Karitas Untitled by Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir

The story of a woman trapped in a predestined life of conventions and societal expectations is as old as the world itself. And so is a woman artist who has to forge her right to express herself artistically which in turn would allow her to live her life fully. Does it get better these days? There are more opportunities but can the society let go of what women are supposed to contribute, to be free and creative? Karitas Jónsdóttir is on the difficult path surrounded by the harsh reality of existence in the brutal Nordic climate and the constant fight to find money and food, in the first half of 20th century in a country where art was appreciated yet not easy to reach for all, when the backbreaking physical labour was essentially the only way to stay alive. Karitas lived in a fishing village and in the capital of Denmark, got used to the modern technology and went back to a turf hut. So much of the ancient and the new mixed together!

In one of her interviews Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir said that equal rights were at the top of her mind when she began writing novels. That theme forms basis of her rich and complex novel Karitas Untiled / Karitas án titils (first published in 2004) and makes a portrait of a young untraditional artist all the more powerful and poignant. However, Iceland is a character in its own right, with the emotionally sensitive portrayal of the nature, landscape, seasons, and fauna and flora. And people. These elements influence Karitas’ first shy encounters with painting, trying to catch shapes and contrasts, experimenting with light and shade. They are the very first step in the process of learning which was noticed by a rich lady who decided to give some drawing lessons to Karitas and then send her to Copenhagen to study for five years. The classic photographic reflection of the world on paper and canvas was the way to catch attention of some of the art connoisseurs yet Karitas longed for the more modern abstract ways to create, to capture emotions, to thrive. But being an artist had to wait as Karitas’ responsibilities took over. Marriage, children, many years without her husband.

To be able to think clearly, you need a lot of light’. Baldursdóttir weaves the threads of various experiences to understand the yearning of an artist and to respect women who had lived through the hardship: ‘What an extraordinary woman your mother is. He loses her husband at sea and picks up and leaves with her six children in order to provide them with an education. Circumnavigates the country with them in the dark hold of ship but makes it to her destination, washes fish, knits woolen clothing, and manages to get all of her children into school. She never lost sight of her goal, that woman. They have always been known for their toughness, those people in the Westfjords. Though they’ve always dabbed in black magic, of course.’ Men feature in the book; the fisherman and the sailors, the farm workers and the pillars of society that still has a long way to go in terms of emancipation, introduction of modern technology and personal freedom. But the motion of strong-willed women is what pushes some of the progress and development, which includes personal growth and personal motivation to decide. ‘Black magic’ might be a loose term but nevertheless it encompasses ancient Icelandic traditions and beliefs. Hidden people or elves appear to guide and protect. A ghost helps to deal with trauma. The nature is full of hidden secrets.

The solemn majestic beauty of the Icelandic landscape adds to the literary magnificence of the novel, and often stops you in tracks when reading. The same happened to Karitas who had to endure death and loss, the unknown and the uncertainty. She longed for internal chaos to be a better painter, hoping for understanding and recognition. Yet this has been a long painful process which involved her personal turmoil.

I feel that the novel’s apparent abrupt and unexpected ending makes perfect sense in the context of global historical events. It encompasses wealth of emotions and some conflicting decisions. Karitas’ life on the book pages starts in 1915 with WWI’s distant echoes in Iceland, and concludes just after Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning in of WWII. We know that in the 1940’s war came much closer to this small nation. We are not privy to Karitas considering her future, yet I think it might be fair to say that she would focus on truly expressing herself as a painter. And I wish her all the luck.

Growing up on a farm in early twentieth-century rural Iceland, Karitas Jónsdóttir, one of six siblings, yearns for a new life. An artist, Karitas has a powerful calling and is determined to never let go of her true being, one unsuited for the conventional. But she is powerless against the fateful turns of real life and all its expectations of women. Pulled back time and again by design and by chance to the Icelandic countryside – as dutiful daughter, loving mother, and fisherman’s wife – she struggles to thrive, to be what she was meant to be.

The author Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir might not be so well known in the UK but is one of Iceland’s most acclaimed writers and the internationally bestselling author of numerous novels, including Karitas Untitled, nominated for a Nordic Council Literature Prize; Street of the Mothers; Chaos on Canvas; and Seagull’s Laughter, which was adapted for the stage and also into an critically acclaimed film. She received her degree in 1991 from the University of Iceland, studied in Germany and Denmark, and has also worked as a teacher and a journalist. Among Kristín Marja’s many honours are the Knight’s Cross of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon for her achievements in writing and her contributions to Icelandic literature, the Jónas Hallgrímsson Prize, and the Fjöruverðlaun Women’s Literature Prize. She lives in Reykjavík.

The award-winning translator Philip Roughton worked on many of Iceland’s best-known authors, including Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Þórarinn Eldjárn, Bergsveinn Birgisson, and Steinunn Sigurðardóttir.

Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir

Huge thanks to FMcM Associates for the chance to read this thought-provoking novel, and to share my loose thoughts for the blog tour. You can now purchase Karitas Untitled – Bookshop.org.uk Karitas Untitled – Amazon.

Walpurgis Tide by Jógvan Isaksen

Jógvan Isaksen’s Walpurgis Tide was originally published in 2005 but the first introduction of the author and his writing into the English-speaking world came in 2016 thanks to the translator John Keithsson and Norvik Press. I always read forewords and translators’ notes if there are included in any book. They often provide insight into the background of the main story and also into the nature of the language which in turn make it more intriguing for me. Though the thriller Walpurgis Tide is gripping from the very suspenseful first pages and would not require any further encouragement. A couple of young British environmental activists are found dead, with their throats cut, among the massive carcasses of slaughtered whales. This has happened during the controversial grindadráp, an annual whale hunt, a bloody and terrifying event. The hunt is a centuries-old Faroese tradition, part of the national identity for people who have lived on these remote wild islands in the North Atlantic. The hunts are also notorious for stoking the fire of the international disputes, with violent and brutal aftermath.

The Faroese journalist Hannis Martinsson believes that hunting for these huge mammals in such a way will have to end soon, especially as the whales themselves are so polluted with heavy metals that their meat and blubber are toxic. The traditional food is becoming poisonous. Yet as a Faeroese he cannot ignore the fact that fishing industry makes a lot of money that could be lost if boycotted by other countries.

Hannis has just returned to his country after years of living abroad, mostly in Denmark, and isn’t quite sure what to do with his life and how to earn a living. He rents a small office in a building that has seen better days but has an advantage of being in a very central location in the capital city of Tórshavn. While Hannis repaints his office and considers a vague career as a consultant, writing for the foreign magazines and newspapers, he also decides to keep away from the international storms which always follow news of grindadráp. Alas, that’s not on the cards. A strange overconfident British man Mark Robbins asks him to investigate a double murder of two victims, Jenny McEwan and Stewart Peters who were sent on behalf of his organisation, the Guardians of the Sea to observe the hunt and gather information with an aim to get it banned. Extremely reluctantly Hannis takes on the assignment and as well as the money, as Robbins presents him with a threat to destroy the country if the murderer is not found, with the repercussions that would also reach Denmark. He begins the undercover investigation; however, within hours his new employer is dead. Hannis works both methodically and chaotically, chasing names and connections, and trying not to get killed in the process. The mystery leads him to discovery of more bodies, and foreigners involved in the fishing industry, and a very personal revelation.

Faroe Islands are mysterious and romantic, stunningly raw and beautiful and deadly dangerous, traditional and modern. An uncharted territory and a dream destination for the modern travellers. As a self-governing autonomous Danish territory (I hope I got it right) their citizens veer between firmly sticking to the ancient Norse customs and rules, and looking into the European future, while gambling with some potential oil-riches. They have a complicated relationship with Denmark so there’s no surprise that Hannis is often on the receiving end of the animosity felt by those who never venture from the islands, and insulted as a Dane-lover. Isaksen creates an authentic relatable portrait of a man who sees his home country from the outside perspective, and thanks to his experiences abroad, this view if full of sharp ironic observations, as well as timid love. Hannis appears to be an old cynic, world-weary and disillusioned when it comes to his career and personal relationships yet full of dark sarcastic humour and brilliant insights into the tight-knight society: ‘Choir singing is like one of the plagues of Egypt. You can’t take a step without hearing choir singing […] Have the nerve to turn a radio on, and you’ll have four-part harmony thrown in your face.’ He even feels ‘the primal instincts of a hunter; an intoxicating feeling of the joy of life amid the slaughter’ when at sea. He regrets never getting married, smokes indoors, drinks too much, appreciates younger women but keeps a distance – and finally does return to his ex-girlfriend.

‘Yes, I was at church this morning. That’s why I’m in my confirmation suit. I don’t wear this every Sunday. But when a female priest comes to preach, and a good-looking one at that, you have to go to church. Also just to annoy those people who are against women priests […] Those bloody Danish priests that rush up here trying to ban women from preaching in God’s house. What on earth are they doing? Do they want us to become independent just to be free from them?’

I enjoyed Walpurgis Tide, its pace, engrossing style and richness of observations that make this thriller feel authentic and original. Having read Chris Ould’s Faroese trilogy set in Faroe Islands featuring an outsider with Faroese roots, and also David Hewson’s Devil’s Fjord where the hunt becomes a central event, akin to a predestined saga, I appreciate and am familiar with the tradition of the whale hunt, mood and atmosphere of the islands. Both authors’ evident fascination with the location inviting the stories to be told are hugely enjoyable, as well as tense and captivating. I read a comment saying that Ould’s books are better than Isaksen’s; however, I believe they are equally gripping; just told at different times and from different angles, and focusing on slightly different elements of the history and culture of this geographically distant nation.

I also feel that Hannis Martinsson could become one of my favourite reluctant heroes; similar to the Norwegian PI Varg Veum in his lone-wolf approach to dig deep into the hidden layers of truth, disturbing the superficial peace. Hannis is being shot, threatened and pursued by a mysterious sniper, and treated like a very annoying fly in the ointment by the local police. I am also very curious about Trom, based on four of Jógvan Isaksen’s novels which has just premiered on Nordic streamer Viaplay. Trom is the first ever TV series filmed in the Faroes, and created by screenwriter Torfinnur Jákupsson who has finally fulfilled his long term ambition. Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen takes the centre stage.

Translator John Keithsson worked from the original Faroese text and the Danish translation by the author. This method allowed him to fully bring both the story and social context into English, and to ensure that this unforgettable book was comprehensible for the readers outside the Nordic universe. He did a magnificent job.

A Memory for Murder by Anne Holt

Anne Holt is a force to be reckoned with. Her professional career as a writer, lawyer and a former Minister of Justice provided her with a rich experience she draws upon. Holt’s perception of the current affairs gives her the best perspective of the world she creates for her characters. Combined with understated yet commanding writing method, precise narration and detailed observations, her style is unique and formidable, and also reflective. She creates tough female protagonists; independent women that know their own strong points and equally realise what their weaknesses are. This awareness does not always appeal to others, and that includes the readers. However, they do not need to be liked or admired. Some understanding of their motives, or the situations they find themselves in, helps to relate to them but I would say that the complexity of personalities, and some traits considered unattractive in the society add tension and drama to the stories that Holt tells so well.  

A Memory For Murder is a remarkable slow burner of a thriller taking in complex social and political issues, and questioning the nature of Norwegian welfare state in the context of the European Court of Human Rights. Of course these themes are the basis for equally complex portrayal of the main and secondary characters, and all and any possible links or connections between them. As in the previous novels in the series, A Grave for Two, and A Necessary Death, which was shortlisted for the Petrona Award 2021, Selma Falck is the centre of the investigations. Former athlete, high-flying lawyer and celebrity, she now makes a living as a private investigator. She lives independent solitary life and chooses to answer to no one. With her fragile family ties Selma’s focus/obsession is only on one small human being, her grandson Skjalg. The current book offers enough background to explain why her own daughter Anine is so reluctant to keep in touch; earlier books expand on this theme. Hence thinking of Skjalg becomes the main reason for her to investigate a case that otherwise she would have left to the police. It also keeps her gambling addiction at bay and gives her hope to see the little boy. 

It all started with a late lunch with two friends at the outside restaurant in Oslo’s district of Grünerløkka. A sniper shot and killed her oldest friend, unremarkable junior MP Linda Bruseth while the stray bullet travelled through the victim and hit Selma’s shoulder. Everyone, including the police and more importantly, Anine, assume that Selma was the main target. Initially she thinks that as well but soon realises the impossibility of this, even though a stalker seems to plague her life on top of this. But the invisible intruder who enters her flat or leaves objects that have not been seen for years does not present fear of such violence, although unsettles Selma. Maybe she was the collateral damage…

Soon after the shooting a Supreme Court Judge Kajsa Breien is found hanged from a tree branch. A woman diminutive in posture but gigantic in spirit, could not have committed suicide though. Selma knew her, too, and finds a link between two victims as they both have been involved in challenging child welfare cases. She doesn’t discover the connection on her own though; however, she is much quicker to see beyond the obvious aspects of both deaths and to form a plausible theory.

Although Selma’s brain and emotions are on fire and she thinks with a lightening speed, she does not work in a vacuum. Three men assist her in the sphere of inquiries, and like everything in her professional and personal life, the working relationships with them are complicated. A journalist Lars Winther, summoned by his boss, reluctantly takes on an investigative work left by his recently deceased colleague. Jonathan died in a cycling accident and had access to articles and encrypted files that clearly pointed at some scandal within the child services. Second man central to the search for clues and motives is the police superintendent Fredrik Smedstuen, not a maverick nor a brilliant lone wolf, but ‘a policeman of the grey type’, a disillusioned divorced hardworking man who decides to trust Selma’s thinking. ‘He did what he had to do, no more nor less, and followed the rules to the letter’ and finally found himself in the middle of explosive controversy.

And there is Einar Falsen, traumatised ex-policeman, a man totally shattered by the system and his mental breakdown, who, however, remains Selma’s closest friend and confidante, and when feeling safe and healthy, he offers the most insightful advice. Over the course of three novels Einar became a rock in Selma’s existence, even if he still suffers from serious delusions. Looking back at his life this is totally understandable, and I admire Holt for creating such a poignant human being.

‘Pussycat had once been called Darius after a fabled king of Persia. His territory at that time had been vast and even though he was an expensive pedigree cat, he enjoyed most of all roaming through the gardens around the villas on Ormøya island, hunting for mice and small birds. Despite his noble antecedents in the Middle East, he had never stayed indoors for more than a few hours at a time. Whenever a collar had been put on him, he had come home without it. No one had ever discovered how he managed to get rid of them. Darius was a free spirit. Now he was called Pussycat and lived in an area of fifty square metres with a man who took him out for fresh air, on a leash, in a park, a couple of nights a week. Pussycat had never been happier. He was living with a true cat lover.’

The novel’s original title is significant. Mandela-effekten or ‘Mandela effect’ refers to the false memories and misremembering, a phenomenon of a situation in which a huge number of people believes that an event occurred although it did not happen at all. Holt’s methodical analysis and deep reflections present a version of a society based on trust in the authorities and the scenarios where this trust is broken. This relates to personal experiences impacted by the decisisons taken by various government branches. As it happened Holt started writing A Memory For Murder just before the pandemic engulfed us, so confidence and faith in the governments are particularly critical and relevant, also for a character responsible for ensuring safety of the society in case of any possible disaster.   

‘A slightly crazy lady, I’ve forgotten her name, was sure she remembered Mandela dying while he was in prison. She could describe his funeral down to the last details. Which in that case must have happened while he was still a prisoner on Robben Island. Before 1990, that is, not in 2013.’

Anne Bruce’s translation is superb as always, bringing Anne Holt’s impressive style and nuances of the Norwegian language to the fore in this crisp sharp look at the society, a book that is also engaging, riveting and full of red herrings.

Caroline Mitchell: The Village

It is January. Still winter. In some places the never-ending snow firmly keeps hold of nature and people but the days are getting longer. The nights are slowly losing their power and more light be will appearing soon. It is also January in Caroline Mitchell’s latest book, the chilling psychological thriller The Village where the main protagonist Naomi Ward hopes to discover the truth behind strange events which had happened a decade ago. It is actually much more than ‘hopes’. She has been obsessed by the case for years, especially in her professional role as a crime journalist, and feels compelled to solve it. She is prepared to leave her metropolitan London life and move to a small quiet village of Nighbrook in the New Forest. Why exactly there? Ten years ago Martin and Susan Harper, and their daughter Grace, disappeared without the trace. Their deserted cottage was left with the water running, lights on, Disney cartoons on the TV, the oven prepared for baking some special cookies. They could have gone out to check on their dog, or maybe to make a quick visit to the neighbours… but the doors to the property were locked from the inside. Overnight, the sleepy Nighbrook community became notorious as the scene of the unsolved mystery of the last decade, an epicentre for macabre media speculations. Yet nothing explained the events. Police found no bodies and no evidence of any deaths. Local people were and continue to be reluctant to even mention the past. Weil of silence covers everything and if a visitor or a newcomer dares to breach the subject, the welcoming chat immediately turns into distrust.

Ivy Cottage is no longer a crime scene. Instead, it lost its dramatic magic and difficult love, as we find out later, and was sometimes rented and eventually put on the market by Susan’s sister, also desperate to find the truth, and rejected by the locals. Naomi could not resist putting in an offer. And that’s where she’s headed now with her own family. Her husband Ed has no idea about the house’s mysterious history. Her teenage stepdaughter Morgan does and in fact decides to add this information to her own repertoire of methods to taunt and torment her stepmother. Because Naomi has only fairly recently married Ed which left Morgan resentful, reeling from anger and wanting to return to Scotland where her mother Harmony lives. Harmony, however, is far from being a harmonious balanced parent. Does it feel complicated? Yes, of course it does. Hence the mechanics of the Wards moving into the house from where the other family had vanished add a layer of ambiguity and tension to the narrative.

Settling down does not seems easy at all, and Naomi soon realises that they are not wanted there. When Ed heads north to Scotland to help with search for his unstable ex-wife who yet again got lost somewhere, Naomi and Morgan are left together alone in the Ivy Cottage. In their own ways they both try to deal with the hostile environment and understand that the location and the history of their new home might not bring calm and balance to their lives. Naomi is shocked by the unfriendly treatment she receives from Joanne who runs a coffee shop and initially wanted to help Naomi to set up her cake-baking business. Morgan starts a delicate friendship with Dawn, another restless teenager eager to escape the village’s protective claws. Unpleasant little things happen and eventually the current reality becomes too dangerous for the main players in this story. Told from different perspectives and interspersing thoughts and flashbacks to the past, the fate of Harpers, and especially the young disabled Grace, became painfully clear and poignantly sad.  

The Village’s atmosphere reminded me so much of the dark Scandinavian settings. Weather and mood complement each other in the suffocating place. Short tense days, long unsettling nights. The location of the cottage in the dark, apparently impenetrable forest which of course was relatively easy to navigate for all those who knew it or were allowed to move freely. Policeman Lloyd Thomas, vicar Father Humphries, and other pillars of the community keeping control of the village. And in that centre of darkness lives were difficult, shaped by decisions that cannot be rationally justified, and by demons of addiction, shame, regret and disappointment. As the novel was coming to its shocking conclusion, I felt the story was taking me to the fictional Scandinavian heroine Saga Norén, the main protagonist of the Danish / Swedish TV series The Bridge (Bron/ Broen). That realisation made perfect sense in terms of skewed morality and sense of being a victim, and yet it fitted perfectly in the villagers’ mentality. The physical map of Nighbrook might appear simple, pointing to the main places such as church, police station, coffee shop, main street. However, the emotional web of connections and secrets would look just as twisted as those famous incident boards seen at the police stations where the red strings connect everyone in the unbreakable net of secrets.

‘In the forest, everybody owned a gun. It was a way of keeping the vermin at bay.’

Caroline Mitchell took the locked room concept into another level: the fragile and devastated locked village, with its conflicted characters and engaging studies of relationships within the community tied together by a tragedy of lies, love and deceit.

The Village, published by Thomas & Mercer, is out this January 2022. Thank you FMcM Associates for the copy of the book and the invitation to join the blog tour.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Velvet Was the Night

Mexico City in 1970s is a melting pot of different realities. Political unrest, protesting students, criminals of various sizes and street credibility. And ordinary citizens who just to want to get on with their lives which often are just so mundane and unexciting. Thirty-year-old Maite works as a secretary in a law firm but is bored to death, metaphorically speaking, with her dull existence which she tries to escape via pages of Secret Romance, publishing stories of passion and danger, and through listening to music. She also enjoys stealing little objects from homes she visits. When her neighbour, a jealousy-inducing beautiful art student Leonora, asks her to feed a cat during her absence, Maite grudgingly agrees. She hates cats but likes extra income. However, when Leonora doesn’t return on time and instead a handsome photographer comes to retrieve an important camera film, she begins a search for the missing woman. Reluctantly. This might bring intrigue and excitement, and maybe even a sexual encounter so badly lacking from her life. What she doesn’t realise that she will soon enter the world of political rebels, radicals and dissidents; be followed by a secret agent and become embroiled in a very complicated case.

El Elvis (not his real name) really doesn’t like beating people. As a member of an unofficial Hawk group, working for the government and set up to inform on student activities to weed out all those politically inconvenient, and to seriously disrupt any demonstrations, he has to be brutal. But he still prefers to carry a screwdriver rather than a knife with him, learns one difficult word a day and listens to rock’n’roll. After a serious fiasco and a death at one of the protests he needs to find his way back into his boss’ good books and with some hesitation he takes responsibility for a small team of basically violent idiots, begins to watch Maite and also looks for Leonora. He has no idea about the reasons; yet, this kind of job is better than landing again on the streets, with no protection and no sense of belonging. 

Maite and Elvis don’t work together but within days come closer to discovering the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, and learn more about their country and how it’s run. They don’t comprehend everything, and become aware that dangers are lurking everywhere, in the form of hitmen, government agents and Russian spies aiming to find or protect Leonora’s secrets.

Mexican-Canadian writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia effortlessly blends real historical events with the fictional characters wonderfully suited to this eccentric noir tale, with pacy narration and many interesting details from the era. The parallel lives of Elvis and Maite bring tension and drama, as well as a huge dose of dark observations and even some lyricism. The reluctant criminal and the sad secretary won’t admit that they are lonely; and this hidden emotion seems to be the engine that drives their actions. The author also throws some brilliant humorous observations that confirm how well she creates the authentic setting in the novel, the setting so slightly absurd yet inspired by relatively recent history. Let me leave you with this quote: ‘Hippies were all a bunch of losers and marijuanos who gave women venereal diseases and organised orgies; that’s what people at her office said.’ Do you recall any fictional Nordic character saying something like that?

Velvet was the Night was published in August 2021 by Jo Fletcher Books


Norwegians have a special word for these special days between Christmas and New Year. Romjul. If you are lucky, you can spend nearly a week with your family or friends, or on your own if that’s what you want, resting and relaxing, reading books, watching films, eating delicious leftover food. Or you can be active: walks, visits to museums and galleries. Or you can go skiing if you are in the right place at the right time and the snow, oh, the snow is just perfect! The idea of romjul is to be lazy, to recharge, to enjoy slow pace of short days. Hence in the spirit of languid romjul, I would like to suggest some novels which were not published recently but are definitely worth revisiting. I have already done the ‘hard’ work; read and reviewed them for Crime Review. These crime fiction books have certain themes in common. Winter months and winter weather, cold and snow. Dark nights. Scandinavian locations. Chilling, unsettling and unforgettable stories. Memorable characters and interesting plots.

Here they are, ten choices from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden:

Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless, tr David Hackston. A young Pakistani Christian, who fled to Finland to escape persecution, is denied asylum and gets caught in drugs and gangs warfare. An old man in pyjamas is found dead in the road. Detective Anna Fekete investigates whether there could be a connection between the two.  

Kristina Ohlsson’s The Chosen, tr Marlaine Delargy. Stockholm. The terrifying Paper Boy arrives at night, carefully chooses his victims, mostly children, and disappears. Later the mutilated bodies are found with paper bags on their heads. Fredrika Bergman and Alex Recht have to stop him from claiming more lives.  

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Why Did You Lie?, tr Victoria Cribb. Four people are stranded in a small lighthouse on a rock surrounded by raging sea. An ordinary couple return from home-swap in America to find their guests apparently missing. A journalist on the track of an old case hangs himself in his own garage. Someone is determined to punish them.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine, tr David Hackston. Investigative reporter Janne Vuori travels to the north of Finland to uncover the truth about an industrial corruption threatening lives and environment in the area by a nickel mine.

Håkan Nesser’s The Darkest Day, tr Sarah Death. The Hermansson family are gathering to celebrate father Karl-Erik and eldest daughter Ebba’s joint landmark birthdays. But underneath the smiles, tensions are running high. Before the festivities are over two members of the family are missing. Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti must find out what has happened.

Kjell Ola Dahl’s The Ice Swimmer, tr Don Bartlett. When a man’s body is discovered in the freeing waters of Oslo harbour, city detectives Gunnarstanda and Stigersand face a very complicated case, leading them into the murky world of political secrets.  

Eddie Thomas Petersen’s After the Death of Ellen Keldberg, tr Tony Bainton. The artist Ellen Keldberg has been found frozen on a street bench in Skagen. Soon two visitors arrive in town: her nephew Mikkel who has to organise a funeral, and Anne Sofie, a young reckless photographer obsessed with death. As their paths cross a history of old and new secrets come to the surface.

Arne Dahl’s Hunted, tr Neil Smith.  Private investigators Sam Berger and Molly Bloom are on the run from the authorities, burned from previous investigation, and hiding in the depths of snowy north Sweden. But soon they are asked to follow up on the letter from a distressed and seemingly paranoid woman who knows secret details of a murder case from long ago.

Katja Ivar’s Deep As Death February 1953, Helsinki. Detective Hella Mauzer, fired from the police and trying to survive as a private investigator, searches for a serial killer who might have been responsible for several deaths, including those of local prostitutes.

Anne Holt’s A Grave for Two, tr Anne Bruce. High-flying lawyer Selma Falck has lost everything because of her former client Jan Morell, and her own recklessness. Now Morell wants her to clear the name of his daughter Hege, an elite cross-country skier accused of doping. Selma has no choice but to search for the truth.

Enjoy whatever you do. Reading, writing, resting.

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!

Jólabókaflóð – The Christmas book flood, part 4

The Icelandic author Johan Thorsson’s take on Iceland’s unique and spectacular Christmas Book Flood.

‘There is this statistic about the Icelandic Book Flood that gets thrown about a bit and is maybe hard for people outside of Iceland to believe. Before we get to that, I think I should tell you just what the Icelandic Book Flood is.

Spoiler: it’s not a literal flood of books. Though that would be kind of great. 

Iceland has the happy tradition during Christmas that people tend to give each other books as Christmas presents. Among the many holiday traditions around the world, few are as dear to me as the one we have about the giving of books during Christmas. It is very rare that there is not at least one book under the Christmas tree.

Now, publishers in Iceland realized this long ago so they put out most of their books in late October or early November. Bookstores are far busier during December than during any other month and the newspapers and media are filled with ads for books, interviews with authors, and reviews of the year’s hottest titles. This sudden massive craze about books during Christmas is what we refer to as the Christmas Book Flood. 

And that statistic? I’ve heard that around 80% of book sales take place during Christmas.

This dates back to WWII (doesn’t everything) when there was a scarcity of most things in Iceland apart from books. Iceland also had a relatively high purchase capacity and the most readily available Christmas gift to buy just after the war was, through a combination of available imports, books.

Lucky for us.

And what books am Ithinking about this Christmas? I think that Shaun Tan’s amazing The Arrival is a book that is simply gorgeous and should be in every home. 

Books by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Arnaldur Indriðason and Ragnar Jónasson will be under many trees this Christmas and I hope to find at least one of them in a present addressed to me. Eva Björg Ægisdóttir’s latest book is also intriguing. I am a sucker for the classics, however, and were I to select books for crime lovers this Christmas it would most likely be either Thomas HarrisRed Dragon or Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River.’

Sólveig Pálsdóttir and Johan Thorsson at IcelandNoir 2021 in Reykjavik

Johann Thorsson’s first novel Whitesands, a supernatural thriller featuring Detective John Dark, was published by Headshot Books in September 2021. Here you can read more about Johann Thorsson and get his book Whitesands for the dark and utterly chilling winter evenings.  

Gunnar Staalesen’s Christmas in Bergen

I asked author Gunnar Staalesen, the major figure in the Nordic Noir crime fiction genre, often called ‘the Norwegian Chandler’, and creator of the most famous fictional PI Varg Veum, to tell us about the way he and his family celebrate Jul / Christmas in his home town of Bergen, and also what Christmas celebration mean for his character Varg Veum.

Bryggen i Bergen
(c) visitBergen.com

Here is what Gunnar Staalesen says:

‘We celebrate Christmas with our children and grandchildren in a traditional way. In Norway Christmas Eve is the ‘big day’ when it comes to celebrating. How many we are together that day depends on when our children can celebrate with us, and when they can be with the daughters-in-law’s families. Since the other families live in other districts than the Bergen area, the days we spend together differ from year to year. If we are not together on Christmas Eve, we find another day!

In Norway Christmas is most of all a family celebration and it follows more or less the same pattern from year to year. When I was a child, we were a small family because both my father and mother came from other parts of the country. It was father, mother, my sister and me. Now the family has grown bigger in Bergen, too, with two grown up children with their wives, three grandchildren, and my sister and her family.

Around Noon on Christmas Eve we try to collect most of our own part of the family for a traditional serving of rice porridge. In one of the bowls there is an almond, and the winner of this get a present: both a chocolate and a toothbrush! After this we part for an hour or two while Christmas dinner is prepared. We do not watch much television on Christmas Eve but we try to see the Disney Christmas Cards every year, with the good old musical numbers that both grandparents and their children remember with pleasure from their own childhood, even if we – the grandparents – never had them on television but had to visit a cinema to see the films.

Usually, it is grandmother who prepares the dinner, while grandfather takes the rest of the family to Church for a Christmas service. When we return, the dinner will be more or less ready. The traditional Christmas dinner in our part of the country (the West) is pinnekjøtt, which are dried or smoked ribs of sheep, served with a stew made by potatoes and turnips, a very special course that most people only eat at Christmas time. For dessert we have the Norwegian berries that I believe are called cloudberries in English, served with sour cream. When dinner has been eaten, we prepare for coffee and small cakes, but now the little children are getting impatient. Around the Christmas tree they can see the gifts waiting for them. But before serving coffee and starting the opening of gifts, we go around the Christmas tree and sing the old Christmas carols. Then the rest of the evening is reserved for gift openings, small cakes, coffee and perhaps some stronger liquor, all in a pleasant atmosphere. If we are lucky, the snow is falling outside our windows, but since we live in Bergen, mostly it is rain, even on Christmas Eve. But we always dream of White Christmas, and every tenth year we are lucky…

On the first day of Christmas we come together again in our family to eat a specialty of the Bergen Kitchen, called prinsefisk, the Fish of Prince. It was served the first time when two princes visited Bergen in 1856 and is composed – with personal variations – of cod, shrimps, asparagus and peas in béchamel sauce with capers, served with cooked potatoes. Later in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve we may have pork ribs, deer or even turkey in some families. From the Viking ages this was the time of the year when you were eating well to celebrate the turn of the year, when the days started to become longer and we were turning towards spring and summer again. Well worth a celebration!

In the city of Bergen there are Christmas streets with a lot of lights, these years even a Christmas Market, and a lot of buildings – like the fronts of the old Bryggen – are decorated with light bulbs, bells, branches of spruce and other symbols for Christmas or Turn-of-the-year celebration.

So what about Varg Veum and his Christmas celebrations?  As he is living alone, most of the Christmas Eves he is by himself, drinking his aquavit and eating his pinnekjøtt alone, I am afraid. Now that he has grandchildren In Oslo, I hope he is invited to visit his son Thomas and his family in the capital, but I am not quite sure if he accepts the invitation. He is always a lone wolf, even on Christmas Eve. Together with the British artist Mike Collins and the editor Arild Wærness, I made four graphic arts Christmas magazines about Varg Veum between 2013 and 2016 and a collection of them in 2017, short mysteries taking place in the time around Christmas. The first one of these was based on a short story I wrote about Varg Veum in the 80’s, when he works as a Santa Clause in a big shopping Centre in Bergen and solves a smaller mystery there.

Before I started the series about Varg Veum, I wrote three novels about two police officers in Bergen, called Dumbo and Maskefjes, and the second one of these was called The Man Who Hated Santa Clauses. That is the closest I come to describe Christmas in Bergen in my books. Most of the Varg Veum books take place in the dark autumn days of October or November, the frozen winter days in January or February, or other periods of the year when it is easier for Varg to concentrate on solving the mysteries then preparing the Christmas celebration that for him is almost non-existing.

Happy Christmas nevertheless, Varg!

See you later, this year, too…’

Gunnar Staalesen‘s latest Varg Veum novel Bitter Flowers, translated by Don Bartlett, is out on 20 January 2022, published by Orenda Books.

Jólabókaflóð – The Christmas book flood, part 3

Sólveig Pálsdóttir loves The Book Title Game and Christmas would not be the same without it

‘When I was a child Iceland had only one TV station and one radio station, both run by the state broadcaster. The radio almost never played any popular music but mainly just symphonies. But there were also many beautifully produced programmes and every Thursday evening there was a drama. That was when we could hear the voices of our finest actors, and in many homes these were precious moments. There was no TV on Thursdays. Why? Well, because TV was considered to be a lower form of culture – even downright harmful. For these reasons the authorities ensured that Icelanders watched TV only six evenings a week from eight til eleven in the evening. There was no TV at all in July, as that’s when people were expected to take their holidays as a break from all that unhealthy screen time and spend their bright summer evenings outdoors. The state monopoly on TV and radio was finally abolished in 1985.

It’s in our nature to find what we see little of, or which is even forbidden, as particularly attractive. Practically everyone in Iceland watched the same programmes (which were normally a few years old by the time they reached us) such as American soap opera Dallas, or the British TV programme Upstairs, Downstairs. The day after some programme had been shown, there would be discussions in homes and workplaces over whether Sue Ellen had started drinking again, and whether or not she should divorce JR Ewing. Almost everyone had a strong opinion on the way these fictional characters lived their lives. Scarce TV material made even well-acted advertisements almost as popular as the programmes themselves. People learned the ads inside out, and some of these turned into popular classics.

The peak of the advertising fun was the weeks before Christmas because that’s when the books are published. Some of you have undoubtedly heard of Iceland’s Christmas book flood (Jólabókaflóð) when the majority of books are published between October and mid-December. These are hectic weeks as the advertising battle reaches its zenith. Around mid-November the Bókatíðindi (Book News) list is distributed to every home in the country, in which every single new book gets a short introduction. The arrival of Book News was always eagerly awaited, and there was nothing unusual about being familiar with all of the main titles and marking the ones that would make an acceptable gift with a cross.

Will Dean, Sólveig Pálsdóttir and María Elísabet Bragadóttir at IcelandNoir 2021

It’s not just a tradition to give books as gifts in Iceland, but also large Christmas family gatherings are very widespread. I was brought up with three or four of these taking place every Christmas, and as well as eating well, dancing around the tree and singing together, there was always what we called the Book Title Game.

The family divided into two or three groups, depending on how large the party was. In my family there were usually 40 to 50 people. Then each group would choose ten or so book titles to enact. The other groups had to guess the title and was given a set time to guess the answer. Turns were taken until one group or the other had amassed more points for their correct title guesses.

I don’t remember a Christmas without the Book Title Game being played, and it was always fun. Every age group took part, with the youngest acting out the titles of children’s books. This annual event, the Book Title Game, is one of my dearest childhood memories. I’m not sure that it would be possible to play the game these days. Instead of books being the ideal choice for a gift and each family member receiving five or six, now people generally receive just one book. This doesn’t mean that the Icelandic Christmas Book Flood is any less than it was but it’s now more common for people to buy their books earlier and read them in comfort during Advent. To my mind, this is an excellent tradition and there’s nothing that says Christmas like getting into a warm bed on Christmas night with the smell of dinner still in the air and a brand-new book in your hand.’

Sólveig Pálsdóttir’s first two novels translated into English (by Quentin Bates) The Fox and Silenced have been published by Corylus Books.