Jólabókaflóð

For the past few years, my wife and I have participated in the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood. I don’t know where I first came across this tradition, but the internet articles I read universally agreed that it involves gifting books to your loved ones on Christmas Eve so they can spend the evening reading. What could be better?

However, a question nagged at me each year as we picked out books for Jólabókaflóð, the question of authenticity. Is this a real tradition in Iceland? Or is this obscure, out-of-practice, or even mythological, like the idea that the Inuits have 400 words for snow? Apparently, the practice began during WWII when most materials were rationed. Most materials but not paper.

My internet research turned up mostly American’s offering boiler-plate descriptions, and while they all confirmed what I had read, I still didn’t know if this practice really went back to WWII rationing, if it had continued to the present, or if it was a large or a niche part of Icelandic society.

Therefore, I decided to start contacting actual Icelanders. With the use of my email address, Google search, and Google translate, I set out to find the true nature of Jólabókaflóð.

My first stop was the library in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and largest city. They referred me to Félag Íslenskra Bókaútgefenda, or the Icelandic Publishers Association. Within no time, I found myself trading emails with Heiðar Ingi Svansson, President of the association.

According to Svansson, Jólabókaflóð isn’t just a part of Icelandic culture, it’s integral to the country’s publishing industry. November and December alone account for 42% of the country’s book sales each year. When you add October, that percentage jumps to 56%! Its impact doesn’t stop with sales.

“This tradition and its season are the highlight and a climax for the whole book cultural sector in Iceland,” Svansson said. “That means that many new titles are published during this time and the effect of that is a lot of book-related events…authors signings and readings in coffeehouses and bars, publishing launch parties, etc.”

Were its origins as dramatic as the American articles and social media posts I’d read?

“This tradition began during World War II once Iceland had gained its independence from Denmark in 1944,” he confirmed. “Because of bad economy and depression, there were…very strict restrictions on many things you could import. And that limited very much the selection of commodity goods that you could choose as Christmas gifts. But fortunately, paper was one of the few commodities not rationed during the war. So paper was imported to produce books that were written and then printed in Iceland. By doing that, Icelanders shared their love of books even more as other types of gifts were in very short supply.”

Being an American, I am always cautious when it comes to cultural appropriation. This was another stumbling block between me and the full adoption of the practice. What would the Icelanders think of me bestowing books upon my loved ones, me with not a drop of Nordic blood?? I decided to ask one.

Svansson, for one, didn’t even realize Americans were beginning to practice Jólabókaflóð.

“But personally, I’m very happy to hear and I find it both very surprising and interesting…maybe we should put some more emphasis on spreading the good word more on an international level.”

Iceland holds two important events each year around this time.

“The first one is the Icelandic Literary Awards [which our association founded]. Its patron is the President of Iceland,” Svansson explained. “The prize was formed in 1989 and has ever since played a very important role in our Book and literary culture…books are nominated each year in three groups with a nomination ceremony 1st of December and then the winners are introduced in late January the year after.”

The second event is a book fair in late November.

“Publishers and authors introduce and sell new titles. It is accompanied by a diverse literature program for kids and adults. Unfortunately, we had to cancel this event last year and this year as well. Instead, there were some book-related online events.”

After a week of research and going straight to the source, I’m happy to report that Jólabókaflóð is alive and well, and we Americans are officially invited!

Need some ideas on what to give this year? These mysteries are a perfect fit!

Jólabókaflóð Mysteries

Jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood, is a literary tradition a number of American readers have been borrowing over the last few years. It centers on buying books for friends and loved ones and giving them on Christmas Eve. In this way, you can share your love of books and spend the evening reading by the Christmas tree, fireplace, or wherever you spend this important day.

If you’d like to know more about the tradition, check out my post in which I speak with the president of the Icelandic Publishers Association, Heiðar Ingi Svansson.

These titles are sure to keep you reading late into the night this Jólabókaflóð!

Rescue teams are sent to Lónsöræf in search of a group of missing people. What was their mission in the wilderness during the winter? Why did they leave the little shelter they had, poorly equipped and vulnerable? At the same time, strange events are happening at the radar station in Stokksnes. And on the headland there is a hole in the sea rock that attracts people… Not everything is as it seems here, whether it’s a bloodbath in a snow-covered landscape far from human settlements, a radar disturbance – or a child’s shoe that appears unexpectedly decades after it disappears. The Prey by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is an amazing story that makes the reader’s hair stand on end. Bráðin received Blóðdropann 2021 as the best Icelandic crime story of the year 2020. Buy an Icelandic copy today! Don’t read Icelandic? Try Gallows Rock.

Life was not always a dance of roses.

Tony is a young man who has always been an outsider in life. He grew up with a sick and drunk mother who had once been Iceland’s main star of hope in ballet. When her dreams of fame in the dance world come to naught, she tries to pass them on to her son with cruel methods – and dire consequences. In Öskjuhlíð there is a body that has clearly been lying there for a long time. The investigative lawyer Valdimar examines the case and gets Ylfa to join him, who is taking his first steps within the police. It soon becomes apparent that a brutal murderer is on the loose and that not everything is as it seems. Thriller writer Oskar Gudmundsson broke through with his first book Hilmar, followed by books Blood angel and Commandments. They were well received by readers and critics. Hilma received the Blood Drop in 2016 as the best crime story of the previous year and was nominated for the Glass Key as the best Nordic crime story. Get a copy in Icelandic today! Don’t read Icelandic? Try The Commandments.

The disappearance of four asylum seekers from a hostel has been announced and Hörður Grímsson is involved in the case. The search for the men is carried out in secret, as the police do not want the public to worry. If people can not be safe up here in little Iceland, where then? Get an Icelandic copy today!

First-grade teacher Desiree Tucker is on the brink of winter holidays with her new, romantic boyfriend when danger encroaches on her joy. Ominous, untraceable texts buzz on her cell phone. Terrifying secret Santa gifts show up for her in the classroom. As the stalker moves closer to the prey, Desiree doesn’t know who she can trust. Her charming new man is a prime suspect. Is he a deadly stalker? If not him, who? What can she learn from the legend of the snow kiss cookie? Just when she’s starting to believe in magic again, she finds herself fighting for her life. Just the right length for a snuggly Christmas Eve read while snacking on snow kiss cookies (recipe is included). Buy on Amazon!

When Annie Barkley discovers a boy living in the attic of her cookie shop, she’s stunned—and oddly elated. She can almost believe the universe is giving her back the infant son she lost eleven years ago. Annie senses that something bad happened to the boy, but he won’t talk. All she knows is that he’s terrified of being found. When her long-ago crush, police captain Sam Stern, stops by to inquire about a missing boy, Annie says she hasn’t seen him. Big mistake. Because that lie might cost her more than a romance with Sam. It also leaves her vulnerable to a ruthless pursuer, one who’s determined to silence the boy for good. This novella is a tale of love and intrigue that will keep readers up late on Christmas Eve. Buy it here today!

A heart attack sends detective Rory Naysmith reeling. Too young to retire, he accepts a position in small-town Winterset, Nebraska. Handed an unsolved truck hijacking case, Rory sets out to prove he can still go toe-to-toe with younger men. When the body of a Vietnam veteran turns up before Thanksgiving, he dons his fedora and spit-shines his shoes. But before the detective can solve the murder, an older woman disappears, followed closely by a second hijacking. He doggedly works the cases, following a thread that ties the crimes together as the town prepares for the Annual Christmas Gala. Rory digs deep to up his game, fearing the loss of his job, or worse—a disaster for Winterset. More than simply a detective mystery, this is the story of a small town with a plot that keeps the reader on edge and reading into the night. Now on Amazon!

It’s the 1950s, and everyone has a secret. When Harriet Laws loses her grandmother and her job, her happy life in London seems over. Alone, grief-stricken, and penniless, she thinks wildly of ending it all. Fate steps in as Tom Fletcher saves her, gives her hope, and guides her to new employment.  He takes her to dinner, and she finds him attractive. He’s older, but she doesn’t mind. Does he? Tom, a quiet, hardworking man, is unsure of Harriet’s feelings, but he’s also very busy building his business interests. So it’s no wonder a suave, sophisticated fellow walks off with Harriet right under Tom’s nose. What follows, no one could have predicted, as Harriet not only loses contact with all her friends but must again fight for her very life…will she ever see Tom again? Go to Amazon to get your copy!

Ezra James used to be a big deal: Harvard graduate, FBI agent, beautiful wife. After being accused of fabricating evidence in a serial killer trial, he finds himself suspended, on the verge of a divorce, and working security at a posh Catholic school in Chicago. Then something out-of-the-ordinary happens: a young student-teacher is attacked during a Christmas pageant and left for dead in the snow with a noose around her neck and an electrical burn. Plus, she’s pregnant. Ezra, along with up-and-coming police detective, Lucia Vargas, and school chaplain, Fr. Remy Mbombo, must work fast before the culprit returns to finish the job. Get an ebook for only $5.99 on Kindle.

Willow Daniels has a heart of gold and is willing to help anyone who needs it, but when she helps Ethan McCormick one snowy night, she may just have made the biggest mistake of her life. Trapped by a winter storm in a tiny, North Yorkshire village, Willow is forced to re-evaluate everything she believes in, and wonders if anyone is truly who they seem. Fate may have brought her to Ethan, but as danger closes in around them, Willow must draw on a strength she never knew she possessed in order to protect the man she has grown to love, not only against his worst enemy, but also against himself. Romance, mystery and suspense set against a backdrop of a tiny Yorkshire village at Christmas time make this a perfect Joloablokafod book to curl up with!

Get your copy at http://mybook.to/WinterStormEGray!

All Darrell Henshaw wanted was to enjoy his honeymoon with his beautiful wife, Erin, in the charming town of Crystal River on the sunny Gulf Coast of Florida. Only a pair of ghosts decide to intrude on their celebration. And not just any ghosts, the spirits of two young Latino children. Unwilling at first to derail the honeymoon for yet another ghost hunt, Darrell finally concedes when a painting of the kids comes alive, weeping and pleading for his help. When he and Erin track down the artist, they discover the children’s family were migrant workers the next county over. But when they travel there, their questions about the kids gets their car shot up and Erin hospitalized. Torn between fear and rage, Darrell must decide how far he will go to get justice for two young children he never even knew.

SCARLET AT CRYSTAL RIVER is the third entry in the Haunted Shores Mysteries and, like the first two, is a cold case murder mystery wrapped in a ghost story and served with a side of romance. But it is also a Christmas mystery, this time celebrating the holiday on the sunny Gulf coast of Florida.

Get your copy today!

Have more titles you think should be on this list? Email me at kolbestevenj@gmail.com

Gone Astray

Everyone thinks Roy Naysmith is past his prime as a detective. His bum heart doesn’t help matters. When he makes a switch from Omaha PD to tiny Winterset, Nebraska, his first major case involves the shooting death of Homer Coot, a Vietnam vet with a drinking problem. This investigation quickly takes a backseat, however, when a prominent citizen, Lydia Mullins, goes missing during a snow storm.

Through the course of the novel, Naysmith must work with eager rookie Clarence Thacker to unravel the corruption and petty crimes that plague Winterset and seem to add up to one giant conspiracy that could undo the entire town.

Terry Korth Fischer has a strong sense of police procedure, which she details with Hemingway-eque specificity. There is no gray area with how her detective solves the two cases he finds himself embroiled in, nor is there much suspension of disbelief required on the part of the reader. While the Homer Coot case falls by the wayside for a majority of the book, its relevance becomes apparent in the parallel investigation, whose actors are both more relevant to the community and more time-sensitive, so this also makes logical sense.

This mystery will appeal to mid-westerners and fans of realistic police procedural novels, but the characters of Roy Naysmith and Esther Mullins in particular give readers of any genre much to enjoy.

Get a copy at Amazon ($4.99) or Barnes and Noble ($4.99) today!

Wild Rose Review: Murder Undetected

After her husband runs off with the girl next door, psychologist Britt Thornton decides to blow off some steam by accompanying her friend Arielle to France where Arielle is planning on purchasing a cheese shop.

Once in France, Britt immediately realizes her accounts have been frozen. Not only has her husband been unfaithful, he’s been embezzling funds and is now being tracked down by the FBI. They also track Britt down overseas.

Viane Thibaudet is a young, ambitious chef whose great aims lay far beyond her town of Chevalier. She wants to buy a restaurant in Paris with her husband’s money, only Jean-Luc isn’t willing to do it.

When Jean-Luc collapses after eating something his wife made for him, Britt is there to give him CPR. It is after all Viane’s cheese shop her friend Arielle is trying to buy.

This was a solid mystery with a delightful setting. Like the author, I am also a bit of a Francophile and it made me long to visit this fictional village. The only thing that didn’t connect for me was a B-plot or C-plot about a troubled teen named “Thirteen.” Britt receives steadily more unsettling text messages from him back in the states, but the tension never really rose for me. It is a very minor thread, however, and didn’t take anything away from the read.

Fans of cozy mysteries, especially those set in international locations, and epicureans will find much to enjoy about these characters and their strife.

Amazon

Alumni Spotlight: Steven Miller

K-State English

Steven Miller (MA ’15)


“Late Have I Taught You”

Whenever I told people I wanted to study English, they would invariably reply, “So you want to be a teacher.” I would laugh—ha!—and tell them I’d never be a teacher. I wanted to be a great novelist.

Apparently, they knew more than I did.

After a decade of trying out various careers—reporting, ad sales, insurance, editing, and even a stint doing various part-time jobs—I found myself applying at a high school in tiny Holcomb, Kansas.

Other than its proximity to Garden City, where my wife and I settled after grad school, I think what drew me most to Holcomb is its literary history. The sight of the Clutter murders, Holcomb became famous after Truman Capote and Harper Lee visited and Capote forged a new genre, the nonfiction novel, with that tragedy at its heart. As an aspiring mystery writer, I felt…

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Review: Standard Deviation

Graham Cavanaugh is on the twelfth year of his second marriage, Audra is his beyond-outgoing wife who works as a graphic designer part-time and may or may not be having an affair, Matthew is their middle-school-aged son with Asperger’s and an obsession with origami, and Elspeth is Graham’s ex-wife, a successful attorney who Audra is convinced they should become friends with. The characters of this novel are richly imagined, unique yet believable. The story itself is just as new and real as the people. Just when you think you know what’s happening or what’s coming, the story takes a hard left.

I have read a lot of funny books, but Katherine Heiny hangs with the best of them. Like very few authors–Dave Barry, Steve Martin, Nora Ephron–she is able to deliver real laughs almost every page. I was impressed and also wildly discouraged as a writer. Like all great books, this made me want to work a whole lot harder at my craft.

I just finished reading Standard Deviations and wrote this review immediately, because you have to read it!

Recent Events

I decided to start promoting my debut mystery novel, How Everything Turns Away, at the local library and coffee shop. Here are some highlights!

A full house – for a fiction class in Southwest Kansas, that is
What’s the difference between a crime novel and a cozy? I’m glad you asked!
They even let me sell a book or two
A cozy reading at Patrick Dugan’s in downtown Garden City

Overall, it has been a successful launch for the book. In-person sales are steadily trickling in, a few each day, and my rankings at the online book sellers are moving up and down mysteriously, so that’s exciting. If you know of a coffee shop, book store, or library that would like to have me put on a reading or workshop, let me know!

The Wild Rose Press: Scarlet at Crystal River

After history teacher Darrell Henshaw has his bachelor party crashed by a cake-inhabiting medium, he knows he’s going to have one interesting honeymoon. In a strange Slavic accent, she whispers, “Ven you go to Crystal River, you vill have…two visitors from the other side, two visitors vaiting for you.” These visitors quickly turn out to be Daniel and Mia, the children of migrant workers. Through the course of the novel, Darrell and his new wife Erin must work with translator Luis to get to the bottom of what happened—all while simultaneously having a honeymoon.

This is my first paranormal mystery. It has a lot in common with traditional mysteries. For instance, the detective conducts interviews, gathers clues, and faces personal peril. However, much of what drives his investigation, as the genre suggests, comes from otherworldly agents. A medium tells him about the victims, visions of phantoms and a weeping painting help him ID children, and then eerie Christmas carols haunt a crucial scene.

The setting, Florida in the late 90s, appeals to me as I lived in Florida in the late 90s. I remember bringing in the new millennium in Tangerine, Florida at my aunt’s house as I was living in Orlando at the time. Overbeck portrays this strange time and place accurately, dropping in several fun Easter eggs, such as swimming with manatees and the approaching Bush-Gore election, which would become big drama in Florida politics.

If you’re a fan of paranormal mysteries or 90s paranormal film, you’re sure to enjoy Scarlet at Crystal River.

Postmodern American Fiction

I first began reading this anthology (or perhaps I should say “attempted to read”) a little over a year ago. I thought it would be a good book to breeze through while teaching from home because of COVID. I was wrong. About the breezing, at least. While I was immediately met with authors I have loved and, for the most part, understood: Pynchon, Burroughs, Barthelme, I soon felt as if I were reading something in a foreign language. Robert Coover’s “The Phantom of the Movie Palace” and Mark Leyner’s “The Making of ‘Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog’ ” were two places that had to take considerable breaks, reading other stories or novels, sometimes in actual foreign languages.

One trouble I think I have with postmodernism or rather have had with it stems from the fact that I have been raised in it. In school, “postmodern” has often carried the same weighty context as “calculus.” We will cross that bridge when we get to it. However, all of the art I have loved from that last thirty-plus years has been influenced by it. Some of my earliest memories of movie watching include Star Wars and Indian Jones (pastiche of 30s-50s American serials); Back to the Future (a sci-fi head-trip of multiple timelines); and Edward Scissorhands (and all of its cross-genre, ironic, temporal distorted, and magical realist glory).

The point at which I achievement my long-awaited aha moment came after reading Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Shiloh,” a short story about, among other things, a couple’s trip to the sight of a Civil War battle: Shiloh, Tennessee. After finishing the story, I asked myself, “Okay, so what was postmodern about that?” It took a little research to realize that the gender roles and national identity the story questions are things society has questioned and reformed my entire life. While some aspects of postmodernism feel “other,” most aspects have been adopted whole-hock and incorporated seamlessly. I noticed this most recently while watching Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. The film is at once a straightforward story about Fern (Frances McDormand) who is driven to live in her van and travel the country as an itinerant worker. It’s also a scathing attack of consumer society, which at one point destroys Fern’s entire town and at other times abandons countless characters who only want to work. It also functions as a circular anti-narrative, beginning with the Christmas-rush at an Amazon distribution center during the Great Recession and ending a year later with Fern’s situation unchanged, still showing up to Amazon to work for a month, still traveling in her van, still precariously outside of house-dwelling society. Fern even serves a stint at Wall Drug, the amusement-park-like store outside the Badlands in central South Dakota. I could not help being reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s critique of Disneyland in his seminal work, Simulacra and Simulation. Yet if I did not have this anthology at my finger tips, so recently submitted to my short-term memory, I don’t know that I would’ve noticed any of these elements. Rather I might’ve thought, “Well, that story never really got going.”

And that is the very point. If nothing else, Postmodern American Fiction has let me into some of the secrets that have been all around me as I’ve read, watched, and listened. I won’t go so far as to say I have a complete understanding of this ever-evolving art movement, but this anthology has certainly given me a more solid foundation than I had before I set out.

The Wild Rose Press: Good Lookin’

Today, I have the honor of reviewing a book by a fellow mystery writer at my publisher. T. L. Bequette, when he isn’t writing mystery novels, is a criminal defense attorney in California who serves on an annual faculty clinic at Stanford Law School.

Joe Turner, Bequette’s protagonist and narrator, is an Oakland defense attorney as well. When we first meet Turner, he is meeting with a current client, Leonard Dunigan, who is accused of killing a man by “squeezing his skull until it caved in.” From this very first scene we are thrust into Turner’s world in all its dangerous ambiguity.

Ricocheting from this hopeless case, Turner meets with Darnell Moore, a nineteen-year-old black youth who has become entangled with an Oakland gang, the IceBoyz. Moore stands accused of killing a rival Cashtown Killer gangster, the high-school aged Cleveland Barlow. The case seems open and shut. Turner could reduce the charges with a guilty plea. The only problem is, when Moore says he didn’t do it, Turner believes him.

With his southern-accented private eye, Chuck Argenal, Turner races to assembly the clues and the testimony needed to ensure Moore’s freedom. Unfortunately, thanks to a web of nefarious influences posed by the IceBoys and Cashtown gangs, witnesses are reticent to speak. Including Darnell Moore himself. What does he know, and why won’t he tell Turner?

One surprising element of this novel that I really enjoyed was a parallel story told in short inter chapters. Set in 2006, these chapters tell the story of twin boys shuffled around the foster system. When their too-good-to-be-true foster father turns out to be Iago-level evil, they only have one shot to escape. At first I wondered how this would all come to bear on the Moore case, but it kept my attention regardless. All I’ll say is that it does come to bear—in a big way.

All legal dramas will forever remind me of John Grisham, and this one is no exception. For anyone in search of some legalistic suspense or wanting to get an inside view of how criminal defense lawyers approach a case, look no further. The protagonist also reminds me of Robert B. Parker’s detective Spenser. Something about Turner’s wit and the playful relationship he has with the love interest, Edna “Eddy” Busier, a distinguished archeologist, smacks of Spenser. For this reason, fans of Spenser novels and other rye private eyes will find much to enjoy in Joe Turner.

Buy now!