Saturday, 31 January 2015

Three Little Words

Talking to the locals in Iceland is a piece of cake and here is Nanna Árnadóttir's advice on how to master the art of conversation with them using only three words. The funniest thing about this is that it's not actually all that far from the truth... Watch and learn!

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A Day Late and a Dollar Short #1

These forthcoming entries under the title ‘A Day Late and a Dollar Short’ were originally written as brief journal entries detailing my first five or six visits to Iceland. The first of these date back to 2009 and then there is one every year after that until I decided to stop commuting here every year from my base in Belfast in Northern Ireland and just settle down where I really wanted to be. I am going to read through them again as I haven’t read many of them for some time now and make a few alterations based on my observations about the differences between visiting here as a tourist and actually living here as a permanent resident. Hopefully all this will go some way to explaining how it was that I ended up here which, if I’m not mistaken, was the whole point behind this blog in the first place.

Coming as I do from New Zealand I guess I’ve always had a thing for small, remote islands. They always seem to be inhabited by the most interesting people. My first visit to Iceland was in June 2009. My 40th birthday, a treat. It was a place that I’d always wanted to go but had always found the cost prohibitive. Their recent banking meltdown in 2008 had reduced the value of the króna to a point where it was now affordable. Since then of course it has rapidly become one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth with possibly over a million visitors expected in 2015. This is a pretty rapid increase in visitor numbers and considering that the population here is only just over 300,000 people, it’s a lot of visitors.

Of course being my first trip to Iceland I did all the touristy things: walks along the seashore, a trip to the local swimming baths with their communal showers and naked locals, lobster pizza and fish stew in a city centre café, a day out to the Geyser area and Gullfoss, a lazy afternoon at the Blue Lagoon, catfish and cod for dinner, and of course those greatest of Icelandic delicacies; hotdogs. I think they played their part in convincing me to move to Reykjavík, you could indeed eat them for the rest of your life.

I heard an American describe Reykjavík as a town full of Christmas houses, not far from the truth. For a city that has virtually no wood involved in any of its construction it does look rather Christmassy with its heavily slanted roofs and corrugated iron walls. I’ve also heard it described as clean and well organized which is also true. Two very good qualities in my opinion. If that American guy thought it looked Christmassy in the middle of June he should have seen it at Christmas time. It’s very impressive. In order to brighten up the place during the months and months of long dark nights everyone really goes to town with the Christmas lights. Every window in town is lit up and a good few trees as well just for good measure.

In the same way that the island has been formed by the coming together of the European and American tectonic plates there seems to be a cultural convergence as well between everything European and all things Americans. Lots of American cars, bikes and vans imported during the long American presence through the Cold War and beyond give the place a look not dissimilar to an American TV show some Saturday evenings in summer when loads of people cruise the middle of town in their cars in much the same way that the kids did in ‘American Graffiti’.

Yet despite these pointers to American television the place is definitely European. Geography does a great deal to define nations and their history and I guess it’s been that way for Iceland too stuck out here in the middle of the North Atlantic removed from continental Europe but not really that close to North America either. The mixture of the two is rather likeable. A wonderful combination of tradition and modern ways that gives the city a cute feel but with every modern convenience you could possibly think of at your disposal.

(To be continued)

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Review of 'Gatsby's Smile' by Morana Blue

This book was a pleasant little surprise I must say. It’s slightly unorthodox in the way that it goes about itself but that’s what I liked about it. It’s a psychological thriller in the true sense of the word. In many ways it feels as though the entire story happens between the ears of the central character, Morana ‘Moody’ Blue such is the claustrophobic nature of the narrative. The story doesn’t move around very much physically either which makes it feel as though it’s all being played out inside her head. She is a psychologist who works for the police and suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder which makes her as unsure about what’s going on most of the time as you are as a reader.

There is a killer on the loose at an old folks’ home and as each body is found the vultures of suspicion circle slowly around Morana before taking a real interest in her and closing in for the kill. As she is unsure of whether she could be responsible or not you will find yourself every bit as confused as her colleagues, police officers ‘Happy’ Harry and ‘Handsome’ are. They are a little unwilling to think of her as a suspect, at first anyway, but get used to the idea as the circumstantial evidence builds and builds.

Initially you don’t want to contemplate that she is the one committing the murders either but as her inner turmoil becomes evident and her relationship with her childhood imaginary friend, Maro builds you are left with little choice but to open your mind to any number of strange and disturbing possibilities.

That’s where the fun begins. Once you discover that this is not just another police procedural but a genuinely strange and unsettling book you can settle back and enjoy the ride. There is some genuinely good writing and at times it really captured my imagination. The humour is dark and sometimes bleak. I liked that a lot as well. But sometimes it is beautiful and heartfelt too.

There is some real talent on show here and I can see this book doing very well. The character of Morana Blue is as complex, or maybe complicated would be a better word, as you will find and her struggles to make sense of herself are honest, painful and chaotic. A bit like real life really. She is maybe not someone you would want to spend the rest of your life with but she’s a lot of fun on the page. If you like things dark, pithy and intricate this will be a book for you.


Sunday, 18 January 2015

'Playing The Game' with Sindri Eldon and the Ways

It’s a freezing cold Thursday night in Reykjavík and I’m suddenly alerted to the fact that Sindri Eldon is playing at Húrra in just over an hour’s time. I have to make a decision quickly but to be honest there was never any doubt about whether I would be heading out into the bitter Icelandic wind to see this guy. It’s the only no-brainer of the week.

I first stumbled upon him quite by accident during Iceland Airwaves in 2013 when I was walking past The English Pub on Austurstræti one afternoon and heard an unbelievable racket coming from inside the bar as you do all over town during the five days of that utterly fantastic music festival. It sounded too good to ignore so I stepped in off the street to find a three-piece band on stage at one end of the room powering through what could only described as super-tight power-pop distorted as far as it would go and cranked all the way up to eleven on a little Mesa Boogie combo until it became 90s garage rock of the highest calibre. With a Gibson Explorer slung around his neck Sindri Eldon certainly looked the part of the consummate rock’n’roll machine and after his all too short set I realised that this guy had the songs as well. Boy, did he have the songs.

I tracked him down again the next night upstairs at the noir-cool Dillon Whiskey Bar where he aborted his gig half-way through after being unable to keep his guitar in tune, probably due of a dubious restringing. Not to be put off I saw him again a couple of days later at another off-venue gig at Lucky Records where he really made up for it and played his heart out. His songs are very honest and he likes to wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his stories of failed relationships, battles with the opposite sex and his struggles to get on with people in general. ‘Bitter and Resentful’, ‘Lovers’, ‘Irma (The Game)’, ‘In Hindsight…’ and the quite remarkable ‘The Mistake’ (which isn’t on the album for reasons I will never understand) are all fine examples of this amplified rawness. It sounds to me as though he’s had something of a tough time getting to where he is today and I can easily imagine that there were plenty of people who wanted to see him fail before he had even begun.

In a tiny town such as this one growing up with the most famous mother in Icelandic music history must have been something of a mixed blessing. On the flip side of that though is the fact that he had undoubtedly inherited her and his father’s musical genius. The guy was literally born to write songs. His back-catalogue of half a dozen demos is testament to that. There are fantastic tracks that didn’t make it onto his debut album and on any given night watching him live you will miss out on at least half of the great songs he’s written. There’s too many to play in one set.

During Iceland Airwaves in 2014 I got to see him two nights in a row, first at Húrra and then again the next night at Gamla Bío. Both performances were fantastic and I began to realise that not only is he a seriously talented musician but the two guys he has chosen as his rhythm section are every bit as gifted as he is. Last night only reinforced my opinion that Ásmundur on the drums and Friðrik Sigurbjörn on bass guitar (collectively known as ‘The Ways’) are a massive part of the band’s unrelenting energy and flawless execution. I was with a bass player from the US at Húrra this time around and he agreed whole heartedly that they were both quite outstanding. They are a tight, highly-polished outfit who deserve much greater exposure than they’re ever going to get in Reykjavík. Sad but true. His classy debut album, ‘Bitter and Resentful’ is out now through Smekkleysa (Bad Taste Records) and can be downloaded at


Tuesday, 13 January 2015

'This Is How You Disappear' by Allen Miles

I've just finished reading this book and quite simply cannot recommend it highly enough. If any of you enjoy things that are a little gloomy, or a lot for that matter, and I know there's more than a few of you that fit that description, then this collection of short stories is for you.

They are real, touching and honest. Sometimes painfully so. They are also acerbically funny at times too. They are the literary equivalent of an evening spent alone with a bottle of wine and the Manics, The Cure and The Smiths on your CD player.

They won't always make you feel happy but they will definitely make you feel. They say that misery loves company and if that is true then you won't find any better company than this. Anywhere.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Novel Heights review of 'The Mistake'

Number Thirteen Press is an e-publishing company with plans to publish a list of 13 original pulp crime novellas at the rate of 1 per month for 13 months. Their debut title was launched on 13th November 2014, making The Mistake the third novella in the set.
Nicol is a New Zealand author living in Iceland and it is in Reykjavik that he has set this story. A young woman’s mutilated body is found on a Reykjavik street by a man who can’t remember whether or not he is responsible for her death. The injuries are horrific and Detective Grímur Karlsson is relieved to get his man at the scene of the crime. But life in crime fiction is never that simple. The suspect manages to end up in a hospital rather than a prison cell and as the case against him weakens things don’t seem to be going Grímur’s way.
The victim disappeared from her home some months before and when her father arrives in the city to identify her body he is determined that he won’t leave until the person responsible has been brought to justice. Lacking faith in the police he takes matters into his own hands and his efforts run in parallel to those of the professionals.
There are certain constraints with the novella format which mean that Nicol is succinct in drawing the characters and landscape, leaving plenty of scope for a complex plot that moves along at a brisk pace. The story starts as conventional crime fiction but as the action heads towards a dramatic conclusion it becomes darker, more graphic and increasingly violent.
There are multiple points of view which keep the action moving and as the story unfolds the parts the different characters play becomes clearer. The strands are neatly fitted together and the resulting climax is worthy of the description ‘Iceland Noir’. Despite the conventional start the story has a dark heart and a bleak ending.
I’m not used to reading novellas, but with my dislike of lengthy modern books I should try to read them more often! It’s interesting to note that Detective Grímur Karlsson also features in Nicol’s crime novel “On a Small Island“, published in 2014 (and a review of that is to follow).  Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Review of 'The Mistake' by Nordic Noir

Review: ‘The Mistake’ by Grant Nicol

the mistake
Grant Nicol’s novella The Mistake will be released on January 13th by Number Thirteen Press. This must surely be a case of two negatives creating a positive because it’s a fast paced, decently researched, imaginative piece of writing.
Set in Reykjavik, Iceland, the story contains some comment on the uglier elements of modern society and gender roles.   Truth, revenge, cruelty and matters of authority are the backbone of the tale. It also contains, in its 141 pages, some elements the seasoned Nordic Noir reader may be familiar with: cold weather, coffee and an unpleasant harbour scene.
The majority of the story unfolds over a short period of time and firmly places the reader in the urban landscape of Reykjavik.  The back story of an event which took place 9 years previously provides us with a tortured soul.   The character development was strong enough for an impression to be left on the reader longer than the duration of reading the story.  As the story nears its climax the twisted, horrific psychological elements described reminded me of Canadian novelist Michael Slade’s style of writing, and the storyline in general would not have been out-of-place in a series like Arne Dahl.