For readers up to the challenge, this mystery is a curious, gilded oddity that’s well worth the time and effort.




Mason (Tor’s Lake, 2015) brings back an engaging protagonist in this serpentine mystery about an obsessed estate owner and a murdered professor.

Elizabeth Cromwell is a San Francisco–based professional dominatrix and the owner of an unusual sex-work business called the English Department. Over the years, she’d become the obsession of Burleigh Polk, a wealthy man who’d displayed an enormous painting of her in his hallway. At the novel’s start, Cromwell is contacted by an investigator who’s working to distribute Polk’s considerable assets in the wake of his tragic death. These assets include several books stamped with her name, with some hollowed out and containing statuettes in her likeness. While perusing Polk’s empty house to retrieve her belongings and view the painting, Cromwell has a chance encounter with University of California, Berkeley, mathematics professor Robert Lavoisier, which ignites a series of intriguing events. He urgently invites her to join him at a nearby bar, but when she arrives there, she discovers that he’s been poisoned. An anonymous person then calls her and demands to know where Lavoisier’s laptop is, believing that she had stolen it. The tough and clever Cromwell at first dismisses the murder as nothing that should concern her—a mere “dysfunctional annoyance”—but soon, as the mystery intensifies, she begins to focus and investigate not only Lavoisier’s death, but also who exactly Polk was and the reasons why he was so obsessed with her. Along the way, she matches wits with the accusatory caller, who turns out to be another Berkeley math professor named Andrei Andreyev. After his suspicions about her are quelled, the case morphs into a formidable whodunit as clues stack up. More intensive scrutiny of Polk’s belongings further reveal the deceased’s dedicated interest in Cromwell’s image; meanwhile, Mason makes sure that sparks begin to fly between Cromwell and Andrei as they try to solve the murder together, with both of them questioning the circumstances of their alliance: “Is tragedy driving us together?” Mason’s novel is a truly complex concoction that won’t always be easy for readers to digest. However, it’s not only fast-paced and intelligent, but also engagingly atmospheric. Specifically, she exhibits a great practical knowledge of Northern California, particularly its sprawling businesses and notable landmarks, and this gives the entire narrative a sense of place that readers will find to be truly satisfying. The text offers many flourishes of embellished language, particularly after the story introduces a gaggle of dogged detectives on the case, who seem to meet their match in Cromwell, whose bossy, manipulative style and sharp, steely intellect win the day. Also of note is a chapter in which the protagonist gets to fully demonstrate the acumen of her erotic livelihood in her seductive domination of Andreyev. The mystery somewhat convolutedly wraps up with the aid of some masterfully deductive reasoning from Andreyev and Cromwell involving multiple interpretations of a doctoral thesis.

For readers up to the challenge, this mystery is a curious, gilded oddity that’s well worth the time and effort.

Pub Date: May 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9980221-0-9

Page Count: 310

Publisher: Exponential Press

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2019

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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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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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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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