Iceland

The Ice Lands – Steinar Bragi

Title – The Ice Lands

Author – Steinar Bragi (translated by Lorenza Garcia)

Published – Oct 2016 (in English)

Genre – Crime fiction / Thriller / Horror

This came as an unsolicited review copy but I was intrigued by the cover and with an interest in all things Icelandic it pushed its way to the top of my TBR pile.

The story is about four friends and a dog who are on a camping trip in the volcanic wilds of Iceland. There are tensions between the four and they see the trip as away of mending their relationships but things have already become fraught early on in the journey when they crash in the middle of nowhere. They take refuge in an isolated farmhouse occupied by a mysterious elderly couple.

The efforts to resume their journey are thwarted – they fail to leave in their jeep, or in the car they borrow from the couple and even resorting to leaving on foot they end up returning to the dark and menacing house. At the times where they have put some distance between themselves and the house they make further mysterious discoveries in the wilderness – an abandoned car, an abandoned village on a cut-off ‘island’.

The inside of the house, farm and the couple are no less puzzling. They struggle to figure out the relationship between the uncommunicative man and woman, there are animals’ bodies on the doorstep and a hidden room that just adds to the mysteries.

As the story unfolds the backstory of the characters comes out which casts light on them both as individuals and on the relationships between the four of them. In some ways these feel like caricatures – this isn’t a criticism but it feels as if the author was using the four people to highlight some of the issues around the financial crash (the book was published in Iceland in 2011). Their lives and perspectives are quite exaggerated but their reactions to the events after they become stranded seem surprisingly relaxed.

I still don’t know what to make of this book. It was part crime, part thriller, part horror and part, well, just plain weird. I was really taken in by it. I didn’t particularly like the characters, but I wanted to know what happened to them (or what had happened to them). I didn’t have any issues with the writing or translation. There was probably too much of the characters’ backstory for me but the story was atmospheric, tense, dark – it really gripped me. But I just couldn’t figure out what was going on… Since finishing the book and while writing my review I’ve had a look to see what other people make of the book. There is a full synopsis on Wikipedia which tells me that it ‘enjoyed very positive reviews’ although it seems to be struggling to do so in the English translation. Perhaps it just isn’t reaching the right audience.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

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Names for the Sea – Sarah Moss

41KqgPxPF9LTitle – Names for the Sea

Author – Sarah Moss

Published – 2012

Genre – Non-fiction/travel

It isn’t unusual for me to buy a book based purely on its cover, but I can’t recall buying a book before after seeing someone on the tube reading it. I guess that may partly be because I try to avoid the tube as much as possible but on this occasion the woman opposite was reading ‘Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland’. I have an interest in Iceland and I thought the book looked intriguing, so without any real clue what it was about (and some issues trying to remember what it was called) I ordered it from the internet.

I was surprised, and am still fascinated, by the cover when I saw it in the flesh – I thought the pinky spots were small flowers – but look closely! This has got be one of the most amazing photographs I’ve seen on a book cover. You can find the cover designer, Anna Green on twitter @SiulenDesign and the photographer is Sandro Santioli – also on twitter @santioli and there is a gallery of his stunning work on sandrosantioli.com.

So to the author and the book! Sarah Moss studied English at Oxford and developed research interests in the literature of the far north and in food and material culture in fiction, specializing in the Romantic and early Victorian periods. She lectured at the University of Kent during which time her first novel was published. She’d visited Iceland with a friend when she was 19 with the intention of returning and then ‘real life’ got in the way, but when a vacancy at the University of Iceland coincided with some events in her life that meant her husband and two young sons were amenable to a move, the perfect opportunity was too good to miss.

The book is the story of Sarah (and her family’s) time in Iceland. Her interview was in November 2008 and their move to Reykjavik began in July 2009. Anyone who has even a passing interest in the news will recognise that this is the height of the financial crisis that gripped Iceland and had consequences around the world. At the time they begin their stay the crisis had halted construction of blocks of flats in Garðabær, a wealthy suburb of Reykjavik but word of mouth finds them an apartment to use, although they are the only ones to occupy the block.

Garðabær

There are two main aspects to the book – one is Sarah’s own experience of her time and being an ‘immigrant’ and the other reflects her own interests and natural curiosity as she tries to find out more about the people and history of the country. Initially the issues are completely practical – where on earth do you get fresh fruit and veg from, what do Icelanders eat? How to get about when you don’t have a car and don’t speak enough of the language to by a bus ticket? Where can you buy second hand things for kids? What is the protocol for getting changed at a swimming pool?

The mix of practical issues and her inability to see the effect of the crash (kreppa) – how can there be no market for secondhand goods in a country in financial crisis? prompt her to find out more about an issue that most Icelanders seem unwilling to acknowledge or discuss but she does persevere to find those who are really suffering.

She shows a journalist’s knack for finding the right people to talk to and finds Icelanders who tell her about the wool and knitting industry (who knew ‘traditional’ Icelandis jumpers were a relatively new thing??), the surprising truth about Iceland’s (apparently low) crime rate, what it was like in Iceland in the mid part of the twentieth century – and of course the hidden people!

House buried by lava at Heimaey by jkbrooks85 on Flickr

Not all of the writing is investigative – the family want to make the most of their time and manage to travel to some of the popular and lesser knows sites, including a visit to Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands) and the village of Heimaey where houses were buried under the ash during a volcanic eruption 1973 (and which features in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s book Ashes to Dust).

One aspect that it would be impossible to ignore is the environment; the climate, the landscape and the seasons which have such a dramatic impact on the length of the days. So how does a stranger survive and make this their home?

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Iceland twice and appreciate that I’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to see and experience but in such a small city there were bound to be places Sarah described with which I was familiar and one of the earliest ones in the book was the Nordic House – home to Iceland Noir! It was fascinating to see the place described through someone else’s eyes.

This is a fascinating insight into the country and its people as well as a (timely) exploration of what it’s like to be an immigrant who doesn’t fully appreciate all the cultural norms of their new home. I should also add that Sarah’s background as a lecturer in Creative Writing and as a novelist means that the book is beautifully written, humorous and absorbing. Whether you’ve only ever dreamed of going to Iceland or have already experienced its pleasures for yourself, this is a great read which I highly recommend.

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Two short reviews – September 2015

In an(other) effort to make a dent in the (ever-increasing) pile of books I’ve read but not yet reviewed below are two short reviews for The Domino Killer by Neil White and The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason.

91O4gmwxFPL._SL1500_Title – The Domino Killer

Author – Neil White

Published – July 2015

Genre – Crime fiction

A lawyer by profession Neil White has managed to find the time to write nine crime fiction novels and The Domino Killer is the third in his “Parker Brothers Trilogy”. The brothers are Sam (a detective constable) and Joe (a criminal defence lawyer) and the setting is Manchester.

The story is told from several points of view – that of Sam and Joe – as well as a mysterious killer. The story opens with the discovery of a man who has beaten to death in a local park and his murder becomes swiftly linked to another recent, and still unsolved, attack. At the same time Joe comes face-to-face with a man that he believes is linked to a tragedy in the brothers’ past.

The two threads progress with Sam involved in the police investigation and Joe undertaking some investigative work of his own. At the heart of the story is a deceit that Joe has been hiding since his teenage years and when he is forced to confess there is fallout that affects the relationship with his brother as well as his closest colleague.

While I enjoyed the story of the brothers which ends with some gripping action scenes I have to confess to having skipped a few passages (shock!!) but I’m not sure that it really needed more than 400 pages to tell the story. I was also at a disadvantage, and a victim of circumstance, in not having read the preceding titles in the series. I am curious if any mention is made in the earlier books about the brothers’ sister – perhaps it was a teaser that paid off in the final book – something people following the series would appreciate more than perhaps I did.

 

515tqOJGpWLTitle – The Draining Lake

Author – Arnaldur Indriðason (translated by Bernard Scudder)

Published – 2004 (2007 in translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

I stared reading this book before going to the inaugural Iceland Noir in 2013 and I finished it last month – so just shy of two years. Which I think will tell you something abut my feelings about this book and I realise that anything I say here will risk the friendship of the scandi/nordic crime fiction fans – but this was so dull!

The water levels in a lake in Iceland have dropped, exposing a skeleton alongside an old Russian radio transmitter. The mystery of the remains is investigated by Detective Erlendur and in the course of the investigation he meets a woman whose husband vanished in the 1960s. Erlendur’s obsession with those who are missing fuels his desire to find the man and he tracks down the car he was driving at the time of the disappearance and this leads him on a search for a missing hubcap.

Peppering the book is a second thread providing the backstory about a group of Icelandic students who went to study in Leipzig during in the 1950s.  The relevance of the narrator of these sections is kept hidden but it is clear that he became disenchanted with communism during the time in East Germany.

The story is a mystery and as Indriðason is committed to keeping a low body count in his books this means that it is more credible than many that feature serial killers, but it perhaps also explains a lack of pace. For me, however, the sense of loss that pervades the book, Erlendur’s dour demeanour and the grim experience of those in Leipzig made this an unrelentingly gloomy read.

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Snowblind – Ragnar Jónasson

9781910633038-275x423Title – Snowblind

Author – Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates)

Published – 2011 (2015 in translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

Score – 4/5

It’s an odd situation that Ragnar Jónasson has been a familiar face on the crime fiction circuit for some years, but this is the first opportunity for those of us who only read English to judge his ‘Iceland Noir’ credentials and he is not found wanting.

Ari Thór Arason is a recently qualified policeman living in Reykjavik with his medical student girlfriend. When an opportunity for his first posting comes up it’s in Siglufjörður, a small, isolated fishing town right the way up in the north of Iceland. Although his girlfriend is unenthusiastic about the situation he accepts the position and quickly moves, alone, to this close knit community. The setting for the book is incredibly important; the location is particularly isolated, not only is it physically remote but during the winter it is in perpetual darkness and the inclement weather only adds to the difficulties of going to, or escaping from, the town. It’s a small community where people don’t lock their doors and nothing ever happens – but of course if that were the case we wouldn’t need our intrepid detective!

Although Ari Thor is the main character, the story is told from multiple points of view and I found it a little difficult to get a handle on who each character was and what their relevance was to the story – but it all became clear in the end. The story is a ‘small-town’ one, initially involving the seemingly accidental death of a prominent member of the community who is involved in the local dramatic society, something which Ari Thor’s boss believes only requires a perfunctory investigation. Jónasson uses the choice of setting to his advantage, making the most of the conditions as a way of limiting the pool of suspects and adding an extra layer of tension. It’s actually quite surprising how many of the community are outsiders – people hiding from something, whilst those born there are perhaps more prone to seek an escape to the south. It’s perhaps Ari Thor’s position as an outsider that lets him question his boss and pursue the case.

The small town nature of the setting means that the investigation focuses on long hidden secrets, illicit affairs and long held grudges. Jónasson’s writing hones in on the minutiae of the characters’ lives and memories, but pay attention because hidden in all of this detail are clues crucial to the resolution of a number of different threads within the story.

It’s impossible to review this book and not make a reference to Agatha Christie. The reason is that Jónasson is renowned for being a huge fan, having translated fourteen titles into Icelandic. I wouldn’t say that this has obviously influenced his writing style, but the setting is perhaps an Icelandic St Mary Mead where people know, or think they know, each other’s business. The clever plotting, attention to detail and red herrings are certainly in the Christie style.

Snowblind is the first in Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ series and there are currently 4 more books to be translated. It’s interesting that the translation is by Quentin Bates, a successful author in his own right who sets his own books in Iceland, although writing them in English. A book can be spoilt by a poor translation, something you only notice when a phrase jars and you’re reminded that the work was originally written in another language. Fortunately, as you would expect, there is no such issue here.

Thank you to the publisher of the review copy. You can see another point of view on My Little Pile of Rocks.

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The Mistake – Grant Nicol

91uEEHTY8IL._SL1500_Title – The Mistake

Author – Grant Nicol

Published – 13 January 2015

Genre – Crime fiction

Number Thirteen Press is an e-publishing company with plans to publish a list of 13 original pulp crime novellas at the rate of 1 per month for 13 months. Their debut title was launched on 13th November 2014, making The Mistake the third novella in the set.

Nicol is a New Zealand author living in Iceland and it is in Reykjavik that he has set this story. A young woman’s mutilated body is found on a Reykjavik street by a man who can’t remember whether or not he is responsible for her death. The injuries are horrific and Detective Grímur Karlsson is relieved to get his man at the scene of the crime. But life in crime fiction is never that simple. The suspect manages to end up in a hospital rather than a prison cell and as the case against him weakens things don’t seem to be going Grímur’s way.

The victim disappeared from her home some months before and when her father arrives in the city to identify her body he is determined that he won’t leave until the person responsible has been brought to justice. Lacking faith in the police he takes matters into his own hands and his efforts run in parallel to those of the professionals.

There are certain constraints with the novella format which mean that Nicol is succinct in drawing the characters and landscape, leaving plenty of scope for a complex plot that moves along at a brisk pace. The story starts as conventional crime fiction but as the action heads towards a dramatic conclusion it becomes darker, more graphic and increasingly violent.

There are multiple points of view which keep the action moving and as the story unfolds the parts the different characters play becomes clearer. The strands are neatly fitted together and the resulting climax is worthy of the description ‘Iceland Noir’. Despite the conventional start the story has a dark heart and a bleak ending.

I’m not used to reading novellas, but with my dislike of lengthy modern books I should try to read them more often! It’s interesting to note that Detective Grímur Karlsson also features in Nicol’s crime novel “On a Small Island“, published in 2014 (and a review of that is to follow).  Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy.

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Season of the Witch – Árni Þórarinsson

season of the witchTitle – Season of the Witch

Author – Árni Þórarinsson  (translated by Anna Yates)

Published – 2005 (2012 in translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

We met Arni Thorarinsson when we attended Iceland Noir in 2013 and I’ve managed to get to his book before we head back again later this month. He is an experienced Icelandic journalist and has published a number of screenplays and crime novels – this novel was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize and I believe it’s the only one currently available in English.

The story is told in the first person by Einar, a journalist (specifically a crime reporter) who has recently been transferred from Reykjavik to the small town of Akureyi.  His transfer is the result of a change in management at the newspaper and due to some personal issues he seems to have had with alcohol. In fact this novel is the fourth in the series featuring Einar so Icelandic readers probably have a better idea of the background than those of us reading only this title. Einar is pretty disgruntled at the move, not only is he missing the more exciting buzz of the capital city, he’s also missing his daughter who has stayed behind and this is compounded by the fact that he doesn’t get on with the only other permanent employee at the Akureyi office.

As the lone reporter Einar is required to cover all sorts of stories and these include the death of a woman on a rafting trip, a local school production of an Icelandic folktale and a missing dog. However, he can’t put his investigative skills behind him and he soon becomes involved in a police investigation when the leading actor from the play disappears. Assisted by Jóa, the photographer temporarily assigned to the paper, he pursues the stories to the bitter end.

The book offers much of what you would expect from Nordic fiction. There’s a thread that deals with local politics and the subject of immigration, one that I think most people will recognise wherever they live. There’s a sprinkling of folklore as well as more contemporary issues like drugs.  Thorarinsson gives you a feel for the country and its people without spending a lot of time on long descriptive passages. It has a steady pace and a likeable lead character, a few twists and turns and the odd humorous moment to lighten the mood.

I try not to look at other reviews of books before I write mine, but when I updated Goodreads I couldn’t help but notice that it has a fairly low rating and I really can’t see why. Personally I hope more titles are translated.

You can see another review on the Petrona blog.

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Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Title – Burial Rites

Author – Hannah Kent

Published – 2013

Genre – Historical / Crime fiction

This was a bit of a bonus book, as it wasn’t part of my planned reading but I managed to squeeze it in before our trip to Iceland. It is one of those titles that I had seen mentioned on Twitter and elsewhere and hadn’t really known what it was about, but when I asked for Icelandic reading suggestions Lindsay
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