Wit, a bit of romance, and a satisfying conclusion make for an often enjoyable read.

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Design My Life

Drozdov offers a takedown of reality television in this debut novel about an assistant on a popular home-makeover program.

Jane Forte, a not-quite-middle-aged, divorced mother of a preteen daughter, has won first place on Decorating Challenge, a reality show airing on a major cable network that caters to the do-it-yourself lifestyle. Network superstar Sandy Lewis was one of the judges of the competition, and in a moment of exuberance, she promises to hire Jane as her design assistant on Design My Life, Sandy’s long-running decorating series. Jane, a little overweight and seriously insecure, timidly positions herself in the background, behind the cameras, as Sandy, the host, pretends to execute a variety of DIY projects that are actually put together by professional (albeit unpaid) construction crews. On-camera talent is chosen for looks, not creativity: “You have probably heard about television being only for Q-Tips—that is sticks with big heads,” Jane says. “It is true.” Ultimately, Jane, who handles everything from selecting homeowners to rounding up live turkeys to run through the set for a Thanksgiving shoot, will come out on top, although, naturally, it doesn’t turn out quite as she imagined. Drozdov has worked in the production of such lifestyle-television shows as the Canadian home-improvement series Holmes on Homes, so she’s well-versed in the mechanics and lingo of the industry. Her story offers an insider’s behind-the-scenes reveal of the nonstop chaos, acrimony, and chicanery that occurs during the production of a season’s worth of reality show episodes. “Spontaneous” conversations with homeowners are shown to be scripted, episode finales are filled with borrowed furniture, construction mistakes are covered over, and everything gets fixed in the editing room. The sharp, sometimes-scathing narrative flows energetically. Sometimes, though, the switches between multiple venues will blur readers’ sense of time. The text would also have benefited from a stronger copy edit to remove simple errors (“We need you do shoot a quick stand up”) and the occasionally inconsistent use of past or present tenses.

Wit, a bit of romance, and a satisfying conclusion make for an often enjoyable read.

Pub Date: Oct. 27, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-9952905-0-1

Page Count: 414

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Dec. 2, 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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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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