A satisfying mystery and sympathetic characterization make this author a writer to watch.



A down-at-the-heels journalist returns to his hometown to investigate the murder of an old friend in this debut novel.

Wes Byrne, former reporter, is at the end of his rope. His most important story—the investigation into illegal dumping of toxic waste into a river—resulted in a family’s blaming him for a man’s death; his beloved wife, Jan, succumbed to ovarian cancer; and his grief so informed his recent work at the Providence Sentinel that he’s been sacked from his columnist job for being too depressing. When his friend Stevie Darby is stabbed to death in a bar, Byrne is forced to travel to his hometown for the funeral, where his luck stubbornly refuses to get better. He has no sooner arrived back in East Hastings when his Camry is stolen; he’s reacquainted with a former bully–turned-cop; and a potential liaison with an ex-crush is spoiled by her sudden, violent death. Pretty soon, Byrne is up to his ears in a conspiracy involving a car theft ring and the export of stolen goods, punctuated by a rash of murders that all echo the death of Stevie. And when his former editor Hopkins Brewster “Hoppy” Weatherly demands that he use his talents for the local paper, Byrne begins to wonder whether any story is worth the damaging fallout. If this all sounds too grim to be entertaining, fear not. The prose is fluid and eminently readable, and what could have been a hard-boiled ordeal is given a light, almost irreverent touch. Essick boasts an affectionate eye for the dynamics of male friendship and the vagaries of small-town life. (At one point, Byrne muses about a local diner: “The mention of the Town Crier brought back warm memories of teen-age nights spent languishing in the comfortably upholstered booths and sharing tall tales of sexual exploits.”) This helps mitigate Byrne’s inherent passivity and inertia as a protagonist and those occasional moments when the light touch veers into farce and verges on glib. These minor flaws prevent the novel from being as compelling a read as it could have been. But Essick’s skillful handling of both characterization and the central mystery means that, while the pages may not turn as quickly as they could, it’s still an enjoyable read.

A satisfying mystery and sympathetic characterization make this author a writer to watch.

Pub Date: Nov. 22, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-62694-809-9

Page Count: 380

Publisher: Black Opal Books

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 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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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.


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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