Arctic reading tips – Crime and sub zero horror


Baby, it’s cold outside. As we put on yet another layer of thermal underwear - not much of a fashion statement, I’m afraid, but a dire necessity in these sub-zero times – and brace ourselves before we go out to shovel some more snow, it is easy to grow pessimistic, perhaps even start thinking about the neverending winter in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (Hey, at least we got to celebrate Christmas!) Do not despair, though: spring will come, and instead of pining for what we cannot have at the moment – sun, warmth, a life without thermal underwear – I suggest you embrace the cold and check out a few books that, in one way or another, deal with arctic temperatures.

My first arctic tip is Elizabeth Hand’s brand new novel Available Dark, where we are reunited with the inimitable Cassandra Neary of Generation Loss fame. This time, our little corner of the world (well, sort of) gets a visit from "your prototypical amoral speedfreak crankhead kleptomaniac murderous rage-filled alcoholic bisexual heavily tattooed American female photographer" (Hand’s own description of her literary creation – you now know why I love both ladies, right?) as Cass is sent to Helsinki to evaluate a series of disturbing but eerily beautiful photographs on behalf of a shady collector. Of course, death and destruction follows, and Cass soon finds herself on the run from a potential manslaughter charge. Meth-fuelled and justifiably paranoid, Cass ends up in snowy Iceland, where she encounters former lover Quinn and becomes increasingly entangled in a twisted series of events that, among other things, feature Norse mythology, black metal, and murder.

Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand The Terror by Dan Simmons

If you enjoyed Generation Loss, you will adore this. Not only is Available Dark a top notch thriller of the dark, literary, and deliciously twisted variety, it is also further proof of Hand’s seemingly effortless ability to create unorthodox and deeply fucked up yet thoroughly believable female characters that make Lisbeth Salander seem like Mother Teresa. Also? It is funny as hell. The line "It all made me miss the cheery optimism of The Smiths" is one of many laugh-out-loud moments, and while we’re on that note (so to speak), may I add that all the references to music, whether punk, indie, or black metal are deeply knowledgeable. I even had my black metal freak of a husband double check some of the facts, and he was impressed.

You probably guessed it already, but I really enjoyed Available Dark, on so many levels. The diversity is one of the many things I – here we go again.. – like so much with Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary books. Are you a crime buff? Why, then you’ll definitely appreciate the page turner aspect of the book. Black metal fan? See above. Generally into well written, edgy prose with compelling and multi-layered characters? I believe we have a match. So yes, the fan girl has spoken (or chirped, more like it), and is now chirping "can’t wait for another fix of my favourite prototypical amoral speedfreak crankhead kleptomaniac murderous rage-filled alcoholic bisexual heavily tattooed American female photographer!". Will, in fact, continue to chirp until it is revealed that Elizabeth Hand is working on a third instalment of the Cass Neary saga. Only a matter of time, I hope, although I am happy to announce that another book by Hand, a young adult novel called Radiant Days, will be out in April. In the meantime, if you feel like exploring the addictive, genre defying brilliance that is Elizabeth Hand further, try Waking the Moon, Saffron and Brimstone, or Illyria. Oh, and Generation Loss, obviously. You will undoubtedly enjoy Available Dark without having read Generation Loss first, but since it is only a matter of time before you are as enamoured with Cass Neary as I am, and since Available Dark does have some mild spoilers regarding the outcome of the first book, I suggest you pick up Generation Loss first and then read Available Dark back to back.

Arctic pick number two is Dan Simmons’ epic horror novel The Terror, loosely based on the ill-fated Franklin expedition in 1845. Snow, ice, a lost/doomed expedition, unspeakable horrors… Add a touch of gangrene and I believe we have a winner.

If you like your horror on the gently creeping yet haunting M.R. James spectrum of things, do make sure to read Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. It is the tale of loner Jack Miller, who joins an expedition to the Arctic Cirle and the remote, supposedly haunted Gruhuken bay in an attempt to escape his lonely life in London. However, the expedition soon turns into something other than Jack had imagined and once settled in the ice cold wilderness, Jack and his colleagues soon realise that all the ghost stories are true… I read Dark Matter in one spine-tingling sitting and chances are you will, too. It is the perfect ghost story, really, with a wonderful sense of place and atmosphere. Ideal for chilly winter nights.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver The Silent Land by Graham Joyce Forty Words For Sorrow (John Cardinal #1)  by Giles Blunt

Perhaps you already read Graham Joyce’s Silent Land when it was December’s book of the month, but I’m going to pass on the tip anyway. The premise of Joyce’s award winning novel is an intriguing one: a couple skiing in the French Pyrenees is buried under a flash avalanche. After having dug themselves out, they find the resort completely abandoned. It is almost as though the entire outside world has been emptied of people, of noise, of life… Silent Land is one of those books you almost have to pry yourself away from. Unputdownable, and beautifully written, too.

Finally, the first book in  Cardinal and Delorme series, Forty Words for Sorrow, takes place in February, which in Algonquin Bay, Canada, is a snowbound, quiet, and very, very cold place. If you haven’t read Blunt, you’re in for a treat. He always delivers great plots, and plenty of atmosphere and tension along the way. Blunt’s latest Cardinal/Delorme thriller, Crime Machine, is also a snow-filled affair, so there’s no shortage of arctic weather and snowy seclusion here.