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Reading the World: ‘The Mind’s Eye’ by Hakan Nesser ***

I borrowed Hakan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye from the library for inclusion in my year-long Reading the World project.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I count myself as a fan of Nordic Noir, and thought it might be just the thing to read on a cold winter’s night.  This volume has been translated from its original Swedish by Laurie Thompson, and was first published in Sweden in 1993; the author was victorious in the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize for it, and subsequently won other prestigious awards for his later work.

9780330492782The Mind’s Eye is the first Inspector van Veeteren mystery, in which a history and philosophy teacher named Janek Mitter awakes to find that he cannot remember who he is.  He then discovers the body of his beautiful young wife, Eva, floating in the bath after an attack.  Even during the trial which follows, he has no memory of attacking his wife, or any idea as to how he could have killed her; indeed, ‘Only when he is sentenced and locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane does he have a snatch of insight.  He scribbles something in his Bible, but is murdered before the clue can be uncovered’.

The novel’s opening passage is quite striking: ‘It’s like being born, he thought.  I’m not a person.  Merely a mass of suffering’.  In this manner, Nesser gets straight into the story.  He continues thus when the body is discovered, using short, snappy sentences to capture the mood: ‘He entered the room and, just as he switched on the light, he became quite clear about who he was. / He could also identify the woman lying in the bath. / Her name was Eva Ringmar and she was his wife of three months. / Her body was strangely twisted…  Her dark hair was floating on the water.  Her head was face-down, and as the bath was full to the brim there could be no doubt that she was dead.’

The Mind’s Eye is rather a quick read, and a page-turner, at least.  It isn’t the most gripping mystery, nor the most memorable slice of Scandicrime; in fact, it lacks the darkness and the often twisted, gory killings of many of its contemporaries.  There are far more grisly whodunnits out there, and part of me wishes I’d selected one such instead.  Nesser’s effort is well plotted, and the plot points do keep one interested in the story.  I cannot help but feel that the blurb of the novel gives a little too much away, however.  There is nothing overly special about the translation, sadly; the way in which it is rendered takes away any memorable prose, and it uses many paragraphs made of short sentences to further push different points home.  Needless to say, it is not a series which I will be continuing with.

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‘The Palace of the Snow Queen’ by Barbara Sjoholm *****

‘A Frequent traveler to Northern Europe, Barbara Sjoholm set off one winter to explore a region that had long intrigued her. Sjoholm first travels to Kiruna, Sweden, to see the Icehotel under construction and to meet the ice artists who make its rooms into environmental art. Traveling to the North Cape, she encounters increasing darkness and cold, but also radiant light over the mountains and snow fields. She crosses the Finnmark Plateau by dogsled, attends a Sami film festival (with an outdoor ice screen), and visits Santa’s Post Office in Finland. Over the course of three winters, Sjoholm unearths the region’s rich history, including the culture of the Sami. As Sjoholm becomes more familiar with Kiruna, she writes of the changes occurring in northern Scandinavia and contemplates the tensions between tourism, the expansion of mining and development of the Ice Hotel, and age-old patterns of land use, the Sami’s struggle to maintain their reindeer grazing lands and migration routes.’

I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle.  Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.  9781593761592

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things.  She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past.  Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account.  It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further.  The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Garden’ by Magnus Florin ***

I hadn’t heard of Magnus Florin’s The Garden before spotting it in the library, but when I slid its small form out from where it was sandwiched on the shelf, its premise intrigued me and I added it to the large pile already finding breathing room in my arms.  Florin’s book was first published in Sweden in 1995, and has ‘long been regarded there as a classic of contemporary literature’.  The edition which I read, printed by the small press Vagabond Voices in Glasgow, has been translated into English by Harry Watson.  Florin’s prose is deemed ‘brave’ and ‘colourful’, and the book is proclaimed as ‘a work of imagination of intrigue, unafraid to question the shape of our world and the roots of existence’.

9781908251268Before I began, I was expecting to be able to draw some parallels between this and Kristina Carlsson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener, which was published a couple of years ago by the wonderful Peirene Press.  Whilst it deals with different figures – one Charles Darwin, and the other Carl Linnaeus – there are many themes in common, and even the structures share some similarities.  The Garden presents a fictionalised account of Linnaeus’ life, the leading figure of the Swedish Enlightenment, whose classifications of plants and animals are still used in biology.

Linnaeus and his scientific counterpart in Sweden, Petrous Arctaedius, ‘imagined everything in the world divided into two halves.  The hard things in one half and the soft things in another.  The fixed and the moveable.  The annual and the perennial.  What had no tail and what had a tail.  That which was fast and that which was slow.  The two-legged and the four-legged’.  The pair take a straightforward approach to classification; they decide to simply halve the animals and plants to give one another a pool to work from: ‘Arctaedius took the amphibians, the reptiles, the frogs and toads and the fish.  Linnaeus took the birds and the insects, the mammals and the stones.  Along with the plants’.

Florin denotes the vast differences between Linnaeus and his gardener, the latter of whom ‘perceives things for what they are in themselves – and for their beauty or usefulness’.  The pair ‘often find themselves in dialogue, but rarely understand one another’.  For me, the gardener was a  shadowy figure; Linnaeus also only came to life in his fictionalised form in the sections in which his young siblings are taken ill, and when he himself is suffering.

Florin’s use of imagery and sense of place are deftly crafted, and there are certainly some lovely ideas here: ‘Linnaeus, awake, steps outside, strolls to his grove.  He hangs pairs of green Kungsholm glasses as bells on the branches of an oak, an elm and an ash in order to listen to the jingling caused by the wind when it rises.  They are his Aeolian beakers, his mind-harps of glass.  But this morning the wind is still, and the bells are motionless’.  Watson’s translation is nice and fluid; the prose is intelligent, and the patterns of dialogue interesting.  The novella, which runs to just ninety pages, is told in slim fragments, which do not lead seamlessly from one to another.  In fact, the overall feel is a little disjointed.  Whilst the story which Florin presents is fascinating, especially with its roots in reality, the structure makes it feel too fragmented to connect with.  The Garden is an interesting tale, but overall, it is a little underwhelming.

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Reading the World: Scandinavia (Part One)

I adore Scandinavia, and was very excited about choosing books to showcase this beautiful region, which, for my purposes, is comprised of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.  I have read a lot of literature, and some non-fiction books, set here, and it was so incredibly difficult to narrow down my choices that I have decided to show them in two parts.  There are some comprehensive reviews floating around on the blog for the majority of these, which I have linked.  So sit back, relax, and read about Scandinavia…

1. The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson 9781908745330(Finland; review here)
‘Tove Jansson’s first book for adults drew on her childhood memories to capture afresh the enchantments and fears of growing up in Helsinki in the nineteen tens and twenties. Described as both a memoir and ‘a book of superb stories’ by Ali Smith, her startlingly evocative prose offers a glimpse of the mysteries of winter ice, the bonhomie of balalaika parties, and the vastness of Christmas viewed from beneath the tree.’

2. The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (Somewhere in Scandinavia; review here)
‘This is a story about a snow-covered island you won’t find on any map. It’s the story of a girl, Minou. A year ago, her mother walked out into the rain and never came back. It’s about a magician and a priest and a dog called No Name. It’s about a father’s endless hunt for the truth. It’s about a dead boy who listens, and Minou’s search for her mother’s voice. It’s a story of how even the most isolated places have their own secrets. It’s a story you will never forget.’

97818435458353. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida (Finland)
‘When Clarissa Iverton was fourteen years old, her mother disappeared leaving Clarissa to be raised by her father. Upon his death, Clarissa, now twenty-eight, discovers he wasn’t her father at all. Abandoning her fiance, Clarissa travels from New York to Helsinki, and then north of the Arctic Circle – to Lapland. There, under the northern lights, Clarissa not only unearths her family’s secrets, but also the truth about herself.’

4. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Iceland; review here)
‘A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Toti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.’

5. Naive. Super by Erlend Loe (Norway) 9781841956725
‘Troubled by an inability to find any meaning in his life, the 25-year-old narrator of this deceptively simple novel quits university and eventually arrives at his brother’s New York apartment. In a bid to discover what life is all about, he writes lists. He becomes obsessed by time and whether it actually matters. He faxes his meteorologist friend. He endlessly bounces a ball against the wall. He befriends a small boy who lives next door. He yearns to get to the bottom of life and how best to live it. Funny, friendly, enigmatic and frequently poignant – superbly naive.’

6. When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen (Finland)
‘Anna is on her way to the hospital where her brother has been sectioned. But – on route – she falters, and her world splinters into a blazing display of memory and madness fueled by her family’s psychological disintegration.’

97819086702437. The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen (Norway; review here)
‘A tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other. Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The older needs nursing and the younger keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…’

 

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‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ by Katarina Bivald ***

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend narrates the story of Sara Lindqvist, a bookish Swedish girl, who, after a long correspondence with her American friend Amy, is invited to visit her in her provincial town called Broken Wheel in Iowa.

513llxNupKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Upon her arrival there, some unfortunate news await Sara. Amy has recently passed away and Sara is left in a foreign town of a foreign country, which is full of foreign people. Slowly but steadily, she starts getting close with Amy’s friends and acquaintances and she decides to open up a bookshop with the books Amy left behind. However, Broken Wheel is a town of people who not only do not read, but also do not appreciate books and reading at all.

The blurb of the book states that this is a book about books. Most bibliophiles are extremely fond of such books, and I do not fall short of my fondness for this category either. Indeed, books are mentioned frequently in the story, and Sara is a bookish woman who thinks about books most of her time, and bookshops are involved as well, but I would not really call it a book about books. The focus lies somewhere else entirely.

The premise and the story are both really interesting, but it did feel like things were rushed at certain points or not resolved adequately at other points. This novel’s primary focus is obviously the (romantic) relationships between the characters and how they deal with them. It is absolutely fine for books to contain romantic elements in them, but it did feel like the relationships between the characters were often rushed or not properly developed.

Apart from the third-person narration of the story, in between some chapters there were the letters Amy used to send to Sara (it is interesting how we only get to read her letters and not Sara’s responses), which are thematically related to the chapters that follow. I found this technique rather intriguing, since it was a way to include Amy’s perspective on certain things, despite the physical absence of her character.

Taking into account that this is a book translated from Swedish, the language is simple and stark and it does not tire the reader at all (some of the events, though, may do). It definitely is a light and relaxing read, perfect for those lazy days or for reading in between more demanding books or work.

Most female readers will probably be able to identify with Sara. Her story is sweet and light-hearted, even though some silly stuff occur every now and then. I did enjoy the book, overall, but I would categorise it as a ‘chick-lit’ novel mostly. I do not normally read chick-lit, so I am probably not the best of judges for this kind of literature, but I enjoyed the book for what it was, despite some discordances I may have had with the plot here and there.

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‘Wolf Winter’ by Cecilia Ekback ***

Cecilia Ekback’s Wolf Winter begins in Swedish Lapland in June 1717, with siblings Frederika and Dorothea.  The girls, fourteen and six years old respectively, make a significant discovery near their new home on isolated Blackasen Mountain – the mutilated body of a man.

The sometimes simplistic prose within Wolf Winter allows the darker passages to be incredibly vivid.  On finding the body, for example, Ekback writes: ‘It was a dead man there in the glade.  He stared at Frederika with cloudy eyes.  He lay bent.  Broken.  His stomach was torn open, his insides on the grass violently red, stringy’.  At first, the attack is put down to the work of a bear, but things take a darker tone as the novel goes on.

The girls’ family have their own troubles.  They have moved from ‘the waters of Finland’ to ‘the forests of Sweden’ in order to escape their father’s night terrors, from which he wakes up ‘soaking wet, smelling salty of seaweed and rank like fish’.  Ekback demonstrates the way in which other members of the family have had to make sacrifices in order to swap their old and rather beloved way of life for their new one: ‘But inside Maija [their mother], the wind still screamed.  All these things they had left behind, and yet her husband had chosen to bring his fear’.

Ekback sets the scene well in just a few words, and her imagery – particularly with regard to the natural world around her protagonists – is beautiful: ‘The morning was bright; white daylight sliced the spruce tops and stirred up too much colour’.  We also learn about Frederika’s view of the place rather early on: ‘… here, nothing could be fine.  The forest was too dark.  There was spidery mould among the twigs and on the ground beneath the lowest branches there were still patches of snow, hollow blue’.  As one might expect, given the period and the Scandinavian setting, mythology is heavily entrenched within the world of the girls; they are led to believe that trolls live in the crevices which surround their home, for example.

Wolf Winter is an easy story to get into.  Whilst the premise is haunting and intriguing, there are several elements which unfortunately let the whole down.  The dialogue feels far too modern for the mostpart to work, and very few of the phrases which are uttered serve to anchor the storyline as they really should do.  Some of the characters are a little too shadowy, and nothing feels quite realistic after a while.  The first section of the novel is interesting, but those sections which follow do not quite live up to its opening, and it feels rather uneven in consequence.

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