Jólabókaflóð – The Christmas book flood, part 5

Deeply rooted in Iceland, the writer, journalist and translator extraordinaire Quentin Bates keeps looking for the odd names

Only two of Quentin Bates’ books featuring Officer Gunnhildur

‘When you scan the bookshop or library shelves, what do you look for? Do the familiar names jump out, or the unfamiliar ones? I’d hazard a guess that for most of us the eye is caught by the ones we already know, the old friends, the one we can rely on to deliver the goods, the familiar surroundings.

So maybe I’m the weirdo? There’s a list of familiar names I am happy to return to – but given the choice of a safe (and possibly predictable) pair of hands, and something that’s going to provide a jolt of strangeness, I know which way I’ll go.

It goes back to when this inquisitive and probably irritatingly obsessive teenager first began exploring the grown-up shelves. First it was Georges Simenon, then the intriguing Sjöwall & Wahlöö, and where in the world did they come from? From then on it became a habit to skim the names on the library and bookshop shelves, looking out for the strange names. Anything looking vaguely Mediterranean, mittel-European or Nordic ticked the right boxes, leading to Jaroslav Hašek and The Good Soldier Švejk, Josef Škvorecký’s Lieutenant Boruvka, Isaac Bashevis Singer and any number of others with tales to tell of the world beyond the horizon.

You get the picture, checking out the names that weren’t obviously Anglo, which could lead off on all kinds of interesting tangents and down bookish dead ends.

There was Jerome Weidman and his tales of New York and its immigrants, and Hans Helmut Kirst’s insider stories of the Third Reich and later his detective novels. Does anyone read either of these any more? Back then I remember devouring everything of theirs in the local library, which was also back when the library seemed to still keep books for more than five minutes.

The frustrating thing was that although Maigret, Martin Beck and others became favourites, that’s all there was in those pre-internet days when it wasn’t exactly easy to look beyond the local bookshop and library – and it seemed it was years before there was anything more in the same vein.

Looking for the odd names remains a habit, the eye stopping at the ones that could hail from Latin America, the Middle East, somewhere around the Baltic or the Siberian tundra – and skating straight past the shelf of Mr Rex West’s latest spinetinglers. It goes without saying that this means taking a chance on unknown quantities, and ending up now and again with something that doesn’t hit the spot. But how else would I have stumbled across the work of Pascal Garnier, Andrei Kurkov, Bogdan Hrib, Jean-Claude Izzo, and the mighty Dominique Manotti? It’s absolutely worth a few duds to have made their acquaintance.

So do yourself a favour… Next time you scan the shelves, try filtering out the familiar, look out for the odd names and take a punt on something from beyond the comfort zone. You might not like it – or you could strike a rich trove of something new. But you won’t know until you’ve given it a try.’

You will find some familiar faces here Jólabókaflóð 1, Jólabókaflóð 2Jólabókaflóð 3 and Jólabókaflóð 4. They might have been odd names before but what a joy to discover and read them. Gleðileg jól!

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