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Good Literature for Children & Adults

Black Skies and The Shadow Killer by Arnaldur Indridason

Arnaldur Indridason is a well-known Icelandic author of murder mysteries set in present day Reykjavik.

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Black Skies is the most recent in the Detective Erlendur series though in this installment Erlendur himself is away. This book was written in 2009, but it is the most recent to be translated into English. The action this time primarily involves Sigurdur Oli, Erlendur’s colleague and friend. Oli is an interesting character, and this novel reveals information about his childhood, his troubled marriage and his many prejudices and irritations. And, his tendency to leap before he thinks, often resulting in very dangerous situations. We also meet again a character from an earlier novel, Andres, a middle aged man, an alcoholic, whose own desperate childhood has left him irreparably damaged.

Black Skies involves a case of murder, of course. The victim is a woman who enjoyed frequent casual sex, but discovers that some of her partners are not as willing to be as open about these activities as she is. Woven into the story is the booming Icelandic economy prior to it’s crash in 2008. Business is flourishing and some are making a lot of money – but many are simply over extended financially.

There is always lots of interesting information about Icelandic culture in Indridason’s novels – in this one there is the high incidence of alcoholism and the popular drink Brennivin. And the debt collectors – a veritable army of thugs who break knee caps on demand. There is a legal system that passes such lenient custodial sentences that no matter how often the police make an arrest those who are convicted are often free in very short order – resulting in a society where many citizens take matters into their own hands, meeting out their own justice – or vengeance.

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Indridason is now also writing a new series set in Reykjavik during the Second World War, a series that begins with The Shadow District and now continues with The Shadow Killer.

The Shadow Killer opens with the story of a commercial traveller, Eyvindur, purveyor of furniture and shoe polish, as well as Dutch tableware. He is not a particularly successful salesman, unlike his acquaintance, Felix. When one of these men is found shot dead, execution style, in his flat shortly after returning from a sales trip, the investigation begins.

We then meet Thorson, an Icelandic-Canadian seconded to the American Police Corps as an interpreter. And, Flovent, the Icelandic detective. As they are being introduced to each other, I am confused, because I know they worked together in the first novel in this series, which I read last spring, until I realize that Indridason is not writing these books in chronological order, and that the story in this novel takes place earlier than the first. It is 1941, “just before the American troops are scheduled to relieve the British garrison and take over responsibility for the defence of Iceland.”

Iceland was of both Allied and Nazi interest strategically, but it was also of interest to the Nazis, as some believed Iceland was the source of the pure Germanic-Nordic race ever since Viking times.

The death of the salesman is a confusion, and it is soon discovered that there has been a mistake in identity. There are a number of suspects and a storyline that involves the ‘Situation’ of Icelandic girls and women becoming involved with American and British soldiers. 

Whether it is present day Reykjavik or the city under the shadow of the Second World War Indridason’s novels are superb.

 

 

Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

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Alison Weir continues her series of books about the Six Tudor Queens, the wives of Henry VIII, with a third Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen.

The novel opens as a wedding is celebrated at Wulfhall, Jane Seymour’s home. The daughter of a well-respected rural family, Jane planned to become a nun, her parents asking that she wait until she is 18, and if it is still her desire they will give their support. After a short time in a nunnery Jane realized, though her vocation was strong, the reality was less appealing.

She was then accepted as a maid of honour to Queen Katherine (Henry’s first wife). In 1527 Jane is 19 years old and though she misses her family she loves the Queen and is comfortable in her surroundings at Court. Of course, we know that Anne Boleyn, a ladies maid, enters the scene about this time and, with much drama, embarks on an affair with the King. Henry is desperate to have a wife who will bear a son. Though Katherine gave birth to a healthy daughter, Mary, she sadly had several more children stillborn, and was now past childbearing age. Anne Boleyn is a clever woman and has much support in her endeavors to entrap the King. She is also an instigator for religious reform – as is Henry in his efforts to annul his first marriage. When Henry succeeds in declaring himself the Head of the Church of England, the Pope’s authority is swept aside. 

I wondered before beginning this book, since Jane Seymour had only a brief time as Henry’s wife, how the author would fill a book this size. But, I quickly realized it was easy to do by writing from a different perspective, and re-visiting the time of the earlier novels – this time in Jane Seymour’s voice. Jane Seymour may not have had a lengthy marriage but she was witness to the marriages of the two previous Queens and knew Henry for many years.

By the time Henry VIII decides that Anne Boleyn has been a mistake, he already has Jane in his sights. She is, in fact, a sincerely good person and attempts to moderate Henry’s wrath at those he feels have betrayed him.

The time period covered in this novel is one of great change in England - the ousting of Thomas More, the rise of the powerful Oliver Cromwell, and the dissolution of many monasteries and nunneries. There is, as usual, much political intrigue, marriages, deaths and beheadings. Many of the players are looking only to enrich their own lives, and Henry  always fearing betrayal and treason.

Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen is a fascinating novel and Alison Weir, as always, has written a book that is very real and one that is very satisfying and enjoyable book to read.

Song of the Dolphin Boy by Elizabeth Laird

Elizabeth Laird is a British author of books for children and young adults. She was born in New Zealand, raised in England, and has travelled widely all of her adult life in the Middle East, Africa, Malaysia and India. She now divides her time between London, England and Scotland.

Many years ago I read her first books, Red Sky in Morning and Kiss the Dust – both excellent award-winning novels for teenage readers.

Her most recent novel is Song of the Dolphin Boy. I have a long held fascination with Selkies, who “live as seals in the sea, and shed their skin to become human on land”. Many of the stories about selkies are about a woman – a selkie - who comes from the sea, marries and has a child, but is drawn back to the sea. Sometimes she will leave alone, but sometimes she also takes her child, leaving the man who loved her to mourn forever.

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Song of the Dolphin Boy features a boy whose mother was a selkie, and has returned to the sea. Leaving her husband to mourn and her son, who does not know the truth, to always wonder what happened to his mother. The boy is Finn, and he knows that he is different from the other children in his small Scottish village. The first time Finn enters the water – against the strict orders of his father – he discovers he is completely at home for the first time in his life.

Finn also discovers the dolphins who make the waters nearby their home. Disturbingly though, he also discovers that the dolphins are dying because they have ingested, or become entangled in, the remains of balloons and the plastic strings attached to the balloons. Finn, with the help of the other children in the village, becomes an advocate for the elimination of plastic balloons.

Many readers will be familiar with a film that has appeared frequently on social media showing a scuba diver swimming among a sea of plastic. Anyone seeing this film cannot help but think of our own responsibility to reduce the amount of plastic that enters the environment. Eliminating balloons is simple. Eliminating plastic straws is simple. We just have to do it. We should not accept a plastic bag if it is not needed. We must start questioning the plastic items we use and ask ourselves if we really need them. We must consciously look for alternatives to the use of plastic.

Song of the Dolphin Boy is a novel for children, ideally ages 8 - 12. The story explores the dynamics of relationships between children, the jealousies, the bullying, and the resentments. Finn is at first a friendless child, his home is a sad place, and he is very much an outsider. But, when the children come together they discover that each of them has their own challenges at home, and that they each have strengths and weaknesses. Together, though, they can make a difference to the survival of the dolphins.

I recommend Song of the Dolphin Boy as a classroom read aloud. Young people are impressionable and they are powerful. Teach them well.

 

The Dying Detective – A Mystery by Leif GW Persson

Leif GW Persson is a writer who has worked as an adviser to the Swedish Ministry of Justice and is Sweden’s most renowned psychological profiler. Also, as a professor at the Swedish National Police Board, he is considered the country’s foremost expert on crime. He brings all of the knowledge and experience to his mystery novel, The Dying Detective. My husband read this book last summer, and loved it. Now that it is out in paperback I have read it and feel the same. The Dying Detective is a great read.

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Lars Martin Johansson is a retired police chief, known as “boss” to one and all - a man who “could see around corners”. After three years of retirement he is still in touch with his old colleagues, meeting several, by chance, at Gunter’s, his favourite hot dog stand in Stockholm. They joke a bit while ordering, and they are there to help when Lars Martin Johansson suffers a stroke while eating in his car.

Johansson survives, and while recovering in hospital he is approached by his neurologist, Dr. Ulrike Stenholm, about a murder case from 25 years earlier. The murder victim was a young girl, Yasmine Ermegan, brutally raped and murdered, found buried in the forest, in June 1985. The case was never solved.

Dr. Stenholm relates that her father, a priest, now deceased divulged to her that he was told by an elderly woman, under the seal of confession that she knew who the murderer was.  Though the case has passed the statute of limitations it is taken up by Johansson, partly because he feels the case was mishandled from the start by the investigating officer, partly because he cannot stand the fact that the perpetrator was not found and punished, and partly because it gives him something to focus on besides his own sorry state of health.

This crime becomes an unofficial investigation, led by Johansson, involving the assistance of his best friend and former colleague, as well as his personal care worker, and a young man who helps with other duties at home. Johansson is a member of a wealthy family, his brother having built even more wealth, so there is no concern about money. Johansson’s wife, Pia, is a bank executive and though loving she leaves her husband’s day to day care to the others. Johansson himself is not an obedient patient, he is overweight, and he has no intention of sticking with a diet that excludes the foods he loves, or the red wine and vodka he drinks. He attends some of his physiotherapy appointments and gradually becomes more able, but he is often plagued by headaches and shortness of breath. 

As the novel progresses the story of the past unwinds. We meet the people who are still alive and are questioned, their stories added to the whole. Some of them carry tremendous guilt for not having told the police all they saw or suspected so many years earlier. We also learn about those who have since died and how they may have been involved.

Eventually Johansson decides he knows who the killer was, that he can prove it, that the case can be solved and concluded – and the perpetrator punished.

What makes this particular book superior to so many other mystery novels is the writer, and the character he has created. Lars Martin Johansson is an intelligent, curmudgeonly man who has little patience with foolishness, and clearly sees through deceit. He may not be willing to take control of his own health, but he certainly takes control of the people he is working with, and those he is investigating. It is a novel that questions the way men think about women – especially men who abuse women. The observations of the characters, and situations in which they are found, are smart and revealing. The Dying Detective was a pleasure to read, and a really terrific story.

 

I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

When I was a young teenager I watched the film Anastasia on television and was completely fascinated by the possibility that a woman who was called Anna Anderson was, in fact, Anastasia Romanov, the daughter of Tsar Nicolas II. The thought that when the Romanov family was assassinated in 1918 there was a survivor, Anastasia, was, to me, a wonderful thing.

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The discovery this spring of a new novel, I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon, was a delight. If you do not already know the history of the story you will enjoy reading this even more than I did, as it is truly a captivating story.

The structure of the novel is as interesting as the story, for the author weaves together the past and the present, the beginning and the end of the story, commencing at the end of each and bringing them together as the truth is finally revealed.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 ended the reign of the Romanovs. When Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, he and his family were held under house arrest, before being executed. The Russian Tsar, his wife, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children, Duchess Olga, Duchess Maria, Duchess Tatiana, Duchess Anastasia, and the young Tsarevitch Alexei were brutally executed on 17 July 1918. Their assassination was the end of the monarchy, there were no heirs, and the Soviet Union under Vladimir Lenin was formed.

I Was Anastasia describes the life of the family before the tragedy, the happy times on their estate, and then the worry of the looming revolution, as the Tsar and his wife attempt to shelter their children. And, then, the terrible privations and assaults as the entire family are held captive, and then murdered.

But, there is also the story of Anna, who claims to be the daughter, Anastasia, and sole survivor. Anna Anderson’s story is compelling – many believed that she was truly Anastasia – but some may simply have been supporting her claim to enrich themselves. No one wanted to accept that the entire family was dead – that there was no hope for the future of the monarchy in Russia. This was a large family, connected to royalty across Europe and, of course, related to the British monarchy.

After the assassination the bodies of the Romanovs were thrown into a mineshaft and lay undiscovered until 1979, though two bodies were missing, Alexei and one of the daughters were not among the others. They were not found until 2007, some distance away, and all have now been confirmed, by DNA testing, to be the Romanov family. I was rather sad when DNA testing proved beyond a doubt that Anna Anderson was simply a convincing fraud.

Reading I Was Anastasia was a wonderful way to re-visit this fascinating story. The book begins with a quote from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” How I wish it was!

 

 

 

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