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.