Well-crafted dispatches on the clash between religion and self-fulfillment that never quite break out of the box.


The Washing of Brains

Gay Mormons struggle to wash homophobic doctrine right out of their minds in Townsend’s (The Mormon Inquisition, 2016, etc.) latest story collection.

In the author’s latest book, gay members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and their loved ones—face perhaps the greatest moral dilemma possible in a faith that deems heterosexual marriage the preeminent path to salvation, and they weather it with responses ranging from meditative calm to enraged defiance. In “The Bishop’s Beer,” a Mormon bishop copes with the sexual confessions of his flock and his son with a good-natured bemusement that prompts him to buy a dildo for an elderly congregant, and in “Clear-Cutting the Garden of Eden,” a lesbian raped by a respectable Mormon man keeps the baby but confronts the Church with its hypocrisy over the crime in a shocking way. “By Their Queers Ye Shall Know Them” tells the story of a gay ex-Mormon bartender who recalls his passionate affair with a church official; a porn-shop clerk tries to reconcile his job with the Church’s anti-porn stance in “The Assimilation of Hector Garcia”; the breakup of a long relationship in “Vampires of the Blood Atonement” sends a Mormon convert to Judaism back to the Saints for aid and comfort; and in “Massaging My Conscience,” a Mormon male prostitute finds unlikely passion with an unattractive client. These stories are bookended by more adventurous tales about young Mormon missionaries—favorite stock characters of Townsend’s—who respectively get caught up in a doomsday plot and in a Groundhog Day-style time loop. Townsend’s collection once again displays his limpid, naturalistic prose, skillful narrative chops, and his subtle insights into psychology, all set against his warmly ironic evocations of Mormonism’s complex, all-enveloping, close-knit, but sometimes-suffocating culture. However, it can also seem a bit monotonous; longtime Townsend readers will find a sameness in his prose and narrative voices, despite his attempts to enliven them with unusually graphic (and gratuitous) sex scenes. Almost all the stories feature the same central conflict of a character edging away from Mormon intolerance toward a sexually open liberalism, sometimes accompanied by muted soap-boxing for environmentalism and renewable energy, and there’s never a doubt in which direction kindness and humanity lie. For all its self-conscious transgression, Townsend’s fiction can sometimes feel smugly conventional.

Well-crafted dispatches on the clash between religion and self-fulfillment that never quite break out of the box.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-63491-582-3

Page Count: 276

Publisher: Booklocker

Review Posted Online: Nov. 9, 2016

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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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