Book Review: Trap

Trap, by Lilja Sigurðardóttir (translated by Quentin Bates), is the second novel in the author’s Reykjavik series of crime thrillers. I have not read the first. While the story holds together as a standalone I wondered if the limited backstory, which brought new readers up to speed, contributed to my inability to sympathise with any of the characters. Perhaps had I better understood how they ended up in the difficulties they must now face I would have felt more concern over their fates. It is hard to care for drug runners and murderers no matter how much they love those dear to them.

Opening in April 2011, in a trailer park in sunny Florida, Sonja wakes from an unplanned nap to realise that her young son, Tómas, is not where she expected. The pair are on the run from Adam, the boy’s father. He is furious that Sonja has thus far evaded him.

Forced to return to Iceland and resume her job as a drugs courier, Sonja contacts her former lover, Agla, for assistance. Neither of the women appear to understand what the other works as. Theirs is an unbalanced relationship based on sexual attraction – a driving lust and its associated jealousies.

Following the financial crash Agla’s money laundering activities are under investigation. What the authorities are unaware of is their size and reach. Needing to clear a large debt she schemes with others working the financial markets to pull off a lucrative deal. She has many associates who will benefit, operating in powerful places.

As both women call on their contacts in an attempt to extricate themselves from official attention and underworld danger, their games of cat and mouse are surveilled by circling predators. Agla’s activities have come under scrutiny from a diligent investigator at the special prosecutor’s office. Sonja finds herself caught between drug barons vying for power on both sides of the Atlantic, including Adam who is using Tómas as leverage. Even when supposed kingpins are taken down there is always another ready to step into the vacated space.

It is not hard to believe that this is how the mega wealthy operate, and that they will always have minions seeking to increase their personal power and influence by whatever means. The observations on the men involved – driven by ego and unwilling to admire any woman’s superior contribution to their business – were familiar.

Sonja’s strength and resilience were sometimes irritatingly erratic – perhaps this was an attempt to make her appear more human by showing occasional weakness.

Agla misunderstands love, associating it with some form of ownership and control, as did Adam. Despite being clear headed and capable in business she too suffers weaknesses – her egocentric attitude to Sonja, and cocaine.

The writing and structure maintain the tension as each character takes risks and encounters danger. The movement of drugs and money is portrayed as beyond the control of authority – above the law due to the influence of the globally wealthy. Although the story held my interest and attention I found this, and the way key characters were willing to behave in extremis, somewhat depressing to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda.

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Book Review: And the Wind Sees All

In a fishing community in the north of Iceland a young woman cycles to the village hall where she is to conduct the local choir in a much anticipated concert. As she passes by the reader is introduced to the characters who briefly observe her, many of whom have lived in the village for most of their lives. The narrative covers just a few minutes in time, like a wind blowing through the streets in which these people are going about their day. Whatever they are doing, minds are wandering. Lifetime memories can be triggered by a moment, before that moment drifts away.

And the Wind Sees All, by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjørg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery) is a study of the never ending train of thoughts that individuals live with yet rarely share. Snapshots from the past are cherished – their significance is personal, sometimes hurtful to others. A young woman may have sparked feelings in a man that his wife has never generated – feelings he will linger on as he ruminates over what might have been. A wife may despise her husband for his habits but put up with them for the sake of family harmony. It can be wise to avoid drawing attention to that which is better lived with silently.

One group of long time friends is sitting outside enjoying a pre-concert drink and listening to an anecdote, each remembering events from their pasts involving others known to all but significant in differing ways. These personal perspectives interlink but with unacknowledged importance and consequence. There are: loves, betrayals, resentments, regrets.

The reader learns of the lonely and the guilty. Fortunes have been made and lost. Secrets devastatingly shared. Children have been raised and loved before dying or moving away. Events that felt like endings were survived, marking change.

A poet waits patiently for words that continually flutter away. A priest drinks and gambles in privacy. An old man drowns memories of childhood abuse in alcohol before collecting himself and resuming his quiet existence. A sister grows exasperated with her brother and they cease speaking.

The writing is lyrical and poetic, the sharing of hopes and dreams that sparkled and then faded. Life continues beyond disappointments, marking time with occasional small happinesses. The village knows many of these secrets but chooses to accept and look away.

Lives are complex. Words for intimate feelings prove elusive, the feelings themselves fleeting. The metaphor of the wind passing through and observing just a few minutes of individual lives brings to the fore how little people are aware of what is happening to others, even those close by.

This is an affecting approach to portraying the ordinary as personally extraordinary. A poignant yet hopeful read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Author Interview: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Today I am delighted to welcome Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir to my blog. Auður is the author of five novels, a collection of poetry and four plays that have been performed at the National Theatre in Iceland and at the Reykjavik City Theatre. She also writes the lyrics for the Icelandic performance pop band Milkywhale.

Auður’s latest novel, Hotel Silence, won the Icelandic Literary Prize 2016 and was chosen Best Icelandic Novel in 2016 by booksellers in Iceland. It is published in English by Pushkin Press – you may read my review here.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I was born and grew up in Reykjavik in a large family, the fourth of five sisters and brothers. The fourth child is sometimes considered the “invisible” one, which suited my strong need for freedom. When I was born there were 170,000 Icelanders (today there are 337,000) and they were fighting their first Cod war – over fishing rights – against the British Navy. When I was five I discovered I spoke a language that only a few people understood and decided to learn my first foreign language, chosen at random – German !

2. Can you tell us about Hotel Silence and what inspired you to write it?

Hotel Silence is a rather physical novel about man’s ability to regenerate. I’m exploring ideas of masculinity by looking into human suffering and pain. Silence is part of the healing process. My hero is a man that would rather be killed than to kill someone. I’m asking questions around the importance of doing some good in life, the fragility of the human body, how we use words and how we justify ourselves by our actions. And also whether we can do something to mend or ‘fix’ the world.

The inspiration comes from the world around us and the rest is imagination.

3. The story is set partly in a war ravaged country. What research did you do to ensure this was authentic?

War is unfortunately all around us in the world. You just have to watch the countless news reports. There are also references to world literature in the novel itself. There’s usually a certain absence of time and place in my books; nowhere means everywhere. The country is never specified but has a familiarity to it.  Even though people in the western world prefer watching their wars on TV rather than outside their windows, I tend to think: this might just as well be us.

4. Can you share with us any significant changes between first draft and last?

Yes I cut a lot between the first draft and last! Which was new for me.

I discovered that the more you have to say, the more you have to cut. The more space you have between words and between lines the more there is for the reader to put his or her meaning into. My measure of when a book is finished is whether it has become a stranger to me, as if written by someone else.

5. As well as novels you write poetry, plays and song lyrics. What is your favourite part of being a creative writer?

The feeling of absolute freedom. No one tells you what to write! Which means that I am the only one responsible – at least for my novels and poetry – and therefore the only one to blame! Regarding plays and song lyrics it’s a bit different since the outcome depends on a team effort of actors, singers and performers.

6. Do you enjoy social media?

I regularly take a break from social media in order to ease my mind and have more time to read. For instance last summer I took a three months break from all social media to be able to spend more time out in nature. The good thing was that when I returned I hadn’t missed anything!

7. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I recently stopped working as an art historian and a teacher at the University of Iceland to become a full time writer. I sometimes celebrate my new life by going to cafés in Reykjavik when everyone else is working, like at ten in the morning or two in the afternoon!

8. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

Last night I read Carson’s McCullers novella The Ballade of the Sad Café, first published in 1943 when she was only 26 years old. It’s such a wonderfully weird love story about a triangular relationship, challenging any given ideas of masculinity and femininity. One of the characters is a hunchbacked dwarf.

9. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

Since I spend so much time with fictional people I would chose real ones. Can I have two dinners? One with Elizabeth Bishop, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch and Anne Sexton and another one with Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison. I would cook for them all.

10. And finally, what question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

What is the meaning of your first name Audur?

It means emptiness, the state of containing nothing. Which is the origin of all creation!

 

Thank you so much Auður for providing such interesting answers to my questions.

 

Hotel Silence is published by Pushkin Press. Click on the cover above to find out more.

 

Book Review: Hotel Silence

Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (translated by Brian FitzGibbon), tells the story of a man who feels that he no longer exists. Once upon a time he was a husband, a father, a son. Now these roles have been eroded, taken from him by forces he struggles to understand. He is unable to find any reason to go on.

Jónas Ebeneser has always tried to do as he is told by the women in his life. His names mean ‘dove’ and ‘the helpful one’ – they suit him well. His mother, a former maths teacher, lives in a home for the elderly where she is gradually losing her mind. His wife has divorced him, his daughter grown and leading her own life. Over the years Jónas taught himself how to fit appliances, mend that which was broken, become a handyman. When his father died he dropped out of university that he may keep the family business going. He considers himself ordinary, lately become unnecessary and thereby unhappy. He has decided to commit suicide.

Jónas plans to borrow his neighbour’s gun although he has never handled a firearm and is concerned that he may inadvertently hurt someone else. He considers hanging himself from a light fitting but worries that his daughter may be the one to discover his body and have to cut him down. He does not wish to be an inconvenience when he has always tried to be helpful.

Eventually Jónas concludes that the easiest place to die would be abroad, his body tidily returned to his family in a box. He clears out his belongings and puts his affairs in order. He buys a one way ticket to a former war zone where the supposed dangers may solve the problem of how to meet his end.

Wars and their aftermath are opportunities for the unscrupulous to make money. The local population has been decimated, traumatised, the survivors forever scarred physically and mentally. As they try to salvage a life for themselves, outsiders arrive eager to hoover up anything of value, to gain lucrative contracts amidst the rebuilding. When Jónas arrives all are suspicious of his motives.

He has booked himself into Hotel Silence, a venue with few guests and suffering neglect in a place now avoided by tourists. Wanting to take a shower, Jónas fixes the plumbing in his room. When a door falls off in his hands he reattaches it. Soon he is being called on to use his skills elsewhere. He has tools and knowledge that are in demand.

Surrounded by the aftermath of allied bombing raids and local infighting, Jónas helps out with practical matters as he has always done when asked. His efforts do not please everyone. There is jealousy from those who are not benefiting, warnings from those who seek to profit from the misery inflicted. They are incredulous that he should work simply to be helpful.

The story is told in two halves. The first is set in Iceland and tells of how Jónas reached a point in his life where he wished to end it. The second is set in the unnamed former war zone and offers a different perspective on survival. Whereas Jónas can no longer find a reason to live, the people he meets abroad have suffered unimaginably but remain determined to continue with their lives.

The writing is spare and humane offering an understanding of individual unhappiness. No trite answers are offered but there is empathy in the cost of loneliness and the damage caused by personal and wider wars. An unusual tale that offers much to consider. Despite the often grim subject matter, a captivating read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Moonstone

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Moonstone: the boy who never was, by Sjón (translated by Victoria Cribb), is a book that, had I known more about it in advance, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read. Despite this I am glad that I did. Written in sparse, vivid prose it regularly took me outside of my comfort zone with its graphic descriptions. Whilst key to the plot and indicative of the main character’s detachment from society much more than this was explored. These other elements, particularly the insights into Icelandic history, were sufficiently strong to keep me engaged.

The protagonist is sixteen year old Máni Steinn who lives in Reykjavík with his great-grandmother’s sister. He earns his money by performing consensual sex acts with men. Homosexuality is outlawed so he has no shortage of customers for his services. Máni has always been a loner spending much of his free time watching films at the two cinemas in the town. He also studies people, particularly a young woman he refers to as Sóla G—. He appears content living within his thoughts and imagination.

The story opens in October 1918 when the Katla volcano erupts. The Great War is in its final throes far away and the devastation wrought by the Spanish flu is about to arrive. In the next few months Iceland, and Máni’s life, will undergo radical change.

There is a stark beauty to the writing despite the dark subject matter. Máni maintains his signature detachment as he watches the townspeople react to trauma and tragedy. Families mourn their many dead. Iceland is granted its freedom as a nation state. Máni cannot remain a mere spectator to events forever.

The final chapters are set ten years later. Despite several rereads I failed to understood the denouement and feel frustrated that I have missed what I expected to offer some nugget of clarity.

At less than 150 pages this is a short work of fiction but not one that will be quickly forgotten. Where it not that open discussion may spoil the reveal for future readers I would be seeking other’s interpretation of those final pages.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre.

Book Review: Rupture

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Rupture, by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates), is the fourth book in the author’s Dark Iceland series to be published in English. Chronologically it sits between Blackout and Nightblind.

In this instalment Siglufjörður, the small fishing town on the northern coast of Iceland where much of the series is set, has been quarantined due to a deadly virus. Policeman Ari Thór Arason uses the opportunity this creates to look into an old case from the 1950s. Two couples had moved to nearby Héðinsfjörður, an uninhabited and isolated fjord. Whilst there a child was born, Hédinn, and one of the woman apparently committed suicide. A photograph has recently come to light depicting an unknown young man alongside the two couples. Hédinn, who now lives in Siglufjörður, asks Ari Thór to investigate as some believed the death may have been murder.

Further south an aspiring musician is involved in a hit and run. He was estranged from his parents, high ranking politicians forced to step aside from public life due to their son’s drink and drug fuelled behaviour. Ísrún, a young journalist, is tasked with investigating the incident alongside her work reporting on the virus in Siglufjörður. With little new to report on either story she is amenable to assisting Ari Thór in seeking more information on his 1950s case.

Meanwhile another young man is disturbed when he discovers that his home is being targeted by an intruder. A series of events unfolds threatening all he holds dear.

Each thread of the story is enticingly presented offering the reader potential clues that are then woven together. Ari Thór has matured but remains vulnerable to the claustrophobia of his adopted home. The atmospheric darkness of Iceland alongside the isolation and introspection of its people are beautifully evoked.

A crime thriller that uses setting to full effect whilst presenting each character as fully rounded individuals. The writing effortlessly winds the reader in before revealing a satisfying denouement. This whole series is a chilling delight to read. To my mind Rupture is the most skilfully constructed yet.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on the Rupture Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts detailed below.

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Rupture is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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