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Good Literature for Children & Adults

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!

 

 

 

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

Paula McLain thought she had Ernest Hemingway out of her system after writing The Paris Wife, about the writer’s life in Paris, his first marriage, and his years in Toronto. She set him aside while writing Circling the Sun, a wonderful novel inspired by the life of aviator Beryl Markham. But Hemingway wouldn’t let her go, so we have a new novel Love and Ruin, about the years that Hemingway lived with Martha Gellhorn, from their meeting during the Spanish Civil War until their separation toward the end of the Second World War.

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Martha Gellhorn hit New York City when she was a young woman, and found it a place where “none of these marvelous people expected anything of me. I could be whomever I chose.” She would find the same freedom in Paris.

Anyone of my generation probably has a reasonable amount of knowledge about both Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, though we may have forgotten the details. I rather envy the young people who are more likely to find this novel fresh and full of discoveries.

Martha Gellhorn was a young writer and journalist, well educated, and at the beginning of her career when she met Ernest Hemingway, while on a family holiday in Key West. He was 8 years her senior and already a well-known writer. She is flattered by his attention and he is attracted by her youth and beauty, and by her intelligence. They both have assignments writing about the escalating Spanish Civil War, and meet again in Europe. This part of the novel, the days spend in Madrid as the fighting comes ever closer, is riveting.

As the story moves forward, the back story of the lives of the characters is revealed, Martha Gellhorn’s time working for FERA, meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt, and following the story of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. As the relationship between Gellhorn and Hemingway becomes one of commitment, he removes himself from his marriage (his second) and they make a life together in Cuba.

During this time Martha Gellhorn accepts an assignment in Finland, another strong part of the novel, as she writes about the Russo-Franco War. Martha Gellhorn was one of very few American female journalists in Europe at this time, and she was often the only woman to travel deep into zones of conflict. The stories she filed revealed the hardships and bravery of the citizens, as well as the facts of the military action.

During all of this time Hemingway is writing his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. And, as well as her magazine pieces, Gellhorn is also writing fiction, but to far less acclaim than her famous partner. They marry in 1940 – days after his divorce – and find they are the celebrity couple of the day. Heady and exciting at first, it soon becomes more a hardship and it is very hard on their relationship.

Gellhorn is offered an assignment in China. Their separation while she was in Finland was difficult for Hemingway so it is decided that her will come to China as well. A mistake for Gellhorn - “I was Gellhorn before I knew him. I had to be that now before I was his wife, or anything else for that matter”. As much as she loves Hemingway she begins to resent his attitude of superiority and her lack of freedom.

They had built an idyllic existence in Cuba, two writers living and writing together. They had weathered Hemingway’s divorce from his second wife, and Hemingway’s three sons had developed a close relationship with Martha Gellhorn; but there was growing conflict and they were moving from being a team to being competitors as Gellhorn’s reputation as a journalist grew. She needed travel and work of her own, as much as she needed Hemingway, perhaps more. He needed an adoring wife. Full stop.

After the bombing of Pear Harbor, with America in the war, Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway, separately, make their way to Europe. Martha Gellhorn landing on Omaha Beach with the troops, and continuing to make her way through Europe submitting stories to Colliers, until the end of the war when she reported Dachau and Bergen Belsen. By now (should I say, of course?) Hemmingway had found a new woman – and Martha Gellhorn has well and truly made her reputation as a journalist known to all.

 

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.

 

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