Enough Drama! Black Skies

Iceland’s unofficial ‘King of Crime’, Arnaldur Indriðason, has earned himself countless fans the world over with his Detective Erlendur suspense series that currently numbers 12 books.

Foreign readers eagerly wait for the stories of Erlendur’s investigations to be translated into their native languages—the latest of Arnaldur’s novels to be published in English is Black Skies (originally Svörtuloft; 2009), hitting the market this July.

Even though Black Skies is part of the Detective Erlendur series, the star of the show is absent. Happening at the same time as Outrage (2008), Erlendur is still on vacation in East Iceland and no one has heard from him in a long time.

In the meantime, his two associates, Elínborg—who was the main character in Outrage—and Sigurður Óli, are responsible for solving the crimes that occur in Reykjavík.

Much to my dismay, in Black Skies, the focus is on Sigurður Óli, who has so far been on the sidelines.

I was disappointed with Arnaldur giving Elínborg the stage in the previous book. I didn’t find her character interesting enough to carry the story and suspected the same would be the case with Sigurður Óli.

While Elínborg is busy trying to find out who slit the throat of the young victim in Outrage, he is responsible for investigating a brutal assault of a woman in her home in Reykjavík.

Yet it is not the case that Sigurður Óli is working on—and gets entangled in—that is in the spotlight, but rather Sigurður Óli’s character.

The only child of a divorced couple, Sigurður Óli is accused by his ex-girlfriend of being cold and distant and too much like his mother.

Readers learn more about the detective’s daily routines, background, friends and family, why his relationship failed and how the events occurring in Black Skies change his perspective and mature him.

To me, these passages, which take up most of the book, read like fillers and I caught myself yawning during descriptions of what Sigurður Óli has for breakfast and watches on television.

Eventually, I started skipping the boring pages to get to the core of the matter: the crime.

There is one culprit’s story in particular that strikes a chord with Sigurður Óli, that of a drunk whose petty crimes have made him familiar to the police.

Failing to contact Erlendur, the man places his faith in Sigurður Óli. He obviously has something important to tell him but doesn’t know how to go about it.

Although the drunk’s tale—which picks up on a loose thread in Arnaldur’s Arctic Chill (2005)—is not the main focus of the story, I found it to be the most interesting aspect of the book.

Delving into the past, questioning why the man ended up the way he is and why he does the things he does, readers—and Sigurður Óli—feel for the innocent and helpless boy the drunk once was. We understand that revenge must be the prevailing thought in his disturbed mind.

Only towards the end of the book, the story of the woman who was attacked gathers more weight and readers discover, along with the detective, that there may be more to it than it originally seemed.

The investigation leads Sigurður Óli to scrutinize the dubious affairs of corrupt bankers who, like so many others in the pre-crisis boom years, became fixated on earning as much money as possible—at any cost.

Now this is where the story finally gets interesting, some 200 pages into the book, and I rediscovered the old Arnaldur suspense magic I first came across in Silence of the Grave that kept me glued to the pages.

Tightly woven plots are what the author should focus on, in my opinion, and leave the detectives on the sidelines, where they belong.

I honestly don’t care about their domestic situations, love lives and inner conflicts; I want to read about the cases they’re solving.

I worry that Arnaldur will continue to move away from the suspense element of his detective novels and end up turning them into dramas.

My suspicion was confirmed when I read Furðustrandir (2010), which has yet to be published in English, which is more of a drama than a crime story.

However, in Furðustrandir, Detective Erlendur is back, and at least I find his character to be more interesting than that of his associates.

As for Black Skies, even though it was largely a disappointment, haunting secrets from the past and business ventures dominated by greed, proved once again that Arnaldur is a master plotter.

I just wish he would cut out the drama.

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Black Skies is available on Amazon.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

The Profusion of the Meandering Mind: From the Mouth of the Whale

From the Mouth of the Whale (London: Telegram, 2011), by the Icelandic writer Sjón, was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for 2012.

This is Sjón’s second novel to be published in English—the first one, The Blue Fox, won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2005.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is an annual award for the best contemporary fiction in translation published in the UK in 2011, and is unique in recognizing the importance of the translator in bridging the gap between languages and cultures. Sjón’s The Whispering Muse will be published by Telegram in June.

All languages have their own special alchemy, which can easily be lost in translation, but the magical work of translator Victoria Cribb inspired in me two thoughts: first, the belief that translations can stand on their own, and second, perhaps contrarily, the fervent wish that I could read what is probably even more beautiful in the original.

When I was in college, studying French and German, we sometimes had books in each of those languages that were printed with the original on the left-hand page, and English on the right, so that the translation, or transformation, could always be compared with the original. I am surprised that practice is not more common among works of literature in translation.

From the Mouth of the Whale is set in 17th-century Iceland. Although the rest of Europe was long past the middle ages, this was medieval Iceland, the pre-Enlightenment period when science was just beginning to challenge religious authority.

The protagonist and narrator, Jónas Pálmason the Learned, is a self-taught healer who is exiled for blasphemy and sorcery to desolate Gullbjörn’s Island off the coast of Iceland in the year 1635.

Although he is an independent thinker, Jónas is still steeped in the superstition and lore of his time, predominantly Catholicism and an embryonic science that sought to understand the world through cataloguing all its wonders.

Jónas’s story is told in a stream of consciousness style that allows the reader to ride along on all the fantastical journeys, tangents, highways and byways of his mind.

His meandering narrative tells of his career as a healer of women’s diseases; his struggle to conquer a gruesome ghost; his courtship and marriage; the deaths of his three children; his debates with his mentors, the Danish scholar Ole Worm and the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson (real historical figures who have been recruited into Jónas’s fiction); and his persecution for allegedly invoking the devil.

Jónas goes into exile with his wise and beloved wife, Sigga, who injects a note of salty irony into the narrative with her declaration, “That’s the sort of nonsense that got us here in the first place.”

Life and death are on display, including the birth (and death) of children, the sexual maladies, filth and excrement, corpses and rot and rigor mortis—everything that we avoid in our sanitized world.

Jónas (or Sjón) catalogues it all for us, and the kaleidoscopic intensity of Jónas’ mind is a marvel, a vision of the world like a canvas by Hieronymous Bosch.

Just as Jónas wonders how a dead man would know he is dead if he is still able to walk around, we become aware that it may sometimes be hard to tell the difference between our world and hell.

Sjón based Jónas on a real personage, Jón Guðmundsson the Learned, an Icelandic self-taught sage of the 17th century who was accused of calling on the devil to subdue a ghost, and exiled for sorcery.

Among Jón’s several important extant works is a treatise on Icelandic flora and fauna containing many pictures of whales—some realistic, others quite fantastic.

He also tells of the horrific killing of Basque whalers at the hands of some Icelandic villagers. Sjón says that he always knew he would go back to the fascinating figure of Jón the Learned at some point in his writing.

Whole sections of Sjón’s book flow without paragraph divisions, and with only ellipses for punctuation. Taxonomic entries occasionally interrupt the stream, providing distance in the midst of intense passages—snapping one back, so to speak, to the objective, real world of nature, and out of the phantasmagoric mind of Jónas.

But the descriptions of natural phenomena such as oleander, coral, moonwort, or the humpback whale are so shot through with superstition (moonwort can open locks as well as the cervix in childbirth, coral is effective against trolls and thunder), that they too reflect the mind and the time of Jónas. And, more importantly, the mind of Sjón.

The profusion of the meandering mind of Jónas is not meant to show madness, but the richness of the world and of one man’s imagination, especially when stimulated into high gear by the lack of anything else around it (a state that we in the modern world can scarcely imagine).

The line between Jónas Pálmason the Learned and Jón Guðmundsson the Learned is unclear, and in typical postmodern style, the characters in Sjón’s book overlap, and time and boundaries blur and fade with tantalizing surrealistic echoes.

In the Prelude, a resentful Lucifer presents Man with the gift of a vision of himself in all his repugnant multifariousness (which is the book itself).

The speckled sandpiper is slyly described by Jónas as a medium-sized fellow, with beady brown eyes, clad in a grey-brown coat, not unlike himself (or the author himself, perhaps).

And at the end, after Jónas is released from exile, Jón Guðmundsson the Learned steps into the book. Jón dreams of a man in a grey-speckled cap, with beady brown eyes surrounded by feathers, who says to him, “When you awaken you will have forgotten your name; for all you know, you may be called Jónas Pálmason.”

The theme of magically transmogrifying material is woven throughout the book in references to talismans, tupilaks, bezoars, kidney stones, and diacodi—objects in which simple organic material becomes concentrated, transformed and endowed with power.

Just as the bird becomes the man becomes the writer, the shapes and colors of old Icelandic texts are absorbed and remixed in this modern Icelandic text, and in translation those words are spun and respun into the golden threads of a new fabric. Translation is a form of alchemy in which the original wonder becomes a new kind of wonder.

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From the Mouth of the Whale is available on Amazon.

Ann Sass

Review: The Odd Saga of the American and a Curious Icelandic Flock

I received a copy of a little black book in the mail one day with greetings from an EE Ryan. The title read The Odd Saga of the American and a Curious Icelandic Flock and it did make me curious.

The back cover reveals that EE Ryan is the pen name of the author, who currently lives in Massachusetts, and that his story was inspired by his studies in Iceland.

The protagonist, Alex Welch, was happy to get the opportunity to study biology in Iceland for a semester abroad.

However, the experience wasn’t exactly what he had hoped for—coupled with concerns over his family and friends back home after the horrific events of September 11, 2001—and peculiar, if rather unbelievable circumstances bring his studies to an abrupt end.

The story is humorously written and the characters are interesting, such as Snorri the veterinarian who teaches Alex about the ways of Icelandic farmers, and Flaco, a mysterious Spaniard whose unpleasant demeanor is tolerated by his “friends” because he attracts the attention of women while out on the town.

EE Ryan is obviously a good storyteller who made some funny observations about Icelandic culture during his stay in the country, which certainly ring true.

I especially enjoyed his descriptions of the Icelandic countryside; of farmers who drink A LOT of black coffee and try to outdo each other when it comes to hospitality with ever-growing buffets of pastries and cakes.

Overall, I liked EE Ryan’s little tale, which (whether true or not) I took to be his publishing debut. However, it did strike me as incomplete on various levels and as such perhaps not ready for publication quite yet.

The story is short; basically a short story or a novella at best. It could, with a little more meat on the bones, either have made a good chapter in a collection of stories or, with extensive additions, a fully-fledged novel.

To me it seemed there is plenty of room to further develop the characters and storyline, perhaps peppered with some of the author’s other observations about the “curious Icelandic flock” and descriptions of the country.

I’m generally not a big fan of short stories or collections of such; telling a complete story in a span of a few pages is tricky.

It is possible, of course, and in fact I just read a collection of novellas by Kim Stanley Robinson from 1989, Escape from Kathmandu, that I can recommend (especially while traveling in Nepal).

EE Ryan did not only make me curious about his book, he also made me curious enough to want to read more about Alex Welch’s adventures. I would encourage him to continue writing.

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The book is available on amazon.com.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

What Caused the Collapse? On Thin Ice

Why did the Icelandic economy collapse? What caused the country’s ongoing financial crisis? These are questions regularly posed by readers and those which Icelanders have often asked themselves.

In On Thin Ice – A Modern Viking Saga About Corruption, Deception and the Collapse of a Nation (2011), Icelandic economist Jón F. Thoroddsen attempts to shed light on what led to the collapse of Iceland’s three largest banks in 2008.

Originally published in Icelandic as Íslenska efnahagsundrið (“The Icelandic Economic Miracle”) in 2009, this book is an expanded, revised and updated version, drawing from the author’s observations as a stockbroker in Iceland before the crash.

These include “the unhealthy relationship between the biggest pension funds and Iceland’s fast-expanding banking sector,” as Jón writes in his preface.

While I’ve never found economics to be a particularly interesting topic, Jón tries to jazz it up with humorous headings like “The New Money: An Unholy Trinity” and to simplify complicated issues as much as possible, so that a layman like myself may keep reading.

On top of that, this isn’t just any old dry fiscal report. This is the outrageous tale of the rise and fall of the young Icelandic business ‘Vikings’ who wanted to conquer the world but ended up almost bankrupting a whole nation, made possible by lax regulations and pushover authorities.

Most of this I’ve heard before, in particular in discussions following the publication of the Special Investigation Commission (SIC) report on the banking collapse in 2010, yet stories of insider trading, bribery, arrogant and impotent authorities never cease to shock.

Not to mention stories of the excessively extravagant lifestyles led by the nouveau-riche Icelanders, who competed with each other on who could get the most famous star to perform at private parties—Elton John probably topped the list—and who served the most expensive dinner; risotto garnished with gold flakes, anyone?

The book also provides an informative back story to the Icelandic political and economic climate in which the banks were privatized, an overview of the main characters involved in the collapse and a summary of the SIC reports.

I don’t know the story well enough to comment on whether important aspects may have been left out or whether the author may have alternative motives to simply enlighten readers on what went down in Iceland.

It doesn’t seem like he is taking anyone’s side, though: no banker or politician is let off the hook, members of all business and political factions are given equal bashing and various sources are consulted.

Also, I consider it a recommendation for the book’s credibility that its publication was supported by The Eva Joly Institute; I have much respect for the Norwegian-French corruption hunter who served as assistant to Iceland’s Special Prosecutor.

While the book shouldn’t be read as the absolute truth behind Iceland’s economic collapse, it is certainly a good starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about it.

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On Thin Ice – A Modern Viking Saga About Corruption, Deception and the Collapse of a Nation is available on amazon.com.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

Fleeting Borders of Good and Evil: The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning

I decided after the rather disappointing read of 101 Reykjavík, which everyone seemed to love, that Hallgrímur Helgason was not my type of author and had no interest in reading any more of his books.

However, the good thing about writing book reviews is that you’re forced to read books you otherwise wouldn’t have picked up.

This time I was in for a pleasant surprise. The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning(Icelandic title: 10 ráð til að hætta að drepa fólk og byrja að vaska upp) turned out to be deeper and more entertaining than I expected after reading the first few pages.

Starting out in a Pulp Fiction fashion with a passionate New York-based Croatian hitman, codename Toxic, describing his joy of killing, peppered with graphic descriptions of his girlfriend’s body parts and farfetched metaphors, the story took an unexpected turn.

It is not at all a thriller, as the author made clear when commenting on the book’s popularity on Amazon, but rather a mix of a black comedy and drama.

The drama bit is what took me by surprise. After making a successful career out of ruthless murders, Toxic accidently kills an FBI agent and is forced to flee the US, alienating himself from his colleagues in the Balkan mafia.

In a twist of fate he ends up in Iceland where he impersonates an American reverend and cons his Icelandic hosts, television preachers, into having him stay in their house. After his cover drops, the couple make it their Christian mission to save the hitman’s soul.

As far as the comedy goes, Hallgrímur makes a mockery out of Icelandic society as seen through the eyes of a foreigner, having him create English words for names of places and people according to how they sound to him and be stunned at the pre-crisis luxury.

Some of the joke names are funny and make sense phonetically, like calling a woman called Gunnhildur “Gunholder”, but others are stretched a little thin, as in calling Kringlumýrarbraut “Kill My Rabbit”. All in all, the joke is overdone.

The preacher couple are comical characters as is their friend, a religiously fanatic karate-fighting priest Toxic refers to as “Torture” (Þórður), and many of the other people he encounters in Iceland, such as the owner of a strip club and immigrant workers.

Albeit exaggerated, they reflect certain members of Icelandic society and carry with them a level of criticism of our community.

But what I really liked about the book is Toxic’s reflections of the past, his experiences in the Balkan war and his reasons for becoming a hitman.

It turns out he isn’t without a conscience or human emotions, they are just buried deep inside him and start to surface little by little as the story progresses.

I don’t know how well Hallgrímur researched the Balkan war but his descriptions sound plausible. Pieces of the puzzle gradually come together as Toxic discusses hidden secrets and searches for a long-lost love.

Toxic’s life in Iceland seems to be evolving into that of a proper citizen when a ghost from the past comes back to haunt him.

The ending is inconclusive, but although I usually hate having to make up an ending of my own, that doesn’t bother me all that much this time.

I came to realize that, to me at least, Toxic’s story wasn’t the main issue in this book. It is actually mostly about war and its horrid consequences, how it mutilates the souls of young frail people and turns friends into enemies.

The story illustrates how the borders between good and evil are often fleeting.

The book also, in spite of the mockery, reminds us Icelanders how lucky we are to live in a relatively peaceful country, a country Toxic mainly describes as quiet, which in recent centuries hasn’t been torn apart by civil war.

The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning was originally written in English but only published as such in 2011, after the Icelandic version hit the market in 2008.

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It is available on Amazon.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

Unsuspecting Gem: Six Days in Iceland

Sometimes the plainest of books sparkle the most.

Six Days in Iceland containing poems by Alyson Hallett and geological descriptions by Professor Chris Caseldine, complemented with a small selection of nature photographs by a group of students turned out to be such a find.

The book, which is fundamentally a poetry book about Icelandic landscapes and geology, is the product of a fieldtrip to Iceland by second year undergraduate geography students from the University of Exeter led by Caseldine.

Hallet joined the trip as the first poet in residence in a UK geography department, appointed to the university from September 2010 to May 2011.

During her residency, Hallet was keen to explore the exchanges between a poet and a scientist and to challenge her understanding of nature, as it says in the book’s foreword.

The poems were inspired by Hallet’s observations during the trip and her conversations with Caseldine and his students. Albeit not wordy, they convey the author’s intimate account with Iceland, her knowledge and appreciation of nature.

The poems are a light read yet leave much delight behind and feel a bit like spring thaw: a dripping icicle, a ray of sunshine, a migrating bird’s cheerful song, a bright yellow dandelion.

Some of them are a tad humorous, others a tinge gloomy. There is a serious undertone of loneliness, a love lost. Towards the end the subtexts become headlines, turning glaciers and birds into emotions, outwards to inwards and gradually the poems become more personal.

I preferred the first poems, such as the ones describing April in Iceland, bathing in a swimming pool in cold weather and watching the first signs of spring: “snow scripts the hills; a language hewn out of ice; the sun’s handwriting; spill of white” (from “April in Iceland”, p. 15).

I like it how natural phenomena are considered to be writers of landscapes in Hallet’s poems.

Hallet also refers to the professor’s lectures in her writing: “Chris counsels us to think of Iceland as flat” (from “Thinking of Iceland”, p. 18), something which Caseldine elaborates on in his interesting “scientific prose” at the end of the book, as it is referred to in the foreword.

A student’s concerns also inspire a poem: “Francesca says; What if Katla explodes while we’re here; What if a flood comes down the mountain; What if we can’t escape”, to which Hallet replies: “No brake strong enough; to stop the flood –; […] we learn that we are able to die – (from “Atlas of Iceland in Nineteen Pages”, p. 22-27).

As does a dramatic story mentioned in the same poem, of the lost members of a 1953 University of Nottingham glacial expedition whose equipment resurfaced at Skaftafellsjökull, a sub-glacier of Vatnajökull, in 2006.

That story is also elaborated on in Caseldine’s prose where he explains the nature of glaciers, that everything the glacier engulfs, it will eventually give back (which was actually also the theme of the novel in my last review).

Caseldine’s text concerns volcanoes and glaciers as well as including some general information about the country’s geography, geology and birdlife. It is short and concise and despite being scientific, is accessible to all.

Overall, this little book does Iceland much justice and should prove an interesting and enjoyable read to all Icelandophiles.

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Published by Dropstone Press in 2011, Six Days in Iceland is available on amazon.co.uk.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

The Greenhouse

Part road novel, part bildungsroman, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse is a meditative story of love, death, fatherhood, and creating meaning in life even when it seems to be entirely dictated by chance. Published in English translation in 2011, it is the first of ten Icelandic novels that online retailer Amazon committed to publishing in the next year via its literature-in-translation press AmazonCrossing.

The Greenhouse opens on Lobbi, a young man to whom things seem to just happen—things which he is rarely equipped to handle. The last year has been particularly unsettling in this respect: first, his mother, with whom he was very close, died in a terrible car accident. Exactly a year later—after being unexpectedly conceived in “one quarter of a night, not even”—his first daughter was born. Feeling superfluous in the life of his child and misunderstood by his aging father, Lobbi is only really comfortable when he is gardening. And so, he decides to leave Iceland for an isolated monastery in a foreign country, hoping to restore a once-legendary garden to its former splendor and add to it a rare species of rose that he cultivated in his mother’s greenhouse.

Once Lobbi begins his journey, little goes to plan. He falls ill almost immediately after he departs and later gets lost and has to detour through a labyrinthian forest. He’s barely settled into his gardening routine at the monastery before the mother of his child arrives with his daughter, asking him to “bear [his] part of the responsibility” and look after the girl while she works on her graduate thesis. But instead of collapsing in this new role, Lobbi rises to the demands of fatherhood, and finds himself embracing such simple tasks as roasting potatoes and picking out hair ribbons.

Auður Ava is not only a fiction author, but also a practicing art historian. So it seems only natural that her prose is particularly visual in its descriptions, such as when Lobbi first arrives at his new village and sees the monastery on the edge of a cliff, “…severed in two by a horizontal stripe of yellow mist that makes it look like it’s hovering over its earthly foundations.” There is a tangible richness to each setting in the novel. Lobbi imagines the lava field where his mother died, visualizing a landscape of “russet heather, a blood red sky, violet red foliage on some small trees nearby, golden moss.” The cozy warmth of her greenhouse, a sofa among the tomato plants, contrasts with the forest Lobbi drives through “which seems endless and spans the entire spectrum of green.”

This evocative prose, fluidly translated by Brian FitzGibbon, provides a nice counterpoint to the simple but perceptive landscape of Lobbi’s continuous internal monologue. In the end, his own transformation mirrors that of his beloved roses, echoing his mother’s gardening philosophy: “it just needs a little bit of care and, most of all, time.”

The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated into English by Brian FitzGibbon is available on Amazon.

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Larissa Kyzer

Conspirational Joyride: Operation Napoleon

It had been a while since I read Arnaldur Indriðason’s* Operation Napoleon last. Originally published as Napóleonsskjölin in 1999, its English translation appeared earlier this year.

The reason for the political thriller’s late advance on the English-speaking market is probably that it is not part of the crime author’s popular Detective Erlendur series.

I don’t mind; I actually applaud the thriller’s independent storyline as I sometimes find old Erlendur has become a bit tired.

Once again, Arnaldur proves to me that when he is thoroughly interested and engaged in a plot, he is excellent at what he does, keeping readers glued to the pages, making them feel for the characters and cry out in surprise as the story unravels.

At least that’s how I reacted to Operation Napoleon, inspired by Winston Churchill’s “Operation Unthinkable” to attack the Soviet Union with the aid of the Germans at the end of World War II reported by The Daily Telegraph in 1998.

Arnaldur makes a mysterious German airplane en route from Berlin to America with a stopover in Iceland crash on Vatnajökull glacier. The US military launches extensive search for the airplane in vain but almost 60 years later it resurfaces.

High-ranking US military officials launch a highly secretive and ruthless operation to reclaim the airplane and its cargo to bury the secret it carries once and for all, so potentially destructive that even the US Secretary of Defense is left out of the loop.

Enter Kristín, an ordinary Icelandic citizen who works as a lawyer for the Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs and gets entangled in the operation when by coincidence her brother sees the airplane on Vatnajökull and is caught by the US military.

Maybe because a male author chose to narrate the story through a woman, I didn’t really connect with the heroine. I didn’t find her background particularly interesting and she remained rather distant to me throughout.

However, I found the other characters sympathetic, especially Steve from the American military base in Keflavík. The characters of the elderly Captain Miller and farmer Jón were deep and felt authentic.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot apart from saying that I remembered when rereading the book that the romantic in me became cross with Arnaldur at one point.

I felt the same way now—I actually had to put the book away for a while after finishing one particularly dark and gory chapter.

There were things I wish had turned out differently—although I admit that wouldn’t necessarily have been realistic and the novel is no worse, maybe even better, for the sake of it—but I absolutely love the ending.

I’ve read about critics who comment that Arnaldur’s conspiracy theory is far-fetched and maybe it is—but what a conspiracy!

And if novelists aren’t allowed to play around with historical facts and have to restrict their imagination too much, their books would simply become dull.

That can certainly not be said about Operation Napoleon, a conspirational joyride in Dan Brownian fashion.

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Operation Napoleon is available on amazon.com.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

World Turned Upside Down: Gunnlöth’s Tale

I first read Gunnlöth’s Tale (originally published as Gunnladarsaga in 1987) by Svava Jakobsdóttir (1930-2004) in junior college and remember being absolutely fascinated by it.

So when I heard the news that the book had appeared in English, I was excited to have the opportunity to read it again and see whether my fascination would remain.

In short, the answer is: absolutely.

First of all, Jakobsdóttir has mastered the art of writing in the Icelandic language which makes the narrative flow like poetry and change in style according to whose narrative it is and in what context it is set (although the abundance of exclamation marks bothered me). I cannot vouch for the translation. I imagine it must be a difficult one.

I especially liked the chapter where the main storyteller, a middle-aged upper-class Icelandic woman who is stranded in Copenhagen because her rebellious daughter was arrested there, is escorted by a character called “The Fish”, a regular at a sleazy pub, to the city’s underworld.

The description really makes you feel as if you’re being carried away with an ocean current, sinking to the ocean floor and gliding through underwater streets like a fish.

The story begins with the aforementioned woman writing a letter to her husband about her experience in Copenhagen and her feeble attempts to have their daughter freed without creating too much of a fuss, as it could potentially upset an important business deal for their company.

The letter format continues throughout the story but is regularly broken up by the daughter’s mythical account of the events leading up to her arrest. At first reality and myth is clearly separated but merge as the story progresses, as do some of the characters.

The daughter’s name is Dís, which is a common women’s name in Iceland, especially as a suffix, and means “nymph”.

Out of love she chases a troublemaker to Copenhagen and ends up getting caught holding an invaluable national treasure, a golden chalice, at the Danish National Museum; the glass case that contained it shattered to pieces.

Dís maintains her innocence, stating that she neither broke the glass case nor tried to steal the chalice but rather reclaim it.

She recites this crazy story seemingly inspired by Norse mythology about the chalice belonging to a priestess called Gunnlöth who Ódinn betrayed.

At first her mother tries to have Dís ruled mentally ill, also to avoid a prison sentence and speculation that she might belong to a group of political activists.

But as she digs deeper into the story through studying Norse mythology and her daughter’s account and her world begins to fall apart she starts to doubt her decision.

I love mythology, particularly Norse mythology, and to me Gunnlöth’s tale is the most fascinating part of the story.

Its fantasy elements draw parallels to personal favorites of mine, novels such as The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, She Who Remembers by Linda Lay Shuler and Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Childrenbooks.

In actual Norse mythology, Gunnlöth is not a gracious priestess serving an almighty goddess but a giantess who guards the mead of poetry inside a boulder called Hnitbjörg. She grants Ódinn, the highest of gods, three sips of the mead in exchange for sex.

Jakobsdóttir turns the story upside down, upsets the roles of men and women, changes gods into mortals and makes the evil good—a world where myth becomes reality.

While the mother’s story becomes slightly tiring at times and her emotions and actions perhaps a bit exaggerated at the beginning, Jakobsdóttir makes it up with a gripping fable and profound characters; especially Urdur, Gunnlöth’s mentor (one of the norns in Norse mythology), and Anna, the owner of the sleazy pub.

This story has many layers and I guess I have to read it one more time to discover them all. It’s about devotion, deception, compassion, breaking barriers, unlikely friendships and even includes the Chernobyl disaster.

Perhaps this story is mostly about feminism, though. As a politician, Jakobsdóttir fought actively for women’s rights.

Yet it is an aspect of the story which slips through the backdoor; you may not even notice it. While not to be taken too seriously, in changing perspectives, the story can teach you to look at things in a new light.

But Jakobsdóttir doesn’t try too hard, which is what I applaud the most, the book is primarily an entertaining read. It’s a prime example of belle-lettre, deep without being boring or pretentious.

stars40

For questions on availability, email the publisher in the UK, Norvik Press[email protected].

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

Rollercoaster of an Adventure: Kingdom of Trolls

Kingdom of Trolls, published in February 2011, is the fourth in the MiddleGate Books children adventure series by Canadian author/illustrator Rae Bridgman.

I hadn’t heard of the series until I was mailed a copy of the Kingdom of Trolls, which takes place in Iceland, but the child in me was excited to learn more about it because I’ve always been a fan of mystery novels.

However, my enthusiasm sank shortly after I started reading. Although I could certainly sense the author’s talent for storytelling, it seemed obvious that she had borrowed a lot from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

I acknowledge that it is possible that the two authors may have had the same ideas about a world of magicians parallel to that of humans before writing their books and without ever learning about each others’ work.

But considering that both stories also include orphaned children who learn about magic at school and solve mysteries in their pastime, ghosts with whom they consult at the library, magical pets, a ministry responsible for magical affairs, a secret evil order of the dark arts trying to take control, a wicked wizard (who in this book shares a name with Hermione’s cat in the Harry Potter series) on the hunt for a young boy whose parents/grandmother died in order to protect, magical portals allowing people to travel between vast distances in an instance… it’s hardly a coincidence.

For this reason I found it hard to enjoy the first part of the book where the protagonists, Wil and Sophie, were at home in MiddleGate, a magical place in Canada.

The events leading up to them traveling to Iceland where the main adventure takes place were a bit longwinded as well and stretched out over about half the book.

Although many of these events were original, colorful and relevant to the storyline (the strange fortune telling machines, for example), I would have preferred the lead-up to be shorter.

Also, once in Iceland, it takes the characters a long time to get to the actual Kingdom of Trolls and the wrap-up feels a bit rushed. Or perhaps some threads are left loose on purpose to build up excitement for the next book in the series.

Anyway, to praise the author, as soon as the trip to Iceland begins and the characters are taken out of the Harry Potteresque background of MiddleGate, Bridgman demonstrates her full ability to be original.

It’s interesting how she weaves bits and pieces from Icelandic culture, history and legends into the plot and takes her characters to actual locations in Iceland, including Námafjall, a geothermal area by Lake Mývatn in the northeast, and the Museum of Icelandic Witchcraft and Sorcery in Hólmavík in the eastern West Fjords.

I also thought the author did a good job in making these descriptions as authentic as possible—apart from a few linguistic slips in the case of people’s names (for example, a woman whose mother’s name is Íris would have the matronymic Írisardóttir, not Írisdóttir)—and so the book also serves as a guide to some of Iceland’s more peculiar attractions, which I’m sure many children would enjoy.

After a slow start, the plot takes an exhilarating turn. Like on a rollercoaster ride, readers follow the resourceful children and their aloof Aunt Violet, who only wears purple, on a wild journey around Iceland, jumping in and out of the past and getting caught up in nasty situations.

I’m fond of some of the details of the story, like the frames of Sophie’s glasses changing color according to her mood and how “snake” and related words are used in description of various situations (albeit a little overdone at times).

For example: “Don’t have a snake” means “don’t be upset” and being “snake-legged” refers to something like feeling embarrassed. Apparently snakes are some sort of holy beings in MiddleGate.

Other details I found unnecessary, like the Latin prologue to each chapter.

To conclude, in spite of a mostly well-written story, many aspects of it were so uncomfortably familiar that I can’t give the author as much credit as she would have deserved with a little more originality. It’s a shame she didn’t rely more on her own creativity, which she certainly seems to possess.

Even so, younger readers might not mind the striking similarities to Harry Potter as much as I did (even if they are devoted fans of J.K. Rowling’s magical adventures) and will enjoy Brigdman’s writing all the same.

stars25

All four books of the MiddleGate series are available through McNally Robinson Booksellers.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir