Tag Archives: Icelandic Literature

Review-Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Farrar, Straus and Giroux via Netgalley.  The original novella was published in Icelandic in 2013 and this English version has been translated by Victoria Cribb.

My Review:
moonstoneMáni Steinn lives on the fringes of society in 1918 in the city of Reykjavik; he has no family except for a great aunt who has taken him in, he has no friends and he is homosexual.  It is very dangerous for him to be gay and if he is caught in any type of sexual act with another man he could be arrested and severely punished.

It is mentioned in passing in the story that the fighting in Europe has recently ended and Iceland has been largely spared the destruction that ravaged Europe.  The Spanish Influenza, however, quickly spreads through and devastates this small island nation.  One of the ways that Máni passes his time is by seeing films that are shown in the two movie theaters in the city.  When the flu hits Iceland it is speculated that public places like this were responsible for its rapid spread and the theaters are shut down for months.

Máni himself is also struck down by the flu and in the state of mental delirium caused by his fever he has vivid and gruesome nightmares.  Through these scenes Sjon showcases his diverse talents as a writer.  He also copies at poignant moments throughout the text newspaper articles that were published in Reykjavik at the time.  In sum, Sjon perfectly captures s a realistic snapshot of this short timespan in Icelandic history when people are not only suffering from this horrible pandemic, but are also watching the local volcano erupt, reading the papers for news of war in Europe and dealing with their own shortages of necessities like coal.

I was captivated by the character of Máni who doesn’t seem bitter or resentful that at the age of sixteen his only living relative is a great aunt whom he calls “the old lady.”  She is just as surprised as he is when Máni is dropped off at her front door.  She is kind to him and provides him food and shelter, but she does not offer the kind of guidance and discipline that a sixteen-year-old boy ought to have.   Máni has regular men around the city with whom he engages in sex for money.  He doesn’t seem to have a particular fondness for any of these men but he does get a certain amount of enjoyment out of these furtive and illicit sexual encounters.  The person that Máni shows an interest in is, rather surprisingly, a teenage girl named Sola.  Sola drives around on her Indian motorcycle, makes her own clothing, and lives in a nice home with her family.  Mani’s fascination with her is never fully explained and the author leaves us to speculate whether or not Mani’s attraction is sexual or just an innocent curiosity.

The only complaint that I have about this book is that it left me wanting to know more about the rest of Máni’s life.  At a very slim 160 pages I read the book in a couple of hours and was disappointed when Mani’s story came to an end.  I don’t want to give away the plot but it is Máni’s “aberrant” behavior as a homosexual that ironically is the catalyst for his escape out of the city and away from his lonely life.  I wanted to know more about Mani’s thoughts in retrospect as an adult and how his time in Iceland helped to shape the rest of his life.

About the Author:
sjonSjón (Sigurjón B. Sigurðsson) was born in Reykjavik on the 27th of August, 1962. He started his writing career early, publishing his first book of poetry, Sýnir (Visions), in 1978. Sjón was a founding member of the surrealist group, Medúsa, and soon became significant in Reykjavik’s cultural landscape.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson

I received a review copy of this title from the publisher, Orenda Books.  This book was first published in Iceland in 2010 and this English translation has been done by Quentin Bates.

My Review:
SnowblindI don’t usually read many mystery or crime novels, but when Orenda Books asked me to review some of the books in their catalog the descriptions of them convinced me to give them a try.  This book is much more than a typical crime novel; it delves into the lives of several characters in a small isolated town in northern Iceland.  The atmosophere of the book is also a surprise as the scenes are set in a small, isolated,  cold, and snow-covered town.

Ari Thor lives in Reykjavik with his girlfriend Kristin and is studying to become a police officer.  For the first time in his life he is very much in love and feels that he and Kristin will make a life and a future together.  When he gets his first job in Siglufjörður, a small village in northern Iceland, he is torn about whether or not to take it.  Kristin is finishing her medical degree in Reykjavik so there is no way that she can go with him.  Taking this new job will mean a separation, for as long as a year or two, from Kristin.  But Ari Thor believes that this job is a great opportunity and accepts the position anyway; he leaves Kristin behind and is heartbroken that their future together is uncertain.

Siglufjörður is supposed to be a town where no one locks their doors, where everyone knows each other, and where nothing exciting ever happens.  So it is either bad luck or bad timing that, when Ari Thor becomes the town’s newest police officer, two murders happen within days of each other.

The first murder, which many think at first is just an accident, happens at the local dramatic society.  The director of the society, a very old man in his nineties who is prone to drinking too much, takes a nasty fall down the stairs during a rehearsal break. At first the incident is thought to be an accident, but as the story develops it appears that several people in the dramatic society are capable of pushing the old man down the stairs.  One of the greatest strengths of the book is the development of several characters who belong to the society and work in the theater.  My experience with crime novels has been that characters are not deeply developed as the focus is on the plot.  But Jonasson gives us an interesting set of characters with well-developed descriptions of their history in the town and their relationships with one another.

A second murder also takes places in this small town.  A woman is found stabbed to death outside her home and her abusive husband is the primary suspect.  But the husband has an alibi for the time during which the murder took place.  So it is up to Ari Thor to untangle this mystery.  Another strength of the book is that the author is able to weave two different mysteries into the plot without the story being too cumbersome or confusing.

The final aspect of the book that I have to mention is Ari Thor’s descriptions of Siglufjörður which, even to Icelanders, is on the edge of nowhere.  It snows so much that Ari Thor begins to feel trapped and claustrophobic in this place.  The snow and the cold never stop and when the only road in or out of the town is completely blocked by an avalanche his panic attacks and nightmares get worse.  The vivid descriptions of the cold and snow and darkness were a perfect setting for this story.  As it snowed here in New England last weekend when I was reading the book the setting felt especially apt.

Whether you are a fan of crime fiction, or like me, just enjoy dabbling in the genre here and there, Snowblind is an entertaining read.  This book actually ends on a bit of a cliffhanger and I am eager to read the next book in this series and see what happens with Ari Thor.

About the Author:
R JonassonRagnar Jonasson is author of the international bestselling Dark Iceland series.

His debut Snowblind, first in the Dark Iceland series, went to number one in the Amazon Kindle charts shortly after publication. The book was also a no. 1 Amazon Kindle bestseller in Australia.

Snowblind was selected by The Independent as one of the best crime novels of 2015 in the UK.

Books in the Dark Iceland series have been published in the UK, Germany, Poland and Iceland, and rights have also been sold to the USA, France and Italy.

Ragnar was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he works as a writer and a lawyer. He also teaches copyright law at Reykjavik University and has previously worked on radio and television, including as a TV-news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service.

Ragnar is a member of the UK Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) and recently set up the first overseas chapter of the CWA, in Reykjavik.

He is also the co-founder of the Reykjavik international crime writing festival Iceland Noir.

From the age of 17, Ragnar translated 14 Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic.

Ragnar has also had short stories published internationally, including in the distinguished Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the US, the first stories by an Icelandic author in that magazine.

He has appeared on festival panels worldwide, and lives in Reykjavik with his wife and young daughters.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Mystery/Thriller