TRESPASSES – Louise Kennedy

“They were like a tag team, taking turns to fall apart.”

Set in Ireland during “The Troubles,” Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses (Riverhead 2022) is a weeping wound of a novel about womanhood, love, and family with a violent backdrop of the politics that defined Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. Admittedly, it wasn’t on my radar until I decided to read the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. That’s unfortunate because Trespasses is extremely impactful and well-done historical fiction.

Cushla, a young schoolteacher, tends her family’s bar on weekends. Her brother manages the drunkards at the bar, but he leaves Cushla to manage their mother’s drinking problem on her own.  She regularly cleans up the vomit, soothes the cuts and bruises, and helps her mother to bed.  Her relationship with her mother is frayed with anger, guilt, resentment, and love.

Cushla is Catholic, but the violence hasn’t much touched their bar.  It has, however, touched her classroom.  Every morning, she starts her classes with “the news,” and her students speak of the latest bombs and beatings. When one student, the son of a Catholic and a Protestant, doesn’t come to school one day, Cushla is horrified to learn that his father had been beaten nearly to death.  The student, frequently picked on and bullied by his classmates, is her favorite, and Cushla develops a relationship with his family, including his older brother, Tommy, that will mark her all the days of her life.

While leaning heavily into the relationship between mothers and daughters and showing the struggles of a young teacher, Trespasses thrums with Cushla’s affair with a much older and quite married man. Michael Agnew is an attorney and a Protestant, a womanizing activist that Cushla readily becomes obsessed with.  Their relationship is fiery and passionate, a burning flame that Cushla knows will never end with her getting the man. He belongs to someone else, but she loves him with the kind of love that hurts.

A bildungsroman shows the growth from childhood to adulthood, but what describes that sweet tragedy of early womanhood? The first love. The first loss. The first sips of adulthood. The missteps and the retries.  Whatever that may be, Trespasses is that.

Read this book.


Rowena Miller’s The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill (Redhook/Orbit, publication date 3/28/2023) is a bit The Once and Future Witches meets Practical Magic, but with fae instead of witches.  It’s a cozy fantasy of sisters, mothers, and womanhood woven with brilliant bits of family, society, and legends.  (A huge thanks to the publisher for this gifted advanced copy!)

The old families on Prospect Hill know a little bit about fairy bargains, and what the city folk seem as cooky superstition and insanity has kept Alaine and Delphine’s family orchard afloat. The sisters grew up learning of the bargains at their grandmother’s side, and they know and respect the power of the fae magic.

But the orchard needs more help than the well-settled bargains that have kept the family afloat for generations.  Alaine starts to dabble into the magic, venturing into a type of fairy-magic her grandmother had warned her against.  After each new bargain, she tells her husband that is it.  But she calls on them time and time again.  And when marriage to the affluent son of a prominent city family is not what Delphine imagined, and Delphine finds herself in an abusive relationship, the sisters find themselves back at the tree, making frantic bargains and forgetting to heed their grandmother’s advice about paying careful attention to the words of the bargain. 

The novel starts off at a dull and sluggish pace, finally picking up speed almost halfway through.  Once you get to that part, you won’t be able to put it down.  Slog through – it’s worth it.  The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill is a comforting and familiar type of magic that drapes around you like the arms of a friend or a soft blanket.  And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find yourself dropping a shiny bauble or a brilliant scrap of cloth for the magical folk to find and bring you favor.

Read this book.

LEMON – Kwon Yeo-Sun

“Lemon, I muttered. Like a chant of revenge, I muttered: Lemon, lemon, lemon.” Da-on

“Her beauty was urgent, precarious, like the piercing wail of a speeding ambulance. I could not look away.” – Sanghui’s description of Taerim

Lemon (Other Press 2021, translated from the Korean by Janet Hong) is Kwon Yeo-sun’s first novel to be translated into English. The blurb calls it “Parasite meets The Good Son,” and it’s such a hard novel to pin down. It’s a psychological thriller about the murder of a beautiful girl, and while it is framed as a whodunnit, it’s not.  The reader is not going to see the murderer accused and brought to justice.  Despite how it looks, the novel isn’t about who killed Kim Hae-on.  The novel is about how the “High School Beauty Murder” impacted the lives of three young women.

Lemon is a short novel and quick read. It is divided into 8 sections that span from 2002 to 2019.  The novel centers on grief, guilt, and revenge. Hae-on is a beautiful girl who is tragically murdered in the summer of 2002, when Korea is hosting the World Cup.  Her younger sister, Da-on, who has lived in her sister’s shadow while also being her caretaker, becomes cloaked in despair, only worsened by the depression of their mother. Da-on begins to change herself, losing weight and getting plastic surgery after plastic surgery to look like her sister.  She becomes determined to find her sister’s killer and get revenge – not necessarily justice, but revenge.

Sanghui is a classmate of Hae-on, but she was much closer to Da-on as the two were in a poetry class together. Through her sections, the reader is afforded a better view of Da-on and the drastic change following Hae-on’s murder. We also learn more about Hae-on and the rivalry with Taerim, the other high school beauty.

Taerim’s sections, marked in madness and depression, are the most telling.  It is through her that the reader learns what happened to Hae-on, and how affluence can make any problem disappear.

All three women are forever scarred by Hae-on’s murder, and all three have guilt surrounding it and the events that unfolded following it.  Lemon is a piercing look at grief, guilt, and the bitter and sweet lemon that is revenge.

Read this book.

THE CRANE HUSBAND – Kelly Barnhill

The Crane Wife is a Japanese folktale wherein a man saves a wounded crane, and the crane returns as a beautiful woman. The man is poor, and the crane weaves her own feathers into beautiful garments that are sold for large sums. The woman is becoming increasingly ill as she is using her own feathers and flesh to make the materials. When the man sneaks upon her and realizes that his wife is the crane, she flies away – leaving him with a broken heart.

Kelly Barnhill gives us a masterful retelling of this folktale in her The Crane Husband (Tor 2023).  This slim reimagining places this well-known folktale squarely in modern day Midwest America.  Narrated by an unnamed 15 year old girl, The Crane Husband echoes many of the themes of Barnhill’s When Women Were Dragons.

“On the farm,” she said quietly, “mothers fly away like migrating birds. And fathers die too young. This is why farmers have daughters. To keep things going in the meantime, until it’s our time to grow wings. Go soaring away across the sky.”

After the narrator’s father dies, her artistic mother becomes more eccentric. When she finds a guy with a broken arm in the sheep pen, their world changes.  A large crane shows up when the man leaves, and her mother has told them to call him Father.  Our narrator refuses.  Her mother stops eating, stops caring for the sheep, stops making cheese, and stops selling her art.  She spends waking moment with the crane. She tells her daughter that love is enough, and they don’t need money.  Her body becomes more bloodied and broken with each passing day.

Barnhill turns the folktale on its head while retaining much of its heartbreak; the lessons remain the same.

Barnhill is a master storyteller, and her efforts are very much on display in this small novel. This is a folktale, not a fairytale, and the endings of folktales are seldom happy.  The Crane Husband is a haunting nightmare for our narrator and her young brother, and its ending is one of resilience not happiness.  There’s a lot of similar imagery and phrasing between this and When Women Were Dragons – both with the idea of flying away (birds this time, not dragons) and with knots to stay grounded – but it’s a retelling that stands on its own.

Should you read this?  Absolutely. 


“All she knew was that she was being borne away from something she loved more than anything else in the world, that the distance between them was increasing, with every step taken.”

Maggie O’Farrell is an author who has been on my radar for a bit, but one I’ve never read until I decided to shoot for the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist and picked up The Marriage Portrait (Knopf 2022). (O’Farrell is no stranger to the list as she’s the 2020 winner for Hamnet.)

The Marriage Portrait is based on a woman who was but a footnote in history, but who stirred rumors that become lore that would eventually inspire Robert Browning to write “My Last Duchess.” She serves as O’Farrell’s muse as well. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

History will tell us that Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici was wed to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara when she was 15 and that she was dead less than a year later. Rumors claimed her husband had poisoned her. This isn’t a spoiler – the novel opens with this historical note – but what unfolds is the heartbreaking story of a young girl with a free spirit who was born to provide further security to her family’s position, raised to be given as a wife to another political family, and ultimately given to man more than a decade her senior to be bred and produce heirs.

As a small child, Lucrezia and her older siblings were permitted to see their father’s renowned animal menagerie just once. The animals were not something the children were allowed to see, and they certainly didn’t attend any of the battles were their father pitted two animals against other for sport. But he’d acquired a tigress and his children convinced him they were old enough to go see her. Lucrezia is particularly touched by the wild animal held captive. The quote I started this review with is from when she’s pulled away from the tigress, after reaching through the bars to stroke the big cat’s fur. Lucrezia holds the memory of that tiger deep in her heart, refusing to talk about it; there’s no relationship in her life, save for Sophia, with the trust required to share such a moment. She, much like the reader, is fully aware that she’s the tigress.

Told in a non-linear fashion, the reader gets pieces of Lucrezia’s childhood prior to the wedding as well as the early days of the marriage interspersed with the moment when she realizes he’s going to kill her and as she struggles against the poison.

If you don’t want the ending spoiled, stop here.

O’Farrell has Lucrezia survive the attempted murder and escape with a painter’s apprentice.  After the poison didn’t work, the Duke entered her chambers to smother her. Only it’s not her in the bed, but her maid, a girl who looks like her save a wicked scar on her face. The Duke doesn’t realize it, and no one misses the maid.  Lucrezia is allowed to reinvent herself and be free.  But the maid eats at me. This young woman born to a different station had to share her own mother’s breast, time and affection with this child who seemingly has everything. Then, she is forced to leave all she knows to join Lucrezia in Ferrara, where her days are spent in service to the Duchess only to be sacrificed for Lucrezia without thought.  I just wasn’t keen on the body double plot point.

That aside, it’s beautiful prose that rewrites history for a young girl whose entire life was spent in a cage.

Read this book.

THE DOG OF THE NORTH – Elizabeth McKenzie

“They were the whimper rather than the bang at the end of my world, but I could not move forward if I were to permit myself the full brunt of my feelings.”

In continuing with the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, I recently read Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Dog of the North (Penguin Press 2023). It’s absolutely stellar. Reminding me at times of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated meets Annie Hartnett’s Unlikely Animals meets Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, it’s a quirky, heart hug of a novel with the strangest cast of lovable misfits you will ever meet.

The novel follows Penny, an anxious 35 year old who is juggling a lot of big feelings that she can squelch if she focuses on the issues of others in her life. She’s left her job and her philandering husband to help her grandmother at the behest of Adult Protective Services. Her grandmother, Dr. Pincer, is not a warm and cuddly grandma. She’s abrasive, abusive, and slipping into dementia. Her home is neither safe nor sanitary, and she apparently has a gun. Penny is tasked with finding the gun and cleaning the home, two tasks that must be performed without Dr. Pincer finding out until after the fact. Penny enlists Bruce, her grandmother’s longtime accountant, to help. Bruce has his own quirks, including a big, green van named the Dog of the North and a Pomeranian named Kweecoats.

In addition to the situation with her grandmother, Penny is dealing with her grandfather’s new wife, who thinks he needs to be put in a home. On top on that, her parents have been missing in Australia for five years and her sister wants to address what they should do with their home. And the police want to question Dr. Pincer about some things found on her property.

It’s a bizarre journey in a green van with a pinata in the back as Penny has to confront her childhood, her anger, her shame, her grief to find the things she holds in her heart. It’s learning when to let go and how to hold on. It’s not being perfect. It’s family. It’s love. It’s putting the crazy on the porch and introducing it to the neighbors. It’s embracing who you are, where you came from, and what you want.

The Dog of the North, with its cleverly depicted characters and their idiosyncrasies, is one of my favorite reads of the year.

Read this book.


The average menstrual cycle lasts 28 days. Jane Roper’s upcoming release, The Society of Shame (Anchor Books, anticipated release date 4/4/2023) primarily takes place over the course of 28 days, and opens with a perimenopausal woman, Kathleen Held, finding her husband, who is running for US Senate, on the front lawn in his underwear, with one of his young staffers in the bushes with her panties around her ankles.  If the affair wasn’t bad enough, a viral photograph from the scene showed Kathleen with a period stain on the back of her pants.  Kathleen is mortified over the affair and the period stain, but the picture takes on a life of its own, and a women’s rights movement is born and given her face. 

Kathleen wants nothing to do with #YesWeBleed, until a new group of misfit friends that form the Society of Shame convince her to “reap the rewards” of the unwanted attention.  Kathleen reinvents herself and joins the movement.  And, in a menstrual cycle, nearly loses who she is and the person she loves most – her young daughter, Aggie.

The Society of Shame is made up of individuals who have been “canceled” following viral videos or tweets or sound bites.  The “club” is a bit of an odd recovery program with the goal that these canceled authors, influencers, actors, etc., can reenter society and resume their lives.  As Kathleen gets more entrenched in the program and the #YesWeBleed movement, the absurdities of cancel culture and social media fame become more apparent.

The Society of Shame is an absurd and hilarious social commentary on politics, media, and womanhood in today’s society.  The whip-smart writing made the novel such a delight.  I lost count of the number of times I guffawed while reading; it’s funny because it’s true.  And while I didn’t plan it this way, reading it while on my period added a fun little twist to it.

Read this book.

*Thank you to the publisher for the gifted copy.

MEMPHIS – Tara M. Stringfellow

“The things women do for the sake of their daughters. The things women don’t. The shame of it all.”

I’m still toying with the idea of reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, and I put in several holds at the library.  Since I’ve already read a couple and intended to read a few more from the selections, I figured why not?  Tara M. Stringfellow’s Memphis (The Dial Press 2022) has been on my radar because it was a pretty hyped book last year.  It’s one from the list that was already on my list because I love family sagas, particularly those that follow the women in a family.

And this is a novel of women.  Of mothers.  Of daughters. Of sisters. Of wives. Sections alternate POV and span from 1937 – 2003. I enjoyed the non-linear framework of storytelling and the focus on women, but I wish it had been framed with Miss Dallas and her root magic.  That would have made this an entirely different book, I get that, but I wanted more Miss Dallas.

Memphis was just okay for me, and maybe that’s the curse of an overhyped book.  Much of the description was unnecessarily repetitive, the male characters were underdeveloped caricatures that were either villainized or deified, there were missed opportunities in further developing the city as its own character, and there were also missed opportunities with August’s salon and with the record shop.  Certain things needed more flesh and other things needed a content editor.  Additionally, Miriam seeking government assistance instead of pursuing child support (which the military does not joke about) was a bit unbelievable.  Equally unbelievable was Jax’s response to Joan’s rape; he weaponized it, blamed Miriam, but never seemed to care about his daughter.  This makes sense when you look at how he was depicted as a villain, but then you have Bird come in and talk about how his brother adored those girls.  I understand that two things can be true at once, and it seems that Stringfellow is attempting to bring a little redemption to both Jax and Derek at the end, to paint them as more human and less as monsters, but it’s a half swing.

Overall, it’s a decent debut, and I’ll likely pick up her sophomore attempt.


Orbit Books recently sent me Andrea Stewart’s The Drowning Empire trilogy in anticipation of the release of book three in April. (A huge thanks for the gifted books.) I reviewed the first installment last month. The second of the trilogy, The Bone Shard Emperor was published in 2021.

If you haven’t read the first in the series, The Bone Shard Daughter, don’t read any further as this review will spoil that book.

Last chance.

The second installment of The Drowning Empire begins a few months after the conclusion of The Bone Shard Daughter. Lin is emperor and Jovis is her Captain of the Imperial Guard.  Mephi is seldom far from Jovis’s side, and Thrana, the same type of creature, has bonded to Lin. Sand, now Nisong, is rallying forces to storm the Empire.  Islands are still sinking and the Alanga are clearly returning. Having participated in the overthrow of her father, Phalue is now governor of her island and Ranami is her wife.  Their sections remain the weakest in the series, but I did enjoy the introduction of the gutter orphan that Phalue has developed a bond with.  I also thoroughly enjoyed Phalue’s interactions with Lin.

The first half of this novel was a bit of a slog. The second installment is still told in alternating POVs, but it’s a bit clunkier than the first because Jovis and Lin are frequently together and their sections cover overlapping timelines.  I didn’t like Jovis as much in this book.  I was too frustrated with his choices and with his failure to notice what was right before his eyes.  He knows his wife was taken by Lin’s father and used in his experiments.  He knows Lin has his wife’s eyes. But he can’t manage to piece things together (no pun intended).  And he when he does, we’re shuttered from his thought process, and that is the internal struggle I wanted to see.

The final third of the book, when we finally get to the face-off between Lin and Nisong with her army of constructs, is what kept the novel from just being just one step above “meh.” 

I’m eager to see how Stewart wraps up this unique trilogy with its memorable cast of characters.  I’ve grown extremely fond of Mephi; Stewart can kill off any of the cast of characters, have them sink into the water, so long as Mephi survives.  And Jovis, I guess, because Mephi loves him so.

Read this book.

AFTER SAPPHO – Selby Wynn Schwartz

“Those were the stories we were given.  When we were children, we learned what happened to girls in fables: eaten, married, lost. Then came our bouts of classical education, imparting to us the fates of women in ancient literature: betrayed, raped, cast out, driven mad in tongueless grief.”

My Booker 2022 longlist reading journey is nearing its close (I only have Treacle Walker left after this!), and it’s been a lot of fun.  I may add the National Book Award longlist to my reading goals this year, but I’ll certainly be doing Booker again.  Book 12 of 13 for me was Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho (Galley Beggar Press 2022), a novel of moments and persons, a blend of fact and fiction, and political poetry. 

The fragmented seductions and brilliant glimpses into early feminists are a triumph, but the lens is solely Euro-centric and seemingly lacking.  I was initially very seduced by a lyrical history of women seeking control of their own lives, but it grew repetitive and lost its luster.  Much like many a woman lost Lina’s attention, so the novel lost mine.

Stylistically, the novel is intriguing.  The women it chronicles, weaving in and out of lives and faces with ease, are historically important.  The role of literature and fiction, and a women’s role within the literary world, are written into this work with a lot of passion and cheek, but also a lot of sarcasm and drollness.  This is a difficult review to write because I can’t quite put my finger on why it so quickly lost my interest having held me quickly captive.

Should you read this book?  I have no idea, and I can’t decide if I’d recommend it or not.

Booker Count: 12 of 13