A psychological tale that’s riveting, perceptive, and accessible.




A doctor struggles to understand a woman who allegedly murdered her own child in Lev’s (A Feast of Tears, 2010) thriller.

Dr. Ephraim Ligget prefers being left alone as he works in the psychiatric treatment ward of the Western Washington State Hospital. Half of his face is scarred due to a fire years ago that killed his parents, and his apparent survivor’s guilt has led to him to create another, secret personality, Dr. Hamburger, “the angry part of Ligget’s soul,” who occasionally takes over. Ligget is handling a case for the admission ward of the Forensic Unit, which treats the criminally insane, so Jennifer Stanley becomes his newest patient. Cops arrested her after her son, Edward, claimed that she tried to kill him; he further stated that he witnessed her murdering his younger brother, Robert, whose body police uncover. Jennifer’s lawyer is hoping for an insanity defense, but Ligget is merely assessing her competency to stand trial, which isn’t necessarily related to her state of mind during the supposed crime. Still, the psychologist has trouble completing his report. Tests indicate that Jennifer has a high IQ, so she may be feigning some behavior, such as her disbelief that her son is dead. But Ligget ultimately concludes that she’s not manipulating him and that she’s suffering from PTSD from an unidentified trauma. Although he does eventually rule on whether she’s competent for trial, he remains obsessed with the question of her sanity and looks into her personal life: “His life had been reduced to this—a single case and a single person.” Has Jennifer merely deceived him—or is she actually in need of help? Lev’s novel effectively establishes its hospital setting, where much of the story takes place. One scene, for example, opens with Mrs. Densby and Mrs. Brown at a tea party, anticipating a waiter bringing them tea; it turns out that the two ladies are patients, and the “waiter” who ignores them is a staff member. The hospital is populated by a curious mix of characters, including Frank, a patient experiencing tactile hallucinations who’s been seen by multiple doctors. But although the patients are shown to be a burden at times, the staff members cause just as many problems by skimping on job duties or by too easily prescribing antipsychotic medications. Jennifer is, appropriately, one of the more striking characters—an enigma who understandably baffles Ligget; her son Edward’s perspective reveals specifics about Robert’s murder but provides readers with no more insight into Jennifer’s mind than the doctor has. Nevertheless, Ligget himself, with his alternate personality, is engaging and multifaceted. The author, a practicing psychologist, writes in a style that’s intelligent but always intelligible, even when employing psychiatric jargon, as in his description of Ligget’s initial assessment of Jennifer: “Thinking is realistic and goal directed, speech is relevant, no evidence of hallucinations or delusions, possible dissociative symptoms.” Ligget’s analysis of Jennifer becomes an ongoing mystery, and Lev opts for a pragmatic ending in which nothing’s black and white.

A psychological tale that’s riveting, perceptive, and accessible.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-974315-16-1

Page Count: 276

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2017

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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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