Monday, 30 May 2016

"Things like this weren't supposed to happen in Iceland, the most peaceful place on Earth"

Statistically there are more crime writers in Iceland than there are crimes and yet, in Night Blind Ragnar Jonasson creates a vividly real and believable landscape in which to set his uniquely Icelandic fiction. Night Blind is, in fact, the second book in the Dark Iceland series but the first that I've read and reviewed. 

The novel is set in Siglufjordur, a small fishing town in the North of Iceland, which is accessible only via a single road through a mountain tunnel. This setting, far from the more familiar location of Reykjavik is a clever device used to leverage the isolation and darkness of the dark Icelandic winter. If the setting also has an Agatha Christie quality this could be because Jonasson began his writing career by translating Christie's work into Icelandic!

As crime fiction goes this is recognisable, though utterly compelling, police procedural drama. Rookie policeman Ari Thor Arason leads the investigation which ensues when a policeman is shot dead outside a deserted house on the edge of town. What makes Night Blind stand apart is two fold. Firstly its the attention to characterisation; Siglufjordur is nigh on perfect as a stage that's home to a well conceived cast of characters that keep you guessing right to the end. Secondly its the superb pacing that drives the narrative throughout. Jonasson spares us the flab and offers up lean and slender prose that gets straight to the point. Night Blind is hugely readable and dangerously addictive.

This English version of Night Blind was translated by Quentin Bates who does an expert job at interpreting the Icelandic text (cover below) for an English speaking audience. I'm told that Icelandic literature is characterised by short staccato sentences which might appear as childish when translated but Bates manages to deal with this problem well. What edges are lost in translation is hard to say but the fact that Jonasson continues to work with Bates is a sign that he is in someway happy with the outcome.

So, Night Blind is a great piece of crime fiction that's succesfully been translated into English but that's not all. The novel also works at another level to keep the flames of the great 'Sagas of Icelanders' alive.

This is a novel steeped in Icelandic mythology from the isolated and remote settings that capture the wild and other worldly quality of this unique island to the hero detective Ari Thor Arason himself whose name references the hammer wielding Norse god. Jonasson knowingly writes for the domestic audience in Iceland at the same time as appealing to the global market by leveraging Iceland's idiosyncracies. 

If Icelandic culture can be said to be influenced by the tradition of the great Sagas then modern day crime authors like Jonasson can be seen to be continuing this great practice. Just as the great Sagas of the past galvanised the people of Iceland around a sense of national identity so too do Ragnar Jonasson, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Arnaldur Indiridason contribute to a contemporary icelandic cultural identity. 

Anyway, I'm off to read Snow Blind (the first in the Dark Iceland series now)

I read this novel in paperback in May 2016 in part on the Harbour Arm in Margate.

Night Blind by Ragnar Jonasson, published by Orenda Books, 280 pages

This month's shortlist of the best reads for your bookshelf:

The Vegetarian by Han Kang
This year's Man Booker International Prize winner is a truly memorable novel by South Korean writer Han Kang whose work has been translated into English, for the first time, by Deborah Smith.

This is the debut novel from playwrite Barney Norris who saw success with his 2014 play Visitors. The novel is set in Norris's home town of Salisbury in Wiltshire and features the lives of five ordinary people brought together by one extraordinary event. 

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
This is the debut novel from American author and poet Garth Greenwell. The novel tells the story, in three distinct parts, of a un-named American teacher living, working and falling in love in Bulgaria

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink
"I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage. So begins The Wallcreeper, curious little novel about love, loss and birdwatching.

Some Rain Must Fall by Karl Ove Knausgaard

A literary memoir written by a great fiction writer for readers of fiction, an autobiographical epic through the lens of a writer desperate to write a literary classic. 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

#amreading Five Rivers met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

"There once was a boy who had a story to tell but couldn't bring himself to tell it"

Every now and then a novel comes along that you immediately want to discuss with friends.   With these books the quiet and solitary experience of reading leads quickly to a need to talk; about characters, about locations and about new authors. This is social reading at its best.

Five Rivers met on a Wooded Plain is the debut novel from playwrite Barney Norris who saw success with his 2014 play Visitors. The novel is set in Norris's home town of Salisbury in Wiltshire and features the lives of five ordinary people brought together by one extraordinary event. 

The novel's epigraph is a quotation from George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-2); 'We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual' which perfectly sets up this new 'Study of Provincial Life' set not in a fictitious town like Middlemarch but in a very real town, Salisbury, which Norris expertly casts as a small but enigmatic place with its ancient cathedral spire, mythical Old Sarum and the large yet secretive presence of the Military. 

We are introduced to each character in turn as the narrative unfolds around a car crash that occurs in the town centre. First up is Rita a local flower seller and part time drug dealer. Norris writes each part in the first person which perfectly captures both the confessional revelations along with the profound routine of everyday life. In the next chapter we meet Chris, a young man dealing with love and death for the first time. Through Sam we meet security guard Liam whose story features in the next chapter; in each section Norris provides a new perspective on the accident and the connections that each character has with the others. By the time we meet George, the driver of the car, we're slap bang in the heart of the community as if we'd lived there all our lives.

Five Rivers is a cleverly constructed novel with thoughtfully and well crafted characters from a writer who can so effortlessly get under the skin of the kinds of people we all know. The novel is brilliantly imaginative yet deeply routed in the everyday and I can't wait to read more from this exciting writer.

I read this novel on kindle in April 2016 mostly between Oxfordshire and Southwark.

Five Rivers met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris, published by Doubleday, 285 pages

Sunday, 8 May 2016

#amreading The Course of Love, A Novel by Alain de Botton

"He will need to learn that love is a skill, rather than an enthusiasm"

Truth be told it has taken me a while to post this review having received an advanced pre-release copy through Netgalley some time ago (thank you Penguin Books and sorry for the delay). So I'm late to the party, sorry, but here we are.

The Course of Love is a typical modern day 'boy meets girl, boy marries girl' story that De Botton sets up in order for us to feel recognisably within our comfort zone. We all know our own version of modern day couple Rabhi and Kristen right? This familiarity is a vital ingredient which De Botton then uses, having settled us in, to engage us in his own theoretical musings about the emotional pit falls that underlie any relationship between two people.

Each chapter sets out to explore a specific scenario, as the couples' relationship develops, which De Botton increasingly comments on with italicised interjections that turn his story into a case study. This is a unique literary style, lets call it 'philosofiction', which turns the title of  this book on its head - the 'Course of Love' could conceivably by a evening class De Botton offers at his School of Life. We see Rabih and Kristen dealing with everything life throws at them, at home and at work, with a comprehensive and running commentary throughout. 

Both characters are easy to empathise with and the issues they face vary from the mundane to the life changing. The Course of Love treats both extremes in the same way suggesting that successful relationships are equally about the everyday and the extraordinary.

So how does de Botton's 'philosofiction' stand up to literary criticism? The fact is The Course of Love is less novel and more course; Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World achieves a better balance as the academic extracts are fully integrated into the narrative. De Botton's interjections are initially interesting but the technique is over used to the extent that the narrative itself become fragments of story in a lecture. That said De Botton's voice is so accessible that that I don't think anyone else could deliver the academic case study novel in this way. Perhaps this is not the last we've seen from the 'philiosofiction' genre. I'd certainly read 'The Course of..... something else'   

I read this novel on kindle in February 2016 mostly at home in Oxfordshire.

The Course of Love, A Novel by Alain de Botton, published by Penguin, 216 pages

Monday, 2 May 2016

#amreading What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

"Love isn't just a matter of looking at someone, I think now, but also of looking with them, of facing what they face"

What Belongs to You is the debut novel from American author and poet Garth Greenwell. The novel tells the story, in three distinct parts, of a un-named American teacher living, working and falling in love in Bulgaria.

The first part of the novel, Mitko, really defines Greenwell as a storyteller and is in fact an extended version of a previously published novella. The story begins with the narrator entering a renowned cruising spot at Sofia's National Palace of Culture where he meets Mitko, a 23 year old sex worker, and in doing so single handedly resets the narrative on gay Bulgaria with a new dignity.

The relationship with Mitko is initially based purely on a transactional basis, Mitko is drawn to sex work as a means to a iPhone and Nike style end, but this soon develops into a symbiosis that exposes both characters to a truth they struggle to accept. Mitko exudes a feral and animalistic sexuality; an enigma that is confounded with that of Bulgaria and Europe itself for the young teacher from Kentucky.

The second part of the novel, A Grave, is a flash back to the narrators time as a teenager in Kentucky and includes a betrayal (of sorts) which instantly captures the confusion and excitement of growing up in a intolerant and narrow-minded world. This is an interesting coming of age section which sits between Mitko and the final part Pox which both take place in Bulgaria.

Greenwell's simple storytelling style is free of overly elaborate prose or clever narrative structures. This is straight forward, truthful, explicit and painfully intimate though at the same time more accessible than work by other writers such as Christos Tsiolkas. Having been published within months of Hanya Yanigahara's A Little Life, there is certainly a trend in contemporary gay fiction which is becoming less marginalised each year. What Belongs to You is a novel that is nothing but purely honest.

I read this novel on kindle in April 2016 mostly on the Jubilee line

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell, published by Picador, 209 pages