An entertaining, if sometimes-unsettling, novel that adeptly contextualizes the reasons for its cast’s fragile psyches.

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THIS SIDE OF ZERO

Several characters fight the demons of their tormented childhoods and strive to be on “the right side of zero” in this dark tale.

Linnell’s (Reflex Blue, 2014) novel is told from the perspectives of three troubled residents of a small Minnesota town: Denise Dupree, Carl, and Rex. Denise struggles with alcoholism. Carl, who pines for her, believes that he suffers from a trifecta of mental illnesses: social anxiety, schizophrenia (including hearing a voice that calls him “Eddie”), and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Rex, Denise’s heedless boyfriend, seems plagued by uncontrollable sexual desire and sociopathy. The reader learns about their lives through Carl’s first-person narrative; Rex’s entries in his “Little Black Book,” in which he logs his sexual conquests; and Denise’s letters to her estranged father. It becomes clear that their problems are, in part, due to their respective absent parents: Carl’s mother and father spent more time at their business than with their son; Rex was raised by his Uncle Smokey, a reprobate; and Denise’s emotionally distant father apparently ignored the fact that Denise was sexually abused. (In one letter, she woefully asks, “did you really not know what your older brother was up to?...You coward.”) The action effectively ramps up when one character commits suicide and two others become involved in a kidnapping; an act of vigilante murder reveals more ugly truths. The surviving players eventually try for redemption, either by helping another lost soul or by acting on revelations. Linnell’s greatest strength lies in how he constructs his various characters’ backstories. He engagingly reveals these events, which are riddled with moments of emotional neglect and instances of violence, as told in sporadic, reflective flashbacks or accounts of present-day confrontations. Overall, these revelations neatly justify the characters’ fraught emotional states. The author further enhances the plot with occasional slow-burn mysteries (who is “Eddie,” anyway?) and unexpected twists, such as when a side character is revealed to have played a pivotal role in a major character’s past.

An entertaining, if sometimes-unsettling, novel that adeptly contextualizes the reasons for its cast’s fragile psyches.

Pub Date: May 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5369-6489-9

Page Count: 346

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 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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