Book Review: Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indriðason

Reykjavík  Nights is the latest book in the Detective Erlendur series to be translated into reykjaviknightsEnglish. It is a prequel to the other books, set in 1974.

Erlendur is a traffic cop who dreams of being a detective one day. He has become fixated with two seemingly unrelated incidents that happened the previous year. Hannibal, a local tramp who he had some contact with through his police work, had been found drowned around the same time that a local woman disappeared, presumed to have committed suicide. No one has connected the two, but something about both stories doesn’t sit right with Erlendur. Did they know each other somehow?

Erlendur does solve both mysteries in the end, but perhaps more interesting for the regular readers are the glimpses into his personality. Already we see the loner character, who does have kind of a relationship with a woman that he isn’t really interested in. His fellow police officers are a little buffoonish and obsessed with pizza, TV and other bad American influences. Reykjavík itself is growing but still unbuilt even in quite central areas. We also get to meet Marion Briem for the first time towards the end of the book.

As the book is standalone, you don’t need to have read all the previous books, but understanding all these references are actually what makes the book interesting, rather than the cases. As with all of the books, being familiar with the local geography and mentions also helps with understanding the context and for this story, how much the landscape has changed in 40 years.

There is another prequel set in 1972 which has not made it into English translation yet, Einvígið. It will be interesting to see whether Indriðason continues with the Erlendur series or starts another one. I found this book to be “good enough” but it felt a little rushed somehow and didn’t have the “wow” factor of a Jar City. As with many authors I like, I’d be willing to wait a bit longer for a really great book.

 

Book review: 88 by Alva

“we’re supposed to throw ourselves out there, take risks! but never ever show any kind of pain or sense of failure if things don’t turn out the way we hope they will.”

There was a statistic in the news last year stating that 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book. Iceland is a country for book lovers although only a very small percentage of those published are then translated into English. It’s probably no wonder that many people interested in Iceland turn to bloggers to find out more about daily life and their thoughts on current events. Iceland Eyes was a hugely influential blog for me. Maria has covered just about every aspect of Iceland you can think during the many years she has been blogging. In recent years it’s been interesting to see through her blog and other social media that she has become more introspective in her writing and interested in more mystical topics. I was really excited when she announced she would have a book out. 88 was written under the name Alva to deliberately make it more artistic and less completely “her”.

88 is actually quite hard to review as I feel like it’s a very personal book. Maria gave 88herself a timeline of 88 days to write this book in. Because of this, the book is reflective of her daily life and thoughts during this period, dipping in and out of life events and coming back to include Iceland’s natural surroundings. Writing without an idea of the overall outcome as you don’t know what will happen during those days is an interesting concept. Having read her blog I had several moments where I “recognised” what she was talking about and knew more of the wider context, and it was interesting to read about the same events in a different format. Having said that, there is an element of fiction as this is not a diary and you should not assume that everything in this book happened at all, or specifically to Maria.

This book has a style that you could either love or hate, it’s non-linear and almost reads like a poem in places. It means you could just read a few random pages without feeling that you’ve missed out  by not reading it in order. It is full of emotion and I would imagine it was pretty cathartic to write. Maria is a natural writer and proven she can adapt her writing style, and be a creative writer as well as she can cover factual topics.

You can buy this book in the Mál og Menning bookstore on Laugavegur in Reykjavík, via Blurb (UK link here but should take you to your local website) or download via iTunes.

 

Pam Stucky puts Iceland “On the Map”

Author Pam Stucky is writing a series of travel books called Pam On the Map. Her latest visit was to Iceland, where she travelled the Ring Road on her own and squeezed in some interviews with authors and mayors! Pam has a fun writing style and I enjoyed a reading a book about someone else’s trip to Iceland that wasn’t just written in blog posts! I asked Pam about her trip.

As someone who is familiar with the Ring Road, it seemed to me that you picked some pretty obscure things to see on it sometimes, or at least not always the more well-known sites. How did you decide what you wanted to see?

I definitely do like to seek out the obscure, lesser known gems in the world. In part I think that has to do with my dislike of crowds; if I’m surrounded by too many people I get anxious and fidgety and distracted by all the human activity, and I have to leave. I think that happened at Gullfoss, for example. There were hordes of people everywhere, and I didn’t stay long. Looking back, I wish I’d stayed longer. As it turned out, I grossly overestimated how much I could get done in that one day, and couldn’t have stayed much longer anyway, but it’s a beautiful site.

The crater Kerid

The crater Kerid

There’s also the fact that I feel like the more popular sites (in any country) don’t necessarily give me what I want out of a country. There’s a section in my book where I discuss what you get out of a bus tour vs. what you get by venturing out on your own, and it has to do with seeing, as I put it, the “best of” a country vs. seeing the soul of a country. I’m interested in getting to a country’s soul, its heartbeat. Certainly you can’t fully do that on one visit anywhere, but you get closer to it by exploring farther afield, letting yourself be surprised and delighted by the unexpected.

So. How did I decide what I wanted to see, then? Good question. I talked to people, I read blogs, I read books, I searched on “Iceland trips” to see what came up. I searched through images of Iceland, and when I found pictures that intrigued me, I investigated further to learn more about where they were taken. I found Kirkjugólf (“church floor” stones) that way, for example, as well as Grenjaðarstaður (turf houses). Anytime I had a difficulty finding information about a place, or locating it on the map, I knew that might be a place I wanted to go!

Grundarfjordur

Grundarfjordur

As I learned more about Iceland, my route started to take a more definite shape. Once I decided where I was going to stay overnight, and for how many nights, I then was able to dig in deeper. As I said, I definitely was trying to find some obscure places to go, so I did a lot of reading and research.

That said, nothing I explored was too far off the beaten track. I had a 2WD car and therefore wasn’t allowed to truly take the road less travelled. Everything I visited was quite accessible, at least in summer!

Did you have any advice from anyone about your trip, and did you use a travel agent?

I didn’t work with a travel agent, but I did chat with one who is also a friend and had been to Iceland recently. That was early enough in my planning that all the Icelandic place names she gave me still sounded completely foreign, and I had to ask her to spell everything out! I talked to a couple other people who had visited Iceland, but most of them stayed around Reykjavík, so for places further afield I had to do the research myself. I read a lot online!

As you found, the roads in Iceland are sometimes gravel, or around mountain passes and other challenging terrain. In hindsight, would you have chosen a 4×4 rather than a “standard” car?

That’s a good question and I’m not sure I know the answer. I’ve read that in many cases people who get 4x4s end up with a false sense of security and get themselves stuck, and have to be rescued. I suppose that has more to do with the driver than the car, though. I’d absolutely love to go in to Landmannalaugar, and the roads to get there require 4x4s. Same with some areas near the Diamond Circle up north (Hljóðaklettar, Jökulsárgljúfur, Gloppuhellir cave, and more) – I wanted to go in but wasn’t allowed with my car. However, having driven the roads into and out of Dettifoss (NOT the new and nicely paved road, but the 864!), on which 2WD are allowed, as well as the gravel roads out in the west, Hwy 59 for example, I am a little scared of what the “F” roads (4WD-only roads) must be like! I can only imagine those roads must be awful. Especially if I were going solo again, I would be scared of puncturing a tire and being lost in the middle of nowhere hoping for someone to come along before I starved. After I returned from my trip, I learned of some day tours that I think could get me where I wanted to go – with someone else driving. There are ways. Still, I wouldn’t rule out a 4×4. There are places I’d like to see.

Pam's trusty car

Pam’s trusty car

Another alternative, perhaps preferable, would be for the Icelandic government to work on improving roads. Tourism is Iceland’s second largest industry, but the infrastructure is challenged. I spent a lot of time grumbling in my mind about the Icelandic tourism board, how they’re promoting Iceland but not mentioning that when you get there, the infrastructure (particularly roads and rest stops) is lacking. Then it finally occurred to me that the tourism people are just doing what they’re supposed to do – promote the country. If Iceland wants tourism to be a viable industry, then the government needs to step up and support that by providing accessible roads and stopping points. It’s a tricky discussion, because Iceland’s ecosystem is fragile, and further, no one wants to ruin the peace and beauty – the embodiment of Iceland – with swarms of people. Still, I think there’s room for some improvement. I talk about this a little bit in the book, but I know I’m no expert in any of those fields. It’s a challenge, for sure.

I liked that you always included a section on what you would do differently for each day of your trip. Did you have in mind a target audience of other first-timers to Iceland?

Not just first-timers to Iceland, but anyone who wants to travel around Iceland. I’m sure there are many people who aren’t first-timers, but nonetheless haven’t gone to the east coast or up north. They could get something out of my book, too, I hope.

Of all the countries I’ve researched for travel purposes, I’d say Iceland was the most difficult to research so far. (By no means have I travelled extensively, yet. I’m sure there are many other countries on which information would be hard to come by.) I ran into roadblocks frequently in my research. I’d be trying to get information about a place and only could find it through obscure references. There was one place – what was it?? I think it was Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon – I saw pictures of it and it looked spectacular, but for the life of me I couldn’t get Google’s online map to acknowledge that it even existed in the world. I finally found it mentioned on a website, complete with directions on how to get there.(4×4-only road, so I didn’t get there!) By including whatever I could about the places I found, I at least have given people a starting point to know that these places exist. I thought about putting all that together in a chapter at the end, but decided that including it with each day’s information gave more context about where in Iceland a person could find these places.

Dyrholaey, with Reynisfjara in the background

Dyrholaey, with Reynisfjara in the background

Really, though, my thought process wasn’t that in-depth when I was including those sections at the end of each chapter. I was just relating my own experience, and trying to do it with honesty. That means including my regrets (I wish I’d done this, I wish I’d known about this, this looked great but I didn’t go there) as well as my triumphs. Travel isn’t all about, “I did this amazing thing and my whole trip was amazing.” That’s sugar-coated. Real travel has hits and misses. When I write about travel I always want to be honest and to give realistic expectations. I think too much of travel writing these days is about serving the sponsor – catering to the tourist board, the magazine, the country, in the hopes of getting free trips and kick-backs – and not enough about serving the traveller. I want to earn people’s trust, and being honest is the only way to do that. I want people to read my books and know I’m not going to say something was fantastic when it wasn’t. I want people to know what I would have done differently, so they can make a choice about following in my footsteps – or forging ahead where I didn’t go, and reporting back to let me know if it was worth it! I would love to hear from people who do the things I wish I’d done! And for sure, when I return to Iceland I’ll use my own book to plan the trip. :)

What were some of your favourite and least favourite things about Iceland?

Least favorite is easy, because there’s really not a lot not to love about Iceland. As already mentioned, the infrastructure was probably my least favorite. The roads, and the lack of shoulders on the side of the roads or places to pull out for a few minutes. The lack of rest stops, toilets, along the road.

Most favorite – so many things! In terms of the landscape, I could name a dozen favorites easily. Jökulsárlón was breathtaking – I literally gasped out loud the first time I saw it. All of Snæfellsnes was spectacular, and I could see myself settling down for a long stay, with Hellnar as a base. (From there I could visit the Westfjords, which I did not get to, unfortunately!) I was drawn to the northwest (including but not limited to Skagaströnd) and would love to go back and explore more. And the waterfalls! The ones I was looking for were fantastic, but the ones I loved best were the ones I came across unexpectedly. Gorgeous, isolated, secret, peaceful, powerful waterfalls, everywhere, just everywhere. I could stare at waterfalls for hours.

Hellnar beach

Hellnar beach

And of course, the people. I had the chance to talk with a lot of people, and they were all so friendly and interesting. I spent an hour or two talking with a gentleman I call “Ice Cream Ragnar” (because (1) he took me on a “traditional Icelandic ice cream car ride” and (2) I can never remember how to spell or pronounce his last name), and he was so fantastic to chat with! I’m more or less an introvert, but people’s stories and views of the world fascinate me enough that I love to connect and ask questions. It’s easier when it’s a scheduled interview, but I still managed to get up the courage to talk to a few strangers along the way, too. All those conversations were definitely among my favourite parts of my trip.

Any advice for other first-time visitors?

Definitely visit, and definitely try to get out from Reykjavík to see more of the country. Don’t try to do the Ring Road in two weeks like I did! That doesn’t give you enough time to really explore an area. The weather is pretty fickle, so allowing yourself a few days in an area gives you a better chance of having a good day while you’re there in which to see it at its best.

Vatnajokull

Vatnajokull

After I got back, I was pondering the challenges of tourism in Iceland. I got to thinking that specialized trips, tours targeted to people’s interests, would be a good idea. I researched and found that there are tons available. If a person can afford it, I’d recommend looking into one of those. That way you can engage more deeply and meaningfully with people and places and activities that are of interest to you. Alternatively, I’d recommend just staying in one area for a while and giving yourself the time and opportunity to explore and discover. The south, the northwest, Snæfellsnes, anywhere; there’s plenty to discover wherever you go. I don’t recommend trying to see too much in too short of a time. I drove more than 1600 miles in nine days, and was absolutely exhausted at the end of my trip! On the other hand, now I know what I’d like to do next time.

Why did you want to spend time doing interviews rather than more travelling?

My favourite memories of every trip I’ve ever taken have been of the times I connected with the people who lived there. People I met on buses or trains, people I talked to in bars or from whom I asked directions. The landscape creates the beauty of a place, but the people bring it to life. So this time, travelling with a book in mind, I reached out in advance to several people and arranged for some interviews. I was lucky enough to chat with Jón Gnarr (mayor of Reykjavík), Eiríkur Björn Björgvinsson (mayor of Akureyri), authors Ragnar Jonasson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and of course “Ice Cream Ragnar,” Ragnar Thorvardarson, who used to work with the Reykjavík Chamber of Commerce. I also had informal chats with other people around the country – a couple people at a Visitor Centre, a young woman who worked at a café, even the gentleman who aided me in getting my rental car. Chatting with them all gave me such great insight into the people and minds and ways of Iceland, that I could not have possibly gotten just by looking at magnificent glaciers. Taking the time to talk with people enriches my travels exponentially.

 Where are you off to next?

I can’t say definitively, because just when I think I’ve decided for sure, something will come along to change my mind. For now, though, I think the next destination is Croatia. Croatia has been on my mind for a while now. I think that may be it. That won’t be for a while yet, though – I have to rebuild the bank resources – but in the meantime I’m contemplating some local (to me) trips to write about, for shorter books (the length, approximately, of the Ireland and Switzerland books in the Pam on the Map series). Some possibilities are Vancouver/Victoria B.C., a Seattle book, the Olympic Peninsula. The world is big; the possibilities are endless!

You can buy Pam’s book Pam On the Map: Iceland in print and e-reader versions.

Pam’s website:
www.pamstucky.com

Facebook:
www.facebook.com/pamstuckyauthor

Twitter:
www.twitter.com/pamstucky

Book review: Strange Shores by Arnaldur Indriðason

Strange Shores is the latest installment in Indriðason’s Detective Erlendur series. This book is quite different from the others in the series and I think it will be either loved or strangeshoreshated by fans.

There is an ongoing storyline in the previous books in the series about Erlendur’s brother being lost in a snowstorm as a child. Erlendur has always blamed himself for this, but the reader doesn’t know too much about the background of the incident. This book finally addresses this storyline with Erlendur’s return to his childhood home in east Iceland. While he tries to find out exactly what happened to his brother who was never found, he also investigates the historical disappearance of local woman Matthildur, who was also lost on the moor during a storm. As he talks to elderly residents about their memories of Matthildur, will they be able to shed any light on his brother’s case?

I’ve always loved the idea of the brother-in-the-snowstorm story, so this is the book I’ve been waiting for. I managed to hold on to it for three months before reading it. I’m happy to say that there is closure  – I was worried this would be one of those stories that was never actually resolved. I loved this book and preferred it to the previous two which focused more on Erlendur’s colleagues. There is a bit of a last-book-in-series-tying-up-loose-ends feel to this one and I can see how some wouldn’t like the ending.

The reason I think this book could be hated by some is that the overall tone is quite different to the others in the series. Anyone buying it thinking it’s a gritty modern crime thriller will be disappointed. The tone is sad more than scary, and it’s more of a “story” than a crime novel. The mention of Reykjavík on the cover to attract foreign readers is a mistake, as nothing takes place there. This is a book not to be read out of order from the others in the series – you must read this one last.

The normally reclusive Indriðason recently gave an interview to The Telegraph to celebrate the book’s release.

I understand the next book takes us back to 1972 and the focus is on Marion Briem – can’t wait!

Book Review – Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s debut novel, and focuses on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, sent to live with a family while a death sentence looms over her for the burial-ritesmurder of local eccentric Natan Ketilsson. There had been quite a lot of hype about this book before its release, so I’d been looking forward to this one for a while.

Historical fiction is always a tricky mix of fact and speculation. Kent spent some time in the local area as a teenager and has done a lot of research, with support from many Icelanders particularly with translations. This helps to make the book feel very “real” and authentic when presenting the facts.

Kent is also very skilled in making the large cast of characters come alive. The first half of the book is about the people around Agnes, and helps to build the suspense for the reader wondering what actually happened on the night of the murder. The second half of the book became a real page-turner for me as we hear Agnes’s story at last. She finds a sympathetic ear in young priest Tóti, who has been appointed her spiritual guardian and vows to stand by her until the end, no matter what the outcome. We find out what Agnes’s life was like when she was staying in Natan’s house and unwittingly became part of an unfortunate “love square” involving the other two parties (Friðrik and Sigriður) that are also facing a death sentence for Natan’s murder. We also discover that she was an unwanted child who was always on the move in her early years. She becomes a complete character in the telling of her story.

This is one of those rare books that I don’t have any criticisms for. It took me quite a while to get through it but this was only because the book is too cleverly written to try and read a few pages of at a time. A real classic!

Quentin Bates has written an interesting article about this episode in Icelandic history which is well worth a read, but don’t read until you’ve finished the book if you don’t know the final outcome of this story!

Book Review: Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

“There’s a great freedom in not knowing exactly where you are heading, to surrender to the security of the Ring Road, where one point leads to another, and you always effortlessly end up back at square one again, almost without realizing it.”b-i-n

Butterflies in November is about a woman at a crossroads in her life, having split up with her husband and boyfriend at the same time. Through a series of strange circumstances she ends up with a new summerhouse, some extra money and the temporary care of the deaf and mute young son of a friend. Faced with all this, she decides to take her summer holiday even though it’s nearly November. The plan is to drive around Iceland’s Ring Road. Tourists who have also done this route will recognise some of challenges she comes across! Despite her initial panic at being saddled with this quite strange child, they soon develop their own routines and surprisingly muddle along quite well together on their journey.

There is no real ending to this story, it’s more of a snapshot in time of some lives that have come together and any number of things could happen next. In fact the last 40 or so pages of the book are a collection of recipes or thoughts on food that has been mentioned in the book. This section of the book feels very personal to the author and I’m guessing has been included to give some wider insight in to some of the things that have happened. It’s a unique feature which I’ve never seen in a book before and is very funny in places – this idea would work well for a standalone book.

I preferred this book to her earlier work The Greenhouse (which was a big success) but again found it hard to have empathy with some of the characters in the book. They are quite mysterious and there are several male characters who are referred to only as “he” and very rarely by name.  I don’t think we ever find out the narrator’s name, but maybe that doesn’t matter? This can be a little confusing but presumably a deliberate technique of the author. The result is that somehow you don’t get attached to any of the characters and you feel you have been kept at a distance. That said, I thought the book was clever and unique in its style and it’s not one that is exactly like all the other books you have read. It is also quite funny in places and I laughed out loud a couple of times at some of the narrator’s cynicism.

This is probably more of a woman’s book than a man’s book, and as with most translated books, it would help you to understand a lot more of the references in the book if you already know something about Iceland.

Apparently the film rights have been bought and the film will be shot in English with an international cast.

Butterflies in November is out on 7 November in English translation. Thank you to Pushkin Press for my advance copy!

Book Review – Someone to Watch Over Me by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Someone to Watch Over Me is the latest book in a series by one of my favourite Icelandic authors. Detective Thóra is on the case again following a fire in a residential home for Yrsapeople of varying disabilities. Who is she being fed clues from? Across town a little boy whose babysitter was killed in a hit and run accident is being looked after by her ghost, or so his mother believes, resulting in a full exorcism. Are these two stories related somehow?

I hate to say it, but this book didn’t grab me. I have loved all of the previous books, and particularly her foray into horror last year with I Remember You. I found this one quite hard to follow, with the connections tenuous. It seemed as if the author also felt this, with lots of deliberate recapping and explanations, making it all feel a little dumbed down.

I initially thought the “babysitter” storyline was the main one in this book and I was quite excited by it, but the “fire” storyline came in,  which is actually the majority of the book. I can’t put my finger on it but somehow it just never felt like a real story and I wasn’t interested in knowing what happened next. This was really a surprise as I have found all the previous ones to be page turners even through the stories can be quite different.

On a positive note, we get to see some more of the usual side characters like Matthew and Bella, although not much of Thóra’s family life this time. And it’s always fun to read about Icelandic place names that you recognise.  I will still look forward to the next one!