Sydney Hankin

Review by

Louise Kennedy, chef of nearly 30 years and author of the short story collection The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac, emerges with a debut novel that will fill every historical fiction fan with gratitude. Trespasses exposes the crushing realities of Northern Ireland during the “troubles” while paying respect to the people who found their way through the destruction. 

The novel centers on Cushla Lavery, a Catholic teacher living near Belfast who also works part time in her family’s pub. The sectarian violence between Republicans (largely Catholics) and loyalists (largely Protestants) has become overwhelmingly ingrained in society. The school’s headmaster even insists that Cushla’s 7- and 8-year-old students devote time each morning to reporting and commenting on the day’s most horrific news, from bombings to internments.

Quicker than she can make sense of, Cushla forms new relationships that drive her personal life into the public eye. There’s Michael Agnew, an older, married Protestant barrister with whom Cushla begins a surreptitious affair. There’s also Davy McGeown, a child in Cushla’s class whose father is brutally beaten. Disaster soon becomes inevitable, but no matter how close Cushla’s life comes to collapse, Kennedy’s unyielding narrative voice exhibits heart-wrenching impassivity, forcing readers to grapple with their own prejudices and morals.

The novel’s brilliance lies in Kennedy’s commitment to nuance. Simple definitions of “right” and “wrong” are nonexistent in Cushla’s world, as Kennedy is more concerned with contextual authenticity: How do our choices affect our environments, and conversely, how do those environments shape the choices we make? Reading Trespasses is an exercise in trust, in letting oneself accept the transient failures of an individual while holding fast to their implicit humanity. 

Impeccably written, Trespasses is a story that every reader will internalize differently. In only 304 pages, it achieves the complexity of a multigenerational saga without sacrificing the striking intricacies of its central protagonist’s story.

Reading Trespasses is an exercise in trust, in letting oneself accept the transient failures of an individual while holding fast to their implicit humanity.
Review by

We remember some books because they remind us not to take life too seriously, and others because they overwhelm us with unforgettable portrayals of life’s darkest moments. A wonderful example of the latter is When You Get to the Other Side, written by Mariana Osorio Gumá and translated to English by Cecilia Weddell. It’s a story of great poignancy that was originally published in Mexico in 2019.

Siblings Emilia and Gregorio are raised by their grandmother, Mamá Lochi, a curandera (psychic healer) who teaches them all about the spiritual world as they travel up and down the mountains of Amatlán, Mexico. When Mamá Lochi dies, her grandchildren are left with nothing but a metal box full of cash and contact information for their father and uncles, who all live in the United States. Emilia and Gregorio use the money to pay smugglers, known as coyotes, to take them to the U.S. They begin to trek across the vast, merciless desert, encountering a human trafficking operation along the way. 

Gumá’s language is beautiful, her writing style unceasingly bold, but her novel’s literary merit is best embodied by its introspective imagery and symbolism. The chapters alternate between memories of Mamá Lochi’s life and the present story of Gregorio and Emilia’s journey, building a lovely, lyrical congruence between the two narratives. Weddell’s translation is excellent as well, her attention to detail evident in every sentence.

Mamá Lochi’s teachings manifest in her grandchildren’s behavior: Emilia foresees future events, and Gregorio becomes invisible to avoid his pursuers. It can be a challenge to incorporate magic into a story without unbalancing it, but Gumá does so magnificently, blending in the paranormal so seamlessly that the novel’s world feels neither wholly different from ours nor quite the same. The characters aren’t always so realistically wrought—sometimes acting inconsistently with their age or prior behavior—but Gregorio’s and Emilia’s experiences are so horrific that even the most subtle moments of magic are striking. 

When You Get to the Other Side is a short but dense read, best suited for readers with the patience for a slow-moving plot. They’ll be rewarded with a breath of fresh air and new perspectives on immigration and the supernatural.

It can be a challenge to incorporate magic into a story without unbalancing it, but Mariana Osorio Gumá does so magnificently, blending in the paranormal so seamlessly that her novel's world feels neither wholly different from ours nor quite the same.
Review by

Margarita Montimore, bestselling author of Oona Out of Order, flexes her full creative prowess in her third novel, Acts of Violet, about a sisterly rivalry shaped by magic and a generous helping of hope. 

When famous stage magician Violet Volk vanishes in the middle of her act, the world is left with questions: Was Violet a master of her craft, or did she have real magical powers? Why did she disappear? And what’s going on with her sister, Sasha, who is strangely reluctant to discuss what happened? 

As the 10th anniversary of Violet’s disappearance approaches, the public starts to buzz once again. Cameron Frank is determined to interview Sasha on his podcast; Sasha’s daughter, Quinn, knows that her mother is hiding something; and thousands of other people have their own theories. Montimore’s aptitude for world building is distinctive and remarkable, and she supplements Sasha’s first-person narration with podcast transcripts, newspaper articles, letters and websites to construct a convincing community around Violet’s story. 

The magician sister and her mysteries may be the nexus of Acts of Violet, but the novel is equally focused on Sasha. Striving to keep her privacy, Sasha attempts to evade the press (and sometimes her family) while navigating precarious sleepwalking and mental deterioration. She grapples with questions of morality, family and loyalty as she tries to make sense of her relationship with her sister and whether or not Violet’s actions are forgivable. Sasha is a more persuasive, complex character than Violet, though perhaps Violet’s inscrutability is inevitable, given her occupation as a magician. However, for readers who strive to connect with every detail of a story, a reread may be helpful.

Humorous but not disproportionately so, suspenseful but not frightening and emotional but not tearful, Acts of Violet offers something for everyone. A quick read with irresistible charm, it’s a comfort book in every sense of the word, blending mystery, science fiction and family drama to satisfy a craving you didn’t quite know you had. In the end, you’ll be left with the inkling that there might be some truth to magic after all.

A quick read with irresistible charm, Margarita Montimore’s Acts of Violet is a comfort book in every sense of the word.
Review by

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.
Review by

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.
Review by

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.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!