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Black History Month 2021: 10 best books by Black authors to put on our list

From poetry to romance novels, these tomes capture the full range of the Black experience

Mariette Williams
Friday 01 October 2021 10:23
<p>The settings in these books span present day London, the American South and Chicago circa 2008  </p>

The settings in these books span present day London, the American South and Chicago circa 2008

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October marks Black History Month, which is a time set aside to honour the history and contributions of the Black community. It’s also a great time to discover a new book or two written by a Black author.

As the weather gets chillier outside, we can think of few things better than curling up on the couch and getting lost in a good book. From a story about a Hollywood romance to the tale of a dying father writing letters to his estranged son, the following new books are beautifully written with memorable characters and exciting plots.

Each of these books captures the full range of the Black experience, and the stories include laughter, joy, heartache, and loss – things that we can all relate to.

When it came to choosing these books, we went with recent titles that were hard to put down – the kind of book that you stay up way past midnight to finish or the one where the characters stay on your mind all day and you race home just to crack open the book again. Yes, we’re talking about those kinds of books.

Most of the books debuted this past year, and a few are available for pre-order, which means you’ll be one of the first to get your hand on these eventual best-sellers.

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How we tested

We chose books from a range of writers that cover a variety of topics, and we’ve also labeled each book to best fit a category. The book topics are just as diverse as their settings which include present day London, the American South, and Chicago circa 2008. While choosing the titles was difficult, we’re confident these represent some of the best new books by Black authors.

The best books by Black authors for 2021 are:

  • Best overall Seven Days in June by Tia Williams: £7.37, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best friendship storyWahala by Nikki May: £14.99, Waterstones.com
  • Best Hollywood romance While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory: £8.19, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best plot twistThis Close to Okay by Leesa-Cross Smith: £13.01, Bookshop.org
  • Best introspective bookThe How by Yrsa Daly-Ward: £10.99, Amazon.co.uk 
  • Best collection of stories Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola: £9.29, Bookshop.org
  • Best travel storyThe Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola: £14.99, Waterstones.com
  • Best thought-provoking story In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom: £8.99, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best family story- The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson: £8.19, Whsmith.co.uk
  • Best father and son storyDon’t Cry for Me by Daniel Black: £10.99, Amazon.co.uk

‘Seven Days in June’ by Tia Williams, published by Quercus

Best: Overall

Rating: 9/10

What happens when two bestselling writers share a secret past love affair and then spend the next several years of their lives writing that love story in their novels? That’s the premise of Tia Williams’ Seven Days in June, a novel with memorable characters and an original plot. After years apart, authors Eva Mercy and Shane Hall unexpectedly come face to face at a literary event.

There’s instant chemistry, but Eva isn’t ready to let Shane back in – not after the way he left last time. While both writers recall their weeklong tryst differently, they cannot deny the fact that there was something special there. Both characters have evolved – Shane’s settled down from his wild, nomadic ways and Eva’s now raising a headstrong daughter – but do they owe it to their past and present selves to see if there’s anything still there?

‘Wahala’ by Nikki May, published by Transworld Publishers Ltd

Best: Friendship story

Rating: 8/10

Wahala is the story of three British-Nigerian friends in their thirties – all on different life paths. Boo is a bored stay-at-home mother, Ronke is ready to settle down with her boyfriend, and Semi is excelling at her fashion career and not quite ready to have a baby, though her husband is anxious to start a family.

The word “Wahala” is used in west Africa to mean trouble, and the novel takes a dark turn when Isobel, a mutual childhood friend, shows up. Isobel comes in with a promise to fix each woman’s woes, but instead, things turn chaotic and friendships are tested. The chapters in Wahala are fast-paced and filled with witty dialogue, and the book explores the depth and complexity of friendships between women. The novel will be released on 6 January 2022.

‘While We Were Dating’ by Jasmine Guillory, published by Headline Eternal

Best: Hollywood romance

Rating: 8/10

Jasmine Guillory has built her own romance universe beginning with her first novel, The Wedding Date (£8.44, Amazon.co.uk). The latest book in Guillory’s series, While We Were Dating, takes on Hollywood romances.

Anna Gardiner is a beautiful actress on the verge of her next big break when she’s booked for a cell phone campaign. The lead on the advertising campaign is Ben Stephens, a handsome serial dater, who can’t believe his luck when Anna invites him out to drinks after a shoot.

Anna’s manager likes the idea of them together and proposes a staged relationship – just long enough to keep Anna in the tabloids and land a coveted role. While things start off well, Ben starts to wonder – is he okay being used by Anna? On the other hand, Anna has to figure out what’s real and what’s fake in terms of her feelings for Ben, and both parties have to decide what happens when the contract is up. There are few surprises in the novel, but While We Were Dating offers readers a sweet escape.

This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith, published by Little, Brown & Company

Best: Plot twist

Rating: 8/10

This Close to Okay is a quiet novel that follows Tallie Clark, a recently divorced therapist after she rescues Emmett from jumping off a bridge on a rainy night. Tallie then invites Emmett into her home, and over the next few days, she and Emmett forge an intimate friendship.

While the idea of bringing home a stranger might be a little too unbelievable for some readers, the author’s gentle prose and characterisation of Emmett as a soft and vulnerable Black man is appreciated. Towards the end, the novel takes a dramatic dive when the secrets that Tallie and Emmett have been hiding come to light. The novel explores both the unpredictability of life and the need to process and heal after a loss.

‘The How’ by Ysra Daly Ward, published by Penguin

Best: Introspective book

Rating: 9/10

Fans of Ysra Daley Ward will be happy to hear that the British poet is back with her third book, The How. Daley-Ward has been busy in recent years, co-writing Beyonce’s visual album, Black is King, and connecting with fans on Instagram with her thoughtful posts. In The How, she asks readers to consider getting to know the parts of themselves that they are most afraid of.

Separated by thematic sections, the book is a mix of short prose, lists, and notes that will sit with readers long after they finish the book. The How asks questions about our identities, the ways in which we move in the world, and how interrogating it all will lead us to a truer version of ourselves. In short, the book is fitting for reading a few pages in those quiet morning hours before the world wakes up. Out 2 November 2021.

‘Love in Colour’ by Bolu Babalola, published by Headline Publishing Group

Best: Collection of stories

Rating: 9/10

Babalola’s debut book, Love in Colour, is actually a collection of love stories. Ten stories are retellings and three are original, but all of the stories are infused with Babalola’s fluid prose and sharp sense of humour. Babalola introduces readers to west African myths and folktales and also revisits popular Greek and south Asian myths. The stories travel across time and place, and the 13 short stories feel so revolutionary because they focus on Black love.

The fun in reading Love in Colour is deciding on a favourite story. One of ours is “Osun”, a story that captures one of the themes of the book which is the importance of not just being loved but being seen and appreciated. In the short story, Osun is a character used to being only looked at, revered, and feared. But one day Erinle, a tall mysterious character shows up and through a song that cuts right to Osun’s heart, he makes her smile and laugh, and for the first time allows her to feel truly seen.

'The Selfless Act of Breathing’ by JJ Bola, published by Little, Brown Book Group

Best: Travel story

Rating: 7/10

In The Selfless Act of Breathing, Michael Kabongo is a teacher who seems to have it all together, but he’s conflicted by the state of the world around him. His family emigrated from the Congo to the UK for a better life, but Michael can’t help but feel that his life should have more meaning. After a life-changing loss, Michael decides to leave everything behind in search of something greater.

Longing for a new start, he decides to move to America and start over. Trying to shake off his painful past and recent trauma, he travels to “the land of the free” in hopes of creating a new version of himself. His journey takes him from the streets of New York to the California coast, and he’s determined to spend all of his money along the way. While this book isn’t necessarily a light read, it does point to the limits of travel – a new setting doesn’t erase old problems, and in some cases, it may create new ones.

‘In Every Mirror She’s Black’ by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom, published by Apollo

Best: Thought-provoking story

Rating: 7/10

Told from the point of view of three different women, In Every Mirror She’s Black explores what it’s like to be a Black woman in modern society. The three women are Kemi Adeyemi, a Nigerian-American marketing executive, Muna Saheed, a Somalian refugee, and Brittany-Rae Johnson, a Jamaican-American flight attendant. The three women’s lives are all connected to Johan von Ludin, a wealthy Swedish CEO of a marketing firm. Adeyemi is recruited to work for Von Ludin, Johnson falls in love with him and follows him to Sweden, and Saheed works as a janitor at von Ludin’s firm.

While the women all have different geographic and work backgrounds, they are bound by the often isolating experience of being a Black woman in a supposedly progressive country like Sweden. While the plot feels a little heavy-handed at times, the book provides a pointed look at how Black women must navigate the world around them.

‘The Kindest Lie’ by Nancy Johnson, published by HarperCollins

Best: Family story

Rating: 8/10

The Kindest Lie begins on the night that Barack Obama was elected president. The book features Ruth Tuttle, a Yale graduate and chemical engineer who is married to Xavier Shaw, a marketing vice president. Both Ruth and her husband have good jobs and live in an upscale Chicago neighbourhood. The couple seems to be living the Black American dream, but Ruth is hiding a secret that could turn their lives upside down.

Xavier is ready to start a family, but Ruth is reluctant. The reason? At 17 she gave birth to a son but gave him up to continue on the path of a Yale education. When the truth comes out, Ruth flees to the working-class town in Indiana where she grew up to find her son and confront the decisions that she made. The novel explores themes of class, community, and the heavy price many pay to pursue the American dream.

‘Don’t Cry for Me’ by Daniel Black, published by Hanover Square Press

Best: Father and Son story

Rating: 9/10

Daniel Black has a collection of novels that explore Black American life in the south, and his latest, Don’t Cry for Me, focuses on Jacob and his son Isaac. As Jacob lays on his deathbed, he begins to pen letters to his gay son, revealing to him his own shortcomings as a father. The entire novel is a series of letters from Jacob to Isaac as Jacob struggles with his relationship with himself and the reasons why he hasn’t spoken to his son in years.

The novel is both searing and empathetic, painting a portrait of a man who loves his son but doesn’t understand him. Through his letters, Jacob reveals secrets about his own life and tries to impart wisdom to his son before he passes. Don’t Cry for Me adds to the important conversation of forgiveness, fatherhood, and family healing. Out 1 February 2022.

The verdict: Books by Black authors

For an edgy, modern love story, pick up Seven Days in June. Williams has created complex lead characters with a shared troubled past who need to decide if they can make things after so many years apart.

Other notable books include Ysra Daly Ward’s The How, which reflects on how to find and connect with our inner selves. Bolu Babalola’s Love in Colour provides a collection of Black love stories across time, and Don’t Cry for Me by Daniel Black is a compelling story of love and loss.

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