An engaging thriller with an academic setting that readers wouldn’t want to be caught dead in.

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GLAD YOU'RE NOT HERE

A debut novel proves that college can literally be murder.

Of course, Nowhere Island University isn’t your average institution of higher learning. Nathan Jacobs, Sherman’s protagonist, learns this very quickly. NIU is actually a prep school for mercenaries, drawing students from terrorist and paramilitary groups around the globe. So how did Nate, admittedly adrift when it comes to his life plans, end up here? Nate got recruited at his high school Career Day by the shadowy spy agency UNIX and was sent in undercover to investigate NIU. Joining him is John Marshall, another UNIX plant. Nate fears that he’s in over his head but soon shows that he can hold his own alongside more experienced students. But he’s hamstrung by having a moral compass: “There are people who will hurt the people I love, maybe because of irrational hatred, maybe because they think it will make a point or profit, or maybe because they’re the kind of sicko who enjoys it.” He’s inducted into a secret society comprising seven of the school’s fiercest fighters. While all of the students have to watch their backs, Nate discovers that the biggest obstacle is the curriculum, which produces a high fatality rate. So it becomes a never-ending struggle for Nate and his new friends to outlast the sadistic program set up by the school masters. Sherman has created a crisply paced thriller culled from a series of his online postings over two years. Remarkably, he has smoothly married together these posts into a work that should capably hold readers’ attention. It is a visceral novel, as he recounts in graphic detail the grisly, life-and-death struggles of the NIU students, a majority of whom don’t survive. In his author’s note, Sherman admits to being a video game fan, and this tale feels like one, with a similarly high body count. But characterization is a shortcoming, as, other than Nate, the players aren’t three-dimensional enough for readers to become invested in them. The reasons most of these students willingly inject themselves into this setting aren’t made clear. Still, it’s possible to ride along on the frenetic action and enjoy the violent world that the author has developed.

An engaging thriller with an academic setting that readers wouldn’t want to be caught dead in.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5450-1823-1

Page Count: 238

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Jan. 26, 2018

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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