Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2021)

Colson Whitehead’s reputation as one of the greatest living American writers took off with his last two novels which both won the Pulitzer Prize making him only the 4th writer to win this most prestigious Fiction award twice (alongside William Faulkner, John Updike and Booth Tarkington) and the only Black American to do so to date.

The Underground Railroad”(2016) was the book that took him to the big league- I still cannot understand how it did not win the 2017 Man Booker Prize describing it thus “It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”.  I still feel aggrieved by the panel awarding the big prize to “Lincoln In The Bardo” with Whitehead failing to make the transition from longlist to shortlist.  I still haven’t watched the adaptation of this currently on Amazon Prime in the UK. 

Pulitzer Prize number 2 came with “The Nickel Boys” (2019) which focused on a boy’s reform school.  This was a more straightforward narrative which managed to both please and slightly disappoint me so I ranked it four stars.

This latest, his 8th novel is more understated than his two big-hitters but he is now at a point of his career where each publication is a big literary event.  Set in late 50’s/early 60’s Harlem it feels what I imagine Chester Himes to read like (I’ve never read him but I did recently buy “A Rage In Harlem” (1957) so it’s only a matter of time) with greater awareness of the history between now and then and the significance of civil rights unrest.  Here this unrest provides a backdrop more than a focus for the novel and in fact is seen at best as an inconvenience by the characters.

Main character Raymond Carney’s focus is furniture, a salesman with his own store. His desire is to become the first black shop-owner allowed to stock branded items previously only available in white-owned stores.  Carney is doing okay, he is employing staff and looking towards expansion but the start-up money derived from wrong-doings from his largely absent now deceased father and that association causes Carney problems.  Fencing stolen goods becomes part of his trade yet (and this will become the most quoted phrase from this novel) “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

The influence of family leads to Carney becoming involved in a heist at a hotel frequented by a black clientele which begins a slippery slope.  What begins as a crime caper becomes darker as Carney becomes obsessed by revenge whilst always trying to separate the personal from his business life.

Carney is a great character and he comes up against a number of other memorable creations here but I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.  I actually found it hard to retain what had been going on.  There’s a tendency to introduce something then backtrack as to how it happens, but this introduction caused me to feel like I’d missed out on something and started leafing back when there was no need as the author hadn’t got to that bit yet.  The plot seems too content to just simmer along, there were points when the pace accelerated and then the book really takes off. 

There’s nothing wrong with this novel and it’s totally right that an author should be allowed to move back from creating the extraordinary to do something which feels less momentous but it is not up there with his best.  I think my own expectations might have let me down here.  I’d been looking forward to the publication of this since the start of the year when I highlighted it as a must-read for 2021 and that is probably the reason why it feels for me just a touch disappointing.

Harlem Shuffle will be published on 14th Sept 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Such A Fun Age – Kiley Reid (2020)

On the day I finished this it was announced that Philadelphian resident Kelly Reid had won the Best Debut Award at The Goodreads Choice Awards, voted for by readers.  I am not surprised that this book has won a popular vote as I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year.

There are a lot of complex issues in this book presented in a highly readable, involving form.  I found myself holding my breath when reading it, I was so gripped by the turn of events and felt on edge for the characters.  It is very much a book for our age, certainly in keeping with a couple of other books written by women of colour I have read this year which feel so relevant, as well as being very well-written, Kia Abdullah’s stunning legal thriller “Truth Be Told” and Candice Carty-Williams’ British take in “Queenie”.

Reid’s richly drawn main character is Emira, a 25 year old young black woman living in Philadelphia who works part-time as a babysitter for two white children.  One night, whilst at a party, she is called on for emergency child-care in order to remove the toddler Briar from the house for a time.  With limited choices available at that time of night, Emira takes Briar to a supermarket which sets off a whole chain of events.  This makes for a jaw dropping, tense beginning and repercussions and analysis of this event occupies all the main characters.  At the supermarket the proceedings are filmed by a white man, Kelley, who Emira begins a relationship with.  Her white employer, Alix becomes obsessed with this event and with Emira herself.  The multi-layered plot thickens continually until the characters are in a right old stew.  Whose behaviour is without blame?  Who is using who to score points and how far can all of the characters’ actions and justifications be classed as racist? It is especially pertinent (following the publication of this book) with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s non-fiction work “Why I’m Not Talking To White People About Race” (2018) belatedly topping the UK best sellers list but here we have some of these issues within a vibrantly written, involving fiction work which is so impressive.  There is great warmth and humour which also deepens the issues raised.  If we are to class this as an issue-led book it is so rich in character.  I would imagine this could well be a very big bestseller when the paperback is published on 29th December. 

My only reservation is the title and I know it’s ironic but it doesn’t convey the feel of the book and may detract purchasers, especially in the UK, where it has a kind of a “jolly hockey-sticks” air about it but surely this will be compensated by the very good word of mouth and its featuring in end of year lists, including The Daily Telegraph’s Best Books, that Goodreads win, a Booker longlist nod and The Independent calling it “the book of the year.”

“Such A Fun Age” was published in hardback in the UK in 2020 by Bloomsbury Circus.  The paperback edition is scheduled for 29th December.

Another Country – James Baldwin (1963)


I was reminded of James Baldwin recently when I read Polish set novel “Swimming In The Dark” by Tomasz Jedrowski. Here a copy of Baldwin’s second novel “Giovanni’s Room”, a suppressed text, is glued between the pages of another publication and has a significant part to play. Main character Ludwik also goes on to study Baldwin for his doctorate.

I said at the time I should re-explore this American author’s work. I haven’t read him since my final degree dissertation which was on the search for love in his works. A Classics book order I was doing for work in the library saw me adding this title, and, as a little perk, I decided I should be the first to borrow it.

It’s actually one of Baldwin’s titles I remember least yet in the 30+ years since my first reading it has become acknowledged (well, certainly in the introduction by Colm Toibin) as the “essential American drama of the century.” In fact, I had to dig out that dissertation from the loft (plenty of time for rummaging around up there at the moment) to see how much I referred to this in my work and actually I did quite a fair bit as the search for love is certainly a significant driving-force for these characters.

The most powerful of the characterisations on show here is Rufus, an African-American man who cannot fit into society because of his skin colour and sexuality. Attempting to do so leads to an abusive relationship with Leona a white, Southern woman. It’s not a spoiler to say that surprisingly early on in the novel Baldwin dispatches one of these characters in a suicide jump off George Washington Bridge and the rest of the novel explores their group of friends putting their lives back together.

They are an intense lot. Vivaldo, a white man, begins a relationship with Rufus’ sister; Rufus’ ex-love Eric moves back from a stable relationship with a man in France to the melting pot of New York and infiltrates the partnership of writer Richard and his wife Cass. It’s all very introspective with the characters seeming extremely self-centred which feels like it would have seemed more appropriate in the analytical soul-searching years of the early 1960s than it does today but there is great power and richness in Baldwin’s writing which made this a very welcome rediscovery. Toibin in his introduction compares him to Henry James and I can see where he’s coming from but I find Baldwin far more readable. This remains a very balanced, potent read. I will be fascinated to find out if the works which meant more to me than this when I first read them will continue to resonate as strongly.


Another Country was first published in 1963. I read the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2019)



Here’s a book I’ve been looking forward to. I highlighted it as one of my must-reads for 2019 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post in January. At that point August seemed a long time away but here it is and I have managed to get my hands on an advance copy.

Last time around Colson Whitehead ended up as #3 in my 2017 Books Of The Year list with the very impressive “The Underground Railroad” which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in the US and was a big seller over here. I said at the time “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read”. This is why expectations were so high for this.

“The Nickel Boys” focuses on a boys’ reform school, The Nickel Academy, which the author based on the real life Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Main character Elwood Curtis, an intelligent ambitious teen gets caught up in the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and ends up being sent to the school on ludicrous charges. This school is tough, but particularly on the black inmates, many of whom have found themselves there without just cause. They face segregation, malnutrition, cruelty, indiscriminate beatings and a number disappear without being seen again. Whitehead focuses on the out-of-place Elwood and his more street-savvy friend Turner and their experiences as teens in this hideous place alongside a later narrative of revelations about the place which come to the surface (literally) many years later.

“The Underground Railroad” focused on slavery and veered off in an unpredictable direction which saw it top the Amazon Book charts in its “Metaphysical and Visionary” lists. This book plays things more straightforwardly. In a way, I was pleased by this, because the author has such an important story to tell but also I was a little disappointed that this does not soar in quite the same way as its predecessor with its imaginative elements. As I was reading it, however, I was expecting it to which did affect the way I approached this novel. I was a little wary in case Colson Whitehead took it off into another direction and left me behind.

It is well-written and tales of appalling prejudice still need telling. The ridiculousness of such viewpoints can be seen here in the character of Jaimie, a mixed-race Mexican boy who “ping pongs” between the two sections of the school. As soon as he becomes tanned by working outside in the sun he is sent to the “coloured” half until he is deemed too light-skinned to be there and sent back. Most of the examples of prejudice are, however, far more chilling than this.

In airing these issues from the past to Trump’s America Colson Whitehead has written another book which will enhance his growing reputation as one of the US’s most important novelists.


The Nickel Boys was published on August 1 2019 by Fleet. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Barracoon- Zora Neale Hurston (2018) – A Real Life Review



I first encountered African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel “Their Eyes Are Watching God” back in 2011 where it became one of my Top 10 reads of the year.  This is a book which has grown steadily in reputation, particularly this century and now is a recognised American classic.  Hurston produced three other novels and was a significant folklorist of tales of black America as well as a short story writer, playwright and essayist.  This book caused quite a stir when it was published for the first time earlier this year, 58 years after the author’s death.  I’d highlighted it back in January in my Looking Back, Looking Forward post as one of nine titles I was looking forward to reading this year and now I have.  (I couldn’t resist a peep back at that post- I’ve read just two of these so far although a number have to still to be published).

Subtitled “The Story Of The Last Slave” this came about as a result of a series of interviews in 1927/8 with Oluale Kossula who had been snatched, aged nineteen, from his West African home and brought over on the last slave ship “The Clotilda” in 1860, an illegal act carried out long after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic trade.  The group of men responsible for this escaped any charges of piracy and trafficking by destroying the evidence by scuppering the ship on its landing on American soil.

By 1927 Kossula was the last known survivor of this crossing and thus the last known first-generation slave.  Renamed Cudjo Lewis he spent over five years as a slave in Alabama for one of the men responsible for his capture and following emancipation was instrumental in the setting up of Africatown- a settlement of former slaves.


Hurston visited Kossula, by then widowed and lonely and brought him peaches, melon and ham to get him to open up and used his words to take down his life story.  It is a heart-breaking tale which demands to be read.

That Hurston never found a publisher for this work in her lifetime seems extraordinary.  Cudjo Lewis had been previously interviewed by others (in fact even by Hurston herself) and was known as the last voice of this previous era.  There’s a hint of the suggestion that Hurston’s reputation in her early years had been dented by prior claims of plagiarism which could have rendered her account as untrustworthy.  That this account was put together by an African-American woman would have also limited its publication appeal.  There was also some contemporary nervousness about what Cudjo Lewis had to say.  His most disturbing revelation being that he was trafficked by neighbouring tribes rather than white traders.

Kossulu began his journey into slavery in a barracoon, a shoreside prison where captured men, women and children were stored until deals could be made with the white traders.

Hurston lets Kossulu speak in his own dialect which might seem initially off-putting to the modern reader but as with her later celebrated novel meaning soon becomes clear and the reader is likely to be captivated by the rhythm and poetry of the language.  The actual text of the interviews moves along quickly and is supplemented by probably an equal amount of accompanying material including a Foreword by Alice Walker and an Afterword by Deborah G. Plant and a number of Ossulu’s stories that Hurston, as folklorist and anthropologist took down verbatim.  This is a work which manages to be spine-chilling and endearing and is a thought provoking, always relevant read.


Barracoon was first published in the UK as in 2018 by HQ.  It is available in paperback.


The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review



Whether American author Colson Whitehead’s novel makes the Man Booker shortlist or not this book is likely to be commercially the biggest seller of the lot, due to its very good word of mouth which is creating an army of devotees and also its raft of American literary prizes including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  Deservedly so? Absolutely!

This is a little gem of a novel which has Barack Obama claiming “terrific” on the cover and was helped up the bestsellers lists by Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiasm.  If Whitehead wins the Man Booker and he must be up there with a very strong chance, he will be the third man of colour in a row following Jamaican Marlon James and American Paul Beatty.  Whitehead’s book is, as far as I am concerned better than these two winners.

It is the story of Cora, who begins the novel as a slave on a plantation in Georgia.  The first section is involving but nothing that we have not read before, well researched from slave accounts.  I felt that I knew where the novel was going.  All this changed with Cora’s escape on the Underground Railroad, which many will know as a network of supporters and safe places which helped escapees in their bid towards freedom.  Whitehead has made this a physical thing in his book, an actual railroad which operates underground.  One character says of it;

“Most people think it’s a figure of speech…….. The Underground.  I always knew better.  The secret beneath us, the entire time.”

 Operating in the book almost like a primitive Hogwarts Express characters emerge from this surreal journey not knowing where they are into Whitehead’s fictional representation of a Southern American location, as if they are Dorothy in Oz or Gulliver on his travels but here the new locations provides a different aspect of the black American experience.

A word being used frequently about this novel is “dazzling”, appropriate enough for the characters emerging from the darkness of the underground system as well as for the tale Whitehead spins for his readers.  Strong characterisation, a rich and imaginative plot, this is a book I found myself slowing down as I got near the end as I didn’t want the experience to finish.

I knew I was going to like this book and bought it in paperback as soon as the longlist was announced.  It was a novel I had earmarked for reading whether it made the lists or not.  I was worried that because I had built it up in my head it would be disappointing (which is how I felt about “The Essex Serpent”).  I certainly was not disappointed on this occasion.  It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.  Whether the Man Booker judges will, in order to ensure a balance of winners, favour a female or British author remains to be seen but this would be a deserving winner.


The Underground Railroad was published in paperback in the UK in June 2017.  It is currently number 53 in Amazon’s Top 100 books and is the number 1 bestseller in their “Metaphysical and Visionary” category.


Like Venus Fading – Marsha Hunt (Flamingo 1998)


I really loved Marsha Hunt’s novel “Joy” (one of my 100 Essential books reviewed here) and also got a lot of pleasure from “Free”, although it was not as strong as her debut.  This novel, her third, slips in nicely between the two.  Hunt claims it as fiction loosely based on the life of Dorothy Dandridge, an actress  and singer who swept to a short-lived fame  but struggled in the Hollywood of the 1950’s and 60’s but whose significance as an African-American actress at Hollywood of the time is huge.

This is the story of Irene O Brien who relates her tale, beginning with a catalyst event in her life from 1965- a presumed suicide attempt.  The story moves back to Irene’s childhood and a singing partnership with her sister, a marriage which sours the sibling relationship and the birth of her autistic daughter Nadine.  Irene struggles increasingly to cope with Nadine, not knowing what was wrong with her, as her own work as an artist’s model takes off.  This leads eventually to movie work in Hollywood, where, for this beautiful woman, the casting couch is very much in evidence.  Irene’s career highlight is an Oscar nomination but such fame is only fleeting as Hollywood is not, at this time, set up to sustain a career and provide consistent work for the African- American actress.

To put this into context with the inspiration, Dorothy Dandridge, was born around the same time as Hunt’s fictional character, spent her childhood as part of a song and dance act with her sister, gave birth and struggled with a brain-damaged daughter and received the first Oscar Best Actress nomination for an African-American actress for her role in “Carmen Jones”in 1955 (losing to Grace Kelly).  In the years following this her career fell into decline and she died aged 42 in 1965. Donald Bogle in his book “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams – The Story Of Black Hollywood” (2005) says this of Dandridge;

“For some, she represented unfulfilled promise.  For others, she was a sign of the power of drive and ambition to break down barriers.  For others, she was a doomed beauty, struggling heroically against personal demons and the fundamental racism of the industry.”


Dorothy Dandridge

I was very much drawn into Irene’s story.  Hunt has the knack of revealing and withholding just the right amount of information to keep the reader on their toes.  (This was achieved superbly in “Joy” by having the superb character, Baby Palatine, as an unreliable narrator).  Irene’s life takes place in a time of great social and cultural change.  She was born in 1923, was a young woman during the war, participated in the madness that was Hollywood in the 1950’s where audiences began to diminish as television took hold and witnessed much civil unrest leading to the disenchantment for that generation in the 1960’s.  It is all very convincing and as Irene says in her final words in her memoir;

“…but doesn’t every life amount to more than a few paragraphs and time-worn images?

In my case, like Ethel Waters used to sing, ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.’……

 Because no-one knows us like we know ourselves.”

 Marsha Hunt has been involved in other projects since the publication of “Like Venus Fading” but has not produced another novel.  In her three novels she has shown vast potential and I am sure there is another great work within her.  For me, this misses out on the five stars because Irene’s story is so close to that of Dorothy Dandridge.  I would have liked there to have been more of a step away from the source material to let Hunt’s imagination take full flight.  It is however a compelling tale which needed to be told.



Like Venus Fading was published by Flamingo in 1998


100 Essential Books – Joy – Marsha Hunt (1990)


I seem to have gone off slightly on a celebrity writer tangent recently. Amongst my last few posts have been books by Joan Collins, Fern Britton and John Major but here is probably the most successful, in my opinion, of  all celebrity-written novels. Marsha Hunt became well known in the 60’s and early 70’s as model, actress, singer and girlfriend of Mick Jagger.


She lived in London during this time and became a regular name in tabloid newspapers for amongst other things, giving birth to Jagger’s daughter; being photographed naked by Patrick Lichfield, the Queen’s cousin, for the cover of “Vogue”; being in the cast of the London production of “Hair” as well as its official image in a silhouette of a famous photo by Justin Villeneuve (Twiggy’s manager)- see below; being the first black woman on the cover of British fashion magazine “Queen”; being the reputed inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and performing at the 1969 Isle Of Wight Festival.

villeneuve marsha

It seemed as if Marsha was the epitome of American glamour in Sixties London, gaining an almost iconic status.   She was a household name and probably the highest profile African-American woman in Britain. She spent the 70’s doing such diverse things as appearing in films such as the Hammer Horror “Dracula AD-1972”, making a disco album with Giorgio Moroder and became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre.

By 1990 Marsha was living in a remote part of France and after getting the writing bug with autobiographical works put out her first novel “Joy” and what a superb debut it was. Front cover blurb compared her with Toni Morrison and this is an apt comparison as her writing was, like Morrison’s, of sheer quality and as a novelist she outshone her achievements in other areas of the arts.

The title says it all, this is an absolute joy to read. Set during the course of one day, with many flashbacks this is the tale of Joy Bang, who with her sisters became a girl group and had a hit record. Joy has died before the opening of the book and her passing is viewed through the eyes of a superb character and absolutely unreliable narrator Baby Palatine, a neighbour of the Bang girls. Her life has always revolved around Joy and her family. Celebrity, family secrets and truth are weaved so proficiently in this excellent novel. If Marsha Hunt’s novels have passed you by this is the place to start. Her second novel “Free” (1992) seems to me to be a less satisfying work. I’m not sure whether it is because it is set further in the past but it seems to lack the sheer confidence in structure and narrative style which made the debut so delightful. It’s still good but not as essential as “Joy”. I have her 1998 novel “Like Venus Falling” sat on my shelves, it is a recent acquisition and I hope to get round to reading it soon.

In 2004 Marsha Hunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a high profile battle with the disease and produced a best- selling account of these times in “Undefeated” (2005) which she still thankfully is. For the cover of this Patrick Lichfield recreated his famous naked Vogue shoot. At one time she was writer-in-residence at a prison in Ireland, where she now lives. Her collaboration with inmates led to an Irish bestseller of their stories “The Junk Yard” (1999). This is a woman who seems to have lived so many lives in one and has achieved success in many fields, but for me, “Joy” is her greatest achievement.


Joy was published by Virago in 1990. Editions seem to have been published over the years by Flamingo , Penguin and Fourth Estate and Harper Collins. The image used above is from the Fourth Estate e-book edition which is available from the usual outlets.


Maya Angelou – The Autobiographies – A Real Life Review




maya angleou

Author, poet, singer, actress, civil rights campaigner Maya Angelou left us in May 2014 at the age of 86. At the time I was re-reading her sequence of autobiographies beginning with “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, her most famous first volume of her life story. I carried on reading to the sixth volume “A Song Flung Up To Heaven” and ended up with a strong sense as to why this formidable woman is rightly acclaimed one of America’s greatest writers of the twentieth century. I haven’t yet read her 2013 publication which is an overview of her relationship with her mother “Mom & Me & Mom”.  Here is my book by book guide to Maya’s work.angelou books

caged birdI Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969)fourstars

When I first read these autobiographies I was probably in my late teens and this was the one which made the most impact, probably because it is the tale of Angelou’s youth, taking her up to the age of sixteen and the birth of her son. Perhaps its a book to read when you not much older than that for it to have the greatest effect, as on re-read I
found Angelou’s prose a little flowery on occasions. For me this book comes most alive in Stamps, Arkansas, in and around her grandmother’s general store and Angelou’s relationship with her and her brother Bailey. A move to St Louis brings about a chilling incident with her mother’s boyfriend. It all makes for high quality reading.

gathertogetherGather Together In My Name (1974)fivestars

The subsequent volumes of Angelou’s life-story do not have the same kudos attached to them, in the UK anyway, as her first, so I did not approach re-reading this with the same level of expectation. I found myself enjoying it even more than the first book and for me it is the strongest in the set. I probably read this one first when I was around the same age as Angelou herself in the narrative. Maybe it needed a bit more distance and experience, which I know contradicts what I felt about “Caged Bird”. Angelou is in her late teens, has her baby son and is back living with her mother. It’s largely a search for a career and her place in the world (not sure why it has the religious-implying title). She goes from Creole cook (with no experience of Creole food) to her most questionable action when her encounter with a couple of predatory lesbians sees her wanting payback by getting them to turn tricks as she becomes an “absent madam” in a brothel. She wants to join the army but is challenged by McCarthyism, becomes part of a dancing double act and is duped into becoming a prostitute herself. All within a couple of hundred pages! It is well paced and very involving.

christmas Singin’ & Swingin’ & Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas 1976)fourstars

In this third volume music plays a central role as Maya begins working in a record shop where she meets and then marries a white Greek man. Following the breakdown of this marriage she becomes a dancer at a strip club, then a cabaret singer with her own show and a growing reputation and then part of a world tour of “Porgy And Bess”. The most striking thing in certainly the last two books has been her willingness to give things a go and usually doing them to a convincing standard. (I’m not including relationships here which to this point haven’t been wholly successful). Once again, I was with her all the way- willing her marriage to work. The world tour gives us a chance to see her as a fish out of water in different countries where the Afro-American cast is being feted in a way which could not have happened in America at that time. There’s an examination of the effects her prolonged absence has on her son and a happy reunion at the end .

heartThe Heart Of A Woman (1981)  fourstars

Quite a lot happens in this book but central is her marriage to black African Vus and the reader is required to put down their “I know this isn’t going to work….” feelings to let the story unfold. Angelou’s marriage comes at a time when there was great Black American enthusiasm for Black Africa. With such unrest in the USA it seemed to some that Africa had got it sorted out, an assumption that might have been a little premature. The book begins marvellously with Billie Holiday becoming a regular visitor at the Angelou home, fascinated by the “squareness” of Maya and her family orientated life. Two polar opposites and it doesn’t end well. Maya continues with singing but interest in the Civil Rights movement leads her to a post in Martin Luther King’s fundraising team. There’s a shaky relationship with an unsuitable bail bondsman before she is swept off her feet by the visiting Vus. The gulf between the Black American Woman and Black African Man becomes apparent in this section. Maya moves to Cairo and when that gulf becomes too wide and the marriage crumbles she relocates to Ghana. Once again, son Guy is Maya’s constant and he encounters a brush with death. We have music, theatre, relationships and a lot of politics. It’s not quite as captivating as the first three volumes but it is still high standard autobiographical writing .

all godsAll God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1986)threestars

Picks up where “Heart of A Woman” left off. Maya begins to forge a life in Ghana and gets a job at the university where Guy is studying. This is a story of ex-pats and not belonging as Maya faces the quandary of looking like the Africans but still not being fully accepted by them. Unlike America, it is not the colour of her skin which can cause the problems. She forges relationships mainly with a group of Black Americans who have found their way to Ghana in the hope for acceptance and a better life. Malcolm X brings the situation in America back into their lives when he comes for a visit and Maya resumes her acting career with a tour in Berlin and Italy. The Berlin sequences features a memorably excruciating breakfast party where Maya is invited by a German family and brings along an Israeli man. Here the writing really comes to life. Things take an almost mystical turn towards the end when Maya begins to sense déjà vu on a trip to a village where she is recognised even though she hadn’t been there before. This flummoxes the usually rational Angelou and her sense of displacement is brought to a head. The fragmentary nature of Maya’s sojourn in Africa affects the writing and I did not find this volume as involving as the other four. I found it enjoyable rather than essential reading.

songflungA Song Flung Up To Heaven (2002)threestars

A sixteen year gap in the publication dates although this does pick up where “All God’s Children” left off. Maya returns to work with an organisation for Malcolm X, but before she can start he is murdered. Her story is slighter here it is the events of an America in crisis which dominate. Maya has to come to terms with Malcolm X’s assassination, is on the site of the Watts Riots and in a weird history-repeating itself kind of way, just as she is about to re-start work with Martin Luther King he too is gunned down. It is in this volume that she begins work on the poetry she is associated with and the story is brought up to the point where she begins work on “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” For me this book is the least impressive of the sequence. It feels a little empty and is slightly repetitive and meandering. I know its driven by circumstances but I don’t like to see Maya at her most goal-less. I prefer the more driven-have-a-go at anything Maya of “Gather Together”. She has inevitably lost the recklessness of youth. Here we see her friendships with other notable Afro-Americans; the writers James Baldwin and Rosa Guy together with the actress Nichelle Nichols (Uhura in “Star Trek”), but her depictions of these relationships does not go deep enough for me and this thin quick-to-read volume has a tendency to skim a little superficially along the surface of the Black American life of the 1960’s. Having read six volumes, however, Maya and her family seem like old friends so I enjoyed catching up with them in this instalment.










My Top 10 Reads Of 2014 – Part 2 – The Top 5





  1. What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn (2007) – Read in October 2014

This debut novel did well in various first novel awards when it was published and I’m not surprised as the writing is of a high standard. It starts out with an absolutely captivating central character, ten year old Kate Meaney who covers up her miserable background with her preoccupations of herself as a girl detective, in search of a crime to solve. It’s the mid 80’s and there’s a very good feel for the period. Kate spends hours in a bleak “modern” shopping centre, where she vanishes under suspicious circumstances. The story moves on twenty years and the improved Green Oaks shopping centre becomes the centre character, throwing up ghosts for those who work there, challenging their mundane existences in what they see as fairly dead-end jobs. I found both strands of the story engrossing. There’s some laugh out loud humour and good plot twists.


    4. 12 Years A Slave – Solomon Northup (1853) – Read in September 2014

The book has had a new lease of life as a result of the Oscar winning film, which I waited to watch until I had finished the book and which very much captures the flavour of this extraordinary memoir. Northup was a free man living in New York. On a trip to Washington he was kidnapped and sold into slavery, ending up at a cotton plantation in the South, by then it has been beaten into him that to reveal his real status would only lead to more thrashing and probable death. He cannot even reveal he can read and write. As a slave it’s relentless work, cruel treatments and thrashings for the next twelve years. I was willing on his plan for escape and bitterly sorry for those left on the Epps plantation. He very effectively conveys the futility of the slave existence and the terror that lived inside them all, knowing each day could be their last. There’s occasional deviations outlining how cotton is produced, how sugar is harvested, which is actually quite fascinating and makes his memoir of interest as a historical document as well as a dramatic story. I am ashamed that I did not know of this book before as I have read much Afro-American writing. Thankfully, the film has brought the book back into prominence and Northup’s words can take their place in the canon of great American writing.


  1. Dead Tomorrow – Peter James (2009)- Read in October 2014

I know the similar sounding titles get confusing but this is one of his best I’ve read so far. (I think “Dead Simple” is just slightly ahead).  A couple of teenagers with their organs removed are recovered from the sea which develops into a human trafficking plot with a subplot of a teenage Brighton girl whose liver is on its last legs and whose mother is contemplating desperate measures to keep her daughter alive. It is both tense and thought-provoking stuff. We are tantalised by the ongoing plot strand of DS Grace’s wife’s disappearance and Grace’s sidekick Glenn Branson has his part beefed up a little and shows human failings. This is the fifth book of a very strong crime series.


2 .The Last Town On Earth- Thomas Mullen (2006) -Read in May 2014

This is a thrilling debut. Set in the small American mill-town of Commonwealth, founded by Charles Worthy, a philanthropic mill-owner who wants to offer a fair deal for his workers. All seems to be going well at the tail end of the Great War, with the USA now involved in the combat when a more catastrophic event (in terms of American lives lost) occurs – a Flu epidemic .   Commonwealth decides to go into quarantine and post guards to prevent entry from potentially flu-ridden outsiders. One of the guards is Philip, the Worthy’s adopted teenage son. Whilst on duty he has to make a decision which has a tremendous effect on the town. Mullen has produced a balanced, rich tale with great moral implications and depth, very good characterisation and the plot is engrossing, tense and unpredictable. I loved it. (Just don’t read it when you have the flu!)


1. The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) -Read in January 2014

I cannot understand how this book has passed me by up to now. If I had read this as a teenager – Wow! Even though my teenage years are long gone this still packs a hell of a punch. Set around 1961-2 in the Bronx, The Wanderers (after the Dion song) are a teen gang obsessed with sex, fighting, staying alive and pop music. In a episodic set of interlinked stories Price so effectively conjures up this group of friends moving towards adulthood. It is shocking, violent, sexy and like many teenagers full of bile for anyone apart from themselves! It does, however, work superbly. It’s unsympathetic, gritty and yet touching. This is certainly one of the best books of the 70’s and my favourite book I read for the first time this year. I loved the characters; Eugene, the stud with a secret; Joey, a victim of his outrageously aggressive father; Perry, home alone with his mother and Buddy whose wrong choices cause him to grow up too fast. (The 1979 film of the same name despite similar themes is unrelated)

So that’s my Top 10 Books of the Year. Okay, nothing in that list was actually published in 2014 but it takes me a while to get round to books. (I did read a couple that did make their first appearance in 2014 but they didn’t make my Top 10 list). Next post will be my favourite re-read of the year. Clue – it’s a non-fiction examination of the two of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood.