Book Review: Reykjavík Nights by Arnaldur Indriðason

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I am a huge fan of Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series. There’s something compelling about his writing style and the characters in the series. Not just Erlendur, but the the people who surround him. In fact, Indriðason has written two books who are tangentially about Erlendur, but are in truth about the two detectives he works with. In Reykjavík Nights we are treated not to a story about Erlendur the inspector but instead Erlendur the 20something (I think he’s 26) traffic cop.

Note: Don’t read this book unless you’ve the rest of the series. If you want to read Erlendur’s series, start with Jar City, the earliest book in the series to have been translated into English.

Reykjavík Nights follows the beginning of Erlendur’s path toward the detective we’re familiar with. This Erlendur is has no true experience solving crimes, he’s young and without a family of his own. While he has no wife or daughter, the baggage he does carry is the same that haunts him throughout the whole series.

Spoilers: The disappearance and probable death of Erlendur’s brother in a snowstorm, when they were both young, follows him, haunting him in at age 26. We learn that this loss has truly shaped him as a detective, in fact, the main case of Reykjavík Nights is only solved because of Erlendur’s obsession with missing people. End Spoilers

The novel is differs from the usual style of Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series. Instead of following Erlendur and his team as they try to solve a murder of some kind, we’re treated to two stories without. Reykjavík Nights has two halves: a procedural Law & Order type story line and an overarching crime that Erlendur must solve. The title of the novel itself is really only half the story, but this is not a bad thing

As a big fan of Law & Order, this novel read a bit like the Reykjavik version of that show — except that the characters (and Erlendur especially) were very well developed. We are treated to Erlendur’s experiences as a traffic/beat cop on the streets of Reykjavik. He works the night shift, hence the title, and Indriðason fills chapters with the exploits of Erlendur and his two partners. That sounds boring, but instead it’s the opposite. As much as I wanted to know what was happening in the other half of the story, these tales of the night shift serve a larger purpose, showing how ordinary people can sometimes become entangled in larger stories without even realizing it.

674a867a74ae92cb4f94dd57ee606451As always, I enjoyed the way Indriðason ties everything together. The larger crime is twofold — the death of a homeless man Erlendur met on the night shift and a woman who went missing around the same time the homeless man died. These two seemingly independent stories draw Erlendur in and we watch as he slowly begins to unravel them and eventually figure out what happened and how they’re connected. While the night shift stories are good, it is this second plot where the novel truly shines. We are treated to Erlendur, the budding inspector. But unlike the later series, this Erlendur doesn’t know what he’s doing, he messes things up, and he has to work alone. And yet, just as we expect, he does solve the mysteries he’s stumbled upon.

Reykjavík Nights is a treat for Erlendur fans and I am so happy it’s been translated into English. If you’ve read the rest of the series, definitely pick up Reykjavík Nights. While it’d still be a good read if you’re not familiar with the series, I would still recommend starting with Jar City. Regardless, I truly enjoyed this book and I cannot wait to read Into Oblivion, the follow up book to Reykjavík Nights.

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Book Review: Someone To Watch Over Me by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

22545458I’ve read most, if not all, of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s novels that have been translated into English. Most of her novels, save one, are about Icelandic lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir and the cases she takes.

Someone To Watch Over Me is set in Iceland and the backdrop of the story is the financial crisis that destroyed much of Iceland’s economy. At the start of the novel, Thóra’s parents come to her because they’ve lost all their money and want to move in with her. Thóra’s house is already full, with her children, plus her grandchild and her boyfriend (Matthew, he’s German and we meet him early on in the series). But because Thóra loves her parents, she lets them move in.

One of the things I enjoy about Sigurðardóttir’s series is that she gives us not only the crime.case that Thóra is working on, but glimpses on Thóra’s life at home as well. The first couple of books in the series are the best, especially because Sigurðardóttir mixed the traditional crime novel with domestic life of a family and added lots of humor. Sadly, there’s not quite as much humor in the latter titles.

That’s not to say that Someone To Watch Over Me isn’t an entertaining or interesting read, because it is. Though it’s a slow burn and the reveal doesn’t come near the end — too close, really — the novel is interesting and once it gets going, Sigurðardóttir keeps the pace high.

The case that Thóra takes is an old one. She’s asked to reopen a murder and arson investigation that happened some years prior. A fired burned up a home for disabled adults and a young man with Down’s Syndrome, Jakob, has been imprisoned for it, though he was ruled as mentally incompetent (I believe). Instead of throwing facts at us or not doing her research, Sigurðardóttir makes sure that Thóra is aware of her shortcomings in knowledge about mentally and physically disabled persons in general as well as Down’s Syndrome specifically. Through Thóra, we’re given a brief history of disabilities in Iceland, including what has and hasn’t changed. This information is given both all in one go, and scattered throughout the conversations Thóra has with people involved in the case.

Throughout the novel, we’re given chapters that focus on different crimes, all of them related to Jakob’s case, but neither we, nor Thóra (when she discovers them) know how they’re related. We follow the story of a young mother and her family who believe they’re haunted by the ghost, a young man who runs a radio program, the psychopath who hired Thóra to look into Jakob’s case as well as other people as they come up in Thóra’s investigations.

Of course, Sigurðardóttir treats all her characters well and makes them interesting, but none of them have the depth that Thóra does, if only because she’s our main character. My biggest complaint is that Sigurðardóttir tends to include a bit of repetition within Thóra’s life; especially related to her parents, Matthew and her terrible secretary, Bella. These are problems in all of her novels, not just this one, and are easily overlooked because the case is so interesting.

In spite of the slow burn and my other minor complaints, I enjoyed Someone To Watch Over Me. The story — was Jakob innocent and if he is, who started the fire at the home — is compelling and the cast of characters who could have started the fire was long. Thóra’s investigations were interesting and I always enjoy the way she doggedly, but in her own way, manages to get the truth. She’s a smart woman and doesn’t let anything, even her relative lack computer skills, get her down.

Like her previous Thóra novels, Sigurðardóttir manages to balance Thóra’s home life with the cases she’s working on. I would recommend this book only if you’ve read the others, as some of it wouldn’t make sense. I can’t vouch that the information about disabilities and the disabled in Iceland is correct, but I have no reason to believe it’s not.

If you like crime novels and are looking for something different than the traditional police procedural, I would recommend the first of Sigurðardóttir’s Thóra Gudmundsdóttir novels: Last Rituals.

Thursday Ten

When I was in high school, I was obsessed with many things. One of these things was Ebola and other, similar viruses. This was, obviously, in my young and less anxious years (I barely remember them, to be honest). I read Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, watched Outbreak and struggled to finish The Coming Plague (I’m pretty sure I didn’t finish it). But after one too many nightmares, I gave up on all my dreams about being some sort of infectious disease doctor (I shudder to think of it now) and moved on with my life. But Ebola still remains and dominates the news (both here and abroad). And while today’s links do contain some information on Ebola, there are other things as welll. Including the protests for democracy in Hong Kong.

And on that note, here are this week’s links.

  • When no gender fits: A quest to be seen as just a person: How do you navigate the world when it is built on identifying with one group or another and the place that feels right is neither? (Washington Post)
  • I Had a Stroke at 33: On New Year’s Eve 2007, a clot blocked one half of my brain from the other. My reality would never be the same again. (BuzzFeed)
  • Message for Beijing Hidden in a Hong Kong Street Poem: On a busy Hong Kong street on Wednesday, a poem dashed out on a bare wooden crate contained a hidden message for China. (Sinosphere // New York Times)
  • Hong Kong’s protests don’t impress mainland Chinese visitors: Chinese tourists pouring into Hong Kong this week for a shopping holiday are getting an unexpected lesson in democracy from the city’s tens of thousands of protesters demanding free elections. So far, most of them are unimpressed. (Quartz)
  • 16 Dramatic Videos Show What It’s Like to Be in Hong Kong Right Now: Thousands of protesters braved clouds of tear gas and police batons charges to stand firm in center of Hong Kong in one of the biggest political challenges for China since the Tiananmen Square protests 25 years ago. (Mic)
  • Pro-Democracy Protesters Occupy Hong Kong’s Central District: In Photos (The Atlantic) Note: This was also posted on FB. You can also follow live coverage of the protests on the South China Morning Post’s Occupy Central blog.
  • The Supreme Court That Made It Easier to Buy Elections Just Made It Harder for People to Vote in Them: In case there was any remaining confusion with regard to the precise political intentions of the US Supreme Court’s activist majority, things were clarified Monday. The same majority that has made it easier for corporations to buy elections (with the Citizens United v. FEC decision) and for billionaires to become the dominant players in elections across the country (with the McCutcheon v. FEC decision) decided to make it harder for people in Ohio to vote. (The Nation)
  • Don’t panic over Ebola in America: The first thing to do is to calm down.  Ebola is terrifying. But it’s not likely to kill you, or to spread widely in the United States. What’s scary — and hyped — about Ebola isn’t what makes it dangerous. (Vox) Note: Actor Idris Elba wrote an impassioned plea to help stop the spread of Ebola. Read it: Stopping Ebola in Its Tracks (Huffington Post)
  • Incredible Close-Up Drone Video of an Erupting Volcano in Iceland: This epic video isn’t a CGI outtake from Lord of the Rings. It’s proof that a guy with a quadcopter managed to get very, very close to an erupting Icelandic volcano—close enough to melt the face of the GoPro camera that shot the video. (Wired)
  • The Hidden Costs of E-books at University Libraries: For the past few years, both the California State University and the University of California libraries have been experimenting with packages that replace paper books with e-books. The advantages are obvious. With e-books, you no longer have to schlep to a library to take out a book. You just log on from whatever device connects you to the web, at whatever time and in whatever state of dress, and voila! the book appears on your screen (Times of San Diego)

Bonus:

  • How to Plant a Library: Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art. (Pacific Standard)