The Sacrament, by Olaf Olafsson

Trigger warning for references to child abuse.

Sister Johanna Marie is one of the most reluctant investigators I’ve ever read about. She’s only looking into accusations of abuse at a Reykjavík Catholic school for two reasons. First, she’s one of the few people in the bishop and the cardinal in charge know who speaks Icelandic. Second, the cardinal who put her on the case thinks he has dirt on Johanna and can push her to make the “right” report when she’s done. But surprising things happen in The Sacrament, by Olaf Olafsson. Maybe this time, the pressure to maintain the status quo won’t be strong enough to allow a predator to keep doing his evil work.

Johanna was once known as Pauline. As a young girl, she felt a strong faith in God and the Catholic Church, one that led her to study theology at the Sorbonne. But, in 1960s France, Pauline’s sexuality is socially unacceptable even if it feels like she’s found true love with her Icelandic roommate. When her priest finds out about their growing love, he breaks them up. The roommate goes back to Iceland. Pauline takes vows and becomes Sister Johanna. She walls off her homosexuality, taking refuge in her roses and prayers.

In 1987, Johanna is pulled out of her French convent and sent to Reykjavík. The Bishop of Iceland has received a letter reporting terrible abuse at a Catholic school but, rather than act on it himself, the bishop passes the letter up the ladder. The very priest who ruined Pauline’s chances of happiness with another woman dispatches the now middle-aged nun to “investigate.” This priest, now a cardinal, knows that Johanna won’t stand up to him or the bishop if they push her to paper things over. Johanna is just supposed to be a token, to be there so that the cardinal and the bishop can say that someone looked into the accusations against the school’s headmaster, Father August Franz. In the early 2000s, Johanna is once more taken from the convent and sent to Iceland. A young boy who was at the school has asked her to come back, so that he can finally share his last secrets.

The Sacrament moves back and forth between the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s. Like the young Icelandic boy, this book gives up its secrets reluctantly. I didn’t know exactly what the accusing letter contained until about halfway through the book. There are hints here and there about what happened in 1987, but we don’t understand why things are happening until Johanna actually meets the sinister Father August Franz. The man terrifies whoever he can’t browbeat into compliance. August Franz thrives in an environment where he not only rules absolutely but also has the protection of the church, which doesn’t want a scandal.

Although this book deals with a difficult subject, I enjoyed The Sacrament a lot. Johanna is an amazing, unusual character. She seems compliant to her church, but we find that her compliance masks a deep anger at the injustice she sees. I also liked that the book’s focus is on the investigation rather than dwelling on what August Franz did to his students. I’ve never understood how people with a duty to care for children, their communities, can be so afraid of what happens when abuse comes to light that they’re willing to cover it up. While The Sacrament doesn’t answer that question, it does give us an astonishing example of what one person can do if they feel like they have take matters into their own hands.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Glass Woman, by Caroline Lea

I still believe that one of the world’s greatest marketing campaigns was the one that got people to settle in Iceland centuries before fast shipping, improved agriculture, and antibiotics. Life could be bleak. It certainly is for Rósa, the protagonist of Caroline Lea’s The Glass Woman. After her father dies, Rósa and her mother are left in penury. They eke out a living for a little while, but Rósa ends up taking the desperate step of marrying a well off man from a remote village. He agrees to send money and food to Rósa’s mother. Moving away would be daunting enough if it weren’t for the other thing about Jón: his first wife died under mysterious circumstances and rumors of witchcraft. Perhaps Rósa is exchanging one set of dangers for another.

It’s hard not to feel for Rósa. She’s in a tough situation, but she’s doing her best to take care of herself and her mother. She’s in love with a local man, but can’t marry him. Her new husband is not at all demonstrative, demands obedience, and doesn’t want her to talk to the other people who live in his village once she moves there. At first, she didn’t strike me as the most savvy of women. The situation seems pretty hopeless…until Rósa quietly starts to buck the rules and stick her nose in where Jón really doesn’t want it. Of course, Jón should have known better than to tell someone to stay away from locked doors and then leave them alone with said locks. Besides, wouldn’t you want to know if your new husband was a grieving widower or a murderer who is desperate to keep a secret?

I wasn’t sure which direction The Glass Woman was going to go. Was this an Icelandic Rebecca set in the 1680s? Or was it a Bluebeard with a lot more dried fish? Or would Lea borrow more from the Laxdæla Saga that Rósa adores? I had no idea. I twisted and turned along with Rósa as she discovered more clues about what happened to Anna, and whether or not Jón is a villain. I definitely didn’t expect the LGBTQ elements that wove themselves convincingly (and heartbreakingly) into a story that ended up blending Rebecca, Bluebeard, and the Laxdæla Saga that kept me guessing.

There are some sections—narrated by Jón in his interstitial sections—that are a little overwritten. (It’s probably the saga coming through.) This is my only quibble. The Glass Woman hooked me. Lea’s research shows through in the way she recreates a hardscrabble (and very cold) Iceland, a place so demanding that it makes Rósa’s choice make complete sense. Really though, it was the characters that got me. I just had to know if Rósa would be okay. I had to know if Jón was really a murderer and what happened to that first wife.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

History. A Mess., by Sigrún Pálsdóttir

It seems deeply ironic to be reading History. A Mess., by Sigrún Pálsdóttir (and translated by Lytton Smith) only a few weeks after Naomi Wolf gave a devastating interview, in which she learns that she made a serious mistake in interpreting historical documents. Her thesis disappeared in a puff of smoke during that interview. In this brief, sometimes bewildering book, another woman makes a mistake with her primary source only to realize it just before turning in her thesis. This mistake was the basis of the entire thesis. Fixing it would mean starting all over and our protagonist has already spent six years trying to get her doctorate in art history.

Our unnamed protagonist believes that she has discovered that a semi-famous painter may have been a woman. This discovery would push back the date of the earliest known woman artist in England to the mid-1600s. In reading a diary by S.B., which is mostly a dull recounting of the artist’s daily routine, our protagonist believes that certain sentences reveal S.B.’s gender. She only realizes her mistake when she goes back to check something and can’t find the original passage. It turns out that she skipped a page because the diary was just so boring. Like Wolf’s thesis, our protagonist’s work goes up in a puff of smoke.

This mistake, we learn, is just the latest in a long line of misinterpretations and disappointments. Much of the novel requires some very close reading to figure out not only what happened in our protagonist’s life, but also what she thinks happened. The two are not always the same thing. Some readers may get a little lost if they try to read too quickly. (I found myself having to stop and re-read more than once, because I was trying to go at my usual pace.) Because I had an advanced reader copy that was a little messy, I wasn’t sure if the publishers plan to print the book with a lot of white space to help break up the text. Lytton Smith does a good job of narrating the messy, often stream-of-consciousness text as our protagonist revises her entire life. I’m fairly sure that all my comprehension problems came from just trying to read too fast.

This book wasn’t what I was expecting when I requested a review copy. I thought I was going to get a satire about how a little mistake becomes a big deal while exploring the foibles of academia. History. A Mess. is a lot more serious than that. It’s also a lot more psychological than that as it takes place almost entirely inside one woman’s mind. I would be more likely to recommend this book to readers who like unreliable narrators than I would to readers looking for an insider’s glimpse of academia. Being fond of unreliable narrators myself, I was pretty solidly hooked on History. A Mess. I’m glad I stuck this book out because the ending was brilliant, unexpected-yet-perfect, and emotionally powerful.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Dark Blue Overcoat and Other Stories from the North, edited by Sjón

36417302The stories in The Dark Blue Overcoat are written by authors from every Scandinavian country, including the Faroe Islands. At least two of the authors are indigenous. They are also translated into English by a complement of translators. Under Icelandic author Sjón’s direction, the stories take us across the north from remote villages to cities, ethnic Scandinavians to immigrants—all with a distinctly un-hygge sense of fractures in culture and society.

Some of the standout stories from the collection include:

“Don’t Kill Me. I Beg You. This is My Tree,” by Hassan Blasim and translated by Jonathan Wright. This story features an Iraqi refuge in Helsinki who now works as a bus driver. We know him only as the Tiger and it isn’t long before we learn that he received asylum under false pretenses. In this story, the Tiger is haunted by what may be the ghost of a man he murdered in an orchard before he fled the country.

“May Your Union Be Blessed,” by Carl Jóhan Jensen and translated by Kate Sanderson. What I love most about this odd little story set in the Faroe islands is that the main text of the story—a gossipy family history full of sex—is immediately contradicted by corrective footnotes full of academic references to what “really” happened in the Ryggalt-Hermanson family. I could feel the amused smirk on my face the entire time I was reading it. Also, I am always a sucker for archly written footnotes.


Obligatory fjord photo (Image of Geirangerfjord, Norway via Wikicommons)

“San Francisco,” by Naviaq Korneliussen and translated by Charlotte Barslund. This story moved me most. Here, Fia, a Greenlander, makes her way across the United States on a mourning journey after the death of her lover, Sara. This one of the longer entries in the collection, giving us plenty of time for Fia to reveal the shame she feels about her sexuality and her overwhelming guilt at possibly causing Sara’s death in a motorcycle accident. When Fia arrives in San Francisco, a place she knows as a safe, open city for LGBTQ+ people, there’s a small glimmer of hope that Fia might be able to become confident in her sexuality.

Some of the stories are stranger than others. Some are distinctly poststructural or supernatural. At the end of the book, I was left with the impression that Hamlet’s Danish rot had spread across the region. There are a lot of broken families here, and a lot of alcohol abuse. Readers looking for comfort on cold winter nights should look elsewhere. But readers for whom Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is not unsettling enough should enjoy this collection.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

Woman at 1,000 Degrees, by Hallgrímur Helgason

33590219After the life she’s had, it’s probably not a surprise that Herbjörg María Björnsson (better known as Herra) is living out her last months alone in a garage with only the internet to keep her company. She was a mostly absent mother. Her father was in the SS. She curses, smokes, and sleeps with whoever takes her fancy. But the more I learned about Herra in Hallgrímur Helgason’s Woman at 1,000 Degrees (translated by Brian FitzGibbon), the more I pitied and understood her struggles against conventionality. Her story is a wild, fascinating, moving journey across most of the twentieth century.

Herra is a prickly old woman. Her deteriorating condition (she has metastatic cancer) is not helping. This novel gives us the chance to keep Herra company as she starts to reminisce about her past, from her early days with her mother on a remote Breiðafjörður island, off the west coast of Ireland, to her time wandering the length of Germany during the Second World War, to scheming in Argentina, and her constant attempts to come home. With each chapter, the layers of her personality are stripped away to reveal her darkest secrets.

Herra blames her father and Hitler equally for ruining her life. If Hans Henrik hadn’t been a weak man who was existentially attracted to the appearance of strength, perhaps the family would have been able to stay in Lübeck for the duration. Hans Henrik would’ve become a Norse scholar and everything might have been fine. But Hans Henrik signs up for Nazism, the family gets split up, and nothing ever goes right again.

No one else in her family seems to know how much Herra struggles. To be fair to them, Herra can’t seem to articulate why she feels the need to cut and run so often or why she feels the need to be an apologist for her mistaken Nazi father. It’s also really uncomfortable to hear an 80+ year old woman talk about sex. This chance to listen in on Herra had me thinking about how much the years 1939 to 1945 left lasting damage on everyone it touched. I realize these last paragraphs make this book sound depressing (and there some very depressing parts, sure), but it leaves out how funny Herra is and how full of life she is even at the end.

When I started Woman at 1,000 Degrees, I was amused by Herra’s humor and refusal to act her age. I had no idea what I was in for. This novel turned into a tale of astonishing emotional depth. Like all great books, Woman at 1,000 Degrees builds up a perfect portrait of a unique woman who is the result of everything that has ever happened to her.

Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

36505873Jónas is the kind of man who lives for others. He’s kind. He’s accommodating. But when his wife leaves him and reveals that their daughter is not his biological child, he is plunged into suicidal depression. In fact, when we meet him at the beginning of Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Hotel Silence (translated by Brian FitzGibbon), he is planning on killing himself. He keeps putting it off because he doesn’t want his daughter to be the one to find his body. Eventually, Jónas plans to travel to a foreign country so that his body will be shipped back without too much fuss. But when he goes abroad to an unnamed country, he finds people who need him and he returns to meaningful life.

The first fifth of Hotel Silence are utterly depressing. Jónas shows us his quiet, lonely life. Without his wife and daughter and with his mother descending into obsessive thoughts about war, Jónas feels like there’s no point going on. He doesn’t have anyone to love or take care of and feels like he never will again. When he goes abroad to a country that was at war until very recently, it’s a relief from the unrelenting Icelandic melancholy of Jónas’ life.

Jónas’ new life starts with little things. He fixes the shower in his room at the Hotel Silence and the sticky door. One of the hotel owners asks him to fix a few other things. So does the owner of the town’s last restaurant. He demurs but caves because he really likes to be helpful. The next thing he knows, Jónas is helping to renovate the hotel and other buildings around town. These repairs and the gratitude of the people in this unnamed town help pull him out of his sorrow.

If you can make it through the first part of Hotel Silence, you’ll be rewarded with a sweet story of people being good to each other (with a few exceptions). This is a rare thing in fiction, since authors almost always torture their protagonists to move the plot forward. Seeing this much altruism left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling when I was done.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 22 February 2018.

The Shadow District, by Arnaldur Indriðason

35011768While this latest novel from Arnaldur Indriðason does not feature his well-known Inspecter ErlendurThe Shadow District shares strong similarities. Like many of the Erlendur novels, this one centers on a pair of linked crimes that happened decades apart. The detective here, Konrád, is a retired officer of Reykjavík’s criminal investigation division. He claims to be happily retired, but it’s clear by the way he horns his way into an investigation of the murder of a 90-year-old man that he’s very bored.

The murder of Stefán Thordárson doesn’t leave the police much to go on. He was smothered; that’s all they can figure out at first. Stefán’s apartment has so few personal items that it’s hard for anyone to get an idea of what lead to his death. The man didn’t seem to have any friends or family either. The only thing that keeps his case from being a complete dead end is a trio of newspaper articles about an unsolved murder from 1944. Konrád trades on an old friendship in CID to dig into both cases. Slowly, methodically, he begins to put together the scant clues with luck and plenty of hunches.

Konrád’s chapters alternate with chapters set in 1944 in which Stefán (who turns out to be a Canadian of Icelandic descent) and his detective partner, Flóvent, try to solve the murder of a woman found dumped behind a theater. As hard as Konrád’s job is, at least he has things like databases and CCTV to help him. In the 1940s, police had little more at their disposal than lots of good shoe leather and persistence to get to the bottom of things.

We know from the outset of The Shadow District that the two cases are connect. What we don’t know until the end is what really happened—mostly through careful editing to keep names and bits of evidence hidden for later. Some readers might hate this because it doesn’t really give us a fair shot at solving the crime before Konrád does. For Erlendur fans, The Shadow District might help tide them over until the next one. If nothing else, this novel is a competent mystery set in an interesting country.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.

Snowblind, by Ragnar Jónasson

In addition to all the other factors that make a book enjoyable—effective pacing, interesting character development, solid plotting—mysteries demand that writers carefully dole out information as needed for the reader to either solve the puzzle at the right time or trick the reader in a series of plot twists. Neither of those things happen in Ragnar Jónasson’s Snowblind, unfortunately. I don’t fault the translator, Quentin Bates, for the flaws in this novel. All the problems are structural. In fact, this book has so many fundamental issues that I wonder it’s garnered praise from the people who supplied the blurbs.

Snowblind is set in a remote town in northern Iceland. Siglufjörður is so far off the beaten track that it often becomes inaccessible in winter. The town is tight knit, the kind of place where everyone knows about everyone’s history and business. It would have been a tough nut to crack for any incoming policeman, let alone a rookie like Ari Thór Arason. He only take the job because the head police officer in Siglufjörður made him an offer and Ari Thór is used to being picked last, if at all. His first few days in the town lull him into thinking that Siglufjörður really is as boring as advertised. Then a famous writer is found dead in the local theater and a woman is discovered nearly dead in her own snowy backyard.

Snowblind should have been a tense, short mystery/thriller. It would have been if an editor had sat down with Jónasson and talked him out of the out-of-place victim’s perspectives, extensive histories of characters who turned out not to be involved in the crime, and the detective’s mooning over his distant girlfriend and the nearby woman he’s attracted to. (The editor should also have fixed the continuity errors while they were at it.) Of course, if you’d cut all that out, there wouldn’t be much book left.

I picked up Snowblind for two reasons. First, Iceland fascinates me. I very much want to visit some day and I love the fact that there are still people in the world speaking a Viking language. Second, I really enjoyed the Inspecter Erlender series by Arnaldur Indriðason. I was hoping to find something that could help fill the void. Although I enjoyed the descriptions of Siglufjörður, this book was uniformly awful.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 31 January 2017.

Into Oblivion, by Arnaldur Indriðason

Arnaldur Indriðason has once again taken us back to Inspector Erlendur’s early years with Iceland’s Criminal Investigation Division with Into Oblivion, his second prequel for the series. In this volume, Erlendur is working with his boss a mentor, Marion Briem, to find out what happened to a man who appears to have fallen to his death in spite of being found in a hot spring in the middle of a lava field. In the B Plot, Erlendur tries to solve the long cold case about a girl who mysteriously disappeared in 1953.

Marion Briem has only appeared in brief cameos in the Erlendur series—usually when Erlendur needs to bounce around ideas about a case. Marion has decades of experience in the CID and knows where a lot of bodies are buried, literally and figuratively. In Into Oblivion, we actually get to see the great detective at work. The two are equally involved in the body in the hot spring case at the beginning of the book. The victim’s sister identifies him as Kristvin and leads them to Keflavík, where Kristvin worked as a mechanic for Icelandair. Keflavík is notorious because it’s where the US Navy has a base; it’s been a source of a thriving black market since the Second World War. It’s still the place to go for booze and drugs even in the late 1970s. Marion and Erlendur follow the clues as two possibilities emerge to explain Kristvin’s death. Was it simply a case of a drug deal gone bad? Or had Kristin stumbled onto an international conspiracy?

Over the course of the book, Erlendur gets more and more involved with his cold case—leaving Marion to solve the case with help from an American MP. All Erlendur knows is that Dagbjört disappeared on her way to school and was never seen again. There was a rumor that she was seeing a boy from a bad part of town, but no one ever chased it down. Erlendur decides to investigate after reading Dagbjört’s father’s obituary. Any possible witnesses are starting to die of old age and any reader familiar with Erlendur will know that he just can’t let these cases go. So, in his stubborn, tactless, relentless way, Erlendur starts chipping away at a twenty-five year old mystery.

The more I read of Into Oblivion, the more I realized I wanted more stories about Marion Briem. Erlendur is a great character, but Marion fascinates me. Not only that, but learning more about Marion would reveal more about Iceland’s history. Indriðason has a lot of fresh territory to play around with if he spins off Marion into a new series.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 9 February 2016.