Jólabókaflóð – The Christmas book flood, part 2

Today Einar Kárason shares his memories about Adventure at Christmas:

‘Books are the classic Icelandic Christmas gift and when I remember the excitement when I was eight or nine, and just starting to read for myself, of whether one of my sisters or I would get the newest Enid Blyton adventure. There were eight of them, The Island of Adventure, The Castle of Adventure, The Valley of Adventure, The Mountain of Adventure, and so on. Now these are seen as highly unfashionable and I think that cancel culture has been unkind to Enid Blyton’s legacy. Certainly they are startlingly old-fashioned and with a nostalgic atmosphere that harks back to the days of empire, with scant respect for more primitive people and cultures, and frequently the villains are of the dark-skinned variety. I recall a line in The Island of Adventure when someone asks who lives in a particular place and the reply was that there were ‘a man and a woman and a black servant.’

It’s understandable that such viewpoints aren’t any longer presented to children, although cancel culture itself and practically everything associated with it should be anathema to any reasonable person. You can never tell how far it will go. If we look back at human history over centuries and millennia, it’s clear to see that many of the biggest names in history, artists, philosophers, scientists and political leaders, all held views that today are seen as bad. They were racists, owned slaves, favoured the death penalty and despised other races… And what we could think or feel would be severely limited if all of that were to be on the banned list.

It’s a shame if people are no longer able to be familiar with works such as the Adventure series. These maybe weren’t groundbreaking books. Both the two boys and the two girls are somewhat stereotypical, and come from a higher class background. The jewel in the crown was the talking parrot, Kiki, and that wasn’t exactly a novelty as both Stevenson and Dafoe had given us talking parrots. But just like those masters before her, Enid Blyton had a knack of leading the reader into new territories, in such a way that you felt you got to know them and felt that you had been there, even if you were reading about them at home in a basement room in Reykjavík.

I’ve scaled Welsh mountains, know Scottish islands and the puffins that live in burrows there, I’ve spent time in Scottish castles and experienced the sight of eagles and foxes, and so many other places I was fortunate enough to get to know as a child, all because sometimes there would be one of Enid Blyton’s Adventure books under the Christmas tree.’

My review of Einar Kárason‘s Storm Birds translated by Quentin Bates and published by MacLehose Press in 2020.

Einar Kárason (born 1955 in Reykjavík), a novelist and one of the most popular author and scriptwriter of his generation, started his career writing poetry for literary magazines, and published his first novel in 1981. His novel Fury (2009) was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize and awarded the Icelandic Literary Prize. He is best known for his book Þar sem djöflaeyjan rís, which was translated into English as Devil’s Island (2000) and made into a film.

Djöflaeyjan / Devil's Island (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBCbVRpD_Yw) is a bitter sweet tale of Iceland in the fifties. Life is rough in Reykjavik's post-war slum of Camp Thule, where the abandoned US military barracks have been turned into makeshift homes. Struggling wives and their hard-working husbands try to make ends meet. The younger generation dreams of dollars, Rock'n'Roll and the American way of life. To celebrate or to drown their misery - they're never short of a good reason to booze. The film vividly depicts the everyday life of a wacky family, their neighbours and friends and shows how some of their dreams come true and others don't. Information via Icelandic Cinema. 

Jólabókaflóð – The Christmas book flood, part 1

Iceland is known for its mythology, folklore and tales, and the stunning otherworldly landscapes. It is also a country of writers and readers, bookworms and book dragons; and it prints more books per capita than any other country in the world, with over 50% of Icelanders reading more than eight books per year (but I don’t have the exact number). So of course, it seems that the best-loved Icelandic tradition revolves around reading. Jólabókaflóð, or Christmas flood of books, is a literary Christmas celebration that begins with the printing of a catalogue in mid-November and ends with the giving, receiving, and reading of new books on Christmas Eve. This fabulous tradition of giving books isn’t foreign to other places yet I don’t think there are words in other languages to reflect that so well.

During WW II paper was one of the few non-rationed luxuries at the time when any items to be given as gifts were costly and hard to find. Therefore, printing of books was affordable and accessible which in turn meant they became the best gifts for families to exchange during the festive period. Following the end of the war more luxuries became steadily available; however, the tradition remained and continues to be so cherished. As a staple on the Icelandic Christmas calendar, the annual Jólabókaflóð celebrations begin with the publishing and distribution of the Bókatíðindi. The catalogue of new publications from Publisher’s Association in Iceland is distributed for free in autumn to every home. This provides a wonderful opportunity to choose all types of books for family and friends, exchange literary presents on Christmas Eve and spend the rest of the evening and the very dark night getting lost in words, while enjoying some chocolate and sweet treats.

I’m delighted to hear from some writers who embrace Jólabókaflóð tradition, and Lilja Sigurðardóttir is the first person to share her experience of the Christmas book flood.

Lilja reading for the staff of an Icelandic engineering firm

‘Christmas is and will always be associated with books in my mind. Iceland has a long-standing tradition of only publishing books before Christmas and it’s called the ‘Jólabókaflóð’ or Christmas-book-flood. So, October and November is all about books and authors are superstars, promoting their books everywhere; bookstores, library events, workplaces.

The tradition is that many bigger workplaces like offices, factories etc. have a special morning, lunchtime or afternoon break in November or December, that most often is longer than usual and some Christmas foods or cakes are served to the staff and an author or two read to them from their new book.

I find these workplace visits very cosy. Many times people have decorated the workplace canteen for the event and there might be candlelight or other mild light as the slumber of the Arctic darkness is all consuming at this time of year and it is nice to take a break from the bright office lights and relax into the natural darkness. Sometimes I have had to point my phone flashlight at my book to be able to read! And there the people sit quietly with their hot chocolate in hand and listen to you read. I might be wrong but I have a feeling these kinds of workplace events are very specifically Icelandic and exist within the whole tradition of the ‘Jólabókaflóð.’ They always fill me with a quiet joy and love for the Icelandic Christmas.’

IcelandNoir 2021

I absolutely love the cold and cool IcelandNoir crime fiction festival. When I first came to Reykjavik in 2014, I immediately felt at home, as if I arrived at a place that will always be my safe refuge. Yes, it was still dark at ten o’clock in the morning, the brutal wind blew from the sea and the sky changed several times during the day to reflect the constant drama of the weather. But I love the Nordic shades of grey. There was snow and various lights everywhere, and the mysteries of elves, and books and writers. Since then, I travelled to Iceland about ten times, made friends for life, have been inspired by words, deeds and history, and again volunteered at the festival. Of course, now we live in complicated world, with the pandemic that hasn’t yet disappeared so until the very last moment it was not clear whether IcelandNoir would go ahead. Covid restrictions meant that several events had to be cancelled, the organisers had to make changes to the programme, a number of authors could not join, Jólabókaflóð (Christmas book flood) events for the local authors were postponed, and generally some of us felt like we have been in Reykjavik under cover. Running away. We weren’t. But the situation is still slightly unsettling.

IcelandNoir was born in 2013 over a curry in one of Reykjavík’s finer Indian restaurants when Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson and Quentin Bates were wondering why Iceland had never had its own crime fiction festival. Over the years the festival has grown and evolved, also with Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s input. This year, after a three-year festival’s absence, the quartet of organisers were the original literary stars Yrsa and Ragnar, plus the brilliant writers Óskar Guðmundsson whose first book in English was launched at IcelandNoir, and Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, author of two books translated into English already. Here I want to mention the translators Quentin Bates (again) and Victoria Cribb without whom we might not have been lucky to read some pretty spectacular Icelandic literary works.

Starstruck 2: Will Dean, Eliza Reid and Ian Rankin.

The magic of books mixed with the magic of Icelandic nature and stories add to the very special welcoming feeling and relaxing atmosphere. Over two evenings and three full days between 16th and 20th November there were panels, interviews and chit chat sessions at two centrally located venues; Iðnó theatre by the Reykjavík pond and Vinnustofa Kjarvals, a private members club. Discussions about different subgenres, themes, protagonists, motives and ideas. Poetry and nonfiction. Location, detection and murder. Vikings and puffins. Influence on TV, film and music. The organisers invited some of the biggest names in the international crime fiction community including authors AJ FinnAnn Cleeves, Anthony HorowitzEmelie Schepp, Ian Rankin, Liz Nugent and Sara Blædel.In addition to the stellar line up of writersfrom several countries the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdóttir and Iceland’s First Lady, Eliza Reid joined as admired and knowledgeable moderators for two of the headline events. Starstruck by famous and recognisable figures is one things. Being able to chat to them is another. And that what makes this festival both special and relaxing. New friendships are forged, new authors are discovered and while the days are relatively short and the dark nights bring tales of ancient Christmas traditions, sprinkled with folklore, hardship and innovation(!) there was also time to visit beautiful and magnificent natural landmarks in the countryside. This time I didn’t venture outside the capital but I enjoyed walking along the familiar streets, past old wooden houses and modern ships, past works of stunning public art and fabulous murals. I ate fish soup and sourdough bread. I drunk coffee and had cakes. I want to go back in 2022. November wouldn’t be the same without IcelandNoir.

One Last Time by Helga Flatland

‘The realisation that Mum is going to die hits me in different ways each day.’

Imagine a family tree, with the sixty-seven-year-old Anne as its core. The strong, independent and tenacious woman. Guided by the flows of nature and seasonal weather. She’s married to Gustav who after several strokes over a couple of decades had to finally be moved to a nursing home. Anne never fails to visit him daily. Then there are her two adult children. Magnus lives alone in Stavanger and works offshore. Sigrid, his younger sister lives in Oslo with her partner Aslak, and two children, a headstrong four-year-old son Viljar and an unpredictable nineteen-year-old daughter Mia. Sigrid becomes very unsettled by the arrival of Jens in town, Mia’s father of who hasn’t been on horizon for most of the girl’s life while Aslak happily took on the parenting responsibilities to be with Sigrid. Family dynamics evolve as time goes on and different aspects of personalities develop and interact with the outside world. Mentioning the age of each character is quite important in view of what’s going to hit them very soon, and how they react to the shocking upsetting news.

And now if you could try to imagine the location, an old farm in a village in the mountains, by the lake, quite a distance from both big cities of Stavanger and Oslo, a village which evokes various emotions and memories for the grown-up siblings, and which becomes a focus in the lives of the people connected by blood and rock-solid emotional ties, even if they seem frayed. They keep going back to the place where Anne lives because she has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and each event in a typical course of the year, in a usual social calendar might be her last. Last Christmas, last Easter, last holiday, last morning swim in the lake?

‘I drive back and fourth between Mum and Oslo, […] driving through morning fog and a surprising flicker of hope over Geilo, through autumn rain and paralysing anxiety in Hønefoss, through blinding afternoon sunshine and grief in Lærdal, through the nights, the mornings, the days, the emotions, back and forth to Mum.’

Magnus and Sigrid take different approach to arranging practicalities for their mother who stubbornly clings to life and own sense of freedom, while they both try to understand what’s happening and how can they cope with the incoming loss. What’s interesting in their conversations and concerns is that they perceive past in a completely different way. Sigurd’s point of view takes precedence in the novel as she cannot escape the feeling of being abandoned, neglected, unloved. Since Gustav’s first stroke, Anne’s attention has been on caring for him, which left very little energy and time on for children. Anne’s total breakdown marred Sigrid’s teenage years who then was left by Jens and had to adapt and change her dreams. But now as a doctor dealing with fragile patients and her own dying mother, she hopes for some kind of reconciliation in terms of memories and recollections, some admission of guilt from her mother, and an apology. But Anne isn’t ready for that as illness, loneliness and death take precedence: ‘I feel certain that Sigrid’s memories of her upbringing grow more painful and terrible every time that I fail to apologise, but I’ve realised that it’s useless to try to dispute her memory of events, or to integrate them with my own, at any rate.’ Sigrid feels that her own existence unravels as the days pass and her pragmatic persona struggles with the overflowing emotions: ‘I picture Mum in the kitchen at home, surrounded by her new loneliness, alone in an ailing body.’ In the mixture of fractured relationships, questions about ordinary mundane tasks and re-examining of deep uncomfortable truths, Mia’s attitude angers her mother but is met with stoic calm by her grandmother. Three generations of women rethink loss and love.

One Last Time in Rosie Hedger’s exquisite translation from Norwegian, written beautifully and sensitively, with glimpses of gentle humour and huge dose of empathy, is a book to be treasured and enjoyed slowly, focusing on small gems of wisdom, just like Helga Flatland’s previous novel A Modern Family.

Published by Orenda Books. One Last Time and One Last Time

Winner of Petrona Award 2021!

Today the winner of the 2021 Petrona Award is announced, and it’s a first win for historical crime.

The winner of the 2021 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year is:

TO COOK A BEAR (Koka Björn) by Mikael Niemi, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published by MacLehose Press.

As well as a trophy, Mikael Niemi receives a pass to and a guaranteed panel at CrimeFest 2022. Mikael Niemi and Deborah Bragan-Turner will also receive a cash prize.

The judges’ statement on TO COOK A BEAR:

The judges adored TO COOK A BEAR, a historical crime novel set in northernmost Sweden in 1852, and were unanimous in our decision to select it as the Petrona Award winner for 2021. We were particularly impressed with the novel’s use of historical detail, its fascinating reimagining of a figure from history, the sense of location and atmosphere, the rumination on religion versus the natural world, and the depiction of early forensics. TO COOK A BEAR’s superb characterisation of the main protagonists Læstadius and Jussi, which is tinged with sadness yet hope, also allows the author to explore the issues of literacy and class with sensitivity and compassion. The beautiful translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner lets the novel shine for English-language readers around the world.

TO COOK A BEAR is the first historical crime novel to win the Petrona Award.

Comments from the winning author, translator and publisher:

Mikael Niemi (author):

I am very proud and happy to have received the Petrona Award and would like to thank my editor, Katharina Bielenberg, my translator Deborah Bragan-Turner, and my agency, Hedlund Literary Agency, who have made it possible for this novel to reach British readers. This happy news has brightened the growing winter darkness here in the very north of Scandinavia. I am sending my warmest thanks to all my British readers.

Deborah Bragan-Turner (translator):

I am absolutely thrilled and very honoured to receive the Petrona Award. It’s a great privilege to be in the company of such accomplished authors and translators on the shortlist. Many congratulations to you all. Thank you to MacLehose Press for your support and editorial advice, and to the panel of judges for your championing of and enthusiasm for Scandinavian fiction in translation. And of course thank you most of all, Mikael Niemi, for bringing the story of Jussi and the pastor to us in TO COOK A BEAR, an inspired novel and a joy to translate.

MacLehose Press:

We are delighted that Mikael Niemi’s novel has been recognised with the Petrona Award. TO COOK A BEAR is immersive and transporting, historical crime fiction at its best, and it has been thrilling to watch it find its readers in English. Powerfully vivid and lush in its descriptions of Sweden’s very far north, and brilliant on literacy and the power of language, it has been beautifully and imaginatively rendered in Deborah Bragan-Turner’s translation. Congratulations to them both!

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous and continued support of the 2021 Petrona Award.

This is the ninth year of the Petrona Award. Previous winners of the Petrona Award are Liza Marklund for LAST WILL, translated by Neil Smith, LINDA, AS IN THE LINDA MURDER by Leif G.W. Persson, also translated by Neil Smith, THE SILENCE OF THE SEA by Yrsa Sigurđardóttir, translated by Victoria Cribb, THE CAVEMAN by Jørn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce, WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett, QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, THE KATHARINA CODE by Jørn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce and LITTLE SIBERIA by Antti Tuomainen, translated by David Hackston.

My thoughts on this fascinating novel are here: To Cook A Bear

Huge congratulations to the author and the translator!

Author’s photo (c) Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Óskar Guðmundsson: The Commandments

I’m absolutely delighted to start the blog tour for The Commandments / Boðorðin penned by the Icelandic author Óskar Guðmundsson and published by Corylus Books. Let me say a couple of things first.

The contrast between two faces of Guðmundsson is incredible. I was lucky to meet him at several book festivals and was taken by his friendly charming manner, and a huge smile that never left his face. People are drawn to him. And I believe this appealing mixture of warmth, compassion and openness to the world shaped his other face as a confident writer of compelling crime fiction. The Commandments is Guðmundsson’s third book which reached a bestseller status in Iceland when published in 2019, focusing on difficult issues that do not often appear in the newspapers and therefore provoke controversy within the Church as well as in society as a whole. The compact yet powerful novel left me speechless and shaken at the disturbing story that had been hidden deep in the memories and experiences of the main characters. The absolutely masterful manner of weaving different threads into a rich tense and ultimately redeeming tale of trying to deal with guilt and forgiveness.

Secondly, under no circumstances sneak a peek at the book’s final pages. I know how tempting this can be, particularly as The Commandments has layers of truth that need to be found. Savour the challenging journey of discovery, enjoy the unravelling of emotions.     

At the heart of plot is the strong desire to shine the light on abuse that was going on for a very long time, with the awkward convenient consent of the small local community. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise given the perception of people who seem not to fit or who threaten the status quo. People who come from dysfunctional families, people who are neglected. Add to this sense of protecting own sense of security within a tightly knit neighbourhood, and list of subjects that should not be discussed. Peace of mind, conformity and all that. However, that peace turned into an illusion long ago when youngsters instead of being supported, fell prey of the people in power. 

It all starts with vanishing of a troubled teenager in 1995 who was last seen talking with a priest outside an Akureyri church. Nineteen years later it seems that Anton is just some uncomfortable ghost memory. Nobody talks.

Salka Steinsdóttir, a former police officer and a young woman re-evaluating own life in view of private trauma, returns to the north of Iceland to appease her demons. Although her parents live quite close, she is not ready to discuss very personal issues with them. As she tries to enjoy fly fishing in the stunning surroundings of a river at Laxá she meets a charismatic police officer Magnus who is also after tranquillity and big fish. Sadly, the calm is shattered as she’s called to step in and begin inquiry into the horrific murder of a local priest in nearby town of Grenivík. Soon she finds herself in the hardest investigation of her life when realising that she had pursued the victim earlier in her career. The case into abuse was shelved but dark reputation of the now dead man never left her. Then another horrendous murder comes to light: a deacon was found crucified in his home in Akureyri. At both crime scenes the murderer left a single message. Convinced that the killer is probably seeking a revenge, she has no doubts that lives of other people connected to the institution of Church are in danger. Ten Commandments should not be misinterpreted, isn’t it so? As she pursues all possible links and considers matters with her colleagues who are not keen to delve into the past, she realises that Anton’s disappearance played a much bigger role than anyone had assumed.   

The emotional impact of the earlier events cannot be overlooked, and Salka recognises how many of her new acquaintances have been drawn into the murky history for various reasons. That process of discovery leaves her doubting both the legal system and the social morals.  

Salka is a fantastically written heroine fit for the modern times, full of fire in her belly and deep desperate sadness. She demonstrates her professional skills during the investigation with determination and grit even if her decisions create conflict and make her position within the new team on shaky ground, especially as though she’s a detective inspector, here she doesn’t work in her official capacity. Her fragility and sense of justice are a potent mix that push her outside comfort zone.

Through the creation of the main characters and victims of the long-term sexual abuse Guðmundsson poses many tough questions which resonate with people. He does not judge nor explain but infuses the story with enough empathy to understand some skewed motives of the perpetrators. Distorted moral compass in the quiet North and the unspoken refusal to admit that so-called pillars of society are responsible.

Sensitive translation by Quentin Bates, renowned for his own writing as well as bringing several excellent Icelandic books to the English-reading world, is superb as it invokes every feeling, doubt and suspicion. The narration really does flow through emotional highs and lows, and the sharp, perfectly constructed prose never loses its momentum. In fact, it does grabs your attention and holds in a tight tense grip until the poignant heart-wrenching finale. With The Commandments a new thrilling star has finally shown his true colours in English. Welcome to the exciting crime fiction firmament, Óskar Guðmundsson!

Heidi Amsinck: The Long Way Home

Guilty. One word on a beggar’s cardboard sign. And now he is dead, stabbed in a wintry Copenhagen street, the second homeless victim in as many weeks. Dagbladet reporter Jensen, stumbling across the body on her way to work, calls her ex lover DI Henrik Jungersen. As, inevitably, old passions are rekindled, so are old regrets, and that is just the start of Jensen’s troubles. The front page is an open goal, but nothing feels right… When a third body turns up, it seems certain that a serial killer is on the loose. But why pick on the homeless? And is the link to an old murder case just a coincidence? With her teenage apprentice Gustav, Jensen soon finds herself putting everything on the line to discover exactly who is guilty.

That’s the premise of Heidi Amsinck‘s second book My Name is Jensen, set in snowy Copenhagen, and published by Muswell Press in August 2021. Together with Katrine Engberg and Lone Theils, Heidi will be discussing Danish Noir at the online event Murder most foul in the evening of 27th October and organised by Barnet Libraries. Tickets – Eventbrite. Here, however, you can read Heidi’s thoughts on the writing process of a novel set in her hometown yet not written in her mother tongue which I found so intriguing.

‘I’m Danish but write in English. I rarely give it much thought, but reading my Copenhagen Crime novel My Name is Jensen translated into my mother tongue by a fellow Danish author has made me reflect: how strange is this?

I was born in Copenhagen where my parents met as kids in the 1950s. I grew up in Denmark, didn’t leave the country till I’d graduated from journalism school, and wrote articles in Danish for newspapers back home for many years. However, in all the time I’ve been writing fiction, I’ve been writing in English.

Thinking about it, it must have something to do with wishing to belong in my adopted homeland. Shortly after arriving in London on a foggy winter’s night to begin a new life as a foreign correspondent, someone told me that if I wanted to master English, I should listen regularly to The Archers. I followed the advice (still do), all the while inhaling as many short stories and novels in English as I could lay my hands on.

I read eclectically but have always been a fan of the dark and mysterious: Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Daphne du Maurier, Isak Dinesen (AKA Danish author Karen Blixen who wrote in English and Danish both). In my youth I devoured the novels of Stephen King, and once in England began to work my way through the crime fiction greats: Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, PD James, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin and many, many more.

Yes, even all that doesn’t seem enough to explain why, when my own dark stories began to take shape with a series of Copenhagen twilight tales for BBC Radio 4, they did so in English.

As I settled in Britain, I had kids and made friends, and there is probably a part of me that wanted to use fiction as a means of showing them where I come from in a language we share. But, more than that, I’ve realised that writing in English about my home country lets me keep my distance in useful ways.

When I wrote My Name is Jensen during the first lockdown in spring 2020, distance to home wasn’t a choice. Unable to travel, I yearned for Denmark and my Danish friends and family. I found writing about my beloved Copenhagen extremely soothing.

Jensen is a Danish reporter who returns home from London after many years, something I never did, though I often imagined what it would be like. As Jensen travels through the city on the hunt for a killer, in a race against her on-off lover DI Henrik Jungersen, she notices its otherness in a way no Copenhagener would. If I’d written the novel in Danish, that might have been harder to pull off, and I would not have been so free to make things up.

It’s a long while now since I lived in Copenhagen, but in other ways, I never left. The city has a hold over my imagination like no other and is the place to which my fiction always returns. I want you to go there with me, to see its light and shade and everything in between. I guess that, by writing in my second language, I am merely choosing to take the long way home.’

My Name is Jensen – Bookshop.org   My Name is Jensen – amazon

Will Dean’s Bad Apples: Rural Swedish Noir

Fans of Will Dean’s evocative, fiendish and compelling writing have been waiting for the latest instalment of The Tuva Moodyson Mysteries which follows Dark Pines, Red Snow and Black River, and the standalone novel The Last Thing to Burn. Ahead of the publication of Bad Apples this week on 7th October I am delighted to share Will Dean’s thoughts and musings about nature and surroundings that inspire him.

Scandinavian forest in its autumnal glory

It only takes one…

A murder: A resident of small-town Visberg is found decapitated

A festival: A grim celebration in a cultish hilltop community after the apple harvest

A race against time: As Visberg closes ranks to keep its deadly secrets, there could not be a worse time for Tuva Moodyson to arrive as deputy editor of the local newspaper.  Powerful forces are at play and no one dares speak out. But Tuva senses the story of her career, unaware that perhaps she is the story…

Here’s what Will Dean says:

I’m a reader first and foremost, and I enjoy atmospheric books: gripping stories that immerse you in particular time and place. I like to feel as if I’ve fallen into a story. Like I’m living it. I still relish that magical childhood feeling of stepping through the back of the wardrobe for the first time. Entering a new world. Stepping into fresh snow. That’s what I like to read so that’s what I try to write.

Before I begin a first draft I spend many hours inside my own head, walking around the streets of Gavrik (a fictional town in Värmland, central Sweden). I reacquaint myself with the layout of the place, the small police department, the one bar, the recycling station, the gothic liquorice factory, the hunt store, and, of course, Tuva Moodyson’s employer, the Gavrik Posten newspaper.

Gavrik (and now Visberg, its Twin Peaks-ish hilltop neighbour) feels as real to me as any town in Scandinavia. But what inspired me to dream up these places?

First, I was heavily influenced by my own surroundings. I live partly off-grid, deep within a huge Swedish elk forest. We use wood for heating and cooking and we take water from our own well. Moose regularly trample through our land (because it’s actually their land). My nearest town is about a half hour drive away (when the snow’s not too deep). On a Friday night there’s nobody out on the streets. It’s a quiet place where people tend to keep themselves to themselves. My town’s largest employer is a biscuit factory. In December the streets smell of gingerbread. In contrast, Gavrik’s streets smell intensely of aniseed; the ice-cold air is laced with it. Unlike my local factory, the Grimberg Liquorice is a place of secrets, unexplained accidents, and toxic co-dependency. The town relies on the factory for secure jobs. Generations of locals work there. And the factory relies on the town for reliable labour. The locals and the factory are locked together in a slow death spiral.

Second, I’m obsessed with small towns in general. I grew up in the East Midlands around several market towns, never inside, always on the edge looking in. I find them fascinating. Where you have one main employer, the town dynamics can become extreme. The factory or warehouse or manufacturer can be as important to local people as a school or church. The Grimberg factory in Gavrik can’t survive without the town and the town can’t survive without the factory. They live or die together. And the cocktail of myths, secrets and grudges you find in any small, cut-off community is an electrifying set-up for a story. I’m fascinated by the lives of ordinary people living in ordinary places. It is their stories that I want to tell, and a small town setting helps me to focus and go deep.

Finally, I find the nature here utterly intoxicating. Distinct seasons. True wilderness. A crime series set in Scotland or Ireland can bring a sense of isolation, but we also have bears, wolverines, lynx and wolves to contend with. Those elements (Åsa Larsson writes bears especially well), combined with extreme seasons, lend a backdrop of menace. When I imagine the beginning of a Nordic tale I sometimes visualise the opening scene of The Shining. A grand vista. One car driving along a snaking road in the wilderness, venturing further and further from safety. Add a blizzard in to the mix (as Ragnar Jónasson and Peter Høeg do to great effect) and you almost create the sense of a locked room mystery or a closed set. It’s a delicious landscape for suspense.

I’ve been here for over a decade now. Rural Sweden is home. As long as I continue to find this world (and its inhabitants) fascinating, I’ll continue to tell these stories. Each one is a real pleasure.

You can buy the latest Tuva Moodyson’s story via the links Bad Apples – Bookshop.org and Bad Apples – Amazon or in a local bookstore.

Petrona Award 2021 shortlist

Outstanding crime fiction from Iceland, Norway and Sweden shortlisted for the 2021 Petrona Award. Six outstanding crime novels from Iceland, Norway and Sweden have been shortlisted for the 2021 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year. The shortlist is announced today, Thursday 30 September.

A NECESSARY DEATH by Anne Holt, tr. Anne Bruce (Corvus; Norway)

DEATH DESERVED by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, tr. Anne Bruce (Orenda Books; Norway)

THE SECRET LIFE OF MR. ROOS by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Mantle; Sweden)

TO COOK A BEAR by Mikael Niemi, tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner (MacLehose Press; Sweden)

THE SEVEN DOORS by Agnes Ravatn, tr. Rosie Hedger (Orenda Books; Norway)

GALLOWS ROCK by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

The winner, usually announced at the international crime fiction convention CrimeFest, will now be announced on Thursday 4 November 2021. The Petrona Award is open to crime fiction in translation, either written by a Scandinavian author or set in Scandinavia, and published in the UK in the previous calendar year.

The judges’ comments on the shortlist:

There were 28 entries for the 2021 Petrona Award from six countries (Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Sweden). The novels were translated by 17 translators and submitted by 20 publishers/imprints. There were 10 female, 16 male, one male/male pair and one male/female pair of authors.

This year’s Petrona Award shortlist once again sees Norway strongly represented with three novels; Sweden with two and Iceland with one. The crime genres represented include the police procedural, historical crime, psychological crime, literary crime and thriller.

The Petrona Award judges selected the shortlist from a rich field. The six novels stand out for their writing, characterisation, plotting, and overall quality. They are original and inventive, often pushing the boundaries of genre conventions, and tackle complex subjects such as class and power, the bonds of friendship, and the failure of society to support vulnerable individuals.

Today, very aptly, is International Translation Day. We are extremely grateful to the five translators whose expertise and skill have allowed readers to access these outstanding examples of Scandinavian crime fiction, and to the publishers who continue to champion and support translated fiction.

The judges’ comments on each of the shortlisted titles:

A NECESSARY DEATH by Anne Holt, tr. Anne Bruce (Corvus; Norway)

Anne Holt, according to Jo Nesbø, is the ‘godmother of modern Norwegian crime fiction’. Best known for her ‘Hanne Wilhelmsen’ and ‘Vik/Stubø’ series (the inspiration for TV drama Modus), she also served as Norway’s Minister for Justice in the 1990s. A Necessary Death is the second in Holt’s ‘Selma Falck’ series, whose eponymous protagonist is a high-flying lawyer brought low by her gambling addiction. The novel shows Falck resisting an attempt to kill her: on waking in a burning cabin in a remote, sub-zero wilderness, she has to figure out how to survive, while desperately trying to remember how she got there. A pacy, absorbing thriller with a gutsy, complex main character.

DEATH DESERVED by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, tr. Anne Bruce (Orenda Books; Norway)

Death Deserved marks the beginning of an exciting collaboration between two of Norway’s most successful crime authors. Thomas Enger and Jørn Lier Horst are both already well known for their long-running ‘Henning Juul’ ­and ‘William Wisting’ series. Death Deserved, in which a serial killer targets well-known personalities, mines each writer’s area of expertise: the portrayal of detective Alexander Blix draws on Horst’s former career as a policeman, while Enger brings his professional knowledge of the media to the depiction of journalist Emma Ramm. The novel expertly fuses the writers’ individual styles, while showcasing their joint talent for writing credible and engaging characters, and creating a fast-paced, exciting plot.

THE SECRET LIFE OF MR. ROOS by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Mantle; Sweden)

Håkan Nesser, one of Sweden’s most popular crime writers, is internationally known for his ‘Van Veeteren’ and ‘Inspector Barbarotti’ series. The Secret Life of Mr. Roos is the third in a quintet featuring Gunnar Barbarotti, a Swedish policeman of Italian descent, who is a complex yet ethically grounded figure. His relatively late appearance in the novel creates space for the portrayal of an unlikely friendship between Mr. Roos, a jaded, middle-aged man who has unexpectedly won the lottery, and Anna, a young, recovering drug addict of Polish origin, who is on the run. Slow-burning literary suspense is leavened with a dry sense of humour, philosophical musings, and compassion for individuals in difficult circumstances.

TO COOK A BEAR by Mikael Niemi, tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner (MacLehose Press; Sweden)

Mikael Niemi grew up in the northernmost part of Sweden, and this forms the setting for his historical crime novel To Cook a Bear. It’s 1852: Revivalist preacher Lars Levi Læstadius and Jussi, a young Sami boy he has rescued from destitution, go on long botanical treks that hone their observational skills. When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear, but Læstadius and Jussi find clues using early forensic techniques that point to a far worse killer. Niemi’s eloquent depiction of this unforgiving but beautiful landscape, and the metaphysical musings of Læstadius on art, literature and education truly set this novel apart.

THE SEVEN DOORS by Agnes Ravatn, tr. Rosie Hedger (Orenda Books; Norway)

Agnes Ravatn’s The Seven Doors has shades of Patricia Highsmith about it: a deliciously dark psychological thriller that lifts the lid on middle-class hypocrisy. When Ingeborg, the daughter of university professor Nina and hospital consultant Mads, insists on viewing a house that her parents rent out, she unwittingly sets off a grim chain of events. Within a few days, tenant Mari Nilson has gone missing, and when Nina starts to investigate her disappearance and past life as a musician, worrying truths begin to emerge. A novel about gender, power and self-deception, expertly spiced with Freud and Bluebeard, The Seven Doors delivers an ending that lingers in the mind.

GALLOWS ROCK by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

Gallows Rock is the fourth in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s ‘Children’s House’ series, featuring child psychologist Freyja and police detective Huldar as a reluctant investigative duo. Their relationship provides readers with some lighter moments and occasional black humour, along with a frisson of mutual attraction. The novel’s intricate plot focuses on skewed morals and revenge: what begins as a ritualistic murder at an ancient execution site in the lava fields – the Gallows Rock of the title – leads to the unearthing of a case of long-term abuse, whose devastating impact is sensitively explored. The author won the 2015 Petrona Award for The Silence of the Sea.

The judges

Jackie Farrant – Crime fiction expert and creator of Raven Crime Reads; bookseller for twenty years and a Regional Commercial Manager for a major book chain in the UK.

Dr. Kat Hall – Translator and editor; Honorary Research Associate at Swansea University; international crime fiction reviewer at Mrs. Peabody Investigates.

Ewa Sherman (me!) – Translator and writer; blogger at NORDIC LIGHTHOUSE; regular contributor to Crime Review; volunteer at crime fiction festivals in Reykjavik, Bristol and Newcastle.

Award administrator
Karen Meek
– owner of the Euro Crime website; reviewer, former CWA judge for the International Dagger, and Library Assistant.

Further information can be found on the Petrona Award website

Add Cyanide to Taste by Karmen Špiljak

Kurt Wallander’s visits to his favourite cafe Fridolf’s Konditori in Ystad. Martin Beck’s meetings with his daughter Inger at the dimly lit restaurants in Stockholm. Harry Hole’s frequent trips to the old-school Restaurant Schrøder in Oslo though he does not care much for what’s on offer. Solemn Erlendur tucking into the classic Icelandic dish of boiled sheep’s head and potatoes. Salvo Montalbano enjoying delicious dinners and gorgeous sunsets on the terrace of his local eatery.

‘Food and stories aren’t that different; they nurture in different ways.’

The food examples in the crime fiction are endless, and so often allow for some breathing space when the plots become too intense and crimes are too gruesome. They also reflect protagonists’ state of mind, giving detectives and inspectors a moment of normality and distraction from a complex case, or become the quite opposite when opening a fridge represents looking at a sad lonely onion and a dry piece of cheese thus signifying the personal life’s emptiness. However, good food, or lack of it, is always present.

Karmen Špiljak, a Slovenian-Belgian writer currently living in Brazil, loves food AND crime fiction. In her carefully assembled menu of international culinary noir with some unexpected notes, food is the pièce de résistance although it does not overpower the main ideas. Themes are interesting and surprising: a cursed recipe, a suspicious cook, friends turning against each other, or a mysterious disappearing pub.

I was convinced that the number thirteen is the one that fills many people with trepidation. Superstition can be a powerful emotion. However, in Špiljak’s latest piece of creative fiction it is the fourteen that brings some truly deadly thoughts. That specific number of short stories delivers both sinister and delicious twists and reactions as the author combines passion for words and cuisine, offers food for the soul and recipes to be followed should anyone wanted to recreate the mood of the perfectly formed and narrated descriptions from the collection. What I found especially enjoyable is the lightness of touch of her writing style, and the flow of narration with which she concocts her mouth-watering noir dishes. There are cooked to perfection thrillers, ghost stories and mysteries. And even a slightly futuristic take on the pact with the Devil that feeds on people’s desire to pay with their lives for the most sensational feast. Although the food is the muse, sustenance, invitation or joy, it nevertheless can turn into the expression of deeply hidden emotions, unforgotten secrets, and become a catalyst for change or closure. 

None of the recipes proposed in the second part of the book contain or advise the use cyanide. Far from it. There’s no need to transfer anger or hurt into the readers’ reality. Yet it’s fascinating to read about a mother who had always expressed her love for the family and unspoken trauma through cooking delicious cakes, pies and biscuits. She also discovered a bitter-sweet formula for practical revenge. Which means that from now on I will think of fruit in a different way. Fruit is wonderful but can lead to a sinister demise if people are not careful. Or if a crime has been committed already. 

As the author focuses so much on various aspects of food, and how we relate to cooking, eating, enjoying, or not, a variety of easy and complicated dishes, she asks the reader what they were eating while reading Add Cyanide to Taste. Well, I was lucky to enjoy the Norwegian waffles with strawberry jam and soured cream which makes the perfect combination for this particular easy dish. The soured cream is a worthy ingredient in my kitchen but that’s another story. Not murderous. 

You can get to know Karmen Špiljak and order this collection of short stories Add Cyanide To Taste