Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hope springs eternal

It is my pleasure to introduce Ragnar Jónasson.  He is the Icelandic writer of the DARK ICELAND crime series set in the remote, northern Iceland town of Siglufjordur.  He is published in Iceland by Veröld Publishers, in the UK by Orenda Books, and in Germany by Fischer Verlage.

Ragnar was born in Reykjavik and works there as a lawyer. He is also a teacher at Reykjavik University Law School and has previously worked on radio and television, including as a TV news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. Before embarking on a writing career, Ragnar translated fourteen of Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic.

Ragnar lives in Reykjavik with his wife and daughters.

I recently had the pleasure of reading an advance manuscript of Ragnar's upcoming mystery, SNOW BLIND with its interesting protagonist, Ari Thor -  a young policeman who has just arrived in the small town of Siglufjordur. Ari is an old Icelandic word meaning “Eagle” and Thor is a reference to his namesake from Old Norse mythology.

The remote town of Siglufjordur


SNOWBLIND chilled me to the bone - not only because of its setting in a cold Icelandic winter, but also because of the story.  Here are some of the reviews:

A solid thriller with all the Scandinavian ingredients – from human interaction to evil." – SonntagsZeitung

"He maintains a considerable pace from the first page to the last, the characters are vivid and the dialogue authentic. Snowblind is not a feel-good crime novel: Siglufjörður is no place for a latte-macchiato investigator. Here you need men with snow shovels." – BÜCHER Magazine.

Few crime writers have made such a strong entrance into the Icelandic literary market. Ragnar is already making his way abroad. It should be celebrated, that not only the two towers, Yrsa [Sigurdardottir] and Arnaldur [Indridason] know the art of writing a good crime story.” - Kristjón Kormákur, Pressan.

SNOWBLIND will be released in English by Orenda Books on June 15th, 2015.

Please welcome Ragnar, who is obviously dreaming of taking a break from his writing.

Stan - Thursday.


I’m planning a trip to France in the summer of 2016.
It has little (but maybe something) to do with the fact that the weather was very, very poor in Iceland last summer. We hardly saw the sun, and the rain just wouldn’t stay away. We aren’t sure why the weather treated us so badly, but to make matters worse we’ve just experienced a horrendous winters, with one storm after another. Even now, in April, spring is upon us with yet another storm, and this morning there was snow on the streets of Reykjavík. The weather has definitely been providing Icelandic authors with some pretty good settings for dark, cold crime novels, but it hasn’t really been good for anything else.
Sometimes I actually wonder if the bad weather is actually following me. I spent Easter in London, and I got the feeling that it was doing its best to imitate Iceland. The sun didn’t shine until the day I left for the airport to return home. So maybe, staying in France for the summer of 2016 will be a blessing for the people of Iceland.
But, in truth, the real reason for a potential visit to France in 2016 is the Icelandic national football team. In 2011 we (I say “we”, but I personally had nothing to do with it … even if I wish I had) hired the brilliant Swedish manager Lars Lagerbäck as the national coach (a post he now shares with an Icelandic co-manager). 
Lars Lagerbäck
Since then the national team has risen to new and brilliant heights.  I refer you to this wonderful graph:

When Lars (we call everyone by their first names in Iceland, Swedish coaches included) took over, our national team was ranked below the top 100 by FIFA, but now we find ourselves being the 35th-best football team in the world. A couple of years ago, Lars almost took us to the World Cup in Brazil. It was unbelievably close, so close (a narrowly lost play-off game) that tears spring to the eyes of most Icelanders, just thinking about it.
And now, under Lars and his co-manager Heimir Hallgrimsson, we are second in our qualifying group for the European Championships, which will be held, yes, you guessed it, in France in the summer of 2016. Second place, should we hold onto it, gives automatic qualification to the finals, and just to make it clear, Iceland has never ever qualified for a major football tournament. If this can be achieved, the Icelandic nation will go football crazy. (If we miss out on second place, there will probably be more crimes committed in Iceland than in an Yrsa Sigurdardottir novel). The home games of the national team are already sell-out events, and I can’t even being to describe the atmosphere at the national stadium on 13 October last year, when we (again I say “we”, although I’ve never been called up to play for the national team) beat the Netherlands, rather convincingly by 2 goals to nil.
And Iceland’s greatest footballer, Eidur Gudjohnsen, previously of Chelsea and Barcelona fame, has even found his form after having been without a club for some time; now he is back in the national team, scoring goals for both Iceland and his new (and old) club Bolton Wanderers in England.
Eidur Gudjohnsen
Now we need to remain focused and try to hold onto the second spot in our qualifying group. In the meantime, I might book my ticket to France, just in case.
And if we don’t make it there, perhaps I’ll visit anyway. I’ve heard it rains more in Iceland in the summer than in France.
Ragnar - Thursday

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hidden behind solitude

by Jorn Lier Horst, Norway

On a cold December day in 1993, as a young trainee police officer, I was sent out on assignment to a quiet residential area. Neighbours had not seen anything of Johannes Wik in recent days. Newspapers and letters had started to pile up in his mailbox, snow had fallen and not been cleared away, and the exterior light had been left on round the clock. They were worried that something had happened to him. No one answered when they rang the doorbell and all the curtains were drawn, preventing them from looking inside.

We smashed a small window-pane beside the front door to gain entry to the house.

Johannes Wik was sitting in the living room in front of the TV set, with the remote control on his lap. He had been dead for a fortnight.

On the table in front of him sat an empty coffee cup and a breakfast plate with half a slice of bread. The meat spread had dried up and the bread curled at the edges. Images still flickered on the TV screen.

Johannes Wik became my first encounter with death. An encounter like that is something you never forget. His body had begun to decompose, his face dark and bloated, with gashes where the skin had wasted away. His teeth were visible all the way round to the back molars. The fingers clutching the remote control were shrivelled, black and cracked, and the odour enveloping the room where he sat was unlike anything else I had ever smelled before.

There was nothing suspicious about the death. Johannes Wik had grown old, and his heart had quite simply stopped beating. He was carried out in an airtight body-bag and buried a week later. No one attended his funeral. He had no family or friends.

No one knew who Johannes Wik really was. Not only had he lived his life entirely on his own, he had also departed it in complete solitude – without even featuring in other people’s thoughts.

Few things frighten me more than the idea of being alone. Completely alone. Of being a person who does not even exist as far as other people living in my proximity are concerned. Someone unseen, even though he is surrounded by other human beings.

In subsequent years, my thoughts have sometimes returned to Johannes Wik. Who was he really? What kind of life experiences did he have? What had made him such a recluse? What secrets had he carried throughout his life?

The Caveman
These are the questions I examine in my latest book, The Caveman, as well as the slightly unnerving notion that not everyone around us may be what they purport to be. To a professional police officer, the expression ‘Caveman’ describes someone on the run who finds a hiding place within another person’s identity. That is to say, he finds someone with a life so solitary and lonely that stepping into that person’s existence and continuing to live as if you are that person, does not present a problem. No one will notice anyway. You are simply taking up space in an empty life, a cave – just like an evil spirit taking possession of someone’s body.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

palate cleansing

A bit of post partum today. I finished the draft of my next book and feel in between worlds. Knowing that this is a draft, revisions, rewrites ahead but for now needing a break. Feels like I'm floating underwater, in a middle land, there's bits and lines of dialogue that jump out at me and dutifully I write them as notes - but it's like giving birth and the newborn's out of bounds for a few days...tests, procedures etc and you need to let it rest. Right away I'm thinking of the next story, lots of ideas but wanting 'to let the sunshine in' and to cleanse the palate as the les Français say you should between courses. Not a bad idea.
In a French cookbook it says "Palate cleansers, by nature, are used in the middle of a meal to remove lingering flavors from the mouth so that the next course may be enjoyed with a fresh perspective. They also use them as an all-important digestive, to avoid heartburn, indigestion, and to stimulate the appetite.There is not much written instruction on the art of palate cleansing during a sumptuous, multi-course French meal. "
Alors, sounds just the ticket. Time to digest, avoid the indigestion of rewrite for awhile then a stimulation to new ideas. A fresh perspective.
Further on it says "It has become something of a prized tradition, passed from generation to generation in the local enclaves of France. Each region has a special ingredient, usually a locally produced product that the locals swear by."
Several listed are lemon and grapefruit sorbet

Or another is listed: Le Trou Normand.
 There is a film with Bouvril and a young Brigitte Bardot of that title but not that.
"In Normandy, locals rely on apple brandy as a digestive. Le trou Normand, or the Norman break, is a fiery shot of Calvados right in the middle of the meal.

It hits hard and fast, yet is inexplicably effective as a palate cleanser and appetite stimulant.
 And it comes from apple country
 And goes through a distilling process

It’s yet to be determined whether it has as successful an astringent property on one’s palate as it does one’s wits – but either way, it does work."
I like the hitting hard and fast and could use an astringent on my wits - if I have any left.
What about you - any palate cleansers you use?

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, April 27, 2015


The Crimefest international convention of crime writing is coming up next month in Bristol, England.  Though I will not be there in person, I will in spirit.  It pains me to be miss the charming company of my blogmates past and present.

As at most of such gatherings, awards will be given in many categories.  This year, at Crimefest, two MIE bloggers, one current, one emerita, are shortlisted for a prestigious prize.  Here is the text from the announcement:

The Petrona Award is presented independently from the CRIMEFEST Awards at the convention’s Gala Awards Dinner. The award is for best Scandinavian crime novel of the year. It was established in memory of Maxine Clarke who – using the pen name Petrona – was one of the first online crime fiction reviewers and bloggers. Passionate about translated crime fiction, she particularly loved novels from Scandinavian countries. The winner receives a commemorative award and a Full Weekend Pass for CRIMEFEST 2016 where he or she is invited to appear on a panel.

- Jørn Lier Horst for Closed For Winter, translated by Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press)
- Arnaldur Indriðason for Strange Shores, translated by Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker)
- Håkan Nesser for The Weeping Girl, translated by Laurie Thompson (Mantle)
- Leif G W Persson for Linda, As In The Linda Murder, translated by Neil Smith (Doubleday)
- Yrsa Sigurðardóttir for Someone To Watch Over Me, translated by Philip Roughton (Hodder & Stoughton)
- Jan Costin Wagner for Light In A Dark House, translated by Anthea Bell (Harvill Secker)”

KUDOS TO YRSA AND JØRN!!  We are all so proud of you both.  I only wish I could be there to cheer you on.

MIE rules say we shouldn’t engage in shameless self-promotion except when we have a new book launching.  But nothing prevents me from bragging about the sterling company I have the privilege of keeping.  So for those who have not read the books in question, here they are:

The second William Wisting mystery to be translated into English, after the successful Dregs. Ove Bakkerud, newly separated and extremely disillusioned, is looking forward to a final quiet weekend at his summer home before closing for winter but, when the tourists leave, less welcome visitors arrive. Bakkerud's cottage is ransacked by burglars. Next door he discovers the body of a man who has been beaten to death. Police Inspector William Wisting has witnessed grotesque murders before, but the desperation he sees in this latest murder is something new. Against his wishes his daughter Line decides to stay in one of the summer cottages at the mouth of the fjord.

A creepy, compelling thriller, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME is the fifth Thora Gudmundsdottir novel from Yrsa, 'Iceland's answer to Stieg Larsson' (Daily Telegraph). A young man with Down's Syndrome has been convicted of burning down his care home and killing five people, but a fellow inmate at his secure psychiatric unit has hired Thora to prove Jakob is innocent. If he didn't do it, who did? And how is the multiple murder connected to the death of Magga, killed in a hit and run on her way to babysit? A creepy, compelling thriller, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME is the fifth Thora Gudmundsdottir novel.


Annamaria - Monday 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

My writing space: The View From the Reef

Many writers have offices that overlook a garden, a peaceful yard, or a stand of trees. We tend to surround ourselves with inspiring views (at least, whenever we can) -- in many cases, they help to keep our thoughts in the pages and our butts in the chair.

That said, the view from my desk can get a little distracting.

Directly to the right of my desk, within arm's reach, sits a sixty-gallon aquarium full of seahorses and corals.

The Reef, April 2015

I've always loved the coral reef, with seahorses and their kin my special favorites. I had freshwater tanks for years, but shied away from reefs because I thought salt water tanks too difficult to keep and maintain. In 2010, my father died, and my husband encouraged me to take a little of his estate and do something I'd always wanted to do. He thought I would honor my father best by using a bit of that money to fulfill a dream, instead of paying bills.

(Have I mentioned my husband's a keeper?)

I mulled the thought over until December, until I remembered how much my father shared my love of the ocean and the various creatures that lived within its depths.

It took you HOW long?

Decision made: I wanted a reef. And not just a reef, but a seahorse reef -- which, as I learned, required some special planning. Seahorses are lovely, exotic creatures, and more intelligent than most people realize, but they're also not the brightest bulbs on the reef. Like toddlers, they grab at everything, so aquarium keepers have to "seahorse-proof" the reef to ensure that nothing will grab, pinch, sting, or molest the curious, delicate creatures who star in the space.

Baby seahorses: lovely and accident-prone.

It's not as easy as you might think.

Five years later, I'm raising my second group of seahorses. (The species I raise, Hippocampus erectus, lives only 4-5 years.) I've learned a lot in the process, and I think my dad would be glad that I made the decision to invest in a reef. It's more than a hobby--it's an obsession--but one that gives me many happy hours (and quite a few photos to share on my Facebook feed).

Seahorses have long, involved courtships and bond in pair-relationships that often last for the seahorses' entire lives. Male seahorses have "pouches" beneath their bellies, where the female deposits the eggs during a lovely mating dance. After fertilization, the male experiences a true pregnancy--including labor and contractions before delivery--which takes about 20 seconds and results in the live birth of up to 500 baby seahorses.

Don't believe me?

Here's a video of my second male seahorse, Ghillie, giving birth to a brood of babies.

The female who passes through the frame at about the 15-second mark is his mate, Ceti, who seems to be thinking, "That looks like a personal problem to me...catch you later."

Ghillie died a few weeks ago, but I thought I'd introduce the "new crew" who you might be seeing here from time to time.

The females:

Vega, the large black female.

Kirin (top)...showing Vega who's the REAL boss of the reef.

and Weeble (named because she wobbles, but she won't fall down.)

(Weeble is new to those who follow me, and my reef, on Facebook...expect to hear more about her in the days to come).

The males:

Rygel (spelling changed from "Rigel" when we learned he was male)

And the ever-hungry Moya.

and finally, little Magellan:

Magellan - the miracle horse.

Magellan is a special-needs seahorse born without the "snick"--the mechanism most seahorses use to feed. His disability keeps him smaller than the others, and impacts the way he eats, but he's a happy, inspiring fellow even so.

Seahorses might appear calm and peaceful, but they're carnivores (ambush predators, in the wild), and their oddity appeals to the parts of me that appreciates the strange, exotic, and dangerous.

Expect to hear (and see) more in the weeks to come...

--- Susan the Seahorse-Keeper

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Things You Can Learn in Texas

I’m spending a few days with my son and his family in Houston, Texas.  Actually just north of Houston in Spring, hometown to Lyle Lovett. And if you have to ask who he is (that’s him in the above photo with his Pretty Woman ex-bride), just skip the next paragraph entirely.

Ray Wylie Hubbard (Photo Todd Wolfson)
Anyway, every time I come down here I learn something new.  Like, for instance, a new musician—new to me at least—Ray Wylie Hubbard.  His work mixes country, folk, and blues elements and he’s an “elder statesman” of the Texas music scene with such catchy tunes as “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” and the ever-popular, “Snake Farm.”

This trip I also learned that the new Super Mario 3D World Wii U game by Nintendo is a sure hit with eight- and six-year-old grandkids celebrating their birthdays. 

Those games always seemed such a big waste of time to me compared to all the many other things they could be doing. Then I witnessed the dexterity and quick thinking required to master the controller for those games and realized that, with all the progress in robotics, there’s no telling where such a developed skill set might take them.  Though I still prefer to watch them playing with Gus-the-runnerdog in their backyard.

In two weeks it’s off to Mykonos for me, and in case any of you are wondering why I’m not writing about what’s happening in Greece, the answer’s simple. I’m taking a sabbatical on the subject until I land there.  Besides no one really knows what’s going on, though possibly another of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s tunes might lend a clue to the currently postured attitude of Greece’s powers that be: “Screw You, We’re From Texas.” 

Some guidance might also be found in those fantasy aspects of the Super Mario game where gold and renewed power is pulled out of thin air.

But for those of you looking for a solid news update, here’s an opinion piece posted a few days back in The New York Times.  It’s written by Nikos Konstandaras, managing editor of Greece’s Kathimerini and is titled, “Greece’s Eerie Calm.”

Nikos Konstandaras

As Greece teeters on the edge of default and possible exit from the European common currency, foreign officials cannot understand how Greek government officials can appear so sanguine.
An explanation of the government’s motives and behavior can be found in spheres beyond the economy, where the government has moved swiftly to impose its agenda on domestic and foreign policy — to the alarm of allies, opposition parties and investors.

Nowhere has the government shown an appetite to compromise. This mentality is rooted in a century of conflict between left and right, when foreign powers helped right-wing governments maintain power at the expense of leftist forces. Now, with a radical leftist party, Syriza, in power for the first time, working through this situation could be as self-destructive as it is inevitable.

Since its election on Jan. 25, Syriza has adopted programs aimed at easing some of the effects of austerity, while promising to crack down on tax evasion, particularly by the rich.

It has taken a more tolerant policy toward migrants and refugees, tested relations with foreign partners, and frozen or rolled back a number of reforms, not only in the economy.

In education, a new law would give students and political parties greater influence in the running of universities, restoring a model adopted in the early 1980s that seriously undermined universities (and was changed only in 2011).

The police have been instructed to tolerate self-described “anti-establishment” activists, to the point that protesters painted insults against the police on riot squad buses.

On judicial issues, prosecutors claim that a new law aimed at easing prison congestion and setting free ailing prisoners will release too many convicts unconditionally; the United States and families of the victims of the November 17 terrorist group condemn an impending decision that would allow Savvas Xiros, who is serving five life terms (for, among other crimes, the murder of a United States defense attaché in 1988 and a United States Air Force sergeant in 1991), to finish his sentence at home because of injuries sustained in 2002 when a bomb he had intended to plant at a shipping company’s office exploded in his hands.

In foreign policy, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras raised eyebrows in Washington and Brussels when he visited President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow earlier this month, after his government had made clear its opposition to sanctions against Russia for its incursion into Ukraine. Last week, his defense minister was also in Russia, renewing calls for an end to sanctions. (Apart from words, however, Athens has not broken ranks with its partners.)

And even as the government says it wants investments and growth, several ministers and Syriza deputies oppose a Canadian company’s gold-mining operation in northern Greece, while government members have given out conflicting signals about the potential expansion of a Chinese company’s container terminal in Piraeus.

Mr. Tsipras’s first act as prime minister was to visit a site where German occupying forces carried out a mass execution during World War II.  Since then, Parliament has debated Greek claims for reparations for German atrocities and damages, and for the repayment of a loan the Nazis forced the Greek central bank to provide during the occupation.

A government official said that the total claim came to 278.7 billion euros. Germany, which directly or indirectly guarantees some €65 billion of the €240 billion bailout, says this was dealt with in past agreements.

But the Greek Parliament has set up a committee to investigate — and press — the issue.

Another inquiry is looking into how Greece amassed a debt that reached €317 billion at the end of 2014; the committee is expected to recommend that part of the debt not be paid. A third committee is investigating the circumstances of the bailout deal signed in 2010.

The reparation and debt inquiries are headed by Zoe Konstantopoulou, the Parliament’s speaker, a high-profile opponent of the bailout agreement. They appear designed to play on the government’s message that Greece is the victim of foreign loan sharks and of a corrupt local elite, rather than a country that needs to reform its economy and public administration.

Suspicion of foreign powers is the glue that holds the coalition’s two disparate parties together. Independent Greeks, the junior partner, is a hard-line right-wing nationalist group born out of opposition to the bailout; Syriza is the offspring of part of the Communist-led resistance against the Germans in World War II. In the civil war that followed Germany’s defeat, first Britain and then the United States backed a right-wing government, and during most of the Cold War leftists were marginalized in Greece.

Challenging Greece’s allies and highlighting claims against Germany give Syriza street credibility, and allow it to appear more “patriotic” than previous governments, which had raised but not forced the issue of reparations.

In negotiations with creditors, the government refuses to reform pensions and labor law, increase value-added taxes and encourage privatization. Yet it expresses confidence that Greece’s European Union partners, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund will back down.
“I remain firmly optimistic that there will be an agreement by the end of the month,” Mr. Tsipras told Reuters on April 16. Europe would not “choose the path of unethical and brutal financial blackmail,” he said, but would opt for “the path of bridging differences.”

To avoid rifts in his party, save face over unrealistic promises he made to voters and underline that he will not be “blackmailed,” Mr. Tsipras prefers to risk a breakup with creditors, which could destroy the economy.

Relishing their rise to power, he and his party display intransigence while demanding compromise. They either have unshakable confidence that they will get their way, or blind faith that, as time runs out, others will care more about the Greek people than they appear to and will step in to avert disaster.

As I said, I’m on sabbatical.  And Praying.