An entertaining, psychologically observant thriller.



Armed with a straight razor, rage, and her wits, a young woman confronts underhanded forces in this debut neonoir novel.

In her small Pacific Northwest community, Nicki Valentine is a tough-talking young woman with a 12th-grade education who lives in the shabby part of town. After her 40-hour, six-day week at the bakery, Nicki likes to go out drinking on Saturday night. As the book opens, she heads with her half brother and best friend, Quinn Halliday, for a classy joint where each hopes to get lucky: “East Towners are more than willing to take out the trash every once and awhile.” Nicki drinks with a likely prospect, whose friend suggests “a little private after-hours” at a house in a swanky neighborhood. Although the whole situation sets off alarm bells, Nicki thinks she can handle it: “Experience and the straight razor I’m slipping from my boot to my pocket say so.” But when they all arrive at the house, Nicki senses she’s being set up—and is sure of it when she realizes it’s Jonathan Garver’s place. The sight of him makes her hands go weak, for reasons related to Nicki’s past, and although Jonathan claims he just wants a quick chat, she plots and makes her escape. She has had a bad reputation since high school; even today, the chant “Go, Nicki!” can get to her, despite her seemingly hard exterior. Something bad happened when she was 14 years old, and Jonathan was a part of it, along with Ted Wells and Bobby James Sounder—who just happens to be running for mayor this year. What’s going on? Though Quinn has her back, no one else does, and the past is coming back to haunt Nicki in dangerous ways. If she handles things right, maybe this time she’ll come out ahead. In his novel, Cummings skillfully develops Nicki’s character. At first, she seems to be all self-assurance, aware of her low social status yet above her circumstances (she’s a reader and obviously intelligent). As the story progresses, the author peels back layer after layer in well-written, psychologically believable, and revealing scenes that expose Nicki’s true vulnerability. Beginning in childhood, she was isolated from warmth. Today, though she can get sex partners easily, she’s never had a boyfriend and she has no girlfriends to chat with. The central episode, when Nicki was 14, is told in the kind of detail that allows readers to see just how helpless such a girl is, how much her surface precociousness should have been protected instead of manipulated. Also well-developed is the depth of Nicki’s relationship with Quinn, which becomes fully apparent over the course of the tale. The prose is sharp, observant, and scathingly honest. Though Nicki gets a chance to confront Jonathan, there is no moment when he realizes the harm he’s done: “I smack blame at him, he smacks blameless back.” A satisfying, believable ending ties all the threads together.

An entertaining, psychologically observant thriller.

Pub Date: Aug. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-7327273-0-4

Page Count: 227

Publisher: Xenocentric Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 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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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.


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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