“The Seagull” by Ann Cleeves

The Seagull by Ann CleevesIs there a readers’ equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me”? Ann Cleeves’ The Seagull is the type of book that’s usually right in my wheelhouse—British police procedural, strong female character—but it took me almost two weeks to get through. I had a lot of distractions, ranging from planning a big trip to hosting an out-of-town guest, and I often found myself unable to concentrate on the words on the page. Instead, I’d turn to my phone and scroll through Twitter or look at Instagram photos of cute hedgehogs. Or I’d pick up a different book, read the first couple pages, and then put it back down.

A few months ago, I first encountered the phrase “reading slump”—”the dreaded moment when the words on the page simply fail to captivate them and when picking up a book feels like a 50 pound weight,” according to Bookish.com. The Internet is full of advice for folks in a slump, ranging from the odd (“ripping pages out of a book you don’t like but happen to own is oddly therapeutic”) to the obvious (“reread an all-time favorite”). Were it not for my self-imposed obligation to post something here each week, I might find myself taking a bit of a break from reading. But let’s hope I pull out of this slump soon, since normally, reading is one of the best parts of my day!

As for The Seagull, this is the eighth book in Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series; my book group was reading it, which is why I didn’t start with the first Vera book (though this feels like the sort of series where the individual novels can stand alone). It is the basis for a popular TV adaptation featuring Brenda Blethyn, who has described Vera as “big, fat and ugly.” The inspector’s appearance is frequently commented upon in the book, to the point where I felt it got a little excessive; one of her underlings notices her Velcro-strapped sandals, which reveal her “filthy” feet: “[he] felt a moment of revulsion.”

Vera is one of those detectives who is married to her job, which she does exceptionally well. In The Seagull, she is dealing with a cold case involving the discovery of two dead bodies which had remained hidden since the 1990s. One is identified right away, but the other is a mystery. Vera must consult a man in prison, John Brace, for information about the crime; Brace was a bent cop who was close friends with Vera’s late father, who frequently associated with shady figures, a group “held together by loyalty and shared secrets, that strange kind of male friendship that seemed more important to those involved than either marriage or family.”

At 400 pages, The Seagull seems a bit overlong, and the web of crimes, both modern-day and long-ago, grows almost too tangled. Apparently the Vera TV episodes each feature a complete case and clock in at a brisk 90 minutes. The story Cleeves tells in The Seagull is a good one, and maybe watching a pared-down version would prove more satisfying than reading the book.

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“The Happiness Curve” by Jonathan Rauch

The Happiness CurveA few years ago, Jonathan Rauch’s Atlantic article “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis” was passed around avidly on social media by many people in my 40-something cohort. Rauch’s piece discussed research on the “U-curve,” which indicates that youth and old age are periods of relative happiness, while middle age is often a time of discontent and sometimes even despair. This holds true not just for people, but for primates, implying that the origins of the phenomenon “may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.”

Many of us middle-agers can identify with Rauch when he writes how he “would wake up feeling disappointed, my head buzzing with obsessive thoughts about my failures. I had accomplished too little professionally, had let life pass me by, needed some nameless kind of change or escape.” (Rauch is an award-winning and very successful journalist and author, proving that even the highest achievers are prone to this particular malaise.) Now 57, Rauch is happier and feels he’s emerged from the trough of the U and that his life is on the upswing.

He has expanded his Atlantic article into a new book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. The research he presents is quite convincing, though it’s not difficult to come up with anecdotal counter-examples. For instance, I read this passage—”With age, apparently, we lose not our emotional sharpness, but our tendency to have our day ruined by annoyances and setbacks. Perhaps, then, positivity comes about because older people lose their emotional edge… when storms do boil up, older people have better control over their feelings”—shortly after one of the president’s more apoplectic tweets hit the news cycle. (Luckily, most people in their 70s don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re under investigation by the FBI.)

Rauch’s main goal in The Happiness Curve is to reassure people in their late 40s and early 50s that it will get better; science says so. Economist Hannes Schwandt studied people who had grown up in two very different cultures, East and West Germany, under varying economic circumstances; he found that younger people usually overestimated how happy they’d be in five years, while older Germans greatly underestimated their future life satisfaction. “‘If [people] know that life satisfaction tends to be U-shaped in everyone and previous expectations don’t match up with outcomes for most people, that could make people feel less unhappy about their life,’ Schwandt told me. Normalization, he believes, can have a double-whammy effect. ‘If you tell people there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, this already helps you. And the second thing that helps you is maybe you can break the cycle of this vicious feedback effect. By knowing this is a normal developmental stage, you will also suffer less.'”

Many of us fear aging because we fear ill health and infirmity. However, Rauch quotes a study showing that “even as people became more afflicted with disability, their self-rated successful aging increased… most people remain surprisingly happy despite getting frail and infirm.”

The Happiness Curve will provide readers with a lot of food for thought, but the scientific study of happiness is still a relatively young field and I’m sure there is still more work to be done. Ultimately, perhaps this research may one day give us insights that could help the enormous numbers of people in their 50s who struggle with issues like opioid addiction and suicide. Meanwhile, those of us with garden-variety middle-aged ennui should read the book and take its lessons to heart.

Note: The Happiness Curve will be published on May 1, 2018. Thanks to Thomas Dunne Books (via NetGalley) for the review copy.

“Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke

Bluebird, BluebirdAs a West Coast liberal, I tend to think of Texas as a foreign land, one I don’t think I’d feel very comfortable in. I have read a lot of very fine books set in Texas, however, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered one that captures the Lone Star State in all its contradictions as well as Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird.

A major theme of the novel is a black lawman’s feelings about his home state, one which he loves dearly but is also clear-eyed enough to recognize often provides friendly harbor to racists ranging from genteel bigots to violent white-power gangs, the modern-day equivalent of the KKK. Darren Mathews is a Texas Ranger, a member of the super-elite law enforcement squad tasked with investigating the state’s most serious crimes. (Mathews, of course, is Locke’s fictional creation, but in the real world, the first black ranger wasn’t appointed until 1988, almost 165 years after the group’s founding.) Suspended from the force after he was suspected of interfering in an investigation involving a family friend, Mathews nevertheless heads to the small town of Lark to look into a pair of homicides after he hears about the case from an FBI agent. The first victim was a black man; the second, a white woman.

“Southern fables usually went the other way around: a white woman killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead.”

Mathews at first tries his investigation undercover, but soon has to resort to showing off his badge when he is threatened by local members of Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Of course, Lark also has its own sheriff, and he’s none too pleased to have an interloper in his county, particularly one whose status with the Rangers is on shaky ground. “This is my deal down here,” he tells Mathews. “We know how to take care of our own.”

There were several times when I was pretty sure I knew where the story was going, but Locke always managed to surprise me, never taking the easy or predictable way out. (One example: the carefully-drawn relationship between Mathews, whose wife Lisa has never fully accepted his work with the Rangers, and the first victim’s wife Randie.) Still, I think what I’ll remember most about this book are the passages about the Mathews family’s relationship with their home state, which no doubt feel so authentic because Locke herself is a native Texan:

“The belief that they were special, that they had the stones to endure what others couldn’t, was the most quintessentially Texas thing about them. It was an arrogance born of genuine fortitude and a streak of hardheadedness six generations deep, a Homeric shield against the petty jealousies and lethal injustices that so occupied white folks’ free time, their oppressive and intrusive gaze into every aspect of black life… The Mathews family recognized it for what it was: a fevered obsession that didn’t really have anything to do with them, a preoccupation that weakened a man looking anywhere but at himself… You could run, wouldn’t nobody judge you if you did. But you could also stay and fight.”

“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.