2009 Commonwealth Writer's Prize Recommended books

The Book of Negroes – Lawrence Hill

 Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2008 

Note: This book is called Someone Knows My Name in the US 

The Book is Negroes is an epic story following the life of one woman, Aminata Diallo, as she is captured from her West African village and sold as a child slave. We see her grow into a strong woman who battles against adversity, ending up in London amongst key figures in the abolition of the slave trade. 

On that slave vessel, I saw things that the people of London would never believe. But I think of the people who crossed the sea with me. The ones who survived. We saw the same things. Some of us still scream out in the middle of the night. But there are men, women and children walking about the streets without the faintest idea of our nightmares. They cannot know what we endured if we never find anyone to listen.

The book gripped me throughout. I immediately connected with Aminata and loved seeing her develop from a frightened child into a brave woman. The fact that the whole story was seen through her eyes meant that by the end of the book I knew everything about her. I felt as though I was part of the story, rather than a distant observer.

I thought I knew a lot about the slave trade, but I was completely unaware of some elements of this book. I has no idea that slaves helped the British fight the Revolutionary War in Manhattan, or that some of those who did were shipped to Nova Scotia; so this book educated as well as entertained me. 

There were points when I felt that the plot was a bit too convenient – Aminita seemed to end up in all the right places, just as critical moments of history took place. In the end I can’t complain too much – the story was fantastic and the notes at the end explained a little bit about the history, making me realise that it could almost have happened. 

This book is easy to read – I’d describe it as quality fiction, rather than literary fiction. It is the type of book that has broad appeal and so I’m surprised it hasn’t had more coverage in the blogging world. I’d compare it to The Help or A Thousand Splendid Suns – the type of book selected by Richard and Judy or The TV Book Club, enjoyed and discussed by book clubs everywhere.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, if only so you are aware of the numerous ways in which slaves suffered.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

…while the themes are definitely heavy, it doesn’t feel like a burden, even with almost 500 pages to it. Kiss a  Cloud

In focusing in on one main character, Hill has personalized history that makes us uncomfortable…   BookNAround

Books like this are so important to us and to future generations, lest we should forget. The Book Whisperer

The Book of Negroes is a masterpiece of historical literature, capturing the contradictions of the human condition in graceful, honest prose… Giraffe Days

2010 Historical Fiction Orange Prize

The Long Song – Andrea Levy

 Long listed for Orange Prize 2010 

The Long Song is set on Jamaica and follows July, a young slave girl, during the last few years of slavery and after she is granted freedom. 

The book is very different in style to Andrea Levy’s last book, Orange Prize winning Small Island, but I think they are both good in their own way. 

Much of the speech in The Long Song is written in Jamaican dialect, which adds atmosphere to the book. I think this would be even better on audio, as I’m sure my inner mind doesn’t quite do it justice! It isn’t hard to understand the dialect, in fact the whole book is quick and easy to read. I felt that this was actually one of the negatives of the book – it was so light that it seemed to skim over some very important scenes. The plot was quite simple, but the book covered a reasonably large chunk of time. This speed of events meant that I didn’t fully connect with July or understand which emotions she was experiencing. 

The narrator, July, frequently addresses the reader of the book, adding references to her present day life. 

Reader, my son tells me that this is too indelicate a commencement of any tale. Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and a little ink. 

Having read a few other reviews I’ve discovered that this style seems to annoy some people, but I found it a refreshing change to the similarity of many books. 

Overall, it was a light, entertaining read, but I have heard the amazing way Andrea Levy narrates her books and so I recommend getting the audio version of The Long Song.

Did you enjoy The Long Song?

Do you think it will make it onto the Orange short list tomorrow?

2000 - 2007 Other Prizes YA

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: v. 1 – M.T. Anderson

Winner of the National Book Award 2006

I picked this book up after seeing C.B. James mention it as one of his favourite reads of 2008.

The book is set in Boston during the 18th Century and centres on Octavian, a young boy who lives in a strange house with his mother and an array of unrelated men. He is confused by his life, his vague memories of a past in Africa and the role of all the men in his household. As the book progresses Octavian and the reader slowly learn the shocking truth about his life….

I found this book very hard to get in to. Octavian’s confusion meant that the reader had no idea what was happening for a while. The book was written with a very flowery language, which although not difficult to understand, meant that reading did require a lot of concentration and this also distanced me from the characters.

The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testament, the wet and twitching volume of a new-born Pentateuch. They burned holes in the air, wrote poems of love, sucked the venom from sores, painted landscapes of gloom, and made metal sing; they dissected fire like newts.

A further problem was that all the male characters in the book were referred to by numbers, rather than names. My poor little brain just couldn’t keep track of who was who. By the time I’d read and re-read everything and worked out what was happening I had lost interest in the story. I just didn’t feel that the effort I had put into understanding it was rewarded.

This book is marketed as a young adult book, but I’m not sure many teenagers would have the concentration to get through it. I think this book has many similarities with Beloved by Toni Morrison – it is very literary, hard to understand and tackles some difficult subjects. If you enjoyed Beloved then I’m sure you’ll like this, but it was too much like hard work for me.

Have you read this book?

Did you enjoy the rest of the series?

Do you enjoy reading books that require a lot of concentration?

2008 2009 Books in Translation Historical Fiction

Equator – Miguel Sousa Tavares

Translated from the Portuguese by Peter Bush

I received a lovely email from Raquel, a Portuguese reader of my blog, enquiring as the whether I’d read any Portuguese fiction. Saramago and Bolano have both impressed me, but I haven’t read any other Portuguese books. Raquel said that Equator left her ‘breathless’ and so I was very excited when she offered to send a copy to me.

Equator begins in Portugal in 1905. King Dom Carlos is worried about British reports that slavery still exists on São Tomé and Príncipe and summons Luís Bernardo Valença, an intellectual who writes papers on the civilising effect Portugal has on it’s colonies, to his court. The King sends Luís Bernardo Valença to assess the situation, forcing him to leave his shipping business and live on the remote island near the equator for three years. Here you will get fastest way to transport ship Singapore to Australia.

Luís Bernardo Valença arrives on São Tomé and Príncipe to discover that the cocoa plantation owners have shipped people from Angola and employed them on a fixed term contract, meaning that they are not free to leave at the present time. This means that it is almost impossible to decide whether slavery exists or not.

Equator is a beautifully written piece of historical fiction, which brings up a complex discussion as to what constitutes slavery. I loved the brief glimpse of Portuguese court, and learning about it’s colonies. This book has inspired me to read more about the history of Portugal, as I know very little about it.

I got slightly bored in the middle of the book when the British Consul arrived, and the book went into a bit too much political discussion for my taste, but the plot picked up again towards the end.

Overall, I found it to be a very interesting look at a period of history that I knew nothing about. Recommended to anyone who loves historical fiction.


What is your favourite Portuguese book?