A character-rich, skillfully plotted Midwestern drama.

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BETTER DAYS

A high school basketball coach deals with small-town secrets.

From the outset of this novel, just about every aspect of Darwin Burr’s life in Claxton, 60 miles from Chicago, is set up for possible upheaval. He works at AutoPro, a nationwide car parts retailer, for his childhood buddy Billy Rourke, who has been involved in some increasingly questionable business practices. Darwin has a stable but cold relationship with his wife, Daina, who thinks he lacks ambition. Their daughter, Astra, is getting ready to try out for the high school varsity basketball team. That’s when the changes start. The team’s coach becomes ill, suffering chest pains. Billy arranges for Darwin, a former Claxton basketball star, to assist the school’s guidance counselor, Fariba Pahlavi, in coaching the team. Then Billy disappears as representatives from the corporate office show up looking to fire him and turn him over to the FBI. One of those reps, Stephanie Washington, steps in as the interim boss to audit Billy’s records. Adding to the turmoil, Darwin takes an interest in recruiting Toni, a young girl, for the basketball team and soon winds up trying to help her out of a difficult home situation. Everyone he knows has secrets, and they all seem to be revealed at once, forcing Darwin to figure out who he is without his support group. There are a lot of characters swirling around Darwin, the center of this story, and Joy (Letting Go, 2018, etc.) makes them all count. They each have distinct personalities, from the guy who owns the breakfast place to Daina, Fariba, and Darwin himself. The author has a good eye for telling details and exchanges between characters. At one point, when Darwin is trying to find out more about Daina’s past as a Latvian immigrant, he observes, “I learned that when she put my name at the end of her speech it meant our discussion was over.” This version of Claxton feels real, like North Bath, New York, in Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is that Joy avoids the temptation to wrap everything up too cleanly after introducing so many complications.

A character-rich, skillfully plotted Midwestern drama.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Moonshine Cove Publishing

Review Posted Online: Sept. 20, 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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