We have a long list of books that we have read – I have added a short description along with some recommendation comments. Grab a cup of coffee and join us in our exploration of Scandinavian and Icelandic literature. And if you have been there before you know that much of the writing – especially the mysteries – is a bit dark – OK – really dark, many of the mysteries focusing more on why than who done it. We did wonder if being in a cold dark place for so much of the year influences this.
A few books at the end of the list aren’t Scandinavian but book talk does wander.
Hour of the Wolf – Ian Nesser – Inspector Van Veeteren Series #7 – Two appalling crimes call retired Inspector Van Veeteren back to work to solve and avenge a death.
The Treacherous Net – Helene Turnsten – In Tursten’s assured eighth novel featuring Det. Insp. Irene Huss (after The Beige Man), two teenage girls without any history of trouble go missing and later turn up as mutilated corpses. As gruesome as the murders are, what rattles Huss and her Gothenburg police colleagues is the realization that the girls are wearing two parts of the same bikini set. If these crimes are linked, could there be a serial killer stalking other girls?
Purge – Sofi Okasanen – suspenseful tale of two women dogged by their own shameful pasts and the dark, unspoken history that binds them.
The Hypnotist – lars Kepler – In the frigid clime of Tumba, Sweden, a gruesome triple homicide attracts the interest of Detective Inspector Joona Linna, who demands to investigate the murders. The killer is still at large, and there’s only one surviving witness—the boy whose family was killed before his eyes. Whoever committed the crimes wanted this boy to die: he’s suffered more than one hundred knife wounds and lapsed into a state of shock. Desperate for information, Linna sees only one option: hypnotism. He enlists Dr. Erik Maria Bark to mesmerize the boy, hoping to discover the killer through his eyes.
Boy on the Edge – Fridrik Eurlings (YA) – Henry has a clubfoot and he is the target of relentless bullying. One day, in a violent fit of anger, Henry lashes out at the only family he has — his mother. Sent to live with other troubled boys at the Home of Lesser Brethren, an isolated farm perched in the craggy lava fields along the unforgiving Icelandic coast, Henry finds a precarious contentment among the cows. But it is the people, including the manic preacher who runs the home, who fuel Henry’s frustration and sometimes rage as he yearns for a life and a home. Author Fridrik Erlings offers a young adult novel that explores cruelty and desperation, tenderness and remorse, but most importantly, kindness and friendship.
Riding with Reindeer: A bicycle odyssey through Finland, Lapland and Arctic Norway – Robert M. Goldstein – title says it all
The 100 year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared – Jonas Jonasson – saga of Allan Karlsson begins when he escapes his retirement home on his 100th birthday by climbing out his bedroom window. After stealing a young punk’s money-filled suitcase, he embarks on a wild adventure, and through a combination of wits, luck, and circumstance, ends up on the lam from both a smalltime criminal syndicate and the police. Jonasson moves deftly through Karlsson’s life—from present to past and back again—recounting the fugitive centenarian’s career as a demolitions expert and the myriad critical junctures of history, including the Spanish Civil War and the Manhattan Project, wherein Karlsson found himself an unwitting (and often influential) participant. Historical figures like Mao’s third wife, Vice President Truman, and Stalin appear, to great comic effect. Other characters—most notably Albert Einstein’s hapless half-brother—are cleverly spun into the raucous yarn, and all help drive this gentle lampoon of procedurals and thrillers.
Walking into the Night – Olaf Olafsson – As butler to William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon castle, Christian Benediktsson lives quietly, almost invisibly. He completes his tasks efficiently and with aplomb, catering to the whims of the volatile Chief and overseeing the running of the hectic household. Privy to the goings-on of the celebrity guests who visit as well as to Hearst’s intimate relationship with his mistress, the actress Marion Davies, he is the picture of discretion. An extremely private man, those around him know nothing of him or his life. And so it is in his thoughts and in unsent letters to his wife back in Iceland that we witness the unraveling of his former life, which began when he abandoned her and their children for an actress in New York City. Once a successful businessman, he erases his past and himself after a sudden tragic death and his financial ruin, the result of a jilted lover’s vengeance. Walking into the Night is a stunning portrait of a man wrestling with guilt and secret passions.
The Howling Miller – Arto Phosilinna -Arriving in Northern Finland after the Second World War, Gunnar Huttunen buys a dilapidated mill on the Suukoski rapids of the Kemijoki River. An Ignatius Reilly of the Finnish 1940s, Gunnar is an eccentric outsider swimming against society’s current. Prone to rapid mood swings and a general lack of decorum, he is feared and reviled by village notables for his wayward manner—most noticeably his indulgent nighttime howling, which he gets up to when he “feels the need to do something special,” and to which he is joined in delirious chorus by the local dogs.
The Keeper of Lost Causes and The Absent One – Jussi Adler-Olsen – 1 and 2 in the Department Q series – really fun characters in this police procedural about a police officer everyone wants to get rid of so they assign him to a cold cases new department assuming that he’ll just go away. His assistant and – by the second book – secretary have a terrific and amusing relationship with him which kind of softens the awfulness of some of the cases.
The Norseman Chronicles – James L. Nelson (Fin Gall – first in the series) For centuries, the Vikings have swept out of the Norse countries and fallen on England, Ireland, whatever lands they could reach aboard their longships, and few could resist the power of their violent onslaught. They came at first to plunder, and then to settle, an encroachment fiercely resisted where ever they went. Such was the case in the southern lands of Ireland. En route to the Viking longphort there, known as Dubh-Linn, Thorgrim Night Wolf and Ornolf the Restless stumble across an Irish ship that carries aboard it a single item – a crown. The Vikings eagerly snatch the prize, unaware of its significance to the people of Ireland and the power granted to the king who wears it
The Burial Rites – Hannah Kent – Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.
The Boy in the Suitcase – Lene Kaaberbol (three in the series) – Nina Borg, a Red Cross nurse, wife, and mother of two, is a compulsive do-gooder who can’t say no when someone asks for help—even when she knows better. When her estranged friend Karin leaves her a key to a public locker in the Copenhagen train station, Nina gets suckered into her most dangerous project yet. Inside the locker is a suitcase, and inside the suitcase is a three-year-old boy: naked and drugged, but alive.
The Dinosaur Feather – S. J. Gazan – S.J. Gazan’s debut novel The Dinosaur Feather is a classic of Scandinavian noir. With keenly observed and deeply flawed characters, this scintillating thriller uniquely employs one of the most controversial and fascinating areas of contemporary dinosaur and avian research in its diabolical twists.
Red Breast (and others in the series) – Jo Nesbo – The Redbreast – first in his Harry Hole police procedurals. Very dark but quite good.
Out of Africa – Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) – In this book, the author of Seven Gothic Tales gives a true account of her life on her plantation in Kenya. She tells with classic simplicity of the ways of the country and the natives: of the beauty of the Ngong Hills and coffee trees in blossom: of her guests, from the Prince of Wales to Knudsen, the old charcoal burner, who visited her: of primitive festivals: of big game that were her near neighbors – lions, rhinos, elephants, zebras, buffaloes – and of Lulu, the little gazelle who came to live with her, unbelievably ladylike and beautiful.
A Man called Ove by Fredrik Backman – Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time? Loved this one. My Grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry – Elsa is seven years old and different. Her grandmother is seventy-seven years old and crazy—as in standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-strangers crazy. She is also Elsa’s best, and only, friend. At night Elsa takes refuge in her grandmother’s stories, in the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas, where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal.
The Summer Book – Tove Jansson – In The Summer Book Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer—its sunlight and storms—into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice, write a fanciful study of local bugs. They discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love. “On an island,” thinks the grandmother, “everything is complete.” Recommended as beautifully written.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz – picks up Stieg Larsson’s series about Lisbeth Salander – recommended as pretty good – but this is a dark series so be prepared.
Smila’s Sense of Snow – Peter Hoeg – Smilla’s Sense of Snow presents one of the toughest heroines in modern fiction. Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen is part Inuit, but she lives in Copenhagen. She is thirty-seven, single, childless, moody, and she refuses to fit in. Smilla’s six-year-old Inuit neighbor, Isaiah, manages only with a stubbornness that matches her own to befriend her. When Isaiah falls off a roof and is killed, Smilla doesn’t believe it’s an accident. She has seen his tracks in the snow, and she knows about snow. She decides to investigate and discovers that even the police don’t want her to get involved. Also made into an interesting film.
Independent People – Halldor Laxness – This magnificent novel—which secured for its author the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature—is at least available to contemporary American readers. Although it is set in the early twentieth century, it recalls both Iceland’s medieval epics and such classics as Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. And if Bjartur of Summerhouses, the book’s protagonist, is an ordinary sheep farmer, his flinty determination to achieve independence is genuinely heroic and, at the same time, terrifying and bleakly comic. (and tragic)
Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset – 3 volumes – In her great historical epic Kristin Lavransdatter, set in fourteenth-century Norway, Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset tells the life story of one passionate and headstrong woman. Painting a richly detailed backdrop, Undset immerses readers in the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political and religious undercurrents of the period. Now in one volume, Tiina Nunnally’s award-winning definitive translation brings this remarkable work to life with clarity and lyrical beauty.
My Struggle – Carl Ove Knausgaard – a multi volume autobiographical series of six novels written in the late 2000s. Books cover his private life and thoughts (3600 pages all together) – categorized as fiction but his name and those of his relatives are not changed.
The Story of San Michele – Axel Menthe – A bestseller in a dozen languages and a favorite of readers for decades, The Story of San Michele is one of a remarkable life filled with fabulous experiences and ambitions. Axel Munthe was a fashionable physician in Paris who built one of the best-loved houses in the world, San Michele, on the Isle of Capri, on the site of the villa of the emperor Tiberius. Written with intelligence and verve, this autobiography tells tales of buried treasure in Italy, legendary creatures in Lapland, and the cold countesses and kindly whores of Naples—enough material, as one critic put it, “to furnish writers of short stories with plots for the rest of their lives.” “A frank and absorbing autobiography…packed with good stories, vivid scenes, and memorable portraits
Yes Chef – Marcus Samuelson, Veronica Chambers – It begins with a simple ritual: Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loves to cook walks to his grandmother’s house and helps her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother is Swedish, a retired domestic. The boy is Ethiopian and adopted, and he will grow up to become the world-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson. This book is his love letter to food and family in all its manifestations.
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend – Katarina Bivald – Broken Wheel, Iowa, has never seen anyone like Sara, who traveled all the way from Sweden just to meet her book-loving pen pal, Amy. When she arrives, however, she finds Amy’s funeral guests just leaving. The residents of Broken Wheel are happy to look after their bewildered visitor—there’s not much else to do in a dying small town that’s almost beyond repair. OK this one doesn’t have a surprising ending and the plot may require a bit of belief suspension but it’s charming, it’s set in a bookstore and the end of the book has a list of all the titles it mentions.
The Man Who Watched the World End – Chris Diesel The end of man was not signaled by marauding gangs or explosions, but with silence. People simply grew older knowing a younger generation would not be there to replace them. The final two residents in the neighborhood of Camelot, an old man and his invalid brother, are trapped in their house by forests full of cats and dogs battling with the bears and wolves to eat anything they can find. As the man struggles to survive, he recounts all the ways society changed as the human population continued to shrink-the last movie Hollywood ever made, the last World Series that was played, how governments around the world slowly disbanded. THE MAN WHO WATCHED THE WORLD END is the haunting account of a man who has witnessed the world fade away. It is also a story about the power of family.
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist – Sunil Yapa – Yapa’s chilling debut is set amid the real-life protests that disrupted the 1999 World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle, which resulted in hundreds of arrests, police resignations, and an increased media spotlight on the WTO. The novel follows a fictional group of police officers, dissidents, and a diplomat as they struggle through the summit’s first chaotic day, full of tear gas, epiphany, and violence. On one side are the activists and their hangers-on: Victor, a nomadic 19-year-old trying to sell weed to protesters; King and John Henry, veteran nonviolent advocates who arrive at the protests to act as medics; and Charles, a political representative from Sri Lanka who quickly finds himself a target of both protesters and police. Representing the law are Chief Bill Bishop, Victor’s estranged stepfather, bent on protecting his city; and officers Tim and Julia, whose past run-ins with terrorism and riots influence their fierce approach to peace.
Where My Heart Used to Beat – Sebastian Faulks – London, 1980. Robert Hendricks, an established psychiatrist and author, has so bottled up memories of his own wartime past that he is nearly sunk into a life of aloneness and depression. Out of the blue, a baffling letter arrives from one Dr. Alexander Pereira, a neurologist and a World War I veteran who claims to be an admirer of Robert’s published work. The letter brings Robert to the older man’s home on a rocky, secluded island off the south of France, and into tempests of memories–his childhood as a fatherless English boy, the carnage he witnessed and the wound he can’t remember receiving as a young officer in World War II, and, above all, the great, devastating love of his life, an Italian woman, “L,” whom he met during the war.
Orphan X – Gary Hurwitz – Evan Smoak is a man with skills, resources, and a personal mission to help those with nowhere else to turn. He’s also a man with a dangerous past. Chosen as a child, he was raised and trained as part of the off-the-books black box Orphan program, designed to create the perfect deniable intelligence assets—i.e. assassins. He was Orphan X. Evan broke with the program, using everything he learned to disappear.
Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie – In the devastating aftermath of the atomic bomb, Hiroko Tanaka who lost her lover in the bombing leaves Japan in search of new beginnings. From Delhi, amid India’s cry for independence from British colonial rule, to New York City in the immediate wake of 9/11, to the novel’s astonishing climax in Afghanistan, a violent history casts its shadow the entire world over. Sweeping in its scope and mesmerizing in its evocation of time and place, this is a tale of love and war, of three generations, and three world-changing historic events. Burnt Shadows is a story for our time by “a writer of immense ambition and strength