Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah review – deliciously daring


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A dark and mind-bending debut collection of short stories set in a twisted America

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black made the New York Times bestseller list recently, an astonishing feat for a debut collection of short stories. It’s not surprising because his dark and strange tales are so inventive and stirring that they read as the male counterpart to Leone Ross’s recent first collection, Come Let Us Sing Anyway, with its amazing realist and magic realist concoctions around black women’s lives. Adjei-Brenyah’s stories are equally ingenious, but through a male lens and, like Ross, they’re so daring and mind-bending that you haven’t a clue where he’s going to take you.

The opening story, The Finkelstein 5, is one of the most topical and devastating. A young man called Emmanuel talks about dialling his blackness up or down according to the situation. Speaking to a possible future employer on ...

Bernardine Evaristo: ‘The book that made me cry? I’m as tough as old boots’


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The poet and novelist on Romans, black British history and the best books to get boys reading

The book I am currently reading
She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak, edited by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan and Rafeeat Aliyu. This is a groundbreaking, brave and timely collection of first-hand accounts by queer Nigerian women from a country where being gay is illegal and can result in imprisonment or death.

The book that changed my life
Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer. I read this book when it was first published in the 80s and I was astonished to discover that Africans had been in Roman Britain 1,800 years before my Nigerian father arrived in 1949. This book changed my understanding of Britishness. Years later I found a way to explore this history in my verse novel, The Emperor’s Babe, about a ...

The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla review – funny and fascinating


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This tale about a British-Asian family tackles trauma and intergenerational relationships with wit and wisdom

Nikesh Shukla has recently risen to prominence as a diversity champion for literature, setting up various initiatives that offer opportunities for underrepresented writers. But we mustn’t forget that, first and foremost, he is a powerful chronicler of British lives with Asian roots. In his fabulously funny 2014 novel, Meatspace, he captured the zeitgeist with his protagonist, Kitab Balasubramanyam, a young man whose online persona masks his real life and personality. Shukla was particularly adept at portraying Kitab’s difficult relationship with his widowed father, who, to his annoyance, had more online dating success than himself. In this new novel, he shines a light on a wider Gujarati family settled in Bradford with roots in Kenya. This family is inter-generationally doomed, it appears, by fate. To what extent, it asks, are our lives predestined? And what ...

Come Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross review – short stories that seduce and shock


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The women in these compassionate tales of love, loneliness and desire have strong passions and huge problemsLeone Ross’s first short-story collection demonstrates her imaginative power and great psychological depth. The protagonists are predominantly female and Caribbean; abuse, sex, loneliness, betrayal and abandonment are recurrent themes. The collection opens with “Love Silk Food”, about an older woman married to a philanderer. She calls his mistresses “Excitement Girls”: “Wet things with their oiled spines, sweating lips, damp laps.” Deeply hurt, she spends hours sitting alone in busy shopping centres or aimlessly riding the London underground. When she gets chatting to a friendly man on a train, she misreads the signals and ends up painfully humiliated. As with her two novels, Orange Laughter and the Orange prize-nominated All the Blood Is Red, Ross writes here with searing empathy and compassion. Her women are rounded, wounded, and we cannot help but ...

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson review – dreams and danger on the streets of New York


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An allusive, less-is-more approach works beautifully in this coming-of-age novel Jacqueline Woodson is America’s Young People’s Poet Laureate. A major voice in children’s literature, she is the author of more than 30 books, including her memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, which won multiple awards, including the 2014 National Book Award. It’s a striking recreation of an African-American childhood and family in the troubled times of the 60s and 70s. Her gorgeous poetry is easily readable, yet negotiates complex relationships, experiences and political contexts as the author’s family moves between Ohio, South Carolina and New York. Another Brooklyn, her new novel, has a thematic and stylistic overlap. It also explores black girlhood and relocation, and while not poetry, it is beautifully lyrical. The narrator is August, an international anthropologist specialising in death rituals, who has returned to Brooklyn to bury her father. She was eight and her brother four when their ...

Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie review – surreal tales of love and loneliness


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Inner demons surface with surprising results in these explorations of alienation and mental deteriorationIrenosen Okojie’s debut novel, Butterfly Fish, was published last year, winning a Betty Trask award. The story moves between 1970s London and 19th-century Benin in a multigenerational tale that uncovers family secrets and reimagines Yoruba royal history. Noted for its magic realism, it is actually more indebted to the traditions of Nigerian storytelling that weave together the real, fantastical, fabular and spiritual, exemplified by Ben Okri’s  1991 novel The Famished Road. With Speak Gigantular, her first short-story collection, Okojie continues her fictional forays into the surreal. “Animal Parts” is set in a Danish town. A single mother refuses to do anything about her small son’s growing tail; she loves him as he is. But the town turns against them, the mother’s mental health deteriorates and she carries out terrible acts of violence. Okojie shows how ...

My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal review – a touching, thought-provoking debut


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A young vulnerable boy is taken into care after his mother is no longer able to copeKit de Waal has already garnered praise and attention for her short fiction. She worked in family and criminal law for many years, and wrote training manuals on fostering and adoption; she also grew up with a mother who fostered children. This helps explain the level of insight and authenticity evident in My Name Is Leon, her moving and thought-provoking debut novel. It is set in the early 1980s and, like What Maisie Knew and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is told through the perspective of a child who is keenly observant, although we understand more of what is happening around him than he does. In this case, the narrator is eight-year-old Leon, who becomes a foster child. The novel begins with the birth of his baby brother, ...