Reading the World 2017: ‘The Ice Lands’ by Steinar Bragi **

The Ice Lands is the second novel by Icelandic author Steinar Bragi, a critically acclaimed poet and author in his native land.  Translated by Lorenza Garcia, the novel takes as its focus two couples, all in their thirties, who have been affected by Iceland’s financial crisis. We meet reckless Egill, recovering alcoholic Hrafn, and their partners, Anna and Vigdis.  The quartet decide to embark upon a camping trip; the weather and the poor visibility which it brings mean that the Jeep in which they are travelling crashes into a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.  When they meet the couple who live inside said farmhouse, the premise heightens somewhat: ‘… the isolated dwelling is inhabited by a mysterious elderly couple who inexplicably barricade themselves inside every night.  As past tensions within the group rise to the surface, the merciless weather blocks every attempt at escape, forcing them to ask difficult questions: who has been butchering animals near the house?  What happened to the abandoned village nearby where bones lie strewn across the ground?  And most importantly, will they return home?’  A Swedish publication, Corren, deemed the novel ‘Iceland’s Twin Peaks’.

9781447298816The novel’s overall review score is quite poor, I felt, standing at 2.84 out of 5 on Goodreads.  This made me a little sceptical, I must say, but I love Icelandic literature, and was determined to give it a fair chance.  I felt a definite comradeship with all of the reviewers who have marked this a two- or one-star read quite early on, however; the dialogue is rather dull, and whilst the story is what really drives the whole onwards, it has not been overly well executed.

Bragi’s opening paragraph captures Iceland’s darkness effectively, yet rather simply: ‘Over the highlands all was still.  The shadows on the horizon darkened, growing sharper against the sky, before dissolving into the night’.  Sadly, the writing never really regains this quiet power, and an inconsistency is visible throughout.  The prose is very much of the telling rather than the showing variety, which gives the whole an element of dullness, and which renders the reader (or rendered me, at least) rather impatient for something to happen.  Bragi is very matter-of-fact, and a lot of the details discussed or included feel superfluous.  It’s just quite a boring book, and excerpts of prose such as the following would encourage me to avoid the work in question: ‘Through the open door of the barn they glimpsed bales of hay wrapped in green and white plastic.  In the yard in front of the barn stood a sand-blown Willys jeep.  The old woman was crouching beside one of the wheels in a pair of grubby overalls, poking a tool under the body of the vehicle.  Clearly she was in charge of more than the housework’.

The Ice Lands had a lot of potential, due not only to its setting, but to the intrigue of its plot.  Not a great deal else occurs that is not described in the book’s blurb, and it caused this particular reader to give up around a third of the way through.  Had an author such as Halldor Laxness used a similar plot in his fiction, I imagine that it would be incredibly compelling, and quite difficult to put down.

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Abandoned: ‘Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age’ by D. J. Taylor **

I ended up just skimming through this book, which combines very little biographical info and uneven cultural details. I’ve had this on my shelf for so long, waiting for a time when I needed a good escape book. The book gives a large emphasis on Elizabeth Ponsonby, but very little else on figures who are much more widely known.

There are some interesting pictures contained, yet none that I haven’t seen in other books of the era. I wanted more on the literary influences and less on the social elite, although that is rather incomplete. I would suggest skipping this book, since there are some great individual bios and correspondence compilations that contain much more detail.

Rating: 2 stars


‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is one of the most divided reads there is, I think – a real Marmite book, in that people either seem to love it or loathe it.  I was given this copy by one of my aunts, who read it but didn’t really know what was going on throughout.  It was a choice made by a member of the book club which I belonged to until December, who did not realise how long the novel was.  Only one person, my aforementioned aunt, finished it, and many did not even make it past the first few pages.  I could happily have never picked it up by way of their lack of enthusiasm, but I was urged to read this by one of my friends in America, who really loved it.

‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is formed of six different novellas, which end in the first half of the book and continue in the second.  The stories which Mitchell presents throughout are ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing’, ‘Letters from Zedelghem’, ‘Half-Lives – The First Luisa del Ray Mystery’, ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’, ‘An Orison of Sonmi – 451’ and ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’.  The narrative arc used throughout is interesting.  The first story in the book is the last to end, the second is the penultimate, and so on.

Mitchell has used many different narrative styles throughout.  ‘The Pacific Journal…’ is unsurprisingly told in a diary format and ‘Letters from Zedelghem’ in an epistolatory manner.  ‘Half Lives…’ is made up of tiny chapters which deal with the investigation of a suicide, ‘The Ghastly Ordeal…’ uses a first person perspective, ‘An Orison…’ is shown presented in an interview-type style, and ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’…’ is told in rather irritating dialect.

Mitchell is clearly a diverse writer if he is able to employ such different narrative techniques on such a large scale, but it felt, to me, rather overambitious.  It is not a book which personally appeals to me, and I cannot see how such a structure would work within its film counterpart.  I did not have the patience to finish this book, and I therefore join the aforementioned group which did not enjoy Cloud Atlas much at all.

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Abandoned Books

Sadly, these Abandoned Books posts are becoming more and more frequent, as I begin novels which look wonderful but which I am so disappointed by that I cannot bear to continue reading.  The two books which I have recently started and read rather a lot of, but which I’ve not finished, are The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale and Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield.

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

'The Goose Girl' by Shannon Hale

‘The Goose Girl’ by Shannon Hale

The Goose Girl had been on my wishlist for such a long time, and when I finally got my hands on a Kindle copy, and I was eager to begin.  I loved the fairytale structure of the novel, which was present from the very first page.  I did feel that it sadly dissipated after a while however, and when this happened, the entire story just fell apart for me.  It seemed as though I was constantly distanced from the characters, and as a result I was rather detached from the storyline as it unfolded.  I know that this is a much loved book for many people, but I really struggled to get into it.  If it had been a paperback copy which I’d read, I would have undoubtedly used Nancy Pearl’s fifty-page-rule which I stick to, and given up by that point.  As it was, I struggled through about half of it before I realised that it wasn’t going to appeal to me any more.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
I did not even know of this book’s existence until I found myself randomly browsing through Netgalley.  I began it almost immediately because I very much enjoyed Setterfield’s debut, the marvellously Gothic The Thirteenth Tale, but I surprisingly did not make it to the end of the story.  The prologue – in which three young boys watch as their friend, William Bellman, kills a rook resting in a faraway tree – was relatively intriguing, but I found it to be another of those novels which slips into boredom and stolid prose as soon as the main body of text begins.  There was very little beauty or intrigue in the writing, as I remember there being in The Thirteenth Tale.  Despite this, I carried on reading because the novel is marketed as a ghost story (a genre which I am rather partial to), but I found that it did not pick up, even when I had read over a third of it.  Bellman and Black, in this reviewer’s eyes, is dull, underwhelming and ultimately disappointing.


Abandoned Books

Until last year, if I was reading a book which I wasn’t enjoying, I would struggle through to the end and then feel inevitably dejected about the entire process. The deciding factor of abandoning books for me came with Nancy Pearl, who suggests that if you aren’t enjoying a book by page fifty, you should stop reading it, and either put it aside for the future when you might get on with it a little better, or abandon it altogether. It was with this in mind that I decided to abandon two books over the first weekend in August, because they just weren’t for me.

Circles of Deceit by Nina Bawden
I do really enjoy Bawden’s novels on the whole, but the blurb of this one didn’t appeal to me very much at all. I have been reading one of her books each month with two of my Goodreads friends, and on the whole, the experience has been a great one. I was, however, very disappointed with our July pick, The Ice House, which I abandoned as soon as page fifty was in sight. I had hoped that Circles of Deceit would be far better, but I was disappointed once again, so much so that I didn’t even make it to page fifty. The narrator was egotistical, the male narrative voice was not consistent or believable, the characters were in interesting, the plot contrite and the writing style awkward. I didn’t hate it – I have read far worse books in my time! – but it failed to capture my attention in any way.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
I’m fighting a losing battle with Cather’s stories. I’ve read quite a few now, and they all seem to start off well and then lose whatever momentum they had by about the halfway point, if not earlier. In consequence, I feel rather indifferent about their characters and endings. Contrary to my other Cather reads, Death Comes for the Archbishop did not even interest me from the outset. I love her descriptions, but I found this storyline rather stolid, and the religious aspects of it did not interest me in the slightest. Not an awful book, but just not one for me.