Frieden has churned out a solid espionage novel that respectfully employs a real-world tragedy to great effect.

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THE SERPENT'S GAME

In Frieden’s (Tranquility Denied, 2007, etc.) second Jonathan Brooks thriller, the maritime lawyer, looking into a mysterious drowning, finds himself in the midst of competing international spies and agencies.

It’s August 2005, and Hurricane Katrina is making its way to New Orleans. Jonathan Brooks, skeptical of the impending storm, is slow to evacuate, but soon has good reason for his delay: Mariya, a dangerous Russian spy who helped Jonathan a decade ago, has asked him to check the morgue for her nephew, Igor, who supposedly drowned. A deceased Asian man there is clearly not related to the Russian woman, although the attorney, for reasons not entirely apparent, falsely identifies the body. But as Katrina lays siege to New Orleans, Jonathan is stuck inside the Crescent City before he can get any info to the Russian woman. It’s abundantly clear that a coverup has begun when Jonathan and the pathologist, who’ve deduced that the corpse was a crewman, are attacked by unknown assailants. Jonathan finds the vessel on which the dead man may have been stationed, and he and Mariya head to Panama on a mission so covert that even Mariya isn’t entirely aware of the details—but she knows that something is making the Russians nervous. The author has concocted a labyrinthine but diverting spy story; various players—Mossad, North Korea and a couple of CIA assets—are given airtime, but their involvement isn’t wholly clarified until the end. Jonathan is the focus, and his story, with Hurricane Katrina filling the first half of the novel, is first-rate. The real-world setting is resounding, particularly because Katrina is palpable; its “gusts of wind” and sky “an ominous charcoal hue” are early signs of the inevitable devastation to follow. The novel’s latter half sustains an overall uneasiness by an uncertainty surrounding Mariya; Jonathan never fully trusts her. The Russians, meanwhile, have lost a few agents, and Jonathan helps them, paving the way for his more active role in the frenetic action sequences. But none of the gunfights or villains is a match for Hurricane Katrina. The storm renders an entire city helpless.

Frieden has churned out a solid espionage novel that respectfully employs a real-world tragedy to great effect.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0974793443

Page Count: 468

Publisher: Avendia Publishing

Review Posted Online: May 10, 2014

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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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