Review 1805: The Mercies

A freakish storm kicks up one day in 1617 and drowns all the men on the island of Vardø who are out fishing. Only young boys and old men are left. There is no one to help the women, so they have to learn to fend for themselves, including fishing, which is considered unwomanly. Maren’s fiancé and her father and brother are all gone, so she must try to take care of her mother, her brother’s Sámi wife Diina, and her little baby nephew.

In Bergen, Ursa’s father has made one poor decision after another since her mother died, leaving the family relatively poor. She is happy taking care of her invalid sister, but soon she learns her father has betrothed her to Absolom Cornet, a Scot he hardly knows, who has been appointed the Commissioner of Vardøhus, the rarely occupied fort on Vardø. Her father thinks he has done well for her, but they have no idea that Cornet is being sent to root out witchcraft.

Ursa is taken aback at the primitive conditions she finds in Vardø, in remote Finnmark, and she knows nothing about keeping house. When Maren brings her some skins the villagers have prepared to keep the cold from coming up from the floor, Ursa asks her to teach her how to take care of the house and cook. Thus begins a deep friendship.

But Ursa’s husband has already begun looking for witches. The first names that come up from a vicious bunch of pious women are Maren’s Sámi sister-in-law, an older woman whose large house is a target of envy, and Maren’s bold and unconventional friend Kirsten.

The Mercies is a deeply involving fictionalization of true events in early 17th century Norway. Seldom have I felt such a growing feeling of dread as when I read this novel. It is truly gripping. It seems well researched and has believable characters.



The Witches: Salem, 1692

Review 1784: Death in Oslo

I began reading this Norwegian series after watching the Swedish TV show Modus that is based on it. I mentioned that connection before, but while reading this novel, I thought about it a lot.

Helen Bentley, the American president, disappears from her hotel room during a state visit to Norway. Adam Stubo isn’t involved in the case at first, but then FBI agent Warren Seifford requests Adam as a liaison. When Adam’s wife, Johanne Vik, hears this, she demands that he refuse to work with Warren even though she won’t explain why. Then she leaves home with her baby when Adam reports to work.

Perhaps it’s because I watched the Modus version of this book first, which made significant changes, but I found it much less plausible than I have Holt’s other books in the series. I have already noticed, though, that her character Johanne Vik tends to be a little hysterical at times, unlike the calm counterpart in the TV series.

First, I felt that Holt had little grasp of the way politics between the Norwegians and the Americans would play out. Most of the time, she just shows them spinning their wheels in power plays. She, or perhaps the translator, also gets things wrong about American speech. The mistake I can think of offhand has an American on the news call gas “petrol.” Americans don’t use that word. I would think the book was simply translated for a British audience except the word was used in a supposedly verbatim news report from the States. I also noticed a similar error when Warren’s thoughts are revealed.

The TV program has the President stashed in the closet of an abandoned building, but in the novel she is in an apartment basement and just happens to be found by the servant of the woman Johanne Vik goes to stay with. That coincidence is bad enough, but that they don’t immediately call the police is wholly unbelievable.

Finally, there’s the big climax. I don’t want to give too much away, but I have to say that since the person the president thinks is guilty isn’t, what happened to the danger that she was supposedly in? They handled this much better in Modus by having there be actual danger.

So, a bit disappointed here. I’m ahead of the series on the next book, so we’ll see if that makes a difference.


The Final Murder

The Water’s Edge

Review 1762: The Christmas Wish

Last year, I saw pictures from The Christmas Wish on TV and thought they were so beautiful that I bought a copy of the book. This little children’s story is illustrated with photos, some of which have been doctored to create the effects. This book is written by Lori Evert, and the photography is by Per Breiehagen.

Anja is a little girl who wants to be Santa’s helper for Christmas. So, after doing her chores and helping out a neighbor, she puts on her skis and heads north. On the way, she is helped by a cardinal, a draft horse, a musk ox, a polar bear, and a reindeer, each giving way to the next as she goes farther north.

The little girl is dressed in a traditional Norwegian outfit, and the photos are just wonderful. The story is simple but sweet. This is a book that could be passed down as a family heirloom.


Premlata and the Festival of Lights

Red Knit Cap Girl

Review 1750: The Final Murder

Anne Holt’s Stubo and Vik series books are so far suspenseful, and her characters are convincing. I enjoyed The Final Murder but found it a bit far-fetched.

Johanne Vik and Adam Stubo are a couple five years after the events of the last book, and Johanne has just given birth to their daughter. She hasn’t been sleeping, and she is worried that the new baby may exhibit symptoms of the undiagnosed condition of Kristiane, her first child.

A TV personality is found dead in a bizarre murder with her tongue cut out, split, and placed in an elaborate origami bowl. Despite the efforts of Adam’s team, they cannot find anyone who bore her a grudge. Then a rising young politician is found crucified. The team begins to be afraid they have a serial murderer of celebrities.

Something about the murders seems familiar to Johanne. After the third one, she realizes that it is not just about celebrities—someone is re-creating five unrelated murders that Johanne’s FBI mentor regularly talks about in his lectures. We readers periodically check in on the murderer and know that she is a woman.

To explain my problems with this mystery, I have to reveal a spoiler, so stop reading now if you don’t want to know more. The murderer is actually targeting Johanne with these murders, trying to see if she can catch her. I found the re-creation idea a little iffy, but this plot point seems more like the old-fashioned diabolical mastermind challenging the detective—sort of Holmes/Moriarty—the kind of thing that has always seemed ridiculous and unlikely to me. I also felt frustrated by the ending, which I will not reveal.

Don’t misunderstand me, though. I still enjoyed reading the book and look forward to the next one, although I find Johanne a bit neurotic.


The Mist

The Water’s Edge

Review 1722: Punishment

Here’s another book for RIP XVI.

I thought maybe I had read an Anne Holt mystery years ago, but it appears not. In any case, I got interested in reading her Stubo/Vik series after watching Modus, a Swedish television series based on her Norwegian characters. It’s interesting, having seen the television series first, to notice the changes they’ve made.

Johanne Vik, a university researcher doing work on convicted criminals who maintain their innocence, is contacted by an old lady who has long been convinced of a miscarriage of justice. In 1988, Aksel Seier was convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl based on flimsy evidence. After he served nine years, he was mysteriously released from prison and all the case paperwork disappeared. The woman wants Johanne to find out if Seier was innocent. Although this is not the kind of work Johanne does, she becomes interested in the case and agrees to help.

At about the same time, Detective Adam Stubo sees Johanne on television and asks her to help brainstorm the case of a series of kidnapped and murdered children. At first, she refuses but is drawn in by his persistence.

All along, we follow the story of Emilie, one of the kidnapped children who has not been killed, as well as the thinking of the murderer. This lends an extra layer of suspense about whether she will be saved.

I think this is a complex and well-plotted novel with interesting characters. There are a couple of huge coincidences at the end that I’m not sure of, but I am more than willing to continue the series.

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The Water’s Edge

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Review 1568: The Cross

The Cross, the final book of Kristin Lavransdatter, begins after Kristin’s husband Erlend Nikulaussön’s political intrigue has resulted in the loss of all his property to the crown. Kristin and her family have resettled on her farm, Jörundgaard, which she inherited from her father. Erlend is no farmer, however, so Kristin and Ulf Haldorssön must see to everything. Kristin despairs because her sons are not learning how to keep the estate. Instead, they go running off with Erlend to hunt and occupy themselves as knights do. The likelihood of their being able to lead a knightly life is little, though, because of Erlend’s disgrace.

Although Kristin believes that her relationship with her sister, Ramborg, and brother-in-law Simon Andressön is good—in fact, she turns to Simon when she needs help—she finds that Ramborg is jealous of her.

This novel is the last volume of the series, and I found it more touching in several places than I did the other two. Kristin has found that her headstrong insistence on marrying Erlend has brought her to a life of unending care, and she must somehow resolve this.

This is a really interesting series which endeavors to show the  whole of this medieval woman’s life.

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Review 1547: The Mistress of Husaby

In this second volume of Kristin Lavransdatter, Kristin has finally won through on her determination to marry Erlend Nikulaussön. The novel starts with them journeying to Erlend’s estate of Husaby to take up their residence. Kristin finds the estate poorly managed and the serving people slovenly and lazy, so she goes about setting all to rights.

To gain Erlend, though, Kristin has committed many sins, and much of the first part of the novel deals with her relationship to God. Although the preoccupations in this section certainly reflect the times, I found them to be heavy going. Later, though, the novel caught more of my imagination as it dealt with Erlend and Kristin’s marriage, her relationship to her father, and the political situation under first a regent, and then King Magnus.

This trilogy approaches its story by employing an old-time style of writing that does not seem forced and works for its subject. It is clear that Undset was an expert on 14th century Norway. Although at times I found it a little hard to follow, especially in the implications of the dialogue, the novel is very interesting.

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Review 1495: #1920Club! The Bridal Wreath

When I saw The Bridal Wreath in a list of books published in 1920, I thought the 1920 Club would be a perfect opportunity to reread it and judge whether I wanted to revisit the trilogy. It had been many years since I read it, and I could remember little about it.

The Bridal Wreath is the first book of Sigrid Undset’s renowned trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter. It is the story of the life of a fourteenth century Norwegian girl.

Kristen is the daughter of a depressed mother, Ragnfrid, and Lavrans, an upright, kindly farmer of good estate. Kristin grows up her father’s favorite, and as a young girl, she is disposed to try to always do what is right.

When she is fifteen, her family betrothes her to Simon Darre, a young man who is good natured and kind, but during her engagement year, she meets Erlend Nikulaussön, an older man of poor reputation although of better family than Kristin’s. He and Kristin decide to marry despite Simon and Eline, the woman who deserted her husband for Erlend and bore him two children. When Lavrans learns of this, although he doesn’t know all, he is unwilling to grant permission for their marriage, afraid he will be throwing his daughter’s happiness away for an unworthy husband.

The novel is rich in detail, and Kristin’s life seems fully realized. Moreover, the characters are complexly human. I enjoyed this novel even more the second time around.

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Day 618: Giants in the Earth

Cover for Giants in the EarthI don’t usually read introductions until after I read a book, but I began to read the one for Giants in the Earth because I was curious about the book’s origins. I had always assumed it was an American book because it is about settlers in the Dakota territory. But in fact it was originally written in Norwegian and published in Norway in 1925 and 1926 and then translated to English in 1927, for Rölvaag came to the States in 1896 as a young man of 20.

The reason I mention the introduction by Lincoln Colcord, who translated the book with Rölvaag, is that it gives away a key plot point of the novel in the second paragraph. I couldn’t believe this, as it certainly affected how I read the novel, and it is especially egregious in that the event referred to does not happen until the very end of the book. If part of your enjoyment of a novel comes from not knowing what to expect, as mine does, do not read the introduction.

Per Hansa and his family have lost their way crossing the featureless prairies at the start of the novel. They had been travelling out with a group of Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans, but Per Hansa had difficulties with his wagon and the others went on ahead, even his best friend Hans Olsa. Then Per Hansa’s little group got lost in the fog for awhile, and now Per Hansa is afraid he might have missed the others and gone past them.

Per Hansa is an ebullient, sociable, hard-working man, and when he and his family finally arrive at the group of homesteads by Spring Creek, he is delighted with the land Hans Olsa has already marked out for him. He finds the prairie beautiful and is confident that he is going to make a wonderful life there for his family.

His wife Beret feels otherwise, and it is around her reaction that much of the novel centers. She is appalled by the prairie, this vast expanse that has not a single tree to hide behind. She soon begins to view the land as if it is some sort of godless and primitive monster, while Per Hansa sees only that it is rich and fertile.

The novel is set in the 1870’s and early 80’s and details the hardships of life so far away from any amenities. The men have to travel days for firewood in one direction and for supplies in another. Still, more immigrants keep arriving until there is a little settlement by the creek.

This is a fascinating novel about the Norwegian contribution to the settlement of the country. It is a realistic novel, not romanticized, with no big feats of heroism or villainy, just details of the life these people have chosen and its effects on them.

Day 226: I Curse the River of Time

Cover for I Curse the River of TimeI Curse the River of Time is a sad book about Arvid Jansen, a man trying to cross a divide between himself and his dying mother. At the same time his marriage is failing and the Berlin Wall is coming down. Things are coming to an end in his life.

Jansen remembers decisions he made, particularly the one to leave university and join the Communist party. As the wall falls, he considers his loss of faith in the party. 

In contemplating his failing marriage, he also remembers his courtship of a young girl, although it is not clear whether he is thinking about his wife. He goes to his mother’s home country of Denmark, to a beach house where his family spent the summers, and recalls his childhood bond with his mother.

The novel is moody and inconclusive, and for some reason I kept expecting it to become sinister, although it did not. Even though the novel is focused around his attempts to reconcile with his mother (although that is perhaps not the correct word since there has not been a falling out–she is simply cold and unresponsive to him), it seems to me that Jansen thinks about her too much, is too obsessed with her.

The writing is excellent, spare but full of details. However, the entire feel of the novel is tenuous. There does not seem to be much to fasten onto.