An ungainly mishmash of stilted writing and inexplicable intrigues.

STAYING IN THE GAME

Russian spies hatch convoluted plots for ill-conceived reasons in this murky espionage yarn.

Red’s (Deception License, 2019) potboiler centers on Galina Ivanova, a Russian agent who longs to quit spying and have a baby. First, though, she honeytraps a U.S. senator’s horny son into having anal sex with her, by which contrivance she administers a poison that will kill him unless he flies to Moscow for the antidote. The Kremlin promptly takes him hostage. Galina then turns to her own private vendetta against Doruk, a Turkish intelligence officer and ex-lover who got her to betray Russia in a way that is never clarified. She considers shooting him. She rejects that method of revenge in favor of a byzantine plan to: 1) assist a Russian politician in clearing his name of treason allegations by 2) concocting a false charge of child molestation against him so he can be exonerated of it while 3) getting pregnant by the politician, before 4) having sex with Doruk, sending him pregnancy photos and implying the baby is his. Another subplot explores Doruk’s plan to put a bug in a target’s house by replacing all the pens at his bank branch with bugged pens in hopes that he will absentmindedly take one home. The feverish machinations undertaken by Red’s characters are certainly imaginative and even engrossing, and there are intricate scenes of tradecraft and neurolinguistic programming, which add psychological depth to some scenes. (To gain Galina’s confidence, Inga offers a long, Dostoyevskian backstory of how her narcissistic mother pushed her to become a concert pianist and then sabotaged her career.) But the supercomplex narrative may leave readers feeling like simpler expedients are available to achieve the characters’ ends or that the ends themselves do not merit so many sojourns down blind alleys. (In one bizarre scene, Galina sends her friend Olga hundreds of miles away to Baku to buy a book with a quote that Galina likes but doesn’t tell Olga which book to buy because she doesn’t remember the quote or the book’s title or author, merely the bookshop where she saw it; Olga dutifully returns with books but not the right one.) The novel’s ill-edited prose is often baffling, especially when sex is discussed. (“Galina was able to infect Paul with the poison through bleeding resulting from the deformation in the anal relationship.”) Red sticks lots of aphorisms into the text from writers as far afield as Nietzsche, Kafka, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Janis Joplin, but they seldom illuminate the novel’s themes. For example, the author quotes Einstein, saying, “You have to learn the rules of the game and then to play better than anyone,” which, if authentic, would be the most vacuous truism the physicist ever uttered. The result reads like a le Carré novel merged with Bartlett’s, as rewritten by Jerry Springer and Google translated into Russian and back. Many readers will tire of this game well before the novel stops.

An ungainly mishmash of stilted writing and inexplicable intrigues.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-949872-25-5

Page Count: 131

Publisher: Cosmo Publishing

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

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The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with...

SUMMER ISLAND

Talk-show queen takes tumble as millions jeer.

Nora Bridges is a wildly popular radio spokesperson for family-first virtues, but her loyal listeners don't know that she walked out on her husband and teenaged daughters years ago and didn't look back. Now that a former lover has sold racy pix of naked Nora and horny himself to a national tabloid, her estranged daughter Ruby, an unsuccessful stand-up comic in Los Angeles, has been approached to pen a tell-all. Greedy for the fat fee she's been promised, Ruby agrees and heads for the San Juan Islands, eager to get reacquainted with the mom she plans to betray. Once in the family homestead, nasty Ruby alternately sulks and glares at her mother, who is temporarily wheelchair-bound as a result of a post-scandal car crash. Uncaring, Ruby begins writing her side of the story when she's not strolling on the beach with former sweetheart Dean Sloan, the son of wealthy socialites who basically ignored him and his gay brother Eric. Eric, now dying of cancer and also in a wheelchair, has returned to the island. This dismal threesome catch up on old times, recalling their childhood idylls on the island. After Ruby's perfect big sister Caroline shows up, there's another round of heartfelt talk. Nora gradually reveals the truth about her unloving husband and her late father's alcoholism, which led her to seek the approval of others at the cost of her own peace of mind. And so on. Ruby is aghast to discover that she doesn't know everything after all, but Dean offers her subdued comfort. Happy endings await almost everyone—except for readers of this nobly preachy snifflefest.

The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with syrupy platitudes about life and love.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-609-60737-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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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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