Nothing Ever Happens Around Here

Careful; the smallest whiff of a spoiler is contained fleetingly herein.


If you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago what I associate with that country I’d have suggested a few bands like Sigur Rós, múm, Of Monsters and Men, Olafur Arnalds and that woman called Björk , Reykjavik 101, unpronounceable (by me) volcanoes and geysers. Oh, and the chap who sang “Ég á líf” at Eurovision a couple of years ago.

If you ask me the same question today I’ll add fjords, the herring boom, and great Nordic crime fiction to that list.

For in the last week I had the utmost pleasure of reading Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson.

The fist novel in Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series – almost up to its sixth installment in Iceland – has now been translated into and published in English by Orenda Books.IMG_4357

Snowblind introduces us to Ari Thor Arason – finishing his police training (after starting and dropping other pursuits including Theology) on-the-job having spontaneously accepted a posting in the northern town of Siglufjörður. It’s a posting that takes him hundreds of kilometres away from his home, his partner and his comfort zone. Plunging him into a small town where things aren’t quite as tranquil as they seem and a killer is on the loose.

Quiet and remote, Siglufjörður is a small fishing town only accessible via perilous mountain roads and a small tunnel seemingly carved out of the rock without a millimetre of excess width for as Ari Thor takes his first journey through the sense of a trap being sealed begins to sneak in – “it was a narrow single track…. carved through the mountainside more than forty years ago” with water dripping in the darkness from a ceiling unseen. Even on the other side the weather is starting to turn grim and oppressive (“every winter is a heavy winter in Siglufjörður”).

Still, what could go wrong?  Siglufjörður is an idyllic little community set amongst the mountains and fjord where – according to Police Inspector Tomas “nothing ever happens”.

Nothing that is except murders, manslaughter, literary theft, adultery, fugitives in hiding, drunk locals stumbling into the wrong house at night and seemingly not a character in the story without a history of loss and tragedy and, of course, the politics of local am-dram.

Having visited such small towns at the foot of a fjord (albeit in Norway not Iceland) in summer when the majesty of the scenery will steal your breath, I often wondered how different those imposing mountains would be when winter sets in and the calm of such detached living is replaced by a sense of being cut-off and encircled by thousands of metres of impenetrable nature. I need wonder no more; Ragnar Jónasson perfectly creates an atmosphere of dense, stifling claustrophobia, an impenetrable trap tightening with every falling flake, using geology to form a locked-room style setting with the imposing mountains and heavy snow falling in like a heavy, stifling blanket:

Claustrophobia had sneaked up on him, a feeling that had deepened as the snowfall around the station had become increasingly heavy. It was as if the weather gods were trying to construct a wall around the building that he would never be able to break through. He saw things around him grow dim and suddenly he found himself fighting for his breath.


Siglufjörður beset by snow

Siglufjörður beset by snow

The fact that Ari Thor – like the reader – is the only one not used to such environs deftly adds to the fish-out-of-water feeling, almost a “am I the only sane person here?” element adding to the tension.

Just as the winter snow falls gently at first but builds, the plot unfolds slowly; each of the character arcs expanding at their own pace, gently but intractably linking to each other and interspersed with snippets of a knife-point burglary so obviously doomed to a bad end that no matter how tranquil that which follows may be, a sense of foreboding and danger pervades.

For a debut novel, Snowblind is startlingly confident and sure-footed. The characters and dialogue all ring true, the plot is original and packed with plenty a surprise. Perhaps most pleasingly of all, Jónasson steers clear of hackneyed plot devices and reveals; while Ari Thor possess a talent for his work he’s no ‘instant wonder / super cop’ – in fact his inexperience lands him in a very dangerous position as he enthusiastically blunders into a confrontation with a killer, preventing any real chance of justice being served and only solves the novels main “who dunnit” by chance.

It’s clear that Ari Thor is a character that has plenty of space and potential to grow and that the sequel is currently in-translation by Quentin Bates (who deserves very positive praise for his translation of Snowblind) can only be considered great news. The first sliver of NightBlind is enough to have me hooked while confirming that Ragnar Jónasson is a writer with plenty more up his sleeve.

From it’s opening prelude, Snowblind steps back a couple of months to put the pieces in place, then assuredly and calmly expands into a compelling thriller that keeps you gripped throughout and delivers a final 1-2-3 punch of revelations that will leave your gob on the floor.

Get a hold of a copy today and check out the other stops on the blog tour.


Ploughing Through and You Don’t Know Jack

Oops; another month slips by without a post. Life is a busy thing with a toddler. The library has continued to grow and while my to-read list grows I’m getting through some great books. This last month (and a few days) I’ve ploughed through four books of an evening / weekend crashtime – and, in the case of one; lunchtimes. Let’s discuss…. IMG_4323 A Christmas gift from my wife (presumably as I’ve often mentioned that nobody says ‘bastard’ or does repressed anger as brilliantly as JC), John Cleese’s autobiography So Anyway was an odd read.

Odd as Cleese is an undoubtedly funny man with a rich and varied career in television and film comedy from Pythons and hoteliers to barristers hankering after Jamie Lee Curtis and even a few straight roles to mix it up a bit. He’s also known for a rather torrid personal life – currently married to his fourth wife – and the odd disagreement / heated debate with other Pythons named Terry Jones. YET wordage is not handed over to any of these but for the passing reference and occasional “so this is where that sketch / idea / character” originated. More ink is spent retrospectively linking events in his life to theories he’d later discover in psychology books than it is on those years so many were sure to have expected coverage of.

But… it’s still a good read. It’s a slow starter – Cleese gives a (sometimes too) thoroughly detailed account of his childhood, school years and early education. We learn how he inexplicably started supported the Australian cricket team as a young child and wonder why we need to know this nugget of information. So Anyway… is as insightful as an auto-bio could be and provides a great arc of a young man finding his calling in comedy – albeit unintentionally at first – and the road that took him to Python. It’s clear that even pre-Python Cleese packed more into these 30 years than many a full-career bio that lines the bookshop shelves. The overwhelming sense though is one of “but what about…”.

One of the things I like about short story collections is the ease of which you can dip in and out, one story at a time as it were, without losing any narrative thread. The problem with short story collections though is that there is no narrative thread, they can jump from tone to tone, first-person to third person narrative and the quality can vary dramatically. You often feel that you’re reading a series of sketches – ideas that will later be fleshed out, trimmed down and slipped in in a minor role or re-worked into a different context in the writer’s novels.

This is certainly the case, in part, with Tales From The Underworld, a collection of short stories by Hans Fallada. While his novels are rich, tightly bound mines of quality, the short stories here are perhaps too obviously touch-points for his later works to be taken at face-value. References to Altholm (setting for A Small Circus) rub shoulders with portrayals of farmworkers suffering at the hands of the government, characters across different stories share names and petty criminals and criminal acts populate a number of these stories. The struggles to get by, scrape an existence and find succour in the arms of loved ones at the most austere of times form the binding theme between those stories gathered here.

That being said, Fallada is a vastly underrated writer and even the lesser of those stories within Tales From The Underworld is only judged so in comparison to his own more-fulfilled writing. A darkly humorous and at times devastatingly moving collection, the short stories here are sequenced chronologically and show Fallada refining his style and themes. The quality tails off toward the end, sadly, but when viewed in line with his own life add up to show an insight into his thinking and writing process.

Reading thrillers has become something of a pleasure again. I’d started to lean into the genre a while ago – then stopped. The same authors I’d started to enjoy started leaving me a bit tired – namely Jeff Abbott and Robert Ludlum. First two Bourne books; brilliant. Third book; awful. Any other Ludlum book I tried was achingly formulaic. First Jeff Abbott books I read – Panic, Fear, Run – cracking stuff. Then he started in with the Sam Capra series and my attention waned as it all became too obvious.

But then lately…. lately I’ve been getting more into it all again. So, first stop: The Ghost by Robert Harris. Many’s the time I’ve been wandering around the supermarket at lunch and have seen a number of cheap books and thought of buying to read during the lunch breaks. This was one of those. I paid just £1 for it having immensely enjoyed Fatherland and found the story behind its publishing intriguing – upon hearing that Tony Blair was to resign, Harris stopped what he was working on in order to write this and get it out ahead of Blair’s own memoirs.

The Ghost is equal parts thriller and political swiping at Blair; a ghost-writer is bought in to help former Prime Minister Adam Lang complete his memoirs following the death of his former assistant. Very much a dig at Labour, its cozying up to the US and involvement in the War on Terror, The Ghost is still a gripping and well written thriller with enough grip and cliff-hanger-shockers to be a bloody good read even without the political overtones – especially as the final reveal is so shocking it surely cannot be true or intended to suggest so. While I’m not about to rush out and start filling the H section of the book shelves with the spines of Mr Harris’ novels, it’s certainly well worth a read – especially at just £1. They ought to include it in the Meal Deal for that value. 


So with an appetite for a good thriller and having found the film adaptation of the character to be fine enough for brain-off entertainment I decided it was time to indulge a long-harboured curiosity and meet Jack Reacher.

Being the stickler for order that I can be I wanted to start at the beginning so got hold of The Killing Floor and devoured it in just a couple of days (not bad considering I really only read before falling asleep or at lunch). There’s been so much praise lauded upon Lee Child and his one-man-army Reacher that I won’t attempt to do so. But: bugger me it’s a good book. I will say that I was hooked from the start and will happily and readily get hold of more instalments.

I won’t go the full-hog though, given that the 20th such book is about to be published. I can’t justify the expense or book shelf space. Sorry, Jack.