Equal parts haunting and humorous; literally a warts-and-all gunslinger story.

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THE PHANTOM OF WITCH'S TREE

In this debut novel, two killers find themselves on a collision course in the last days of the Wild West—but the march of progress will not halt supernatural forces from intervening in their conflict.

In 1912, the American frontier has been declared settled and the culture of the Wild West is in decline. One of its last bastions is Widow Tree, a town whose overweight and wealthy leaders buck the comforts of electricity and the railroad in order to attract tourists to the brothels and casinos of an ever disappearing Old West. Matt Hargreaves is a rich, heavy-drinking wastrel who was appointed a deputy of Widow Tree only because his father was the marshal. When a shootout in Canada ends with the death of a 12-year-old girl, Matt dives deeper into his excesses and is unknowingly targeted by Cpl. Justin Augustus, an omniscient, mystical force in the form of a revenge-seeking, uniformed Mountie. Meanwhile, while working a prison-transport job, the baby-faced psychopath Jody Simms finds Widow Tree and the surrounding area prime ground for indulging his lowest instincts, including rape, focusing on the frontier’s newest resident, Rachel Adler. Rachel is a complicated figure, posh, educated, and looking to carve out some part of the American West she has experienced in books for herself. Yet she, too, is haunted by portents of a demon—Simms—out to get her. Lunde’s novel is a down-and-dirty Western, opening with a penis boil and featuring plenty of viscera and corpses, the rampant and unvarnished racism of the period, and the brilliant, scatological ugliness one would expect from game-heavy diets and no indoor plumbing. Characters are venal and crass, more John Falstaff than John Wayne, and the tale uses this to great effect, sometimes disgusting readers with Simms’ sick actions or entertaining them with a closed-window farting contest between Matt and his father. Though principally a Western, the story’s fantastical flourishes are reminiscent of the early Gothic novel, with inexplicable darkness, visions of an ethereal world, haunted Mounties with dire warnings, and a singing phallus. While these facets all have big impacts on the plot, they are rarely explained to the audience. This will likely cause consternation in some readers, but it largely adds to the book’s eerie sense of adventure and mystery.

Equal parts haunting and humorous; literally a warts-and-all gunslinger story.

Pub Date: July 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-949135-05-3

Page Count: 616

Publisher: Untreed Reads Publishing

Review Posted Online: Jan. 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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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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