Mostly, But Not Entirely, Icelandic Christmas Reading

Around this time of year I always have good intentions to write more about the books I read. I’ve got a note somewhere of a long list of titles that I read last year, but remain unblogged. I’ll try to get back to that list at some point.

But over the Christmas/New Year period, I did have a good reading streak and I’m capturing those here. I’ll get to the Icelandic crime fiction in a bit, but lets start with Babel which I couldn’t help but notice is Blackwell’s book of the year.

Babel describes itself as “An Arcane History” – in fact being very much an alt-history version of Oxford in the 1830s, in a world where strange silver-working by scholars at the Babel tower in Oxford endow things with quasi-magical abilities.

That summary really doesn’t do justice to an extraordinarily accomplished novel by RF Kuang who has done an amazing job building a world that is very similar to our own – but just a little off.

The story begins in Canton, China, where the character who will quickly be known as Robin Swift is plucked from his dying mother by a strange British Professor. His life has already begun to be mapped out in front of him by virtue of the books the young boy has been sent, and the education he has already been receiving. The next thing he knows, he’s been brought back to England and will be heading to Oxford in due course. Once there, he finds himself amongst a group of other students from a variety of backgrounds all being inducted into Babel.

The book revolves around the ideas of translation, the etymology of words and what that might mean in a slightly magical world. But it’s also about the British Empire, global trading, industry, slavery and race. This is a book written by someone who understands her subject intimately. I’ve not read any of RF Kuang’s previous books, but her deep knowledge of language is laced through this novel, and there is a liberal use of footnotes to expand on topics where appropriate (Although some care and attention is needed here, because sometimes, the footnotes are authorial fact-based, and sometimes expand on the fictional world). While this novel is set in the 1830s, it’s also a novel very much about now.

I was enthralled by the book, and never really knew where it was headed. Some of the experiences felt by the characters felt very real, and I’m sure that some of the enmity comes from things that have really happened – and not necessarily that long ago.

I would also note that I listened to the audiobook of this titles for much of it – switching back and forth between the printed book and audio – and the narrators are excellent. Chris Lew Kum Hoi is fantastic, with footnotes read by Billie Fulford-Brown. And because language and linguistics are so critical to the plot, the audio version really helps with some of the passages that feature words in non-English or Latin scripts and therefore can be experienced aurally.

I would thoroughly recommend this book.

The Book of the Most Precious Substance is a somewhat different book, and much more fun.

Lily is a writer who had a hit book, but then her husband fell ill and now needs fulltime care to support him. Instead of writing, she becomes a book dealer, buying and selling titles to maintain an income. And it’s in this world that she meets a colleague who’s on the lookout for a truly rare book. If she can find it, then this colleague has a buyer who will pay millions for it.

And so begins a wild ride in the hidden book collecting world where super-rich people try to own things that are not easily owned. For this book is special. It explores sex in a way that no other book previously has. It dates from the 17th century and only a handful of copies are believed to still survive, trading hands surreptitiously amongst a certain number of believers. Because the book is a practical guide to sexual acts, with the final stage being the ultimate.

Lily pairs up – not just metaphorically – with another colleague and begins what will turn out to be a global hunt for eponymous book. There is some kind of magic invoked by the book, and there is a certain type of person who believes in those things and would want to own such a book.

Sara Gran takes us on a sensual journey in the hunt.

Back down to earth, and with much less magic, is Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series of books. I spent a lot of time reading the first four titles in the series over Christmas. The series begins with Snowblind which introduces us Ari Thor who has given up a theology degree and a prospective career in the cloth, and instead become a policeman. His first posting is to Siglufjörður in the far north of Iceland, where access is remote, and the mountains loom over the small community there.

As with any good crime novel, it begins with a murder and it’s not immediately apparent who the woman who lies in the snow bleeding might be. But when there’s another death, that of a famous writer, things get more complicated – like Ari Thor’s love life – and the novel’s plot begins to unwind.

Yes, Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world, and even in a bad year, has as few as four shootings (only one of which was fatal) in a 12 month period. But that doesn’t mean that the country can’t turn out some entertaining crime writers. I’d previously read a couple of entries in Jónasson’s Hidden Iceland series which features different protagonists. So it was good to go back to his crime-writing start.

Next in the series is Blackout, which is set against the background of a large volcanic eruption that is affecting things in the south of Iceland. It’s not explicitly named, but I believe it’s the Eyjafjallajökull eruption that basically stopped all flights in northern Europe that’s being referenced.

As before, most of the book takes place in the north of island, with the death of Elías, seemingly a worker for hire building a new road tunnel. But he seems to have perhaps been a more “colourful” character than that.

There are the usual twists and suspects presented to us, while we get various backstories of other characters, some of whose stories will come together towards the end.

Reading all these books one after another does bring to the fore the nature of how these novels are written. Like any good crime series, the stories need to be able to be read on a standalone basis, without the reader needing to know too much about the other titles. Indeed, you may not want to “spoil” your own previous books by revealing the killer in an earlier title, since a new reader may want to return to the earlier novels.

On the other hand, you also want to reward your ongoing readers by driving some kind of over-arching narrative forward. In the case of the Dark Iceland series, that in particular means discovering what Ari Thor’s current relationship status is – and with who. But it’s also about his professional situation – he would like to step up in rank, but he’s in something of a professional backwater and all that entails.

The third episode in the series, Rupture, is more of a cold case, and involves a number of incidents that aren’t always linked together. We also get the return of Ísrún who was previously introduced as Reykjavik based TV journalist.

What stands out in this particular episode in the series is the starkness of the landscape with the remote setting of a house right in the shadow of the mountains, only accessible in times past by trekking over a pass to reach it. The darkest yet in the “Dark” Iceland series.

Whiteout sees the action move to an even more remote bit of northern Iceland as Ari Thor investigates the death a woman beneath some cliffs. The long abandoned village where she fell is dominated by a lighthouse and there are few others around. In that regard, this feels closer to a locked-room style mystery where we know the killer must be one of just a handful of characters.

Added to this, it’s Christmas time – so making for perfect “festive” reading.

An interesting radio crossover is the novel’s mention of an annual Icelandic Christmas tradition that I first read about in the excellent The Little Book of the Icelanders at Christmas by Alda Sigmundsdóttir. Each year, RÚV Radio 1, the Icelandic national radio station, spends December 23rd broadcasting its “Christmas Greetings” programme. Literally thousands of greetings are sent into the station and a team of readers read out the seasonal messages. (This piece from 2015 says that 3,300 messages were sent in that year. That’s around 1% of the country’s population participating). That might be an interesting idea for a UK radio station to “borrow.”

There are two more Dark Iceland titles for me to read. I’ll report back…

Of note: Jónasson’s next crime novel was published before Christmas in Icelandic and comes out in English this August. Reykjavik was co-written with Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Iceland’s actual serving Prime Minister! Yes, both Bill and Hillary Clinton may have co-authored novels in the past (with James Pattison and Louise Penny respectively), but neither were actually serving in government at the time. One to look forward to.