A captivating Iraqi protagonist stars in two uneven tales.

GENERAL RAHMINI'S DILEMNA

In this collection of two novellas, the conflicted eponymous character faces more than one dilemma.

In the title piece, Gen. Abdul Rahmini, the former chief of counterintelligence under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, finds himself reluctantly working with the Islamic State group and even more reluctantly being recruited to carry out a suicide mission in America. He’s dead if he manages to slip by U.S. border controls, but as good as dead if he is captured and turned over to Baghdad authorities “who would cheerfully hang him.” But he manages to escape his co-conspirators. Posing as an Episcopalian minister, he winds up in a small Montana town, where he unexpectedly assimilates into the community and falls in love with an American widow. They Call Me the Cobra, an earlier novella, is Rahmini’s origin story; he was a professor who criticized his country’s brutal and repressive secret police in a speech. On the verge of being executed, he is instead installed as the director of the Internal Security Service and given three months to correct its abuses. But as with Michael Corleone, who becomes more brutal than his father, Rahmini ramps up the torture and earns the “Cobra” moniker not just from terrorists, but also his own subordinates. Both of Grayson’s (Fables of the CIA, 2017, etc.) stories have compelling ideas at their core and a strong protagonist. But they are unsatisfactorily dramatized; any suspense becomes undermined by one anticlimax after another. The title novella is the more intriguing of the two tales. It begins as your standard-issue terrorism thriller, but the minister ruse gives the story a Some Like It Hot/Sister Act twist that might have been played for dark comedy. The last third, in which Rahmini ponders revealing his past and illegal status to the woman he loves, would make a potent and timely romantic drama. But taken together, the works do not mesh. General references the murder of Rahmini’s wife and son by “an invading Shia militia unit.” In Cobra, Rahmini has a wife and daughter who survive a bombing of their home. And General is unfortunately riddled with errors (“What did you handle it?” Rahmini asked; “I was...hoist with my own petard”).

 A captivating Iraqi protagonist stars in two uneven tales.

Pub Date: Dec. 21, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-692-04850-4

Page Count: 214

Publisher: Ingram Spark

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2018

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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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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