arc believable – in terrible circumstances, and having committed appalling acts, she finally begins to see shared humanity in both black and white people, though self-interested barbarity is all around her.

James explores one of the worst evils of slavery – the way it created fear on all sides. The whites’ greed and fear of insurrection made them brutal. The blacks’ fear of white brutality and the unjustifiableness of their power made them long to inflict violent retribution. James shows that ‘justice’ could be easily dispensed by those with white skin, force or cunning, but he also shows that the price you pay for always getting your own way is a stained conscience and a bitter heart.

If you pledge not to turn away, James will eventually deliver hope, touches of forgiveness and the emancipating power of literacy. I abandoned ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ (his Booker prize-winning story about the assassination attempt on Bob Marley) because it overwhelmed me. I’ve heard many people say that his books are too much for them. Try this book with an open mind and grim determination.

This would get full marks, but such extreme violence written so graphically prevents a lot of people finishing so I am deducting a bite. Four bites.

Charlotte Kearsley
My love of reading began when I was very young, and quickly took over my life. On trips to Brighton, my family would see me start walking faster at the sight of the major bookshop in the centre. I've lived in many places since, including London and Rio, and still insist on visiting bookshops as soon as possible! I normally head for literary and historical fiction first, then pick out the quality thrillers. If I've time to spare I'll browse the biography and travel writing shelves. When I'm not spending time with books or books-in-progress in one way or another, I works in the public sector and crafts.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl

imageIn Everfair Nisi Shawl has taken the real and horrific events of King Loepold’s colonisation of the Congo and spun them through the prism of ‘what if’.

She came up with an alternate history with overtones of steampunk. In this history the native population gained access to steam technology including Dirigibles by way of the Fabian Society. Their allies have also purchased land from Leopold and set up the state of  Everfair; a safe haven for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated. Together they fight back against Leopold’s disgusting murderous excesses to protect the land of Everfair.

That concept, that cover – I was sold. Then when I found out I’d be able to review this for Black History Month I was over the moon- I couldn’t wait to read it and share a glowing review stressing that black authors could write in any damn genre they wanted and do it well.

They can of course, but sadly this wasn’t the book to prove that. I just couldn’t get into it and I ended up putting it down twice and picking up other books before finally putting it down and giving up on it before I was half way through.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what was wrong with it, if indeed the fault was in the book not in me. I think in the end it came down to two things, the structure of the book wasn’t great – it should maybe have started later in the story and flashbacked more to establish characters motives etc. The other thing was that there were quite a lot of characters and I got confused between them – particularly the white characters so I was then unsure about motives and whether a particular character would do a certain thing only to eventually figure out I wasn’t reading about who I thought I was reading about!

Even though I didn’t finish this I don’t want to rate it too low. I have a feeling that if I pick it up again in another 6 months and have another bash at it I might finally get it and love it.

So for now – 3 Bites.

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

cover92468-mediumCora is the sum of her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother bought from Africa, stayed put. But her mother ran and Cora never heard of her again. Now she is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia and as she’s reaching womanhood her already wretched existence is about to get a whole lot worse. When newly arrived Caesar, a slave from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad and asks her to run with him the spirit of her mother comes out and she says yes.

To begin with I liked this book, the slave row that Cora lives in is very different from others I’ve read, distrust and betrayal run rife through it and though that’s uncomfortable in all honestly when people have been abused to that extent they’re not all noble and don’t all stick together.

But then this book took a sudden jolt off the rails. You see the author decided to imagine the Underground Railroad that so many slaves used to escape, as a real Underground Railroad. Running from the Deep South all the way to the north. Hmm. I was so confused I had to check if I’d been wrong all this time.

Though he didn’t make it a grand railway – just a series of dilapidated box cars some pulled by steam locomotives, some driven by hand pumps, I personally still found it disrespectful to the memory of freedom seekers and those that helped them.

However I persevered, the blurb told me that at “each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.” I thought that had to be worth reading and considering I’d seen this book all over Litsy and Instagram I knew it was popular.

Sadly I remained disappointed, it wasn’t an awful book, but to me I felt that the structure and the cleverness of the theme got in the way of what could have been an excruciatingly good book. Whitehead’s writing is wonderful, there are some sentences in there that would shame a poet. His characters are good, but again the structure got in the way as he had a habit of telling us about a character after they left the narrative- I would have cared about them a lot more if I’d known them better earlier.

This is a case of the new not outdoing the old. To understand the heritage of so many African-Americans and the horrors of the slave trade you’re better off reading Roots.

3 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

img_2271This book is flawed but heartfelt, and although I have to acknowledge those flaws I want to say straight away that I totally recommend Roxane Gay’s writing to you as it is full of humour and honesty. I have never felt so much warmth radiating through the words of an academic. Unlike some scholars she writes to communicate and engage with people, and not just to demonstrate how much she knows.

Bad Feminist is a collection of essays which handle a number of topics: her personal experience as an ethnic Haitian English professor, the meaning of feminism to her and the debates about it, and the way that Western culture handles issues of gender, sexuality and race. There is also some commentary on current affairs and the role of social media. Some essays deal with a number of these things, some with just one big issue.

I loved a number of her pieces – one of the memorable ones is ‘To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically’ about her experience of playing competitive scrabble. I laughed out loud as she described opponents trying to psych her out before a big match, and was fascinated by the minutiae of competition etiquette. I felt deeply moved by her openness in ‘What We Hunger For’ about the gang rape she experienced at the age of 11, which was instigated by someone she thought was her boyfriend. Words are often not enough to describe the horror of sexual violence, but she is a fearless and authoritative voice on this topic. There is a wonderful essay on friendship ‘How to be friends with another woman’ which I completely adored. It was light and sharp, written as a list of numbered instructions, highlighting that whilst global sisterhood might be an unachievable dream, our acts of kindness to each other are important and can be truly empowering.

I have deducted a couple of bites because the introduction and essays at the end feel like a bit of an afterthought as an attempt to bring cohesion to the book. I didn’t finish the book with a clear ‘take home message’. There is not enough discussion of the history of the feminist movement and different arguments within feminism for a book with ‘feminist’ in the title. I can’t help feeling that calling herself a ‘bad feminist’ is partly a strategy to get out of analysing these things more deeply, but equally, doing that might make the book a little less accessible.  A very minor point is that she has an irritating writing tic – her essays are littered with the two word sentence ‘And yet.’ I really noticed this, reading the book from beginning to end as I would a novel. It is also heavily oriented towards a U.S. readership in its references and content.

All of this being said, I cannot remember when I last enjoyed reading an essay collection as much as ‘Bad Feminist’. There is so much emotional power to it, and the rather plain cover doesn’t do any justice to how vibrant and strong the author’s voice is. She writes scathingly about the pressure women are under to be likeable, so I won’t talk too much about how I would like her to be my friend, but instead I will tell you that when she takes an uncompromising position on a difficult issue she wins my support and respect. Three bites

Charlotte Kearsley
My love of reading began when I was very young, and quickly took over my life. On trips to Brighton, my family would see me start walking faster at the sight of the major bookshop in the centre. I've lived in many places since, including London and Rio, and still insist on visiting bookshops as soon as possible! I normally head for literary and historical fiction first, then pick out the quality thrillers. If I've time to spare I'll browse the biography and travel writing shelves. When I'm not spending time with books or books-in-progress in one way or another, I works in the public sector and crafts.

Augustown by Kei Miller

augustownAugustown is a slum village that has become a suburb. It’s history isn’t exactly illustrious, but it did once have a preacher that could flew.

It is this story that blind Ma Taffy decides to tell her grandson when he comes home from school distressed and with a small of not-rightness attached to him.  Quite why she is compelled to tell him this story is unclear at first, but she is worried that something terrible is about to happen, and somehow it’s all tied up with the preacher that flew and the callboose seller that hung himself. So maybe, if she gets the story out, she can stop it somehow.

This was a much quicker read than I expected, and quicker than I wanted it to be! Not that it is really short but the writing flows and brings the reader along with it.  Kei Miller uses language in lyrical manner, only the dialogue is written in dialect but the rhythms run through the text as a whole.

The descriptions of Jamaica in the 80’s are lively and although I’ve never been there I did spend time in other Caribbean islands in the 90’s and I felt like I was right back there.

Although there are promises of magical realism in the book it twists the expectation that sets up neatly. It’s true to its characters and their stories of hope and tribulations.

Worth a read – 4 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Black History Month: A Resource Guide To Black Science Fiction & Fantasy

This month is Black History Month. A very important celebration that looks back at the contributions made by black people all over the world. A chance to remember their struggles for acceptance and the need be treated equally, to learn of their stories and to understand how their lives were affected by indifference and hatred.

But I am a white man, living in a white culture with little experience of the struggles they have experienced over the decades. To my mind, that disqualifies me from spouting any further on that side of things. Though I do have an opinion and that is to say, it’s an unjust World we live in and change is well overdue.

I could talk about black Sci-Fi authors of the past, people like Octavia E. Butler, Nalo Hopkinson and Charles W. Chesnutt. There are many black authors who have contributed to the fine body of literature that is Science Fiction.

Instead, I’m going to give you a list of resources where you can find out more about past, current and future black authors. You will learn an awful lot more by discovering for yourself the contributions made than by revealing my own inadequate knowledge.

For Black History Information

Posts About Black Science Fiction Authors

Websites For Black Science Fiction

Black Science Fiction Authors

Black Science Fiction and the Media

Until I started doing the research for the links above, I had no idea what colour skin Samuel R. Delany had. In fact, that’s true for the majority of the authors that I read, I have no idea what colour they are. Besides it doesn’t matter to me and it shouldn’t matter to you. All that is important is that you read, buy books and support new and current authors. Go to it!

Bob Toovey
I started reading Sci Fi at around age 8, I've never looked back since. I was highly influenced by my father's reading choices at the beginning. I soon branched out to many different authors and Sci Fi genre's. Early influences include Asimov, Clark, Simak, PKD and other 'golden age' authors. On occasion, I like a good spy book and currently finding early religious history a fascinating subject – despite being an atheist.

Roots by Alex Haley

haley_rootsWhen I was a child Roots was a cultural phenomenon. It spent 22 weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller List and was made into a TV series that EVERYBODY watched. It changed people.

But as I was only little I only got to hear about it and see snatches when I’d sneak downstairs for a drink, which would be a lot when it was on!

But it was published 40 years ago this year. Has it stood the test of time and does it still have something important to say?

It follows the story of Kunte Kinte from his birth in a small village in The Gambia through to his kidnapping and being taken as a slave to America. We stay right with him as he tries to understand the land he’s been taken to and as he attempts to escape. We continue to follow him as he slowly, begrudgingly settles into slave row and eventually finds love and even has a child of his own.  The book continues to trace the lives of his descendents for the next six generations.

Now this makes it sound like it’s a HUMUNGOUS book, I mean it’s got to be longer and more confusing than war and peace right? Wrong. It is long, coming in at just over 800 pages, admittedly with very tiny writing, but the story is very clear and totally absorbing. We stay with Kunte Kinte (and his family) for around half the book then spend a good couple of hundred pages with his grandson Chicken George (and family), before continuing down the family line.

This book is both incredbibly harrowing and very uplifting. It’s definitely still worth the time to read, I felt I’d learned quite a lot of truths about the facts and horrors of slavery after reading it. It reminded me that the slave trade and indeed racism in America today isn’t just an American problem, us Brits might have abolished slavery more than 30 years before they did but the people that bought the majority of the slaves to America and set up the practice were the English.  That being so it is encumbent on us to do more to help eradicate it, both in the U.S and here. If all you do to help is get a better understanding that’s still something and I would strongly recommend this book for that.

It also reminded me that the African’s that were stolen were not the savages that they were beclaimed to be then, in fact their civilisation was just as valid as our own, a large amount of them were muslim and although the society Kunte Kinte came from had a version of slavery it was nothing like the brutal slavery that was inflicted on them. There ‘slaves’ were better off and more respected than most English peasants in fact. Their society also held women and men in very different roles and would definitely be considered sexist by todays standards, however, when compared to the staatus of women in western society at the same time they certainly weren’t worse off.

Which brings me neatly to my only criticism of the book, which is that although the author clearly respects women immensely, they didn’t get much of the spotlight in this book. Kunte Kinte had female as well as male descendents but the men get a lot more ‘column inches’ than the women.

Overall though, not to be missed!

4 Bites

 

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanahIfemelu left Lagos and the boy she loved there to go to college in America. The Nigeria she left was under military dictatorship, and her boyfriend Obinze was going to join her in the free world. But then 9/11 happened and he couldn’t get a visa.

Through this enforced separation  Ifemelu goes through some awful times but eventually finds friends and a job as a successful feature writer. But thirteen years later she can no longer ignore her feeling of displacement and yearns to return home.

With the passing of time Obinze has become a wealthy man, but neither of them has ever forgotten the honesty of their relationship or the mystery of its ending. Can they face each other again or have they both changed too much?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can’t seem to write a book without it winning an award and she deserves them. This book has everything- love, conflict, social commentary, believable characters and excellent writing. The structure of this book is wonderful, it’s clever, but facilitates the story perfectly. We meet Ifemelu as she is about to enter a new hairdressers, a place where she will be sitting for hours with other African women giving her the chance to reflect on her experiences as an African woman in America. Far from being melancholy though, the story remains vibrant and immediate. Interspersed with this are some of Ifemelu’s blog posts from her successful blog ‘The Non-American Black’ which are conversational and insightful.

We also follow Obinze’s story, through which we see the changes in Nigeria as well as in his own personal life.

I fell in love with these characters and would really like to have hem as neighbours so I could hang out with them both, keep up with the gossip and set the world to rights! I can’t recommend this book highly enough – it’s stormed into my all-time favourites and I know I’ll be recommending it for years to come.

5 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.