An engaging mystery that offers plenty of potential for a planned series.

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DEATH AND TAXES

TALES OF A BADASS IRS AGENT

IRS agent Mark Douglas will stop at nothing to find his boss’s killer in this debut novel.

This book’s subtitle is Tales of a Badass IRS Agent; usually, in popular culture, “badass” and “IRS” are mutually exclusive terms. The agency’s functionaries are generally portrayed as milquetoast, like Will Ferrell in the 2006 film Stranger than Fiction. Here, Mark Douglas refers to himself as a “glorified accountant,” but he’s also an ex-Marine who leads his “bang-squad,” “the United States government’s own repo men,” on raids to seize tax-cheats’ money or possessions in order to square them with Uncle Sam. One such raid opens the story, as the squad—including 30-year veteran Harry Salt, newbie Miguel, and “weird” Wooly Bob—recovers $15,500 hidden in a Colt 45 can. The group’s camaraderie is further illustrated in the next scene—a barroom brawl with a man they call the “Human Fire Hydrant” and five of his friends after he gets too handsy with the squad’s favorite waitress. These scenes are played for laughs, but as Douglas’ boss, Lila Everston, notes, “You boys love playing cowboys and tax evaders. But someone’s gonna get hurt one of these days.” Tragically, that someone is Lila, whom Douglas considers to be “the big sister I should have had.” He teams up with an FBI wonk with the nickname “Tightass” to avenge her death. Zaslove, an award-winning writer of children’s TV programming (including The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, for which he earned a Humanitas Prize), delivers a series launcher that’s decidedly and bracingly not for kids. There are several groanworthy punchlines, which can be taxing (“At least it wasn’t a six-foot, seven-inch albino Texan singing the aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and accompanying himself on a Peruvian goat’s-hoof rattle”). But for the most part, this inaugural case is pleasingly complex. Lila’s demise comes early, so she doesn’t make a very strong impression, but readers will still feel Douglas’ loss. While processing his anger, the protagonist recalls when he stood up to his abusive stepfather in what may be the book’s most effective section.

An engaging mystery that offers plenty of potential for a planned series.

Pub Date: April 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9712374-8-3

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Aperient Press

Review Posted Online: July 12, 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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