Leslie Hinson

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Considering that it’s about a dying man, Don’t Cry for Me by Daniel Black is incredibly alive. The novel’s simple format—letters that offer decades of retrospection—makes for incredible storytelling, and readers will be invested from page one.

Jacob Swinton is dying of lung cancer. In his last few months, he decides to write to his estranged gay son, Isaac. Through these letters, Jacob not only atones for his past behavior but also chronicles the Swinton family history from the time of American slavery until the early 2000s. His recollections of growing up on his grandparents’ farm in rural Arkansas range from loving memories of baking a cake with his grandmother to devastating revelations of abuse at his grandfather’s hand.

Jacob’s heartbreak is palpable as he recounts his story, and his deathbed serves as a vantage point from which he can both see his wrongdoings and also forgive himself for them. To his credit, he confronts his mistakes head-on. He did the best he could, but that doesn’t change the fact that he rejected Isaac for being gay and destroyed his chances at having a relationship with him.

Jacob is terribly lonely, kept company only by the books that open his mind but also sharpen his understanding of how wrong he has been. By reading the words of Malcolm X and Alice Walker, he discovers new pride in his Black ancestors and confronts decades of toxic masculinity and generational trauma. He feels shame for how he has treated women while understanding that it was learned behavior, passed down by the men before him.

But these are letters, not a conversation with his son, so despite Jacob’s change of heart, it’s all too late. The damage has been done.

An accomplished author of six previous novels, Black has crafted a memorable, poignant story that explores themes of regret, legacy and family—and yet remains perfectly balanced through it all.

A dying man confronts his mistakes and makes a last-ditch attempt to reconnect with his son in this vividly told and poignant novel.
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In the town of Tamil Nadu, India, Kalki isn’t the 10th human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, but few people know that. After all, his skin is blue, just like Vishnu, and his family has built an entire ashram around him. People come from all over to be healed, and Kalki often succeeds.

Growing up in the role of a god comes with unique responsibilities. Kalki isn’t supposed to play with the other kids in his village, and his cousin Lakshman is his only friend. When a very sick little girl comes to the ashram, Kalki heals her, but he also notices his father giving her a white tablet to swallow. Then Kalki is asked to conjure horses, and again he succeeds—but also notices unfamiliar tire indentations leading up to the ashram. The most troublesome piece of evidence against his divinity is that there are some people Kalki can’t heal.

The fabric around the ruse begins to disintegrate, but it takes a long time. Kalki lives an incredibly sheltered existence. Occasional travelers who visit the ashram provide his only link to the outside world, and these interactions are years apart. His father is controlling and leaves very little room for new ideas.

When Kalki is 22, he leaves Tamil Nadu for a world tour with his father. In New York, he reconnects with Lakshman and goes on a real-world adventure, during which he begins to understand the scope of what people will choose to believe. He plunges into the city’s underground rock music scene, which is as different as possible from life in the ashram. Kalki also learns his own backstory, an origin tale that is so fantastical and yet so plausible that it deserves a moment of appreciation.

As Kalki is forced to reckon with the lies that form the foundation of his life, SJ Sindu’s second novel, Blue-Skinned Gods, pursues questions of sexuality, social hierarchy, family secrets, toxic masculinity and religious abuse. Sindu doesn’t quite nail the emotional payoff at the novel’s close, but she still delivers an exciting journey that lovingly explores the nature of chosen families.

Kalki isn’t actually the 10th human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, but few people know that.
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Kristen Arnett delivers a fantastic follow-up after her bestselling 2019 novel, Mostly Dead Things. With Teeth is a hilarious and astute dive into the not-so-fun parts of parenthood. Arnett shows her range with laugh-out-loud scenes and moments of honest sadness as she puts protagonist Sammie through the wringer. With Teeth begins with an attempted child abduction at a playground; just try to stop reading after such a harrowing scene.

Sammie and her wife, Monika, have a lovely life together in Orlando, Florida. They have a nice house, a comfortable income and a son, Samson. But like any family, there are cracks in the foundation, and Arnett steadily subjects those cracks to pressure until they rupture.

A significant cause of strain is that Sammie’s and Monika’s parenting styles are at odds. Even after their romantic relationship ends, the former wives continue to cohabitate for the sake of their son, but the reader may begin to wonder if this benefits him at all. Samson is far from an easy kid, and Sammie often feels like she gave birth to and is living with a stranger. He is difficult and rude past the point of typical child behavior, but as soon as the reader is fed up with him, Samson offers a moment of insight into Sammie’s parenting that partially redeems him.

Sammie’s resistance to change is frustrating, engaging and propulsive. She drinks too much, and she tends to unravel when she learns the truth about a situation. Brilliant asides from peripheral characters such as therapists, teachers and convenience store workers expose the gaps in her reality. Some particularly devastating insight comes from a woman named Debbie who works at Sammie’s childhood church. Sammie perceives Debbie’s actions as homophobic, but when an aside reveals Debbie’s point of view, the reader becomes aware of Sammie’s miscalculations. 

Though it is obvious that many of Sammie’s actions are the cause of her alienation, readers will still root for her from start to finish in this complex picture of queer parenthood.

Kristen Arnett shows her range with laugh-out-loud scenes and moments of honest sadness as she puts her protagonist through the wringer.
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In Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller Hummingbird Salamander, security analyst Jane Smith receives an envelope containing a key and a short list of animals. The contents of the envelope seem to be random, but Jane investigates them anyway and ends up at a storage unit where she finds a taxidermied hummingbird. After prying out the eyes of the bird, she finds another clue, which leads to an unraveling, deadly mystery that unravels Jane as well.

Jane has an exceptionally unique voice. Even from her first-person point of view, it’s apparent that she is selfish, brazen and highly unusual. She gives strange nicknames to her belongings, such as “Shovel Pig” the purse and “Bog” the cellphone. She is closer friends with her purse than with her husband.

Though Jane has “made it”—she has a high-paying job, a family, a nice house—she seems to experience life as an outsider. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy for her to throw it all away, though the reader must take certain leaps to understand this motivation: The story falls short when it comes to establishing why Jane would go to such excruciating lengths to solve the mystery. The reader’s questions are ultimately answered, though only in a sense, and far too late.

VanderMeer is a well-established, highly acclaimed author who is known for weird, inventive fiction, including his Southern Reach Trilogy, the first novel of which (Annihilation) was adapted to film. Hummingbird Salamander is not a great introduction to his style, but his existing fans will likely be carried through by its intriguing, propulsive plot.

The intriguing opening of Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller leads to an unraveling, deadly mystery.
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Areum’s parents were 16 when he was born. Now they are 32, and Areum is 16, but it is he who is confronting old age. He has a rare syndrome called progeria, which makes him age roughly eight times faster than the average child, so he is a teenager in the body of an 80-year-old. As a gift to his parents, he decides to write down the stories they’ve told him over the years. He hopes to finish before his 17th birthday, which will likely be his last.

Areum struggles with self-doubt as he writes, even scrapping an early iteration of the project before he gains the inspiration to write again. This inspiration comes from a pen pal, and Areum, stuck in the hospital for the rest of his life, develops a crush. He wants to experience life like a “normal” kid, even saying that he wants to make mistakes and be disappointed, because other kids get those opportunities. But Areum’s reality is that while he develops this relationship, he also deals with arthritis and begins going blind.

Author Ae-ran Kim considers age versus maturity in My Brilliant Life, which was originally published with the title My Palpitating Life in South Korea in 2011 and then adapted into a film in 2014. Areum’s parents are children when he is born, and they are in their early 30s when he dies. His existence in their lives caused them to grow up quickly, and even more so when he developed special needs. The presence of a neighborly father and son, both elderly, serves as a constant reminder that Areum will not have the chance to take care of his parents when they are old.

Translated into English by Chi-Young Kim, My Brilliant Life is told in poetic, succinct vignettes, ranging from the stories that Areum writes for his parents to narrations of his present. The text never teeters into gawking over Areum’s ailments, and he remains fixed as a curious, emotionally adept protagonist trying to navigate the awkwardness of being a teenager.

Areum’s reckoning with his fate makes for a wrenching story. This slim book has so much heart, packing quite an emotional investment into its 208 pages. As fleeting as Areum’s fictional life may be, he will not be a character easily forgotten.

Areum’s reckoning with his fate makes for a wrenching story. This slim book has so much heart, packing quite an emotional investment into its 208 pages.
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Detransition, Baby is, simply put, fantastic. But somehow even the most complimentary adjectives feel insufficient to describe Torrey Peters’ first novel, as they cannot adequately capture the experience of spending time with her characters, who are so fully realized and complex that the truth seeps out of them from the first page.

The story centers on three people: Reese, a mid-30s transgender woman; her ex, Amy, now Ames, who detransitioned following their breakup three years ago; and Ames’ superior at work, Katrina, a cisgender woman. Ames’ clandestine hookups with Katrina have resulted in an unexpected pregnancy. Now, faced with the question of parenthood and what fatherhood would mean for his identity, Ames reaches out to Reese. If Reese could co-parent with them, maybe he could feel confident about his own role.

Navigating a pending shared parenthood isn’t simple, and Peters takes the reader on a vivid trip through the characters’ backstories to show how they have arrived here, adding intricate layers to every moment. She displays a masterful control over this story, offering a psychological deep dive that is still entertaining thanks to the potency of Reese, Ames and Katrina. The vivid supporting cast is equally as endearing, as not one side character seems to understand that they are not the lead.

Devastating, hilarious, touching, timely and studded with fun pop culture references and celebrity cameos, this is an acutely intelligent story about womanhood, parenthood and all the possibilities that lie within.

Detransition, Baby is, simply put, fantastic. But somehow even the most complimentary adjectives feel insufficient to describe Torrey Peters’ first novel, as they cannot adequately capture the experience of spending time with her characters, who are so fully realized and complex that the truth seeps out of them from the first page.
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Margot Louve is the product of a two-decades long affair between a married public figure and a well-known actress. In the final year of high school, Margot concludes (perhaps in part due to some clever persuasion by an attractive male journalist) that she is ready to expose the lie that is her life and go public with her story—anonymously. From there, The Margot Affair goes on and on—in a good way.

Sanaë Lemoine is a writer who trusts her readers. Her stark prose, which readers may need some time to get into its rhythm, is minimally descriptive and relatively unadorned, letting the complexity of the story shine through the characters’ interactions and not so much through acrobatic wording. Lemoine zooms in on ugliness, hurt and deceit, such as when Margot stars in a friend’s short film and someone comments about the size of her pores on screen, how her skin looks like the surface of the moon. In fact, much of the novel has a very cinematic quality to it, in the vein of classic French cinema. The anecdotal nature of the dialogue is very filmlike as well, and we are treated to an amazing vantage point to witness the characters inspire action from one another.

These are the female characters we’ve been waiting for. These women are complicated, nuanced, hypocritical—not the “strong female lead” we’re always being talked into tolerating. These women are dealing with intergenerational suffering, narrated by an astute 17-year-old on the cusp of adulthood. Margot’s forays into the adult world are both fascinating and nail-biting.

While there are a few jaw-dropping moments of plot advancement, this is not a suspense or mystery novel. Paris is not portrayed through a particularly romantic lens but instead as the only place Margot has ever lived. The Margot Affair is perfect for Francophiles, fans of literary fiction and explorers of interpersonal relationships.

While there are a few jaw-dropping moments of plot advancement, this is not a suspense or mystery novel. Paris is not portrayed through a particularly romantic lens but instead as the only place Margot has ever lived. The Margot Affair is perfect for Francophiles, fans of literary fiction and explorers of interpersonal relationships.

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Thirty-year-old Hetty Cartwright has always assumed the role of outcast, even in her own mind. She finds solace among the taxidermic specimens of the natural history museum, and she takes her assignment to oversee their care as they are removed from London during World War II very seriously. Jobs like this are almost never available to women, and Hetty is determined to prove her worth. But upon arriving at Lockwood, the manor home where the specimens are to be kept safe, Hetty immediately encounters setbacks. The first is the dangerous Major Lockwood, whose domineering attitude is offset by that of his meek, charming daughter, Lucy.

Lockwood Manor, with its empty rooms, unending chores and possible ghosts, functions as a central character. Lucy’s mother, the late Heloise Lockwood, suffered immensely in the house, always concerned about being followed by a woman in white—a ghost, a demon or perhaps something conjured by her own mind. The dead woman is shrouded in mystery, from her questionable parenting choices to her untimely demise. 

When the museum specimens begin to disappear and move about the house, Hetty doesn’t know what to do or think. Are the animals moving of their own accord, or is foul play involved? How can she best protect them while keeping the peace at Lockwood and ensuring her future employment with the museum?

Comparisons between Jane Healey’s debut and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent are accurate, as The Animals at Lockwood Manor fits beautifully into the category of gothic fiction. Healey juxtaposes a sweet same-sex love story against the bleak backdrop of World War II, although the novel avoids focusing too closely on the war itself. Instead, the romantic escalation drives the plot forward, though frequent dream sequences threaten to derail the momentum.

This is a strong debut, full of creepy cliffhangers, lovely descriptions and a believably inelegant heroine. 

This is a strong debut, full of creepy cliffhangers, lovely descriptions and a believably inelegant heroine. 
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In 1929 New Orleans, a young Dominican woman named Adana Moreau writes Lost City, a universe-bending work of science fiction. She writes a sequel, A Model Earth, but just before the new book is ready to be published, Adana falls ill. Knowing she is about to die and will never see the publication of her newest work, she burns the manuscript. In 2004 Chicago, a man discovers a manuscript in his recently deceased grandfather’s apartment. The ensuing journey to deliver the manuscript to the author’s son is enriched by generations of remarkable characters and the complex network of their memories. 

A quick summary does The Lost Book of Adana Moreau no justice. As intriguing as the plot may sound upfront, it can’t speak to the otherworldly beauty of Michael Zapata’s writing. Don’t even bother trying to mark all the gorgeous passages that give you goosebumps, because there wouldn’t be much left unmarked. Zapata’s lyrical style has firm roots in Gabriel García Márquez’s work, with a boldness of delivery to the tune of Jorge Luis Borges. Much of this book is a story-within-a-story, a mise en abyme; it is a labyrinthine ode to storytellers. The theme of storytelling works as a suture, weaving through generations and throughout multiple, infinite and parallel universes. 

Something to note is the novel’s treatment of women. While most of the protagonists are male, Zapata crafts female characters who are authors, physicists and master storytellers, who are loved for their intellect and contributions to the universe rather than for their beauty or contributions to the lives of men. Zapata pulls this off in a natural way that doesn’t feel showy or even particularly outright, which is all the more admirable.

As if his captivating writing style weren’t enough, Zapata has treated us to a thrillingly mysterious storyline with a beautiful payoff. The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is his debut novel, and we can only hope it is the first of many.

A quick summary does The Lost Book of Adana Moreau no justice. As intriguing as the plot may sound upfront, it can’t speak to the otherworldly beauty of Michael Zapata’s writing.

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Acclaimed author Alan Lightman is the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, an organization that works to advance a new generation of female leaders in Cambodia and Southeast Asia. His time spent in Cambodia is apparent through the beautiful and unforced descriptions in Three Flames, his first work of fiction in six years.

The titular Three Flames is a code of ethics that binds a struggling Cambodian farming family together. This code is not conducive to growth or improvement, as each member wrestles to uphold these values amid the strife of living in an oppressive and violently patriarchal environment. As time passes, it is not the upholding of the Three Flames but rather a conscious unraveling that brings the family closer.

Each nonlinear chapter spotlights a different family member and adds depth to their collective story. Ryna, the mother, had her life upended after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime murdered her father. When she sees the man who killed her father 33 years before, she plans to exact revenge. Pich, the authoritative father, has known nothing but poverty his entire life. Exiled by his family as a teenager, he has never known a loving and forgiving home. As he controls his family, he receives disdain in return. Pich sends his 16-year-old daughter, Nita, to marry a rubber merchant, and she is forced to leave home against her will. Kamal, the only son, is disillusioned by the prospect of following his father’s career and sets his sights on a free-thinking woman. Pich pulls Thida, his oldest daughter, out of school to work in a garment factory to send money back home. Sreypov, the youngest daughter, is unique. She is a thinker, a poet. Preserving her education becomes the goal of Ryna and Thida, and the women finally stand up to Pich.

Lightman illustrates generational family trauma in a way that is succinct (at a slim 208 pages, Three Flames can be read in the better part of a day) yet leaves just the right amount of speculation to the reader. Three Flames is moving and beautifully written—an unforgettable embodiment of the resilience of the human spirit.

Acclaimed author Alan Lightman is the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, an organization that works to advance a new generation of female leaders in Cambodia and Southeast Asia. His time spent in Cambodia is apparent through the beautiful and unforced descriptions in Three Flames, his first work of fiction in six years. The titular Three Flames […]
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Debut novelist Tope Folarin, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, crafts a powerful story that is equal parts loneliness and hope.

Tunde is the young son of Nigerian immigrants growing up in a very white Utah in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Despite his college education, Tunde’s father constantly shifts from one job to another, unable to find one that can support his family. When Tunde and his brother are young, their mother begins showing symptoms of schizophrenia. She sometimes hits or pinches Tunde, which he learns to accept as an expression of love. One day, she kidnaps her sons, and they flee to a women’s shelter, disrupting Tunde’s relationship with his father. Eventually, she returns to Nigeria, leaving Tunde, his brother and his father behind.

Understanding the social structures between black communities and white communities is especially difficult for Tunde, as he grows up surrounded by white people in Utah, some of whom consider him a servant or rub his skin, expecting the black to come off. His misguided attempts to fit in continue through high school and into college, such as when he forces himself to listen to Creed until he starts to like it. He is always an outsider, narrating his surroundings almost like he believes himself to be watching a movie, not watching his life unfold. Still, his admission that he is struggling between two contrasting yet seemingly real sets of memories comes as an interesting surprise and takes the book in a slightly surreal direction.

The title refers to the “kind of black man” who is acceptable to white people. As Tunde slowly unravels the layers of implications of his desire to be this type of man, he begins to understand that his fragmented sense of home must be rectified before he can grow as a person.

While juggling themes of the struggles of immigrant families and the effect of parental mental illness, Folarin plays with structure and pacing, sometimes filling a page with only one poignant line. Once Tunde realizes that he can’t trust his memory, less is more. “And I’m learning that memory isn’t just a catalog of things past; in times of desperation or loss or exile a memory can be a passageway into the future.”

It’s an insightful and moving novel, through and through.

Debut novelist Tope Folarin, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, crafts a powerful story that is equal parts loneliness and hope.

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