We hope you’ve enjoyed reading Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, along with the NCW Book Club. There is still time to join the conversation via our Discord community, writing prompts and questions for readers to help you get the most out of reading our chosen book.

If you’ve finished the book and would love something similarly brilliant to add to your ‘To Be Read’ pile, why not try one of these recommended reads from your local bookshop, library or online? With a mixture of novels, poetry, memoir, works in translation and a picture book for younger readers, we’ve got recommendations for every taste which continue to explore Attica Locke’s themes of justice, place, and the experiences of Black people.

And for our next Book Club book, we’ll be reading RENDANG by Will Harris.

More by Attica Locke

Ranger Darren Mathews’ story continues in the second of Attica Locke’s Highway 59 series. In Heaven, My Home Darren investigates the case of a missing child in Hopetown, where the threat of racist violence, shady land grabs and shared histories combine to make a case that has Darren questioning his role in law enforcement. With more sensuous, lyrical writing about the landscapes and culture of Texas, this time with a gothic streak, this sequel will have you gripped from page one.

In Locke’s first, multi-award-nominated novel Black Water Rising, lawyer Jay Porter saves the life of a drowning woman. But his heroic deed not only jeopardises Jay’s legal practice, but entangles him in a web of murder and corruption. If you loved Darren’s contradictions and the dilemmas he faces in Bluebird, Bluebird, then you’ll find similar complexity of character to enjoy in Black Water Rising. 

 

Justice and the law

Book cover for 'Just Mercy' by Bryan StephensonBluebird, Bluebird sees Darren investigate the Lark murders within overlapping jurisdictions, and grapple with a fundamental dilemma about how best to serve his community – the law, or law enforcement? Here are some other reads that take up these complex questions of justice and the justice system. And while Attica Locke has been compared to the likes of Walter Mosley and Chester Himes – both leading lights in the long history of African American crime fiction – the authors below take up the theme of justice in fiction, poetry, YA and non-fiction.

Lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy tells the story of one of his first cases, in which he defended Walter McMillian, a Black man sentenced to execution for the murder of a white woman, a crime he insisted he didn’t commit. The case was to plunge Stevenson into the intricacies and inequalities of the legal system, and forever changed his view of law, justice and compassion. Both the story of Stevenson’s journey from racially-segregated rural Delaware to the courtroom and a powerful argument for legal reform, Just Mercy has rightly won praise from Desmond Tutu, John Grisham, and readers around the world. 

Juan Pablo Villalobos’ darkly comic novel Down the Rabbit Hole (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is told from the unique perspective of Tochtli. Despite living in luxury, Tochtli desperately wants a new pet. But as he negotiates with his criminal father for the prized pygmy hippopotamus, he comes to a new understanding about where his family’s wealth comes from, and just how much his hat collection, toys and pets really cost. This brief novel has an unmistakable narrative voice and was an international hit. 

The Ballad of the Blade by Momtaza Mehri. This poem by poet, essayist and translator Momtaza Mehri was released as an audio version by the BBC and scored by Jon Nicholls. Exploring youth violence and including first person testimonies, Mehri uses the poem to take in the lived experiences of those affected by the causes and consequences of violent crime, and how too many must “carry [their] postcode like a sentence.” Mehri’s work is widely published in print and online, and whether she’s engaging with spirituality, pop culture, diaspora experiences or other topics, her poems are united by a sense of musicality and humane attention to the lives of others.

The first in Jacob Ross’s series of crime novels, The Bone Readers is a thriller that takes a complex view of policing, power and family and features a cast of brilliantly drawn characters. As his work brings him ever deeper into the family secrets, cold cases and community taboos around him, reluctant plain-clothes police recruit Digger decides to investigate the disappearance of his mother years before. As he teams up with the sharp-tongued and sharply perceptive Miss Stanislaus, it soon becomes clear how dangerous Digger’s investigations into the past might prove. The Bone Readers won the inaugural Jhalak Prize and is a firm NCW favourite for not only its compelling characters and plot, but for Jacob’s stunning writing. 

 

Place, home and belonging

Attica Locke examined the importance of land in her specially commissioned Noirwich Lecture, and Bluebird, Bluebird is an acute exploration of place. For Darren, East Texas is a place he loves and feels deeply connected to. Similarly, Geneva finds the idea of selling her cafe to Wally unconscionable. As readers, we are grounded by Locke’s evocation of Geneva’s pies, the landscape, and the sound of the blues. Here are other books in which the authors take up this theme of home-feeling, and find other novel ways to evoke a sense of place.

In Whereas, a collection of poems by Layli Long Soldier, the writer deploys an innovative use of different poetic forms to explore issues of nation, citizenship, and how language shapes our identities. If you enjoyed Attica Locke’s beautifully written and vibrant descriptions of place, you’ll find an equally imaginative and thrillingly different approach in Whereas, as Long Soldier explores her ‘dual citizenship’ as a US citizen and enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. 

Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri had written four books in English when she fell in love with the Italian language, so much so that she moved her family to Rome and began to write in her new, adopted language. In Other Words (translated by Anne Goldstein) charts Lahiri’s forays into a new language, from the discomfort of learning a new language through to the creative possibilities of writing in a new literary tradition. Perfect for readers and travellers of the world and the imagination, this book is an arresting meditation on the limits and possibilities of self-expression. 

Bringing together essays by the likes of Salena Godden, Inua Ellams, Sabrina Mahfouz and many more, The Good Immigrant (edited by Nikesh Shukla) questions pervasive respectability politics, received ideas of empire, and where the line is drawn between “immigrant” and “citizen”. Mixing lived experience, razor-sharp analysis and creative responses, the book was not only a huge hit but continues to open up the conversation about who belongs to the UK, and to whom the UK belongs. 

Venus as a Bear by Vahni Capildeo. This fleet and nimble collection takes the reader from Trinidad to the Irish island of Inishbofin, through the experiences and voices of animals and plants, and into the realms of history and myth. Capildeo meets each of these bodies – of land, of flesh, of light – with both sensitivity and a freewheeling, palpable joy in language. Read this collection for its intricate portraits of moss, of geese, of sugar, of fossils, for its seriousness of attention and playfulness of composition. 

And why not take a look at our previous NCW Book Club reads, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginney Tapley Takemori) and A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume for more exquisite writing about place and belonging?

 

No single Black experience

An expert example of characterisation in the crime genre, Bluebird, Bluebird notably features a cast of Black characters who are fully developed, and have their own motivations and expectations. Though they share common experiences, they differ in age, class, and gender, and have different perspectives on such issues as law, business, family and love. Our picks below are just a snapshot of the many books out there that examine the diversity of background, opinion and culture of Black people in the US and around the world, refusing stereotypes and the fallacy of a single Black experience. 

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins: this posthumously published collection of short stories explores the loves and lives of Black women in the US, during the 1960s and 1970s. The lovers and families in these stories meet at Civil Rights protests, at church, in art galleries, and communicate in letters, in silences and in stories. Collins was also a film-maker, and with their sensitive, cinematic attention to scene, voice and action, these stories are sure to stay with you long after you reach the last page. 

In the non-fiction travel book Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, Johny Pitts sets out to meet the Black communities of Europe. Taking us from Moscow to Lisbon, exploring issues of identity and diaspora experience, and featuring wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the continent’s cities, he explores the many ways that Black people are and have always been central to the story of Europe. Johny is also the founder of online magazine Afropean: Adventures in Black Europe, which publishes at the forefront of Afro-European culture, news and features. You can sign up to their newsletter, and receive more brilliant writing straight to your inbox, at afropean.com. 

Translated from the Dutch, Mylo Freeman’s illustrated book for children Hair, It’s a Family Affair! celebrates differences, even among our closest family members. As Macy regales her classmates with all the different natural hair styles in her family, Freeman’s colourful, spirited illustrations make this book a great one to share with the younger readers in your life. 

The landmark anthology New Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby, features over 200 modern and contemporary women writers of African descent and is packed to the rafters with truly exceptional writing across fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Edited by living legend Margaret Busby and featuring work by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Mallory Blackman, Ayobami Adebayo, Olumide Popoola, Jay Bernard, Diana Evans, Aida Edamariam, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Panashe Chigumadzi, Yvvette Edwards, Ellah P. Wakatama, Patience Agbabi, Anni Domingo and many more, this is a book that we find ourselves turning and returning to again and again, uncovering new treasures to savour each time.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi tells the story of Ada, who, while growing up in Nigeria, begins to experience erratic changes in her mood and personality. As Ada makes her first steps into adulthood and moves to the US, her separate selves grow more powerful, seeking to protect Ada even as they start to take her over. This novel is a unique study in voice and perspective, and takes on topics such as spirituality, sex and selfhood in a fearless and fresh way.

It’s fairly impossible to choose just one book by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who is without doubt one of the world’s greatest living writers, but we’ve settled on Wizard of the Crow, translated from Gikuyu by the author, for its epic scope and irascible humour. The novel takes in 2000 years of African history, myth, and politics, and if you haven’t read Ngugi wa Thiong’o before, is a fantastic place to start. We also recommend the short story ‘The Upright Revolution, or Why Humans Walk Upright’, which can be read online in Jalada magazine in 94 different languages (!) including English.

See our list of even more brilliant books by Black writers here, and take a look at Jackie Kay’s choice of ten compelling BAME writers at work in the UK today, for even more fantastic additions to add to your reading pile!

 

Do you have a related recommendation that you’d like to share? Email us at info@nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk