The Song and the Silence, by Yvette Johnson*****

TheSongandtheSilenceI was browsing the pages of Net Galley and ran across this gem of a memoir. Often when someone that isn’t famous gets an autobiography published by a major publisher, it’s a hint to the reader that the story will be riveting. Such is the case here; my many thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. You can order it now’ it comes out Tuesday, May 9.

It probably says a great deal, all by itself, that I had never heard of Booker Wright before this. I have a history degree and chose, at every possible opportunity, to take classes, both undergraduate and graduate level, that examined the Civil Rights Movement, right up until my retirement a few years ago. As a history teacher, I made a point of teaching about it even when it wasn’t part of my assigned curriculum, and I prided myself on reaching beyond what has become the standard list that most school children learned. I looked in nooks and crannies and did my best to pull down myths that cover up the heat and light of that critical time in American history, and I told my students that racism is an ongoing struggle, not something we can tidy away as a fait accompli.

But I had never heard of Booker.

Booker Wright, for those that (also) didn’t know, was the courageous Black Mississippian that stepped forward in 1965 and told his story on camera for documentary makers. He did it knowing that it was dangerous to do so, and knowing that it would probably cost him a very good job he’d had for 25 years. It was shown in a documentary that Johnson discusses, but if you want to see the clip of his remarks, here’s what he said. You may need to see it a couple of times, because he speaks rapidly and with an accent. Here is Booker, beginning with his well-known routine waiting tables at a swank local restaurant, and then saying more:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM-zG…

So it was Booker and his new-to-me story that made me want to read the DRC. Johnson opens with information from that time, but as she begins sharing her own story, discussing not only Booker but her family’s story and in particular, her own alienation from her mother, who is Booker’s daughter, I waited for the oh-no feeling. Perhaps you’ve felt it too, when reading a biography; it’s the sensation we sometimes feel when it appears that a writer is using a famous subject in order to talk about themselves, instead. I’ve had that feeling several times since I’ve been reading and reviewing, and I have news: it never happened here. Johnson’s own story is an eloquent one, and it makes Booker’s story more relevant today as we see how this violent time and place has bled through to color the lives of its descendants.

The family’s history is one of silences, and each of those estrangements and sometimes even physical disappearance is rooted in America’s racist heritage. Johnson chronicles her own privileged upbringing, the daughter of a professional football player. She went to well-funded schools where she was usually the only African-American student in class. She responded to her mother’s angry mistrust of Caucasians by pretending to herself that race was not even worth noticing.

But as children, she and her sister had played a game in which they were both white girls. They practiced tossing their tresses over their shoulders. Imagine it.

Johnson is a strong writer, and her story is mesmerizing. I had initially expected an academic treatment, something fairly dry, when I saw the title. I chose this to be the book I was going to read at bedtime because it would not excite me, expecting it to be linear and to primarily deal with aspects of the Civil Rights movement and the Jim Crow South that, while terrible, would be things that I had heard many times before. I was soon disabused of this notion. But there came a point when this story was not only moving and fascinating, but also one I didn’t want to put down. I suspect it will do the same for you.

YouTube has a number of clips regarding this topic and the documentary Johnson helped create, but here is an NPR spot on cop violence, and it contains an interview of Johnson herself from when the project was released. It’s about 20 minutes long, and I found it useful once I had read the book; reading it before you do so would likely work just as well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xxeh…

Johnson tells Booker’s story and her own in a way that looks like effortless synthesis, and the pace never slackens. For anyone with a post-high-school literacy level, an interest in civil rights in the USA, and a beating heart, this is a must-read. Do it.

Every Dead Thing, by John Connolly****

everydeadthing“Our ancestors were not wrong in their superstitions; there is reason to fear the dark.”

This is the first entry of the Charlie Parker series, and I recently read and reviewed the newest one, so it is interesting to go back and see how the series begins. Thank you to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for an honest review.

The story commences with flashbacks to the brutal murder and mutilation of Parker’s wife and daughter. I have to confess that it went over the top for me and at times was too grim to be an enjoyable read. This newly released edition begins with introductory notes by the author in which he acknowledges that many readers also felt this way, so I know I am not alone. Everyone has a threshold. But I went into the story knowing that I want to read this series and that although it will always remain gritty and violent, it won’t always be this harsh, so I moved on, and I am glad I did.

The fact is, Connolly is an outstanding writer.

Parker is a shipwreck of a human being, a former cop with a sorrowful heart and not much to lose. He is determined to find the psychopath that killed his wife and child, and it appears that the same killer has taken a woman named Catherine. Her phone records show numerous calls, shortly before her disappearance, to the tiny southern town where she was born and raised. He grabs his wallet and heads south with two terrifyingly competent assistants, Angel and Louis, guys that are shady but loyal, and strong as hell. They are also a couple, and this adds an interesting twist, not to mention crushing a stereotype. Actually, these two characters are my favorites in this story, and I especially enjoy the scene in the auto shop.

Another wonderful feature is the swamp witch in the bayou.

Some aspects of this novel seem a bit derivative, in particular the long cast of characters with unusual names seems a lot like James Lee Burke. Ed McBain, iconic author of the 87th Precinct series, has a prominent character named Fat Ollie, a name Connolly uses for one of his characters here.

But there’s no denying the lyrical quality to the work that is entirely Connolly’s own, and as I have already seen, it just gets better from here. The plotting is complex, tight, and intense. It’s a strong debut.

Those that love good mysteries that run on the gritty side will want to read this series. You can read them out of order; I started with the fourteenth and didn’t feel there were enough missing pieces to prevent my understanding the story line. On the other hand, there’s nobody out there that can write as fast as we can read, and so why not start at the top and run all the way through the series?

This re-released edition of Every Dead Thing is for sale now.

Flashpoint, by Lynn Hightower*****

flashpoint“Anybody talk to a doctor?”
“Guy came out of emergency and talked to the brother.”
“Hear what he said?”
“Just that they were very concerned with Mark’s condition, and were doing all they could.”
“Shit. Mark won’t make it then. They’re already hanging the crepe.”

Sonora Blair is one of the most kick-ass female detectives to hit the shelves in a very long time. Lucky me, I read it free, thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media. The original publication date was 1995, and so the initial publishers must have dropped the ball big-time when it came to promotion, because I know this is the kind of story that resonates with large numbers of people, especially women. And I am glad to see it being resold by Open Road, because they know how to do the job right.

So back to Sonora. No wait, let’s go back to Hightower first. What a total bad-ass when it comes to setting! I loved seeing her enter the home where her children were asleep, and the explosion of naked Barbie doll parts in her daughter’s room. I loved the moment when her elderly dog had an accident in the living room, and she was so distracted by the hundred other things, personal and professional, all colliding at once, that it was not even the first thing she took care of once she found it.

So we have two interesting threads here. One is the problem. A killer out there has murdered a man by handcuffing him to the steering wheel of a vehicle and setting fire to it…and him. It’s grisly business, but Hightower doesn’t overwork the detail to where it triggers my “ick” button; in other words, although it’s terrible, it is never so terrible that I just don’t want to read it anymore. And the problem just becomes thornier and trickier the longer she works on it. Clues drop here and there, and the stakes go up.

The other thread is Blair’s personal life, and the problems she faces in dealing with home and work. It sounds like a tired old song when I put it that way, but like any really skillful writing, it sounds brand new when the author rubs her own brand of English on it and sends it spinning.

After having read several hundred mystery, crime fiction, police procedural, and thriller novels—okay, if I had starting keeping track sooner, I know it would be well over a thousand—there are a handful of devices that are so frequently used that my eyes auto-roll when I see them utilized. I was watching for them. But Blair never gets tossed into the trunk of anybody’s car; she never gets the phone call saying the killer has her kids; there is never a moment when we realize she has been framed for the killing herself, and has to solve it to save her own butt. I’m not saying a great writer can’t get away with any of those; there are some Grand Masters out there that have done it and before my eyes could make the full roll, they were glued back to the page. But once someone reaches into that worn, soiled bag of tricks, it becomes a lot harder to engage me, and I was delighted that Blair never went there.

Her facility with setting is consistently brilliant throughout the book.

One tiny odd bit: for the first chapter or two, I was convinced that Blair was African-American. When she turned up blonde later, I had to mentally reinvent her. It didn’t take long though, because I was riveted and had to get back to the story.

For fans of outstanding detective fiction, this is a must-read. Order it now for yourself, or as a gift for someone you know will love it.

Pop Goes the Weasel, by M.J. Arlidge***

popgoestheweaselPop Goes the Weasel is the second in a detective series featuring Helen Grace. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House-Penguin for the DRC. The title goes up for sale October 6.

Arlidge is an experienced, confident writer. The opening of the book is among the best openers I have seen for quite awhile:

“The fog crept in from the sea, suffocating the city. It descended like an invading army, consuming landmarks, choking out the moonlight, rendering Southampton a strange and unnerving place.”

The tone is thus set for a grisly murder mystery, the perfect mood for an October read.

The premise here is that someone is murdering men that seek the services of prostitutes, and their slayer doesn’t merely kill the men, but eviscerates them without the courtesy of killing them first. Well, this may not be exactly evisceration: they aren’t removing their digestive tracts, but rather their hearts. And while I read that description before requesting this DRC, I should have dwelt on it a moment or two longer, because this particular story really passed my “ick” threshold, and it was my own fault for not being more careful in reading the promotional description.

That said, although it was a bit much for me, it probably won’t be for you, not if you watch a lot of cop shows on television or view a lot of adrenaline-pumping movies that feature violence. That said, I would also steer away anyone who has recently had a death in the family. The descriptions of the cadavers were so explicit that you may find your mind making leaps you didn’t count on.

Grace’s situation is linked to things that happened in Arlidge’s first in the series, and they are referred to often. You may be better off reading these in order. I didn’t read the first, and although I was able to keep up just fine in terms of following plot and character motivation, I felt a little as if I were a guest at someone else’s family dinner. There were so many little undercurrents that referred to Grace’s earlier experiences, as well as those of Charlie, another cop who’d been in the previous story as well, that I felt a bit left out. I also had difficulty, for the first half of the story, keeping Helen and Charlie distinct from one another, and this part I chalk up to the author’s failure to adequately describe each of them. Whether it is the first or tenth in a series, the author has an obligation to provide a clear picture of the protagonist as well as other important characters. That didn’t happen here. Eventually I understood the motivations of each, as well as a good deal of Helen Grace’s internal characteristics, but I never was able to form enough of a mental picture of their appearances to make a mental movie. At times, I felt as if the explicit gore and sex were substitutions for character development. The plot itself was a trifle formulaic.

For those that read the first in the series and enjoyed it, this second in the series is bound to please. It is to those readers that I recommend this mystery.

Serpents Rising, by David A. Poulsen ****

serpents risingWhat fun to get in on the first mystery novel of a planned series! Poulsen is an experienced writer, and he knows how to set the hook to reel readers in. I was immediately engaged as I read the initial chapters.

Thank you, Net Galley and Dundurn Press, for the advance peek!

I’d classify this as a cozy mystery, and it’s the first such book I’ve read that was written by a man. I enjoy a limited number of this sub-genre. I dislike seeing everyday people (housewives, caterers, hoteliers) “outsmart” the professionals, and I avoid like the plague any cozy mystery with (*shudder!*) recipes! For those, I use a cookbook. And Poulsen doesn’t do either of those annoying things listed above; so far so good.

His reason for wanting to get to the bottom of his wife’s death by arson is a strong one, not all that new, (the cops suspected him for a long time, and he misses his wife), but old devices like these can still work if the writer is skillful enough to make them seem new. In the beginning, it worked for me.

Equally if not even more engaging is the help he provides his friend Cobb, a private detective being paid to search for a missing teenager with a history of drug abuse. The characters of Jay and Zoe were almost tangible. I used to teach kids of this age, and Poulsen made them so believable that I felt as if I knew them.

That said, the first half of the book is better than the second half. Some of the details in the resolution strained credibility, and the second half also saw a couple of seen-it-many-times plot devices that didn’t look new; they made me groan and mutter, “Oh come on, not that again!”

But you’ll note there are four stars there. It’s a good book, despite the occasional momentary mutter on my part. When the second Cullen and Cobb mystery comes out, it will be on my to-read list.

I was pleased that the author did not add a sickening amount of gore, or add elements that would leave me with a leaden gut for the next two days. Some authors feel that in order to gain the attention of an increasingly easily distracted audience, they have to dig up every horrible possibility and traumatize us. Not so here (or in anything I would label “cozy”). If your “ick” factor keeps you away from Stephen King, you can read this one.

For a fun, relatively quick read to curl up with over the weekend or take to the beach, get a copy of this book. If you are a mystery fan, I think you’ll like it!

A Dancer in the Dust: A Novel, by Thomas H. Cook *****

a dancer in the dustA Dancer in the Dust is a multifaceted novel. It is a love story, the doomed love of Ray Campbell, a risk assessor from the United States for Martine Aubert, an African woman of Belgian descent. Martine lives in, and loves, the country of her birth, a fictitiously independent nation called Lubanda. And it is a story of paternalism, and of how much easier it is to place someone else in a risky position rather than oneself. It is also a story that raises thought-provoking social issues.
My thanks go to the publisher and the first reads program for the chance to read this free. It is beautifully written, but it is also one that starts with a man grieving, and by chance it arrived in the mail when I was grieving a younger family member who died very unexpectedly. Every time I picked the book up, the clouds formed, and so I took what I would generally consider to be an unconscionably long time reading it. For awhile, the words just couldn’t sink in.
When I got my wits about me, it occurred to me that I ought to find out whether Lubanda was a real place or not, lest I make an ass of myself while reviewing it. Sure enough, Lubanda, though not really an independent nation, exists in east-central Africa as a subsection of Tanzania. Cook makes it larger and more populous than it is in real life for the purpose of his fictional vehicle. And when you are as painterly and skillful with words as Cook is, you can pretty much do what you need to in order to tell your story.
So we rejoin Campbell as he sets out on his return trip to Lubanda. He left there after Martine was killed, returned to New York City, but the death of a man known to both Ray and Martine sets his wheels back in motion. Seso, whom Campbell considered a friend, has turned up dead, murdered, in New York City. Campbell has weighed risks and taken the safer course all of his life, and in turn, he has been left with nothing and no one. He is finally ready to toss all of his chips on the table in hopes of at least winning redemption, and so he sets out in search of Seso’s killer.
“Actually, we have plenty of opportunities to do the right thing…It’s taking back the wrong thing we can’t do.”
Martine had died because she would not do what the Western aid providers think she should do, a program the government bought into lock, stock and barrel. She had tried to explain in logical terms why their plan for her country was wrong, but no one was listening. Nation after nation had become a “funhouse mirror into hell” because of Western policies: Uganda, Kenya, Congo, and the list continues. Patrice Lumumba embraced modern ideas and methods, but ultimately died when he defied his keepers.
In setting out to find out what happened to Seso and why, Campbell is looking to trace back the thread. Cook’s account is brutal and searing, but it is too well told, too compelling, and raises too many thorny social issues that bear examining to be set aside. Read it for Africa; read it for the mystery it unravels; or read it for social justice. But get the book, and read it now!

The Yankee Club, by Michael Murphy ****

theyankeeclubMichael Murphy has created an entertaining read that may keep you up past your bedtime as the end approaches. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to read it early via his publishers and Net Galley.

The premise is that Jake, a former PI turned mystery writer, has been living in Florida, having fled there heartbroken after his romance with the lovely Laura ended. Now he is back in New York. Laura is a famous actress, engaged to a very wealthy man, but Jake has not come back for her; he has returned because his former partner, Mickey, has been murdered.

During the first 25% of this novel, my attention wandered. This is unusual for me, and of course not a good sign. I went back over the writing to try to diagnose why this happened, since there was no obvious problem in his plotting, setting, or character development. Finally I decided that the pace was a little slow because so much attention had been given to scene setting and the introduction of peripheral characters (who would later be very important). My advice to any reader who enjoys detective fiction is to hang in there, if you find this happening to you, because it does pick up and becomes much more engaging once the story begins to roll forward.

There is a plethora of bad guys, surprises and betrayals at every turn. Jake proves to be as tough as Sam Spade, and he is ready to give his all to protect the woman he loves, though as it turns out, she is hardly a damsel in distress; I won’t say more lest I ruin it for the reader.

If I had one piece of advice to offer this writer, it would be to use a little more subtlety. Don’t tell us how your character feels, and in particular, don’t do so repeatedly. Show us in action and dialogue. If these things are handled effectively enough, it won’t be necessary to tell us who feels what and why.

Small details I particularly enjoyed: the florist’s truck, and toward the end, the bicycle.

One thing I didn’t enjoy and didn’t need, though hardly the writer’s fault: a message repeatedly popping up on my kindle telling me that I had something on my tablet that had not been purchased at amazon, and if they were in error and it had been something of theirs, I should restart my kindle and pull it out of the archives. I blew past this message 3 times; once they totally removed my view of the text and put the home page back up. Did I mention that this was irritating, especially since Net Galley does offer the option of sending the galley straight to kindle, which is how mine got there?

Thanks for permitting this rant to interrupt my review. All told, this is a really fun story once the scene has been set and action is underway. You won’t be disappointed.