Funny, tender, and intelligent escapism.

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FIRST CRUSH, LAST LOVE

Two high school friends try to reconnect in this coming-of-age romance.

Senior Jessie Baxter is deeply in love with her best friend, Lee Archer, the quarterback of the high school football team in Newport Falls, on Lake Michigan, in 1983. Lee is likewise attracted to Jessie but cannot tear himself away from manipulative Tina Asta, despite their stormy relationship—and her other conquests. Cajoled by her friend Sarah Griffin, Jessie finds the courage to ask Lee on a date to the final school dance. He says yes but leaves her on the dance floor to argue—and then go home with—Tina. A dejected Jessie hooks up with Billy Walker. Becoming fed up with Tina and needing to escape his abusive stepfather, Lee takes off for Chicago, where he trains as a cop and romances Violetta De Luca, the sister of a close friend. Jessie attends college, becomes a journalist in Milwaukee, and marries Billy. Lee, who had worried that a romance with Jessie would adversely affect their friendship, now realizes that a relationship with Violetta without love will not work. Jessie’s marriage ends in divorce due to Billy’s controlling behavior and alcoholism. Finally a detective, Lee moves back to Newport Falls and Jessie visits for her 10-year class reunion—organized by Tina, who has taken up with Billy but still wants her old high school boyfriend back. Billy, obsessed with his ex-wife, stalks Jessie around town, calling her incessantly and even breaking into her apartment while she is out. This is McKenna’s (Venice in the Moonlight, 2013, etc.) first modern novel after her historical romances and she adroitly captures the angst and snarkiness of high school. At one point, Jessie asserts: “I have to go fail a physics quiz.” The characters are richly complicated, and even Tina reveals the vulnerable girl inside. The only one without nuance is Billy, whose sole purpose seems to be playing the villain when Lee reappears in Jessie’s life. In addition, it is unclear why Jessie remains with Billy throughout college. There are also some anachronisms: The 911 call system was not yet implemented in the Lake Michigan area in 1983, and “waterboarding” was not a household word in the early ’90s. The chapter headings have precise dates but readers do not need them to enjoy this appealing love story.

Funny, tender, and intelligent escapism.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5483-7173-9

Page Count: 314

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: March 2, 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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