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

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.

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 ( 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.