Voices by Arnaldur Indriðason

Fiction — print. Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder. Minotaur, 2007. Originally published 2002. 313 pgs. Library copy.

Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson is called to one of the grand hotels in Reykjavik to investigate the murder of the hotel’s Santa/handyman/doorman named Gulli, who was found dead in his basement apartment with his pants around his ankles. The hotel staff insists the old man was an unwanted addition to their ranks – a washed out doorman who was to be fired at the end of the Christmas party – and demand Erlendur keep mum about his investigation in order to keep from scaring away guests during the busy holiday season. The international guests, however, provide Erlendur with a range of suspects as he begins to investigate into the victim’s past as a young choir boy and reconcile with his own tragic past.

As typical with Indriðason’s novels, Erlendur’s colleagues, Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli, are occupied with solving another crime. The police were alerted to the case of a young boy who was viciously attacked by his classmates. His father insists he arrived home to find a trail of blood leading to the young boy’s bedroom where he managed to drag himself after the attack, but Elinborg is convinced the father is the culprit and the young boy is too afraid to tell the truth.

A couple of years ago, I read a nonfiction book about how people become obsessed with collecting things – butterflies, rubber bands, Beanie Babies – and how that obsession comes to dominate their lives. Recordings of young, choir boys — the focus of this novel — has to be in the top ten of weird collections, no? Certainly, my mind seems to think so as it’s been over four months since I finished this one and I’m still thinking about it!

Erlendur’s efforts to solve the murder is spread out over five days during the Christmas season, and the novel is broken into five sections representing each new day. During these five days, the inspector moves into the hotel in order to remain close to the scene of the crime and the hotel guests, whom Erlendur suspects the murderer is among. The neutral setting, however, allows Erlendur to begin working on his strained relationship with his daughter Eva Lind, a recovering drug addict, as the case allows him to learn about her past and affords her the opportunity to inquire about Erlendur’s childhood.

Having read this series out of order, I know a fair amount of Erlendur’s childhood and, therefore, missed out on the slow reveal and heavy dose of suspense this novel offers. So, for me, this was the weakest aspect of the novel, but this aside is perfectly interwoven into the larger narrative of how the sudden end of one’s childhood contributes to their choices in the future — Erlendur’s choice to become a detective, Eva Lind’s drug addiction, Gulli’s life before his tragic death, the little boy and his father.

And, once again, I found myself turning the last page impressed by how Indriðason expertly juggled these three narratives over the course of the five days during which this novel is set. At no point do the narratives become too heavy handed or begin to overshadow each other, and he still managed to keep me on my toes as to why these crimes happened even if I already figured out the ‘who’.

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Fiction – audiobook. Read by Kenneth Branagh. Listening Library, 2013. Originally published 1955. 3 hours, 57 minutes. Library copy.

Two young children named Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer decide to explore the connected attics their family’s homes in London during the summer of 1900. During their exploration, the two children stumble across Digory’s Uncle Andrew, and Polly is convinced by Uncle Andrew to touch a yellow ring, which causes her to immediately vanish.

Horrified, Digory learns that his uncle has been playing with magic and only the way to get his friend back is for him to touch a second yellow ring making sure to take two green rings with him so Polly and Digory can return. Digory finds Polly almost immediately in the “woods between the worlds” where puddles serve as portals to new lands but, like all curious children, the two decide to jump into one of these puddles before returning to England.

The two end up in Charn, a destroyed city where all life has died and only a few reminants of civilization remain including statues of the Charn’s former leaders and a bell imploring the finder to ring. Polly resists the temptation, but Digory succumbs ringing the bell and awakening Jadis, an evil witch who killed all those in Charn in her quest for power.

Digory and Polly do their best to escape back to London yet Jadis ends up following them. Thirsty for power in this new land, Jadis enslaves Uncle Andrew and assaults anyone who gets in her way. Determined to save Uncle Andrew and themselves, Digory and Polly grab Jadis, take her back to the woods between the worlds, and try to locate the puddle leading to Charn. Instead, the duo ends up jumping into a puddle that leads to a land not yet created and witness the lion king, Aslan, founding Narnia.

There’s some contentious over whether or not this book should be read as the first in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Yes, the novel is chronically the prequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but it seems to rely upon at least a cursory knowledge of that book — the important of Aslan, the horrors of the White Witch, the existence of a lamp post in the middle of nowhere — to really work well as a story.

Even though I’ve read The Lion, the Wtich, and the Wardrobe (although, it’s been nearly five years), I felt as though I was listening to someone read a Wikipedia entry to me rather than a novel. This happened and then that happened, which lead to this. Not a lot of excitement; not a lot of intrigue. A lot like reading the first chapter of Genesis, which is clearly the inspiration for how Aslan brings about Narnia.

I know some people read fantasy novels and immediately must know how that land came into being. I’ve seen all the movies and read the first book yet I never felt that burning need with Narnia. It’s a magical land one accesses through a wardrobe simply because that’s how things are. Not very imaginative of me, I guess.

Yet that probably explains why this book did not work well for me, and the uninspiring narration by Kenneth Branagh did nothing to keep me engaged with this tale. I also must admit that the audiobook I listened to largely skipped the third chapter. The CD was scratched so it refused to load properly past the first four minutes, but I decided to read up a summary of that chapter online rather than seek out a print copy to help fill in the holes.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince By J.K. Rowling (Reread)

Fiction – audiobook. Read by Jim Dale. Listening Library, 2005. 18 hours, 31 minutes. Library copy.

Returning to Hogwarts for his sixth year, Harry Potter is horrified to learn that Severus Snape, potions master and a Death Eater that Harry’s beloved headmaster claims to trust with his life, has now taken over the Defense Against the Dark Arts post. Harry is convinced Snape’s true allegiances lie with Voldemort rather than with the Order of the Phoenix and, as such, is  playing Dumbledore for a fool, but Dumbledore dismisses these accusations at every turn and asks Harry to please concentrate on retrieving an important memory from the new potions teacher, Horace Slughorn.

This particular memory is the last one Dumbledore needs to finally confirm his understanding of how Voldemort has managed to evade death for the past sixteen years. Slughorn has refused to relinquish to him over the years, but Dumbledore believes Slughorn will give it to Harry in order to “collect” Harry for the club of chosen students that Slughorn is so proud of. Helping Harry in his effort to win over Slughorn is the Half-Blood Prince, a moniker self-assigned to the owner of an old, well-scribbled in potions textbook that ends up in Harry’s possession.

The book, of course, strains Harry’s relationship with his friends. Ginny and Hermione are both concerned about Harry following instructions from a book based on what happened to Ginny in the Chamber of Secrets, and Hermione is bent out of shape because the Half-Blood Prince’s notes are giving Harry such a large leg up over her in class performance. Ron, for his part, is upset because he thinks Harry slipped him a potion he won with the Half-Blood Prince’s help in order to correct Ron’s abysmal Quidditch performance.

More importantly, though, the book and the unfamiliar spells written in the margins help Harry evade the teenage girls trying to slip him love potions, complete an important quest for Dumbledore, and fight the vile Draco Malfoy, whom Harry becomes convinced has joined the Death Eaters over the summer and is now a plant for them at Hogwarts now that Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic have been chased out.

One of the reasons why I love rereading novels (and bemoan how I don’t do more of it since beginning this blog) is how I become focused on a different aspect of the story with each reading. In my 2011 write-up of this novel, I discussed how I felt like this book — the sixth in the series — served as a bridge between the fifth and seventh novels with the information gleamed about Voldemort’s past setting up how Harry would need to kill him in the seventh novel.

This time, I was largely focused on the budding romances between Ron and Hermione and, most especially, between Harry and Ginny. In the midst of all the death and destruction and the rise of the Death Eaters as lead by Voldemort, these four characters are still engaged in the very human activity of falling in love. Something that Dumbledore was quick to point out was completely missing from Voldemort’s life to Harry as the two explored memories related to Voldemort’s life before, during, and after his seven years at Hogwarts.

Harry refers to his growing attraction to Ginny as “the beast” throughout the novel. The moniker certainly makes sense given what acting upon these feelings could do to his friendship with Ron — the person Harry Potter cares about most, as we learn in Harry Potter and the Goblet Fire — and because Harry has largely lost all those who love him by this point in is life. Yet I find it a curious choice given the much more horrific things Harry has faced during his last five years at Hogwarts. Falling in love certainly seems easier than facing Voldemort and his followers over and over again, but maybe that was part of the point? Letting yourself be vulnerable — and, therefore, human — instead of being forced to be vulnerable is the true mark of bravery?

Despite my fixation on the romances introduced in this book, exploring the pasts of both Snape and Voldemort continues to be my favorite aspect of this novel. Rowling manages the rather impossible task of humanizing a villain casting Harry’s world into shades of gray rather than the stark black and white that was introduced in the first book.

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

Fiction – audiobook. Read by Davina Porter. Recorded Books, 1998. Originally published 1992. 39 hours, 28 minutes. Library copy.

This sequel to Outlander begins in 1968 with Claire Randall returning to Scotland from her home in Boston with her twenty-something daughter, Brianna, in tow. Now that her husband, Frank, has passed, Claire is determined to explain her past – how she traveled through the stones of Craigh Na Dun to the 1700s, married a Highlander named Jamie Fraser, and eventually ended up in France trying to devise a plan to stop Bonnie Prince Charles from leading the Highland Clans to their death at Culloden in 1745 – and, most importantly, the truth about Brianna’s parentage to her daughter.

The story sounds fancifully and, frankly, nuts to Brianna, who asserts that Frank Randall is her biological father. She also does not want to believe Claire’s assertion that the young Roger Mackenzie, who was Reverend Wakefield’s ward and nephew when Claire first traveled through the stones, is actually the son of Geillis Duncan and Dougal Mackenzie smuggled back through the stones to the 1950s before her death in 1744. The latter revelation was revealed in the first book in the series, and the former became abundantly clearly within the first few pages as Claire explained her daughter’s hair color and stature to the listener.

Claire learns rather early on from Roger that Jamie died at the battle at Culloden, Prince Charles’ final stand, with nearly two thousand other Highlanders and supporters of the Jacobite cause, and the bulk of the book is spent explaining how Jamie ended up there after her and Claire were exiled to France in 1744. Like Brianna, I struggled to get my baring as Claire recounts her life in 1745 from her place in 1968, and that’s largely the reason why it took me nearly eight months to finish this book.

On audio, it was very difficult to discern between Claire’s first person narrative and Roger’s third person as the novel switches between the two. I would often find myself wondering how Claire knew Roger was that interested in her daughter or how Roger knew about her past only to be jolted from one narrator to the next as Claire would drop in an “I” or Davina Porter, the reader, would announce that the chapter was taking place in 1968.

I often had to repeat chapters and, to be completely honest, I’m still not sure I fully followed the entire story. I recounted how emotional I found the end of the novel to a friend who has read and loved the entire series only for her to forward me a link to a website the documents the series’ timeline with the note that what I said is not at all what happened. I guess I was just too eager for a happy ending after all the horribly emotionally-impactful experiences Claire and Jamie went through.

That said, while I expected the sequel to pick up right where Outlander left Claire and Jamie in Le Havre in 1744, I did enjoy the mystery surrounding what happened both in the past and the present. I wish the timeline had been better fleshed out (or, maybe that I read a print copy of the book rather than listened to the audio?), and a good chunk of it probably could have been cut by a clever editor. I’m not sure I needed that much detail or that Claire and Jamie needed to go through that many setbacks to make them the clear heroes of the series.  Perhaps the most telling thing is how long it took me to finish the book; I clearly didn’t feel the same burning desire to finish the book as I did the first one in the series and I’m not exactly beating a path to the library for the third one.

Sunday Salon: Currently in November

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Hello! It’s been a while, I know. Mainly thanks to the fact that the past four months were one of the worst reading slumps of my life. The ten or so books I did pick up were largely mediocre – neither bad enough nor fantastic enough to encourage me to post at length about them – and a horrific cough zapped my energy the entire month of October. Lots of television watching; lots of sleeping fourteen to sixteen hours a night.

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Yet now that the weather is (kind of) turning colder and the sun is setting before I even get home from work, I’m drawn back into the world of books and book blogging. I posted a review of The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver this past Thursday – the first peep out of me in nearly four months – and I’ve slowly but surely been dusting off the cobwebs both here and on Twitter. Eventually, I’ll get back into the swing of things posting about the books I’ve read and interacting with the wonderful book blogging community.

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I have to say that the past four months haven’t been all bad. I landed a huge project at work that has kept me busy in the best way possible. My brother and I visited Iceland for four days back in September, and I fell in love with the country and its dramatic scenery. As much as I love them, Arnaldur Indriðason’s novels do not even begin to do the country justice. Honestly, I would move there (or, at least visit again) in a heartbeat.

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I also spent a long weekend in Montreal with my girlfriends back in August (after saying we would go for the past six years), and I was charmed by that city as well. I completed a 40 mile bike race/ride through Boston in September, and I joined a kickball league that was great fun while I was still well enough to play. So life in the past four months has been a mix of good and a mix of bad, and so it goes…

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Reading | I’ve only read about fifty pages, but I told my mom that she should be thankful I did not pick up Clea Koff’s memoir, The Bone Woman, before I found a field I love because I am absolutely fascinated by her experience as a forensic anthropologist  (like Brennan from “Bones”) working to prove genocide occurred in Rwanda and Bosnia. I’ve read so many witness accounts of these crimes against humanities yet never considered the role doctors and anthologists could play as witnesses long before historians begin the studies. And I can easily imagine teenaged me deciding that, yes, I must go to Stanford and follow Koff’s educational framework to be that kind of witness. (Anatomy class would have likely been a huge roadblock, though.)

Listening | After about eight months of on-and-off listening and a lot of rewinding, I finally finished the audiobook version of Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber, the second book in the Outlander series, earlier this month. Now, I’ve turned my attention back to the finishing my reread of the Harry Potter series with an audiobook version of the sixth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as read by Jim Dale.

Watching | I’m borderline obsessed with “Chicago P.D.”, particularly the characters of and relationship between Erin Lindsay and Jay Halstead, after starting the series back in May along with its sister show, “Chicago Fire”. I finally caught up with “Elementary”, and I’ve also been watching Masterpiece PBS’ “Home Fires” and “Indian Summers” on Sundays. Surprisingly, none of the new shows for this year – “Quantico”, “Blindspot”, “Wicked City”, etc. – have really captured my attention. More time to read, I guess.

Planning | I hate to make any firm plans as I come out a reading slump, but I really would like to get back to tackling my Classics Club list. I posted a recap of my first year in the club back in August and mentioned that I planned to finally tackle books by the Brontë sisters as I’ve been avoiding Anne, Charlotte, and Emily’s works for far too long. So I plan to follow through on that plan. Maybe.

Anticipating | Thanksgiving! After being so sick for the past month, I’m really looking forward to having a few days off to spend with my family and enjoy the warmer, drier climate of SoCal.

The Sunday Salon:

The Sunday Salon.com The Sunday Salon encourages bloggers to get together –at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones– every Sunday and read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another’s blogs. Salon participants are encouraged to blog about their time spent reading, pages read, information about current reading, discuss a reaction to a book, state what they plan to read the following week, or make suggestions for a group read.