Sydney Hankin

Poet and former attorney Tara M. Stringfellow makes her fiction debut with Memphis, drawing inspiration from her own family history to craft a wonder of a novel. Stringfellow’s grandfather was the first Black homicide detective in Memphis, Tennessee, and her grandmother was the first Black nurse at Mount Zion Baptist Hospital. Through her poignant and heartfelt prose, Stringfellow honors the spirit of her city as she brings three generations of a Black matriarchal family—and their resilience, determination and endless capacity for love and joy—into the spotlight.

The novel begins in 1995, when Miriam North, her children in tow, flees her husband’s violent outbursts and returns to her ancestral home in Memphis, a change that offers the possibility of spiritually reuniting with Miriam’s maternal roots. The North women have lived in the historically Black neighborhood of Douglass for generations, and despite the devastating scars left by segregation, anti-Black terrorism and domestic violence, these women are unconquerable. 

Miriam’s stubborn and loyal sister, August, runs a hair salon attached to the North house, and Miriam’s oldest daughter, Joan, is an exceptionally talented artist with a close bond with her younger sister, Mya. Over the course of the novel, the voices of Miriam, August and Joan intertwine, later incorporating the additional voice of Miriam and August’s mother, Hazel, an activist and adept quilter. Together their stories span nearly 70 years in a nonlinear narrative that reveals the impact and eternality of ancestry. 

Stringfellow’s intricately developed details are unrivaled, and the simplest moments make the North family instinctively relatable. It’s not the parties, calamities or deaths that hold a reader’s attention in Memphis, but rather a walk to buy butter pecan ice cream on a Friday afternoon, or a quiet afternoon spent with Joan and her sketchbook. With honesty and genuine affection, Stringfellow captures each of her characters’ unique personalities while preserving their uncanny familial resemblances. Furthermore, Memphis establishes a new standard for the role of a setting in a novel; Memphis is celebrated not only as a place but also as a people, a culture and, most importantly, a community. 

Stringfellow has created an irresistible family in the Norths, who are sure to be beloved by readers for the ways in which they persevere.

First-time novelist Tara M. Stringfellow celebrates the city of Memphis as not only a place but also a people, a culture and, most importantly, a community.

Elegant, melancholic and emotional, The Stars Are Not Yet Bells is lyrical from start to finish. The second novel from Hannah Lillith Assadi, a 2018 National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, draws its narrative style from the realms of poetry, making for an atypical and dazzling reading experience.

Part of the book’s uniqueness lies in its subject: Elle Ranier, an elderly woman with dementia. At the beginning of World War II, Elle and her husband, Simon, left New York City to move to Lyra, a small island off the coast of Georgia, where blue stones are rumored to lurk beneath the ocean. In the novel’s present, set in 1997, Elle reminisces about her younger years and grapples with the secrets and betrayals of a life lived and nearly forgotten.

Elle’s tenuous consciousness leads to a blurring of the lines between the current narrative and her flashbacks and dreams, and Assadi follows this lead by emphasizing Elle’s hallucinations and memories. Underneath Elle’s imaginative thoughts, however, lie clues to the novel’s plot, ingeniously scattered so that the book feels like a mystery, the reader’s mission being to take Elle's ramblings and form them into a cohesive, linear storyline. Assadi’s willingness to trust her reader is evident, and the book consequently becomes more immersive and self-reflective.

Assadi takes great care in crafting each sentence, incorporating poignant and thoughtful language into the heart of the story. This focus allows Assadi’s themes to shine, taking readers along on a journey into what it means to remember and forget, to be young and old, to be satisfied and to long for something or someone. It’s rare for a novelist to so seamlessly bring their themes into the spotlight without relying primarily on narrative events, but Assadi is willing and able to take the risk. As a result, her themes are even more relatable and decipherable, and impart longer-lasting messages.

Eerie and spellbinding, The Stars Are Not Yet Bells is not for everyone; its plot is incredibly subtle, leading to some moments of confusion, and readers must be willing to work through these moments of doubt and be flexible as they continue. But for the right reader, Assadi’s work is the epitome of ingenuity. She has mastered the art of entering a character’s mind and bringing it to life.

The second novel from Hannah Lillith Assadi draws its narrative style from the realms of poetry, making for an atypical and dazzling reading experience.

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s intricate story collection, My Monticello, explores how it feels to be Black or biracial in America. Johnson doesn’t shy away from any topic as she calmly delivers, with too-real certainty, a ruthless kind of truth. 

These six innovative, avant-garde stories showcase Johnson’s ingenuity. In “Control Negro,” a Black professor studies his son from a distance, scientifically examining the young man’s evolving life and comparing it to those of American Caucasian Males (ACMs). In “Virginia Is Not Your Home,” a young biracial woman yearns to break free of her roots by changing her name and leaving home. And in the eponymous novella, a group of neighbors from Charlottesville, Virginia, flee to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello after their neighborhood is destroyed by white terrorists. 

Johnson plots each piece delicately, arranging them so that the subtleties shine through. The stories range in content and in tone—some ironic, some hopeful, some slightly sadistic—but each pulls its own weight, and each feels completely natural alongside the rest of the collection.  Some are written in first person, while others unfold solely through second-person imperatives. Some are in past tense, others in present; some are epistolary, some more traditional. Throughout, Johnson’s one-of-a-kind voice offers a gateway to new perspectives, and necessary ones at that.

Part of the enjoyment in reading My Monticello is gaping at Johnson’s seemingly endless skill in plotting and sentence structure. While the novella is a bit slow-paced at first, and a couple of the stories could have benefited from a more apparent focal point, the collection is full of depth, and there are too many takeaways to count. 

Fans of story collections like The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans will appreciate this fictionalized outlook on America’s present and future. My Monticello is both unprecedented and inimitable, a beautifully thought out collection of elegant craftsmanship.

In her debut collection, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson doesn’t shy away from any topic as she calmly delivers, with too-real certainty, a ruthless kind of truth.

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