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A Cold Death in Amsterdam by Anja de Jager

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I recently realized that, for me, mystery novels are like snacks – delicious and enjoyable, but often have to be set aside for proper meals. I usually read a mystery novel between more serious literary novels – and sometimes it is hard to put them aside when I know there are more in a series. I have just read the first in The Lotte Meerman mystery series by Anja de Jager, A Cold Death in Amsterdam, which is followed by A Cold Case in Amsterdam, and a third to be published in June, Death on the Canal.

Anja de Jager was born and raised in Alkmaar in the Netherlands before moving to England where she worked in The City. Her father was a policeman so it is a world she is familiar with, and she has used this as inspiration for her novels. She has also set part of her first novel in Alkmaar, less than an hour’s drive outside of Amsterdam. We are introduced to Lotte Meerman, a police detective who has just concluded the investigation of a very disturbing case. Solving the 15 year old case of a missing child – found murdered – has left her traumatized and barely able to cope with day to day living, let alone the next case demanding her attention. Lotte complains of insomnia and nightmares – and by noon she is already on her fifth cup of coffee. She is 40ish, childless, and divorced. There are a lot of difficult family dynamics, and Lotte is still conflicted about her relationship with her parents who divorced when she was young.

Anyone who knows Amsterdam even a little will recognize the familiar presence of bicycles, the meandering canals, and landmarks in the old part of the city, The Westerkerk, the nearby neigbourhood of Jordaan, and the many markets.

The story takes place in winter, just after Christmas, and the city is cold. As is part of the current investigation. A man was murdered some years earlier and the case was never solved, but has now re-opened when another murder occurs, the victim a man who was associated with the earlier murder. Things become even more difficult for Lotte when it appears that her father, a retired policeman, might be involved – and not in a good way.

Anja de Jager said in an interview, “A few years after my father retired, police officers from Amsterdam visited him to re-open the investigation of a murder in my hometown that had stayed unresolved for over a decade. That image of the retired police detective being asked questions about an old case stayed with me even though in my book I changed everything else. I set the crime in the world of finance, which is where I work.”

The Lotte Meerman series is new to me, and it has everything I like in a mystery novel. The setting is one where I’d love to spend time, the detective is interesting in her own troubled way, and the investigation kept me engrossed in the novel. I can’t wait to read the next one, and the next one. Yum, yum.

 

White Houses by Amy Bloom & Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees

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Sometimes, entirely by coincidence, there are two novels about the same topic published at the same time. This spring we have two fascinating novels about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. The two women met in 1928, and remained friends for the rest of their lives. The most intimate of those years were just before and during the two presidential terms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt from 1933 -1945, and are those documented in White Houses by Amy Bloom and Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees.

During this time Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok wrote to each other frequently. After both women died in the 1960s the most explicit letters were destroyed, but the rest of their private correspondence was opened in 1998. This extensive archive of letters indicates that the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok was most certainly a passionately intimate one for many years.

Both Amy Bloom and Kelly O’Connor McNees re-imagine the relationship, writing about both the personal relationship, and the years in which it was at it’s most intense.

White Houses by Amy Bloom was released a few weeks earlier than Undiscovered Country so I read it first. The novel begins on a Friday afternoon, April 27, 1945 and ends on Monday morning, April 30, 1945, with a brief glimpse of Sunday, November 11, 1962, a few days after the death of Eleanor Roosevelt.

We begin just days before the end of the Second World War, but then quickly move to a time some years earlier. We meet Lorena Hickok, a journalist reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign in 1932. Lorena soon accepts a position with the Roosevelts, moving into the White House, and quickly becomes fast friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. They travel together, Lorena working as an investigative reporter with the Federal Emergency Relief, and Eleanor Roosevelt getting a look of the lives of Americans most affected by the Great Depression. They appear to be simply “middle-aged women who liked each other: sisters, cousins, best friends”.

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Reading Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees a few weeks later, I found it a much more engaging and intimate portrait of the two women and their relationship. I immediately liked them both better than I had in the earlier novel. They are more fun when they are having fun, and more desperate when they are not. Franklin Roosevelt is also made more human, with his good looks and charisma evident. I had not been aware that Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt had what is now known as an “open marriage”, both having intimate relationships with many other partners who often lived with them in the White House.

Kelly O’Connor McNees has managed to breath life into her characters, in a way that I felt Amy Bloom was not. The story is the same, but better somehow. There is more passion, there is more adventure, and there are additional fictional characters who give the reader a sense of the true desperation of the Great Depression. The small towns with empty storefronts were as sad then as they are today in the many towns affected by closed mines and factories.

These two women came from completely different backgrounds, but felt an immediate attraction, enjoying each other’s intelligence and determination. Eleanor grew up in wealth, with a private school education, while Lorena fought to pull herself out of poverty. Their friendship, unequal as it was in many ways, provided them both with much happiness. They appear to have loved each other for the rest of their lives, though they often spent many years apart, often with other partners.

Both books tell the story of a same sex love affair between two women at a time when this was considered scandalous. Of course, they were not the only women – and men – who were having relationships outside of marriage, and not the only ones with same sex partners. But, if discovered the relationship would have destroyed careers and reputations. 

White Houses by Amy Bloom and Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees give readers two different versions of the same story, making for an interesting exploration of the lives of two women and the time in which they lived. Historical fiction at its best.

 

 

 

The Light-Keepers Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol

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Jean E. Pendziwol is one of my favourite authors of Canadian Children’s picture books. She has written the text for, most notably, Me and You and the Red Canoe, and Once Upon a Northern Night.

I have eyed her novel The Light-Keeper’s Daughters for some time, and chose it for a long plane trip earlier this month. With a three-hour delay before a five-hour flight I had a lot of uninterrupted time to enjoy this book.

Set on the shores of Lake Superior, the story moves back and forth from the past century into the present time. Anyone who has driven through Northern Ontario and around the top of Lake Superior will recognize the majestic and spectacularly beautiful landscape. The light-keeper is Andrew Livingston, a Scottish immigrant; his wife Lil was born in Canada, her father Scottish, her mother Ojibwe.   Daughters Elizabeth and Emily, twins, were born in the 1920s on Porphyry Island; and with two older boys the family was complete. They lived on the island all year round, the children learning how to help their parents with the light and foghorn, their father teaching them to read and write. Eventually the boys left for schooling but the girls remained at home. It was a severe climate but their lives were full of the wonders of the natural world and they were not unhappy.

This part of the story is revealed through the journals of the light-keeper, and by the memories of Elizabeth, now an elderly woman. Elizabeth has lived out of Canada for most of her adult life, but she has recently returned to Lake Superior and moved into a retirement home. Elizabeth is now blind, and when her father’s journals are discovered and put into her hands, she is unable to read them.

It is Morgan who reads them to her. Morgan is a teenager girl, recently caught painting graffiti on the fence at the retirement home, and now, as punishment, she is scraping and repainting the fence. Morgan is a teenager struggling to find her place in the world, edging into trouble, and currently living in foster care. She is angry and confused and, as it turns out, she is much more in need of Elizabeth’s attention than she could have imagined. This unlikely pair builds a relationship that begins with need and ends with true affection.

The passages from the light-keepers journals about daily life on the island paint a picture of a time long past. There are beautiful days picking wildflowers, herbs and edible wild plants, as well as the harvest of the gardens. There is fishing and trapping and hunting. There are also ships in distress, and some who founder.

As Elizabeth remembers her childhood she realizes that she knows things that have been hidden deep in her memory, and were not understood by the child she once was. There was a great deceit in this family that affected all of the children, and the generations to come. The complicated story and the truth of the past is slowly revealed as both Elizabeth and Morgan make discoveries, along with the reader of this satisfying novel.

Published just last year, The Light-Keepers Daughters has become a book club favourite, and has been published in many languages and read around the world.

 

Sofie & Cecilia by Katherine Ashenburg

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Sofie & Cecilia is a first novel by Katherine Ashenburg, an academic and an accomplished journalist and author, who has now turned to fiction to tell the story of a female friendship that takes place over half a century, from the late 1800s until the mid 1930s. Although the characters are “loosely based” upon the lives of two Swedish artists, it would make absolutely no difference to the power of the story if they were not. And, in fact, it is the women, the two wives of the artists who are at the centre of the novel and make it such a compelling story.

We meet the two women in1882 and 1887. Sofie marries Nils Olsson, and immediately falls into a life of child bearing and support of a husband who assumes her assistance as his due. Though Sofie was herself a talented artist, who had studied painting, it is given up – as is expected - when she marries. She takes up spinning and weaving and needlework as a vehicle for her need to be creative, to use her sense of colour to make beautiful things. It is Nils work that is important.

Cecilia is from a well to do Jewish family, and waits some time to marry Lars Vogt. In agreement with the wishes of her family, it is not until Lars has established himself that the marriage takes place.

The two women meet through their husbands work, and begin a friendship that will span half a century. They soon discover that they are both readers of literary fiction, and readers of this novel will delight in the exchanges of letters, and the conversations between the women as they discuss their feelings about the books they are reading – from Dickens, to Mary Shelly, to Virginia Woolf.

Then, there are descriptions of the astounding beauty of the landscape, and summers spent in the Archipelago – a landscape so very similar to Georgian Bay. There are long summer days with picnics, and evenings of conversation. Both couples are interested in local folk-art and the primitive objects of daily life that are fast disappearing in a modern world. With the foresight to collect the old costumes, household objects, and clothing they amass what will become a museum collection.

This is a novel that explores questions of fidelity, loyalty, sacrifice, and respect. These are narcissistic men who have little respect for marriage vows. The women know their support makes it possible for their husbands to concentrate on their careers, but they also struggle with the lack of acknowledgment of their sacrifice. Though Sofie does consider leaving her marriage, she thinks, “but such a dense web of strings bind us together. I do not see how I could cut it.” Her loyalty is both admirable and sad.

Toward the end of the novel Cecilia says to Sofie, “I always thought that when I was old, I would have worked everything out, and I would have no worries”.  Some time later, Sofie muses, “small things worry me less. What people think doesn’t concern me much any more”. The conversations of older women are sometimes astonishing, as we examine who we are now that we have aged in every way.

Sofie & Cecilia is certainly a book women my age, well past what we used to call middle-age, will find not only a pleasure to read, but also thought provoking. Its themes perhaps echo what many of us think about now that we are very definitely well into the second half of life.

I feel very safe in predicting that Sofie & Cecilia will be on all the book club lists this year. It is a book that will be read by women, passed between friends, and lead to conversations about our own lives and who we have become.

 

 

 

 

I'll Keep You Safe by Peter May

For the many readers of the many books of Peter May, you will be happy to know there is a new one.

I’ll Keep You Safe flew in the door today just as I finished reading an advance copy. It is a stand alone novel and returns to the landscape of the islands of Lewis and Harris for most of the action.

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But, the story begins in Paris, where we meet Niamh and Ruairidh, fabric weavers and designers who are in Paris preparing to display their fabric at a prestigious trade fair.

We have, however, barely met them when we learn of a conflict between the two. Niamh has received an email from a “well wisher” telling her that her husband has been having an affair with a Russian fashion designer. Ruairidh leaves the hotel room, denying her accusation, and as she watches, he climbs into the woman’s vehicle, driving off just as the vehicle explodes.

With both driver and passenger dead, a grieving Niamh returns to Lewis to bury her husband and wonder how she will carry on the business without him. As the present day story progresses, the back story of the lives of Niamh and Ruairidh and their families is slowly revealed. A tragedy from their childhood has coloured all of the years since, and though their love survived, it divided their families. Even with the death of their son-in-law it seems unlikely that Niamh’s parents will forgive her for choosing Ruairidh for her husband.

The French police investigate, and after a few days, allow Niamh to return to Lewis with what is left of her husband’s body for burial. Without a suspect, the French detective Lieutenant Sylvie Braque is sent to witness the funeral and consult with the local policeman on Lewis. They attempt to discover who might have sent the emails, as not only did Niamh receive one but so did the designer’s husband, a man who has since disappeared.

Woven ( no pun intended) into the mystery of the murder is the story of the weaving of Harris Tweed, and fictional characters from the fashion industry provide a great collection of secondary characters and many possible perpetrators. The setting on the island of Lewis, is of course stunningly beautiful, where Niamh and Ruairidh have built a home overlooking the ocean on a remote point of land in a place of beauty and peace, even in grief.

I’ve often said that Peter May is not a great writer but he is a very good storyteller, and except for a few rather too long passages about the past that slow the pace, I’ll Keep You Safe is much what one expects from Peter May – a (mostly) fast paced action-packed story, set in a landscape to die for (again, no pun intended).  And, a satisfactory conclusion – though I’d surprisingly long since clued into who the murderer was and suspected the twist double-twist revelation at the end of the novel.

For fans of Peter May, I’ll Keep You Safe is a satisfying escape from our own troubles – as his characters always have so many more things to worry about than we do – not to mention the challenge of just staying alive.

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