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The best Caribbean books of 2013

Sunday, December 29, 2013

It’s been a rewarding, diverse, rich year of reading. I’m already looking forward to 2014 releases from Tiphanie Yanique, Hannah Lowe and T&T Guardian columnist Angelo Bissessarsingh. In the same breath, I’m pleased to share my picks for the best Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora titles of 2013.


Historical Fiction: As Flies to Whatless Boys by Robert Antoni (Akashic Books)
Coincidentally the last book I’ve reviewed in full for the Guardian this year, I’m not picking Antoni’s fourth novel because it’s fresh on the radar. I turn to Whatless Boys because it’s bursting at the seams with playful envelope-pushing. Stretching the limits of comfortable, tidy fiction, this novel sees history transmuted, transfixed and, ultimately, transcendent of the genre’s sometimes stodgy borders. As Flies to Whatless Boys kept me up nights, not necessarily because I was embroiled in suspense, but because of the sheer pleasures of the journey itself. Here’s what’s true about this novel: it makes some fairly astonishing wagers, and then cashes them all in with candour, clarity, and more laughter than you’d expect to fill your sails. 


Non-Fiction: Wishing for Wings by Debbie Jacob (Ian Randle Publishers)
Sometimes you’ll chance upon a book that’s so powerful, while being so simultaneously simple, that the best word for it is transformative. Don’t be cynically deterred: “simple” isn’t a bad word for these stories from T&T Guardian columnist Debbie Jacob’s Youth Training Centre inmates. These tales are so cleanly, so efficiently delivered, that they cut through even the flintiest and most Scroogy of hearts. This is a book for unapologetic crying sessions; for animated conversations with best friends and work colleagues; for secondary school libraries; for pressing into a disillusioned teenager’s hands and pleading, “Read”. If you haven’t yet, reading Wishing for Wings could be one of the most important things you do with the year’s swiftly dwindling hours.


Self-Published: Between Bodies Lie by HM Blanc
I’m not alone in this estimation: Blanc’s debut novel was recently selected as one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Indie Books of 2013. What’s laudable about this sensuous first foray into fiction is that the writing goes for the emotional jugular. It’s about twisted romances at their best (and in the same vein, their worst): compelling, laced with bacchanal and hysteria, as difficult to quit as a fever in its suffocating prime. In his protagonist, world-weary visitor to the Caribbean, Cristobal Porter, Blanc crafts a believable anti-hero. Never demanding that we like Cristobal’s streaks of narcissistic chauvinism, the writer serves up an elegantly constructed anti-morality tale best served with wine and remembered regrets. It’s well worth waiting to see what Blanc next produces on the page.


Poetry: Pepper Seed by Malika Booker (Peepal Tree Press)
With Peepal Tree Press’s stellar track record—releasing several formidable poetry titles this year alone—it’s not a wonder that my poetry pick comes from their catalogue. It’s been Malika Booker’s poems that I’ve returned to most, since devouring Pepper Seed in one sitting. These verses are primed for getting beneath your skin. They are intuitive, in the best ways, about the histories and sexualities of Caribbean women, about the power and terror caught up in female beauty. As with the best poems, the selections in Pepper Seed acquire even stronger significance when read aloud. They are for sharing with every single woman you love and esteem. They are triumphant odes to the mysteries and daily challenges of being a woman in the here and now.


Children’s Fiction: Littletown Secrets by K Jared Hosein (Potbake Productions)
In November, I listened to Hosein read passages from a story in Littletown Secrets to the Nigel R Khan audience in Mid Centre Mall. (The event was part of the Bocas Lit Fest’s South and Central mini-festival.) As the children in the audience giggled and gasped in equal parts amusement and awe, I was reminded of what good writing for young people can do. Hosein’s book is populated with imps, ghosts and satyrs, but its concerns are reassuringly, essentially human. These stories are more than mere bedtime parables: they hold their own against some of the best adult narratives, when measured by the impact and endurance of the messages they convey.


• Shivanee Ramlochan is a poet and fiction writer. She regularly reviews books for the Sunday Arts Section.


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