A broad but entertaining mystery built on alternative history.

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THE SIEGFRIED CONTINGENCY

Laskin tells the story of a bookseller who finds himself pursued by shadowy forces in this debut bibliophilic thriller.

Seattle, 1975. Carl Traeger is a bookshop owner who doesn’t really like books. Books were the passion of his recently deceased lover and business partner, Paul, whose sudden death has left the 34-year-old Vietnam vet trying to figure out how to keep the business from going under. Additionally, Carl has just learned that his Aunt Sophie, who escaped Nazi Germany, has died. As if this wasn’t stressful enough, he is held up at gunpoint at night in the store by a man who demands to know where “it” is—though Carl has no idea what he means. Carl manages to disarm the man, but when he returns to his home later that night, he finds it ransacked. He flies to Philadelphia to settle his aunt’s estate, where a note left for him by Sophie tells him about a book that her Nazi husband smuggled out of Germany during the war: “I did not have the courage to destroy the book while I had the chance,” writes Sophie. “But I ask you to destroy it. Destroy it immediately. There is evil connected to that book. I can feel it.” Carl retrieves the book from a safe in his aunt’s house—which has also been ransacked—and returns to Seattle. Despite his aunt’s warning, he’s reluctant to destroy it before learning what it means. The harassment by unknown parties continues, but, with the help of the handsome gay police officer Randy McCutcheon, Carl figures out that it isn’t the book that these men are after but what’s hidden inside its binding: a birth certificate from April 20, 1889, that implies that Adolf Hitler had a twin brother! Now Carl’s task isn’t just surviving, but learning what secret organization is so interested in this information…and what living Hitlers may still be lurking in the shadows. Laskin’s prose is taut and punchy, animated by an enthusiasm for the cloak-and-dagger machinations of the plot: “Someone wanted the book I had, badly enough to demolish my house and threaten my life with a pistol-packing goon. There was, therefore, no reason to assume they would hesitate to shoot first and ask questions later. So if I didn’t hand over the book like a good boy…my lease on life would be terminated prematurely.” The plot is, on its face, more than a little ridiculous, though Laskin plays it straight, allowing the hardboiled atmosphere to go mostly unpunctured despite some of the cartoonish developments. In the end, the novel works pretty well: The paranoia and fears of Nazi persecution read as a kind of cinematic projection of Carl’s grief over the death of Paul and his gay identity that he is forced to hide from society. The final product is more National Treasure than The Da Vinci Code—the revelations don’t ever pack much of a punch—but a likable cast of characters and an evergreen villain ensure a reading experience that is legitimately enjoyable.

A broad but entertaining mystery built on alternative history.

Pub Date: Dec. 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-73281-701-2

Page Count: 210

Publisher: Enrapture Publishing

Review Posted Online: Feb. 14, 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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