Modern African-American literature is a vital and varied world. In celebration of Black History Month, we've dug up 10 new or lesser-known works by contemporary African-American authors that deserve a wider readership.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans
The polished, well-crafted stories in this collection feature African-American and mixed-race women who are grappling with problems both universal—divorce; the directionless time after college graduation—and specific to their race and class. In one story, a group of middle-class, Ivy-league college girls laugh over ads offering high prices for egg donations, knowing that they wouldn't make the grade since they're not white. This insightful, electric debut displays a wisdom that belies the author's youth (she was just 27 when it was published).
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
This daring, imaginative second novel was one of our favorites of 2015. From the vivid opening chapters, in which its most lovable narrator loses both hands in a violent incident, this is a story full of strong images and memorable characters—and, according to our reviewer, echoes of Ralph Ellison and Kafka. With it, Hannaham has cemented himself as one of fiction's most vivid voices.
Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Reconstruction remains one of the most discussed and difficult periods in American history, and in his most recent novel, Pulitzer-winning columnist Pitts takes readers to that dark era. Sam is free and working as a librarian in Philadelphia, but after the Civil War ends he risks everything to return to the South and find his wife. The journey is as difficult as you might imagine, and Pitts describes it unflinchingly—and gives readers an honest ending.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Beatty's fearless, bitingly comic satire doesn't hesitate to confront some of America's biggest issues as it tells the story of a nameless black man—the "sellout" of the title—who comes up with a startling way to save his hometown of Dickens, California, even after the city turned its back on him. All he needs is to reinstate slavery and segregate the local high school. With a premise as preposterous as Swift's "A Modest Proposal," Beatty swings at the fences.
The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
This lush, lyrical debut, set in 1989, finds 10-year-old Phaedra and her 16-year-old sister, Dionne, spending the summer with their grandmother in Barbados. The Carribbean feels worlds away from their home in Brooklyn, and the two sisters are in for a life-changing exploration of their heritage. Jackson, whose own family is from Barbadoes, portrays the sisters' discovery of their cultural heritage with authenticity and sensitivity.
The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore
Moore, who built a career as a cello player and college professor, published this unexpectedly page-turning debut at the age of 52. It's a cozy, small-town story that covers one year in the lives of four smart, interesting women who have been friends for more than 40 years, and centers on the Indiana diner where they meet regularly to dish on life and offer each other moral support. If you liked Fried Green Tomatoes or the novels of Jan Karon, give this a try.
Third Girl from the Left by Martha Southgate
Ohio author Southgate—a former editor at Essence—specializes in family sagas set against a textured background that gives readers a glimpse into African-American history. In her third novel, she links three generations of African-American women through a love of movies. Mildred, the first generation, escapes her memories of the race riots by going to the cinema; her daughter, Angela, builds on her mother's love of film to run away to Hollywood and have bit parts in the blaxplotiation films of the 1970s. Things come full circle when Tamara, the third generation, is able to actually attend film school and build a career.
Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon
This 2005 release is something of a modern-day Romeo & Juliet, although what separates lovers Antonio and Natasha isn't their disapproving families, but the prison system: Antonio is incarcerated for killing his father, something he swears he didn't do. Buckhanon tells the story through letters written by the two teenagers in their vibrant Harlem vernacular, putting a human face on the people behind bars and those who love them.
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
Four progressive Berkeley students are introduced to what some politicians might call "the real America" in this sly social critique of a debut novel. Daron, Charlie, Candice and Louis, all from different backgrounds, go to Daron's tiny hometown of Braggsville, Georgia to protest a Civil War re-enactment that local residents provide as part of their "Patriot Days" celebration. But when the casual racism of the small-town South meets these earnest activists, the results are explosive.
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Just when you think you've seen all the horrors of slavery, a book like Wench comes along to make you realize that its evils are limitless. Perkins-Valdez's striking debut sheds light on one of the more complex issues of the so-called peculiar institution: the way that some wealthy slaveholders made female slaves into pampered mistresses—and even took them on vacation. Perkins-Valdez takes a kaleidoscopic look at this warped power dynamic through the experiences of four different women.
Emma Straub is quickly making a name for herself as an author who can deftly toe the line between literary and popular writing—her books are easy to breeze through, but there's also food for thought for the discerning reader. Her 2014 novel, The Vacationers, was one of the biggest beach reads of the year, and we think the same might be said a few months from now about novel #3, Modern Lovers, which will be published on May 31 by Riverhead Books.
Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe have been friends ever since college, when they were 3/4 of a moderately successful rock band. Now in their 50s, they've settled in Brooklyn with families and real jobs, but it's not until their own children leave for school (and start sleeping together) that the trio is forced to confront the "shock of middle age"—and the truth about what happened to the fourth member of their group.
The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues on June 21, as Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler tackles The Taming of the Shrew. In Vinegar Girl, she brings Kate, Bianca (here called Bunny) and their father into the modern era by casting Kate Battista as a preschool teacher who is popular with her students but occasionally a bit too abrasive when it comes to managing their parents. At home, she's running things for her father, a scientist, and the rather flighty Bunny.
So far, so good, but a forced marriage plot is hard to swing for an adult woman in 2016. Enter the complexities of the U.S. immigration system, which is attempting to deport Dr. Battista's invaluable lab assistant, Pyotr. Can Battista convince Kate to make the ultimate sacrifice?
With more than 20 novels under her belt, Tyler is an accomplished chronicler of family dynamics. It will be interesting to see if she can also capture the comic spirit of her source material. Will you read it?
Most men in 1920s Alabama would be delighted to receive land as an inheritance, but for Roscoe T. Martin, taking over his father-in-law's farm was nothing but a burden—mostly because it meant leaving his burgeoning career at Alabama Power. Electricity has fascinated Roscoe since he first saw the lamplit streets of Birmingham as a child, and he has a talent for understanding it. The failing farm holds little interest for Roscoe, and his disappointment has turned him angry and bitter, damaging his relationships with his wife and young son. Then one day Roscoe sees an opportunity: He'll siphon off the grid and electrify the farm, allowing him to harvest more efficiently and save the farm. But this decision has deadly consequences, sparking a chain of events that will affect the family for decades to come.
Reeves conjures 1920s Alabama with an astounding level of detail, managing to convey the spirit of the time and place in a way that feels effortless. The sense of newness and excitement surrounding electricity, as well as Roscoe's passion for it, also come through loud and clear.
Back on their land, they tethered the horses to the fence and positioned the ladder against the pole that belonged to Alabama Power. Roscoe grabbed a wooden stick and climbed to line height. "If we failed, there will be sparks," he shouted to Wilson. "Best stand clear." A binder was on the line, coupling wires together. He needed to make the lines touch—different currents on different wires. If they touched quietly, the lines were cold. If not, Roscoe could be thrown from the ladder by the shock. He hesitated, knowing the power he might touch.
"Ross," Wilson called from below. "This is what you do."
Roscoe nodded. Camaraderie, companionship, a joint destination. This was what he did. These were his elements, his knowledge, his home.
He felt everything pause—the breeze, the birds, the trains on their tracks and the fish in their ponds. Even the great turbines at Lock 12 stopped spinning, the water holding back its movement, the powerhouse winding down. The lines had gone cold.
"Clear?" Wilson said.
Now, Roscoe would work.
What are you reading this week?
What happens to the 1 percent when the U.S. economy takes a serious tumble? Lionel Shriver investigates in her new novel, coming from Harper on June 21, 2016. The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047 follows, well, the Mandibles, an American dynasty (think the Vanderbilts or Hiltons) led by a 97-year-old patriarch. With cushy inheritances ahead, most of the Mandible clan haven't bothered to worry about finding practical or lucrative employment. But when the dollar falls, they have to start making some changes.
This won't be the first time that Shriver, a National Book Award finalist, has skewered our society through fiction. Novels like So Much for That and Big Brother showcase her ability to make discerning and, at times, scathing, observations on human nature. She also has a deep understanding of family dynamics, a strength that should be on full display in a family saga like The Mandibles. Anyone else looking forward to this one?
A critically praised novel and two compelling memoirs top the list of new paperbacks on sale today:
A God in Ruins
By Kate Atkinson
Back Bay • $17.99 • ISBN 9780316176507
Announced last week as the winner of Britain's Costa Award, Atkinson's evocative novel also made many best books of the year lists in the U.S. (including the BookPage Top 50, where it ranked #11). A follow-up to her dazzling 2013 bestseller Life After Life, Atkinson's latest chronicles the life of British World War II pilot Teddy Todd.
Born with Teeth
By Kate Mulgrew
Back Bay • $15.99 • ISBN 9780316334327
In her own unmistakable voice—confident, frank and feisty—the TV and film actress recounts her adventures growing up in a Midwestern Irish-Catholic family and navigating the road to stardom.
Leaving Before the Rains Come
By Alexandra Fuller
Penguin • $17 • ISBN 9780143128427
The author who captured her unorthodox African upbringing in Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight reveals the other side of her story—what happened after she married an American adventurer, moved to Wyoming and took aim at domestic tranquility.
The latest installment of the Austen Project finally has an on-sale date: April 19, 2016. Eligible is bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld's take on what is perhaps the ultimate Austen novel, Pride & Prejudice. No pressure!
Fortunately, it sounds like Sittenfeld has spent plenty of time considering her approach. Since it no longer makes sense for a mother to be worried about whether her teen- and 20-something daughters will be married, Jane and Lizzie are now in their late 30s. They're working in New York City when their father's health scare causes them to return home to Cincinnati, where they find their younger sisters' lives, in disarray—but also meet two handsome, single doctors. Intriguing!
RELATED CONTENT: Don't miss our interview with Sittenfeld about American Wife, and check out our coverage of previous installments of the Austen Project from Val McDermid, Alexander McCall Smith and Joanna Trollope. You can also read more news about 2016 releases.
Happy New Year! Let's start things off right with an update on an author who's been a book club favorite for years: Chris Cleave. The British author returns on May 3 with a new novel, and it's his first foray into historical fiction.
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (great title) is set during World War II and stars a courageous young socialite who volunteers to teach evacuees despite her highbrow family's diapproval. But Mary's work draws her into the orbit of best friends Tom and Alastair, and she soon finds herself involved in a love triangle that could have tragic consequences.
Cleave's publisher, Simon & Schuster, says of the book: "A sweeping epic with the kind of unforgettable characters, cultural insights, and indelible scenes that made Little Bee so incredible, Chris Cleave’s latest novel explores the disenfranchised, the bereaved, the elite, the embattled."
Will you read it?
Mark your calendars, horror fans: Joe Hill will publish a new story of supernatural suspense on May 17. In The Fireman, people worldwide are suddenly bursting into flames, thanks to an unstoppable, contagious virus known as Dragonscale. When Harper Grayson, a nurse who has made caring for infected patients her life's work, realizes she has been infected with the virus, she's desperate to survive long enough to give birth to the child she carries. Could a mysterious stranger, known only as the Fireman, teach her to control the disease and save her child's life as well as her own?
Terry McMillan, the acclaimed author of modern classics of popular fiction like Waiting to Exhale, returns June 7 with I Almost Forgot About You. Like much of McMillan's work, the book is centered on a woman who is accomplished and intelligent but still feels something missing from her life. Can Georgia Young, a successful doctor, make changes that will get her out of her comfortable rut—and maybe even find a second chance at love?
The publisher, Crown, promises this book "will show legions of readers what can happen when you face your fears, take a chance, and open yourself up to the world." It certainly has a fabulous cover. Will you read it?