It’s that time again when we present the Africa Book Club books of the year. For the fifth year, Africa Book Club presents its selection of the year’s best books about Africa, or written by African authors.
In addition to the fiction, short story, and non-fiction categories, our 2014 list includes a section on children’s books. To compile the list, we scoured various sites and news articles. We also looked at the top literary awards to see which books from Africa received recognition. Finally, we considered the numerous submissions received from authors and reviewers throughout the year.
As in the past, we hope that this list will encourage you to share your own suggestions and recommendations.
The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa (by Dayo Olopade)
Nigerian-American journalist set out across sub-Saharan Africa to find out how ordinary people are dealing with the challenges they face every day. Everywhere Olopade went, she witnessed the specific creativity born from African difficulty, typified through the different ways in which ordinary people found solutions. In this well-written account, she shares her stories and provides an optimistic perspective on the continent’s prospects. Olopade urges a change in the way we think about Africa’s problems and suggests a path to progress – forged by Africans themselves.
Congo: The Epic History of a People (by David Van Reybroeck)
Belgian historian, archeologist, poet, playwright and non-fiction author David Van Reybrouck provides a rich history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country Joseph Conrad referred to as “the heart of darkness”. As Elisabeth Lucas writers in her excellent review, Van Reybrouck understands that the history of Congo is in the first place the history of the Congolese people. He gives the floor to rebel leaders, hawkers, child soldiers and pop stars. Through their vivid recollections, he traces back the minor and major events that shaped the country – from the fishermen’s villages of prehistoric times, over to the slave traders, the arrival of Stanley and the colonization, right to independence, the 32 years of rule by Mobutu, the wars and the turbulent eastern border of today.
China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa (by Howard W. French)
The story of China’s increasing influence in Africa is not news. However, in China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, Howard French provides a compelling and revealing glimpse into the extent of China’s presence on the continent, including the staggering statistic that there are already over a million Chinese migrants staking their future in Africa. French introduces us to some of the Chinese emigrants who are the face of China’s investment on the ground – from a timber entrepreneur in Liberia to a mining investment in China’s copper belt. Their stories and how Africans are responding to the growing Chinese influence, reveal a complex set of issues that are shaping the future of Sino-African economic, political and social ties. The book made the best books lists of the Economist magazine and New York Times.
Kintu (by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi)
Kamu Kintu is brutally murdered by a mob. Three months later, the ten men involved in his murder are found dead, their bodies strewn along the street. The story goes back in time to trace the roots of the curse that perpetuates these misfortunes, blending oral tradition, folklore and history.
Cobra (by Deon Meyer)
The multiple award winner and one of Africa’s most prolific authors, returned this year with another thriller in Cobra. In his latest novel, the bodies of three people are found at an exclusive guest house in the beautiful Franschhoek wine valley. Two of them were professional bodyguards, but the British citizen they were meant to be protecting is nowhere to be found; left behind are his brand new passport, new suitcase, and new clothes. And the spent shell cases bear a chilling engraving: the flaring head of a spitting cobra. Meanwhile, in Cape Town, a skilled pickpocket is using his considerable talents to put his younger sister through school. But one day he is caught in the act. Security guards begin to question him, only to be killed with consummate ease by a stranger who leaves behind the distinctive shell cases. With the help of his colleagues, Detective Benny Griessel rushes to untangle a case that only grows more complex. The British man’s passport turns out to be a fake, but the British consulate is decidedly unhelpful. And then the pickpocket’s sister is abducted. From Cape Town’s famous waterfront to a deadly showdown on a suburban train, Cobra hurtles towards a shocking finale–and someone may not make it out alive.
The Orchard of Lost Souls (by Nadifa Mohamed)
Nadifa Mohamed’s latest novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, takes us to Somalia’s tragic civil war. It is 1987 and Hargeisa waits. Whispers of revolution travel on the dry winds, but still the dictatorship remains secure. Soon, through the eyes of three women, we will see Somalia fall. Nine-year-old Deqo has left the vast refugee camp where she was born, lured to the city by the promise of her first pair of shoes. Kawsar, a solitary widow, is trapped in her little house with its garden clawed from the desert, confined to her bed after a savage beating in the local police station. Filsan, a young female soldier, has moved from Mogadishu to suppress the rebellion growing in the north. As the country is unraveled by a civil war that will shock the world, the fates of these three women are twisted irrevocably together.
All Our Names (by Dinaw Mengestu)
Listed among the 2014 Notable Books of the Year, Mengestu’s All Our Names, is an unforgettable love story about a searing affair between an American woman and an African man in 1970s America and an unflinching novel about the fragmentation of lives that straddle countries and histories. It tells the story of two young men who come of age during an African revolution, drawn from the safe confines of the university campus into the intensifying clamor of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, the friends are driven apart—one into the deepest peril, as the movement gathers inexorable force and the other into the safety of exile in the American Midwest. There, pretending to be an exchange student, he falls in love with a social worker and settles into small-town life. Yet this idyll is inescapably darkened by the secrets of his past: the acts he committed and the work he left unfinished. Most of all, he is haunted by the beloved friend he left behind, the charismatic leader who first guided him to revolution and then sacrificed everything to ensure his freedom.
Boy, Snow, Bird (by Helen Oyeyemi)
Helen Oyeyemi’s latest book, Boy, Snow, Bird is another one that made the New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year. The prizewinning author recasts the Snow White fairy tale as a story of family secrets, race, beauty, and vanity. In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty-the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman. A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confronts the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
Every Day is for the Thief (by Teju Cole)
After his acclaimed debut novel, Open City, Teju Cole returned in 2014 with Every Day Is for the Thief (originally published in Nigeria back in 2007 and revised in this edition). Teju writes about a young Nigerian living in New York, who goes home to Lagos for a short visit, finding a city both familiar and strange. In a city dense with story, the unnamed narrator moves through a mosaic of life, hoping to find inspiration for hisown. He witnesses the “yahoo yahoo” diligently perpetrating email frauds from an Internet café, longs after a mysterious woman reading on a public bus who disembarks and disappears into a bookless crowd, and recalls the tragic fate of an eleven-year-old boy accused of stealing at a local market. Along the way, the man reconnects with old friends, a former girlfriend, and extended family, taps into the energies of Lagos life—creative, malevolent, ambiguous—and slowly begins to reconcile the profound changes that have taken place in his country and the truth about himself. Read Hadrien Diez ‘s interview with Teju Cole.
Radiance of Tomorrow (by Ishmael Beah)
The opening pages of Ishmael Beah’s debut novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, are achingly beautiful, writes reviewer Friederike Knabe. His voice is gentle and affecting. His deep emotional connection to the land and the people is palpable in what he describes so colorfully. Following international acclaim with his memoir, A Long Way Gone, which recounts the story of a child soldier in Sierra Leone, his new book fictionalized the return of survivors to their community, following their emotionally demanding and difficult path into their recovery from the brutal war and its many losses in life and livelihood. There is hope – radiance – for a better future but there are also many sacrifices to make: forgiving is not forgetting; Radiance of Tomorrow is a powerful novel about preserving what means the most to us, even in uncertain times. Click here to read Diane Ndaba’s interview with Ishmael Beah, where he talks about his new book, life as a child soldier, and the resilience of the human spirit.
Murder at Cape Three Points (by Kwei Quartey)
Ghanaian author Kwei Quartey’s Murder at Cape Three Points is his third Detective Inspector Darko Dawson mystery, following Children of the Street (2011) and Wife of the Gods (2010). At Cape Three Points on the beautiful Ghanaian coast, a canoe washes up at an oil rig site. The two bodies in the canoe–who turn out to be a prominent, wealthy, middle-aged married couple–have obviously been murdered; the way Mr. Smith-Aidoo has been gruesomely decapitated suggests the killer was trying to send a specific message–but what, and to whom, is a mystery. The Smith-Aidoos, pillars in their community, are mourned by everyone, but especially by their niece Sapphire, a successful pediatric surgeon in Ghana’s capital, Accra. She is not happy that months have passed since the murder and the rural police have made no headway. When the Ghanaian federal police finally agree to get involved, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson of the Accra police force is sent out to Cape Three Points to investigate.
Foreign Gods, Inc (by Okey Ndibe)
In Foreign Gods, Inc., Nigerian author, Okey Ndibe (read his interview with the Africa Book Club) tells the story of Ike, a New York-based Nigerian cab driver who sets out to steal the statue of an ancient war deity from his home village and sell it to a New York gallery. Ike’s plan is fueled by desperation. Despite a degree in economics from a major American college, his strong accent has barred him from the corporate world. Forced to eke out a living as a cab driver, he is unable to manage the emotional and material needs of a temperamental African American bride and a widowed mother demanding financial support. When he turns to gambling, his mounting losses compound his woes. And so he travels back to Nigeria to steal the statue, where he has to deal with old friends, family, and a mounting conflict between those in the village who worship the deity, and those who practice Christianity.
Peace and Conflict (by Irene Sabatini)
Irene Sabatini took the world by storm when her debut novel, The Boy Next Door, scooped the Orange Award for New Writers in 2010. Her latest offering, Peace and Conflict, tells the story of a young boy’s adventures as he takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of an ‘evil’ old neighbor in Geneva, and a missing auntie in Zimbabwe. Charming, funny and resonant, this is a novel about how one boy comes to understand what conflict can do to a person, a family, a whole country – and what it means to fight for peace. You can read our interview with Sabatini, where she talks about her new book and life after the Orange Award.
The Secret History of Las Vegas (by Chris Abani)
Suspenseful through the last page, Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas has been rated his most accomplished work to date, with his trademark visionary prose and a striking compassion for the inner lives of outsiders. Las Vegas detective Salazar is determined to solve a recent spate of murders. When he encounters a pair of conjoined twins with a container of blood near their car, he’s sure he has apprehended the killers, and enlists the help of Dr. Sunil Singh, a South African transplant who specializes in the study of psychopaths.
Hiding in Plain Sight (by Nuruddin Farah)
Nuruddin Farah is undoubtedly one of Africa’s foremost literary voices. His latest book, Hiding in Plain Sight has been described as “a profound exploration of the tensions between freedom and obligation, the ways gender and sexual preference define us, and the unexpected paths by which the political disrupts the personal.” Farah writes about a family conflict between a woman seeking to do what’s best for her half-brother’s children and a mother determined to assert her maternal rights.
Dust (by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor)
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a past winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing and a recipient of the well-regarded Iowa Writer’s Fellowship. Her debut novel, Dust, is a wonderfully told story, gripping in its vivid portrayal of life. Adhiambo’s simple, and at times poetic writing style, provides for an engaging narrative. Her characters are enigmatic – and will draw you in as you seek to unravel their dark secrets. At the center of the novel are two families – the Ogandas and the Boltons, whose lives intersect across two generations. Aggrey Nyipir Oganda is the patriarch of the Oganda family. A former policeman, he has long retired to the village, where he lives with his wife, Akai. Before Kenya’s independence, Nyipir had worked under Hugh Bolton, a British colonial officer. Read our interview with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.
Short Story Collections
The Bundle of Joy and Other Stories from Africa: Africa Book Club Anthology – Volume 1 (Mercy Dhliwayo, Nicola Coady, Mark Mngomezulu and others)
From the popular Africa Book Club Short Reads monthly writing competition, comes this original collection of short stories. The Bundle of Joy and Other Stories from Africa features over 50 winning stories that run the breadth of the continent in terms of the countries and themes they cover. They reflect a continent on the move, one that is bustling with life, creativity, love, laughter, opportunity, hope, and promise – a far cry from the singularly negative stereotypes that so often come to mind when reading about Africa.
The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014
A last swim in a condemned pool leads a troubled teenager and her grandmother to common ground…A young woman finds it so hard to make her way in the city that she takes a drastic decision…A couple receive relationship counselling from a strange family grouping…A boy meets two exiles from Rwanda – one of them a gorilla – with remarkable results…A woman summons her father back from the dead… These are among the 17 stories in The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014 (Caine Prize: Annual Prize for African Writing). Kenyan author and 2014 prize winner, Okwiri Oduor, Tendai Huchu from Zimbabwe, Diane Awerbuck from South Africa and Billy Kahora from Kenya are among the writers whose stories feature in the anthology.
The Red Pencil (by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Shane Evans)
Selected as one of the New York Times 2014 Notable Children’s Books, The Red Pencil introduces us to twelve year old Amir – old enough to wear a toob, old enough for new responsibilities. And maybe old enough to go to school in Nyala– Amira’s one true dream. But life in her peaceful Sudanese village is shattered when the Janjaweed arrive. The terrifying attackers ravage the town and unleash unspeakable horrors. After she loses nearly everything, Amira needs to dig deep within herself to find the strength to make the long journey– on foot– to safety at a refugee camp. Her days are tough at the camp, until the gift of a simple red pencil opens her mind– and all kinds of possibilities.
The Golden Baobab Tree (by Nkiacha Atemnkeng)
Atemnkeng’s story blends age-old African storytelling traditions with a modern twist. Set in the village of Letia, the story centers around the baobab tree, which is where the villagers come to meet with their chief and children gather to listen to storytellers. On this day, the great Uncle Jimi Solanke the storyteller visits Letia at the invitation of the chief. Solanke gathers the children under the baobab tree and shares his story about an old man who travels to America to visit his son. The Golden Baobab Tree carries important lessons that will resonate with many young readers and their parents, moreso those who either live in the Diaspora or have relatives there.
Who Was Nelson Mandela? (by Meg Belviso, Pamela D. Pollack, and Stephen Marchesi)
A new addition to the Who Was…? series, Who Was Nelson Mandela? chronicles the life of Nelson Mandela in a way that honors his great contributions, while remaining accessible to young readers.
As a child, Mandela dreamt of changing South Africa; as a man he changed the world. Nelson Mandela spent his life battling apartheid and championing a peaceful revolution. He spent twenty-seven years in prison and emerged as the inspiring leader of the new South Africa. He became the country’s first black president and went on to live his dream of change.
Baby Animals from Africa (by Barb Asselin)
A picture book that kids will love as they learn about African animals! “The lion is the jungle king. He prowls and growls and roars. He sleeps for twenty hours out of every twenty-four.” Celebrating the unique qualities of baby animals from Africa, Baby Animals from Africa features a host of African animals and fun facts about each one. Perfect for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, this book is filled with cute animal illustrations children will love!
Larondo and the Arodan (by Ozimede Sunny Ekhalume)
The story takes us through a day in the life of a child in a West African village. Larondo is eight years old and he likes to play outside. But sometimes he gets in his mother’s way. With so much to do, Larondo’s mother asks him to go fetch the ‘arodan’ from one of the neighbors. The story follows Larondo around the village as he goes looking for the ‘arodan’. Along the way, we are introduced to a varied cast of characters.
The Mystery of the Missing Lion: A Precious Ramotswe Mystery for Young Readers (by Alexander McCall Smith)
Most readers will know Alexander McCall Smith from his internationally acclaimed The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series. Written for a younger audience, the Precious Ramotswe mystery series have enjoyed just as much successs. In The Mystery of the Missing Lion: A Precious Ramotswe Mystery for Young Readers(3), Young Precious gets a very special treat. She gets a trip to visit her Aunty Bee at a safari camp. While there she makes a new friend, a boy named Khumo, and meets an actor-lion named Teddy, who is starring in a film. When Teddy disappears, Khumo and Precious will brave hippos and crocodiles as they search for the missing lion.
The Big Ceremony (by Ozi Okaro)
Family. Culture. Traditions. These are important building blocks that can help children grow in confidence and self-awareness. As a mother and an author who proudly claims her Nigerian heritage, Ozi Okaro understands the importance of teaching her children the customs of their ancestors. Her debut children’s book, The Big Ceremony, offers an engaging introduction to a vivid cultural experience of her people—a traditional Nigerian wedding.
In this lighthearted and fun children’s book, young readers get to join six-year-old Cheta and her best friend, Kosi, as they attend the wedding of Kosi’s cousin. Delighted to each wear her own stunning, specially designed dress, the girls can hardly contain their excitement as they experience the lavish festivities and witness the captivating rituals that are part of both their families’ African heritage.