Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

The image is of two photographs of young Black men, one above the other. The one on top is looking directly at the camera while the one underneath is looking towards the ground. The title is in light blue across both photographs, with a background of pale red and orange.

By Ash B.

Are you looking for a lyrical novel to savor slowly, perhaps while sipping tea (or your warm beverage of choice) on a quiet day? The type of novel that can break your heart and then put it back together, over and over again? 

Well then, reader, do I have the perfect suggestion for you. 

Open Water is the debut novel from Caleb Azumah Nelson, a 26-year-old British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in south-east London, and wow, what a debut! Consider me truly impressed – in fact, if I had to recommend a single 2021 release for you to catch up on, it would be this one. (Yes, it is that good)!

A love story at its core, Open Water follows two young artists, one a photographer and the other a dancer, as they develop an intimate friendship that challenges the boundaries of platonic and romantic relationships. 

However, the connection between these two is complicated not only by the details of their initial meeting, but also by the realities of life as Black British young adults; experiences of falling in love are not mutually exclusive with experiences of racism. The desire and affection two people feel for each other can be healing, but it does not create an impermeable bubble from fear, pain, and violence. So, this is absolutely not “just” a love story. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those, either, but Open Water is a different vibe).

Nelson masterfully balances Black joy and creative expression – especially descriptions of music and the South East London cultural scene – with experiences of racial profiling and the policing of Black bodies. Life is so beautiful yet so painful, and Nelson captures this complexity with ease.  

He writes with insight into vulnerability and mental health in a style that is understated yet breathtakingly poignant. Also, the narrative is told in second-person, which might be off-putting to some readers, but I found it to be all the more engaging. You know that saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes? Nelson skillfully places the reader inside the inner world of his protagonist through this use of second-person perspective. It’s brilliant. 

Months have passed since I actually read this book, but I still can’t get over the flow of Nelson’s writing – it truly is like water, smooth at some times and turbulent at others. If you enjoyed On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong with its poetic vignettes, but would appreciate a more hopeful tone or different subject matter, you will love Open Water. 

And even if this doesn’t sound like what you would typically read, I would still recommend this book to just about anyone. I’m nearly begging for more people to read it at this point, if I’m being honest. I’m so desperate for this book to get the attention it deserves! 

At under 200 pages, the slim size of the book isn’t intimidating, and despite this short length, there is so much to get out of this book. You might even want to keep a camera (or, you know, your smartphone) close by in order to take photos of all the beautiful quotes you don’t want to forget. That’s certainly what I did, as well as repeatedly putting the book down throughout to marvel at what I had just read. I got chills. I felt literal aching in my heart. I was reminded what an utterly tender, yearning type of human I am. I loved, loved, loved this book. I hope you will too! 

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson can be requested here. It is included in both our regular Adult Fiction collection as well as our Equity Resource Center collection.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch. This time of year, they are especially fond of reading while cuddling with their golden retriever and sipping hot cocoa or tea.

The Switch

The book cover, in pastel shades of green, yellow, lavender, and pink, shows an older woman in a black cloche hat and yellow top in the upper right-hand corner, standing in front of an apartment building, and a younger woman in jeans and a flowing white top with a bag over her shoulder, walking a dog on a farm in the lower left-hand corner.

By Eliana H.

This is the third year I’ve participated in The Ridiculous Reading Challenge, an activity co-organized by some good friends of mine in which they combine the annual reading challenges set by several publications into one spreadsheet full of categories to inspire participants to stretch our reading habits. For 2021, there are 117 different categories. Wish me luck in managing a unique book for each of them!

When one of the friends who runs the Ridiculous Reading Challenge mentioned enjoying The Switch, by Beth O’Leary, I was excited to note that it took place at least partly in Yorkshire. With family and friends living there, as well as it being a beautiful place, I knew it would be a perfect fit for the category of “a book set somewhere you’d like to visit in 2021.” Yorkshire is definitely the top of my list for where I want to visit when it’s safe for my family to do so. What I didn’t know when my friend shared the book was how much I would love the story.

The Switch tells the tale of two Eileen Cottons – a grandmother and her granddaughter, who goes by Leena – both feeling a bit stuck in their lives. They’ve struggled since the loss of Carla, Leena’s sister and Eileen’s other granddaughter. After a panic attack at work, Leena is given a mandatory two-month vacation from her job as a business consultant. At loose ends about what to do with that time when she should be finding her way back to herself, she ends up suggesting that she and her grandmother swap lives for two months. Eileen makes her way down to London for the adventure she didn’t get the chance to have in her youth, and Leena heads north to Yorkshire to slow down and take over the responsibilities Eileen has in her small village. Neither woman has quite the experience she expected, but both learn quite a lot about themselves and the people around them during their sojourns. With a cast of lively supporting characters, it is a joy to follow Eileen and Leena on their journeys. The book made me chuckle and choke up in turn, and I’m so glad to have read it. I hope you will be too.

The Switch is also available from HCLS as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive. Beth O’Leary is also the author of The Flatshare and The Road Trip (available from Libby/OverDrive as an eBook and eAudiobook).

Eliana is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. She loves reading, even if she’s slow at it, and especially enjoys helping people find books that make them light up. She also loves being outside and spending time with friends and family (when it’s safe).

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

A beige background with blood red off-kilter font that reads Midnight Riot with the author's name in black sans serif above it. A red splatter colors the top portion of a black line drawing of a map of London, and turns the Thames River red too.

Reviewed by Kristen B.

This fast paced police procedural, set in modern London, comes with a twist. Peter Grant’s only goal in life is to be promoted from probationary constable to detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. His plans seem to be thwarted at every turn, and he is sure he will be marking time in a records unit when he gets his first big break: an eyewitness to a murder. The big problem occurs when Peter realizes that said witness is a ghost. Grant then learns about an entire other kind of investigating as he becomes the apprentice to DCI Thomas Nightingale, who investigates uncanny and potentially magical crimes.

Midnight Riot takes you on a fantastic wild ride through London’s neighborhoods and immediate countryside, with Peter Grant as your point of view both to familiar London and to unfamiliar magic. I love Peter to pieces, with his modern take on life, an old-fashioned wish to serve, and perhaps even a mild case of ADD. I learned a bit of modern British slang (some of which I had to look up) and some ancient history about the geography of the River Thames.

If you love to watch Supernatural or enjoy any sort of magical realism, this is the first installment in an established series of books. If you happen to see it listed as Rivers of London, that’s how it was originally published in England. No matter how you find it, it’s a terrific, fun read. You can find it as an eAudiobook via RB Digital.

Books on Tap will be discussing Midnight Riot on Wednesday, June 3 at 6 pm via an online meeting. If you’d like to join us, please register and a WebEx invitation will be sent to you. Many other book discussion groups are also offering online discussions, please join one that suits your reading tastes and schedule!

Kristen B. has worked for HCLS for more than 15 years, and currently hosts Books on Tap discussion group at Hysteria Brewing Company. She loves reading, Orioles baseball, and baking.