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Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice

By Mary Simon

A list of both fiction and nonfiction selections reflecting the culture, climate, history, and beauty of this Scandinavian country. Of all the Nordic countries I've visited (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland), Iceland holds the strongest draw for me due to its raw, rugged beauty and landscape; its solitude (unless you're living in Reykjavik); its healthy, active lifestyle; and its sheep, horse, goat, and chicken populations--all intrinsic to the country life and lore. Not to mention the great Sagas, the Viking history, trolls, troll-houses, and the abundant, relaxing geothermal watering holes. These titles will give you the idea, but they're only the proverbial "tip of the iceberg."

  • Independent people : an epic

    1946 by Halldor Laxness, 1902-1998.

    It was only when I walked through a dark, dank, turf-roofed farmhouse (which had still been in use up to 10 years ago) that I truly understood this book. Walking across the glacial moors and seeing all the Icelandic sheep roaming everywhere, sparked a second epiphany. Bjatur of Summer Houses, the main character of the novel, was always a mystery to me. He was so stubborn--a practical farmer who had to hunt lost sheep in blizzards--while composing poetry. His sole compulsion is to be independent; to own his house and be in debt to no one. And it is this drive that exacts serious ramifications for his family and his neighbors. If this sounds bleak, think again because sardonic humor that renders this book a classic.

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  • The Puffin of Death

    2015 by Betty Webb

    In a completely different vein, which some might call silly, we have a cozy mystery set in Iceland. It's the fourth book of the Gunn Zoo series. The plot is intricate. I especially liked the Icelandic characters (far better than the shallow, self-absorbed American ones), and the descriptions of the Icelandic animals and bird life proved to be accurate. In addition, the author includes language tips and clues. I also recommend this book for all the details about puffin habitats and lifestyle as well as those of polar bears and foxes. And, true to life in Iceland, there are: earthquakes; volcanic eruptions; movie sets with fighting vikings, ninjas and Visigoths; a viking girl band; interesting drinks and foods; and of course several murders.

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  • Chilled to the Bone

    2013 by Quentin Bates

    A strong female protagonist who is tenacious and focused yet compassionate and empathetic leads this heavily plot-driven Reykjavik thriller full of political scandal and murder. The author is British but lived in Iceland for ten years and it is apparent that he knows the capitol as well as features of the culture, industries, and history. Another novel that exudes dark, cold, brooding Iceland.

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  • Reykjavik nights

    2015 by Arnaldur Indriðason

    Written by one of the strongest Icelandic crime writers today, this book features the inexperienced but still dogged Inspector Erlendurs. It's a prequel to the series where the protagonist is a traffic cop. But like several other mystery series (recently the Endeavor BBC TV series about the young Chief Inspector Morse) it reveals character traits that are refined and finessed as he ages. You see his tenacity for closing a case that no one else wants to investigate, and understand his empathy for the downtrodden underdog. This installment features the dark, seedy underworld of the Icelandic capital and is multi-layered and suspenseful. The entire series is well worth investigating.

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  • Saga : a novel of medieval Iceland

    2005 by Jeff Janoda

    During my trip to Iceland, I stopped at many museums to hear about the various sagas which form the backbone and history of the country. This is the retelling of the ancient saga of the People of Eyri. The narrative is loaded with period detail drawn from scholars. Characters are well-developed and reflect the politics and intrigue of the time period. At the museum in Keflavík, Iceland, I saw many charts and displays that explained the various sagas but this retelling captures it perfectly. This is not light reading folks, but for those that want a true understanding of the framework that built the country, this is is definitely worth pursuing.

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  • My soul to take : a novel of Iceland

    2009 by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

    Another outstanding Icelandic author often considered the queen of crime fiction in Iceland. Having toured parts of Snaefellsnes (west coast of Iceland) after reading this book, I too can attest to the mystical quality of the region, which is steeped in rich heritage and culture. In fact, it's also the setting for Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Loads of mythology and folklore emanate from the area and you're often told that it's haunted. While this mystery is set in modern day Iceland, it hearkens back to historical events of the past. Fabulous descriptions of the Icelandic landscape, great pacing, chilling atmosphere and a hip heroine all contribute to the success of this book.

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  • Burial Rites : a novel

    2013 by Hannah Kent

    One of the best books I've read! Atmospheric with stunning writing. Yes, slower paced and the story is bleak, dark and sad, but this is Nordic historical fiction at its best. It's fiction, but the author did an amazing amount of research to justify the claim that it is based on true events. Set in 1829 in rural, isolated Iceland, a young woman awaits execution for murder--in fact, the last execution to take place in Iceland. The stark landscape and the social justice issues along with feminist themes were especially attractive to me but what really grabbed me was the sense of cold and foreboding. Masterful writing.

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