“A Whisper of Bones” by Ellen Hart

A Whisper of Bones by Ellen HartI thought I had established a rule that I would not be reviewing books by any of my clients, but according to the About page I set up over two years ago, “I will include a disclaimer with the review if a book is by a client or friend.” So here is my first-ever use of the Client Disclaimer! I set up Ellen Hart’s current website a few years ago, and update it once a year when she has a new book out. She’s not one of those authors who loves tinkering with her website. Still, the book lists are very useful if you want to read her mysteries in order—A Whisper of Bones is #25 in the Jane Lawless series.

Hart was always on my list of “seriously under-appreciated authors” until she won the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award last year. It “represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality.” I hope that prestigious honor has inspired more people to pick up the Lawless novels to see what all the fuss is about. I’ve read all of them, except for maybe two or three of the older ones; this is a series that’s gotten better with age (2005’s The Iron Girl and 2010’s The Cruel Ever After are my favorites).

Jane Lawless is a restaurateur in Minneapolis who eventually gets a side gig as a P.I. due to her success as an amateur sleuth. Her frequent partner in crime is her flamboyant best friend, Cordelia Thorn, who runs a local playhouse. Some readers have criticized Cordelia as being too over-the-top, but I think she’s the perfect foil for the more buttoned-up Jane. Plus, having spent a lot of time around theater people, I know that many of them are larger-than-life characters.

In A Whisper of Bones, Jane is hired by a woman to find her cousin, a childhood playmate whom she lost touch with due to a family feud. When Britt visited her two aunts after years of estrangement, they denied the cousin ever existed. Are they gaslighting her, or trying to hide something horrible?

The aunts run a boardinghouse, and Jane goes undercover and rents a room from them, which is convenient, to be sure. Still, it does put her right in the center of the action when Britt’s nagging questions about the past start having deadly repercussions.

Meanwhile, Jane’s former lover Julia, who has popped in and out of the series for quite a while now, has returned; she has a serious illness, and Jane lets her move into her home. Since their relationship has always been complicated (Julia has been known to play fast and loose with the truth), I am sure this will have continuing repercussions in the next Lawless mystery. Happily, Hart has signed a contract for more books, which is wonderful news for those of us who eagerly await our annual visit with Jane and Cordelia.

“The High Tide Club” by Mary Kay Andrews

The High Tide Club by Mary Kay AndrewsWinter seems to be lingering in many parts of the country (including here in Northern California), so it felt like a good time to escape to the beach—via fiction. Mary Kay Andrews has been called “queen of the beach reads,” and her new book, The High Tide Club, will be published in May, just in time for summer vacation, and you couldn’t ask for a better book to put in your beach bag.

At almost 500 pages, the novel is hefty enough to last a while, and though it’s stuffed with plot—family secrets! Murder! Mysterious strangers! Shocking revelations!—it’s all presented in an easy, breezy way, with lots of short chapters and surprising twists sprinkled throughout the book.

Our heroine is Brooke Trappnell, lawyer and single mom of a three-year-old. She practices law in the small town in Georgia, dealing mainly with petty criminals, DUIs and divorces. So she’s surprised when 99-year-old Josephine Warrick, an eccentric millionaire living in a crumbling mansion on a barrier island, says she wants to hire her. Josephine already has a team of high-powered Atlanta lawyers, but she wants Brooke to try to prevent the state from taking her property in order to make it into public land. She has no heirs and is dying of lung cancer, so time is of the essence.

It turns out that Josephine also wants Brooke to track down her three best friends from the 1930s and 40s (or, more likely considering how long ago that was, their heirs). The quartet called themselves the High Tide Club, and Josephine says she needs to “make amends” to the other three women. When Brooke discovers that one of the High Tide Club members was her own late grandmother, she brings in another lawyer, Gabe Wynant, the senior partner in a prestigious Savannah law firm whom Brooke worked with early in her career, to avoid a conflict of interest. A recent widower, Gabe is a couple decades older than Brooke, but as they work together again, an attraction begins to develop.

“Sometimes the people we think we know the best are the ones with secrets we can’t even fathom,” Brooke’s mom tells her at one point. That’s certainly true of the characters in this book, but by the end, of course, mysteries old and new have been resolved. This is an incredibly fun novel with characters that will feel like old friends by the time you turn the final page.

Note: The High Tide Club will be published on May 8, 2018. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press (via NetGalley) for the review copy.

“Force of Nature” by Jane Harper

Force of Nature by Jane HarperMy friends Janet and Frank own a company that puts on  teambuilding events for corporate clients. These tend to include activities like sandcastle building and assembling kids’ toys to donate to charity. They certainly do not send small groups of people into the Australian bush to face a variety of horrors ranging from venomous snakes, torrential downpours, and a creepy cabin that may have been home to a notorious serial killer.

Jane Harper’s sequel to The Dry brings back Melbourne investigator Aaron Falk, who had been covertly working with Alice, one of the teambuilding participants, to get some inside information on financial malfeasance at her company. When Alice fails to return with the rest of the group, Aaron and his partner Carmen Cooper are called in.

The book alternates chapters told in flashback which show the reader just what happened on the hellish outing with ones describing the investigation. We learn that Alice’s group got lost in the bush, and as the women ran out of food and water, they gradually begin to turn on each other.  Harper’s writing is so vivid that reading about the teambuilding exercise almost becomes uncomfortable; I am someone who prizes comfortable shoes, so the descriptions of one participant hiking for miles in chafing, ill-fitting footwear practically had me rubbing my heels in sympathy. Of course, a few blisters are nothing compared to a snakebite. (Everything in Australia wants to kill you!)

Force of Nature isn’t quite as assured as The Dry, mainly because Harper overloads the book with complications: two of the women on the trip are identical twins with a fraught relationship; two other women, including Alice, have troubled teenage daughters; Falk’s partner Carmen is engaged to be married, but there’s some bubbling sexual tension between the two agents. Then there’s the long-dead (or is he?) serial killer. The Dry benefited from its focus on Falk and his backstory, while Force of Nature feels a little more scattered, as if Harper kept coming up with ideas and just decided to throw them all into the mix. Still, she does very well at building suspense, and Falk is a likable and sympathetic character. Chances are that anyone who reads Force of Nature will run the other way if their company ever tries to send them on an Outward Bound-type retreat.

“Lagom” by Niki Brantmark, “Live Lagom” by Anna Brones & “Lagom” by Linnea Dunne

There’s nothing lagom about reading three different books about the suddenly-trendy Swedish philosophy of “everything in moderation.” As a Swede by birth—I grew up and reside in the U.S., but I have spent a great deal of time in my native land—I felt compelled to evaluate which of these competing books offers the best and most Swedish advice.

Lagom by Niki BrantmarkLagom (Not Too Little, Not Too Much): The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life by Niki Brantmark was written by a Brit living in Malmö with her Swedish husband. The references to wellies, kirby grips and hen dos prove that the book didn’t undergo the usual Americanization prior to its publication here. Despite the somewhat anodyne nature of much of her advice (Exercise! Clean out your closet! Recycle!), Brantmark does do a thorough job of outlining Swedish attitudes to everything from child-rearing, taking breaks during the workday to enjoy a cup of coffee and a treat (fika), holidays, and foraging for mushrooms.

Best advice: “Be more punctual.” I have found this to be absolutely true, and it’s why I’m almost never late (and go into a guilt-induced frenzy if I am). “In Sweden people are used to everything working on time—buses, trains, doctor’s appointments, etc. They therefore have the expectation that whoever they’re meeting will be punctual,” a Swedish friend tells Brantmark.

Low point: I love Swedish proverbs and quote them frequently. Quite a few appear in these pages. However, at one point, Brantmark credits “A journey of a thousand miles always begins with a single step” as a “Swedish proverb.” Lao Tzu might beg to differ.

Authenticity: There are plenty of color images in the book, but most of them are generic-looking stock photos, credited to the free-pics site Unsplash. More äkta (genuinely) Swedish images would have made this book more appealing.

Live Lagom by Anna BronesLive Lagom: Balanced Living the Swedish Way by Anna Brones, the daughter of a Swedish mother and American father who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, is a bit more journalistic in its approach. I appreciated the fact that Brones sometimes looks at Sweden with a critical eye (one chapter is titled, “Is There a Darker Side to Lagom?”). She also mentions employee “burn-out,” something I wrote about during my extended stay in Stockholm 10 years ago, and the fact that the “fast fashion” purveyed by Swedish company H&M is “the antithesis of a lagom wardrobe.” (IKEA wins kudos for its “focus on sustainability.”)

However, the majority of Live Lagom is dedicated to exploring everything that’s good about the Swedish lifestyle, from interior design to the “healthy hedonism” of enjoying a freshly-baked cinnamon bun at fika. Brones does a fine job of capturing today’s Sweden, which can sometimes be a land of contradictions; she doesn’t idealize it, and I approve of that.

Words of wisdom: “There is enjoyment to be found in the outdoors in any season, and energy to be drawn from it… When we spend time outside we are also more likely to work to protect it. We cannot fight for something that we don’t know, and becoming intimate with nature turns us into better advocates for it. Sustainability becomes less of a policy buzzword and more of a mindset. We make nature a part of our value system.”

Authenticity: I applaud the fact that the photos in Brones’ book were taken by actual Swedes (the team of Nathalie Myrberg & Matilda Hildingsson). The household interiors in particular have a certain Swedish je ne sais quoi (or should I say jag vet inte vad?) that can’t be faked.

Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced LivingBy the time I finished Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living by Linnea Dunne, I had discovered that there were at least three other books about lagom, but I had totally maxed out on reading about the joys of cinnamon buns and spending time in nature. (Though if I could read French, I might be tempted to pick up Le Livre du Lagom by Anne Thoumieux.) Dunne grew up in Sweden and moved to Ireland as an adult, so hers is more of an insider’s guide, devoting lots of pages to the importance of consensus and the collective. She interviews Swedes like Jasper, who grows his own vegetables in his suburb’s community garden, and Angeliqa, who buys “nothing but eco toys made of wood” for her two daughters.

Dunne also devotes two pages to the Swedish phenomenon of Friday taco night, where families set up a taco bar and then settle down to watch TV. (One Swedish satellite channel shows six episodes of “Modern Family” in a row on Fridays, which seems almost a little too on the nose.)

This Lagom is probably the quickest read of the three, thanks to the image-heavy layout; however, I didn’t like the fact that much of the text is set against deeply-colored backgrounds, which made it hard to read at times:
Lagom by Linnea Dunne

Most depressing statistic for American readers: More than the others, this book really shows how far ahead Swedes are in terms of living lightly on the earth. (“Only 1% of all household waste in Sweden ends up in landfill—the rest is recycled or used to produce heat, electricity or vehicle fuel.” Sweden literally imports garbage from other nations to keep its recycling plants going.) “Swedes are generally far more trusting than other nations, and it shows—why bother with laborious recycling and composing if you don’t trust that your neighbor will follow suit?” writes Dunne. “Ideas about avoiding plastic wrappers and opting for organic alternatives are taking root because there is less cynicism than elsewhere.” Meanwhile, over here, people are still arguing about whether or not to charge for plastic bags at the grocery store, something Swedes have been doing for decades.

Bonus points: For quoting Swedish national treasure Jonas Gardell. He described Sweden as the land of mellanmjölk (roughly, 2% milk)—not too skinny, not too fat.

If I had to pick just one of these books to buy for an American reader, I think I’d select Brones’ Live Lagom. All three books do a fine job of describing the concept of lagom living, but I especially liked the layout and photos in her book. And the fact that she discusses both the positives and negatives of lagom seems very balanced to me.

“White Houses” by Amy Bloom

White Houses by Amy BloomDid they or didn’t they? The question of whether or not Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok were more than friends has been a hot topic ever since their passionate letters were made public in the late 1970s. While historian Doris Kearns Goodwin declared that “whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs” can never be known, others find the correspondence makes a convincing claim for Roosevelt’s queerness. Here’s an article featuring excerpts from a number of their more romantic letters. Sample: “Hick darling, I just talked to you, darling, it was so good to hear your voice. If I just could take you in my arms… Someday perhaps fate will be kind & let us arrange a life more to our liking.”

The Hick/Roosevelt relationship has been explored in books like Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters Of Eleanor Roosevelt And Lorena Hickok and Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady, as well as a play, “Hick: A Love Story.” Now comes Amy Bloom with a fictionalized account of their relationship, which definitely comes down on the “yep, they were lovers” side of the equation. (Franklin Roosevelt, in this telling, is having a long-term affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, another allegedly-romantic pairing which has been debated by historians.)

Bloom’s novel is narrated by Hickok, who describes her rough upbringing—her mother died when she was quite young, and she left home at the age of 14, escaping her abusive father. She eventually became a successful journalist, the first woman to have a byline in the New York Times. Assigned to interview Eleanor Roosevelt shortly after Franklin had been elected governor of New York, Hickok found herself drawn to her subject. She began covering Eleanor full-time during Franklin’s first presidential campaign. Their relationship heated up when Hickok accompanied Eleanor on a train trip; by the time FDR was in office, it became increasingly clear that Hickok could not cover the administration objectively, so she quit her job with the Associated Press. At times, Hickok even lived in the White House, but in Bloom’s telling, loving Eleanor was not easy—the beloved First Lady always had many demands on her attention. Hickok describes herself as “the brave and battered little dinghy” to Eleanor’s “lighthouse.”

While most of the people in White Houses are historical figures, I’m pretty sure that the Roosevelt cousin Parker Fiske, a key character in the book, is fictional. Fiske is a career diplomat and closeted gay man who is not above using a little blackmail to gain protection for himself; he pops up from time to time to beg Eleanor for a favor or threaten Hickok of the potential consequences if her relationship with the First Lady became public. “People didn’t see his homosexual self coming (unlike yours truly) and that bothered them. He didn’t look at all like that type of man, so everyone who liked him—smart and charming and so good at his job—pretended it didn’t happen, or that somehow it had happened but only due to a mix of bourbon and misunderstanding.” By today’s standards, the fact that Eleanor and Hickok were not able to live openly as lovers does seem sad, but Fiske’s story is ultimately far more tragic, a way for the author to shine a light on the genuine dangers of being gay in an earlier era.

White Houses is obviously not meant to be the final word on the subject, but it offers an interesting and poignant perspective on a relationship that continues to intrigue.