The Town at the End of the World: Review of The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson

Ragnar Jónasson’s latest mystery includes one of the best hooks I’ve read recently, although, curiously, it is not the book’s opening line: “Teacher wanted at the edge of the world.” Feeling adrift in her life in Reykjavik, Iceland, Una applies for and then accepts a teaching position to work with two students in the isolated village of Skálar which consists of about ten people. Upon arrival, Una rather quickly revises any idyllic notions she had of the smallest of small-town living. The repeated hauntings of a young girl singing a lullaby and playing the piano in the middle of the night within Una’s apartment only enhance the town’s grim winter atmosphere. Meanwhile, as Una tries to determine if these hauntings are real or simply nightmares, Jónasson interweaves her story with first-person accounts of a murder and wrongful conviction that initially has no relationship to the town of Skálar.

Photo Courtesy of Visit North Iceland

Jónasson is a skilled writer who manages to convey nuance without overwriting or slowing his narrative’s pace. I felt immersed in the story very quickly despite never having been anyplace like Skálar, or even Iceland for that matter. Una’s backstory and upbringing, although parsed out throughout the course of the novel, portrayed a complicated character with conflicting motivations and impulses that made her an interesting protagonist to follow. In addition to his characters, Jónasson’s setting is also unique among so many metropolitan mysteries complete with an experienced police detective. According to the author’s note accompanying my Net Galley copy, Skálar is a real place, although it was abandoned several decades before the 1980s setting of The Girl Who Died. (See the image above for a glimpse of the real-life Skálar.) The town provides an ideal location for a Gothic mystery with so many layers of history waiting to be excavated. In fact, the remote setting paired with the child ghost and Una’s teaching position was all reminiscent of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Ultimately, though, Jónasson fails to fully capitalize on this environment. Just as the novel’s various strands come together the book is over, and it’s a credit to the writing that I wanted The Girl Who Died to continue. Without revealing any plot points, I wished Jónasson had written further about the ramifications of the various mysteries he unravels. He sets up so ably the struggle to join a community but then doesn’t really explore the cost of belonging once a character like Una joins such an exclusive group as the town of Skálar.

Even with these criticisms, I look forward to reading more of Jónasson’s work, particularly the Hulda series which received excellent reviews. If you’re not yet ready to travel this summer, The Girl Who Died would be a wonderful escape into a completely different physical and psychological landscape.


Dear Readers

Review of Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

I remember standing in Target’s book section several years ago and picking up a book titled Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy about a fat girl who loves Dolly Parton and enrolls in her local beauty pageant. Enchanted, I picked up a copy but didn’t get around to reading it right away (although its cover of a blonde woman in a red evening dress standing in thrall to a tiara never failed to elicit a chuckle when I walked past). Fast forward to December 2018 when said book was adapted into a Netflix movie. It’s heartfelt and funny with a great Dolly Parton soundtrack. So, last winter my reading consisted of a binge of all of Murphy’s novels (including Puddin’, a sort-of-sequel that focuses on some of Dumplin’s secondary characters). Then, once I exhausted her canon, I pre-ordered of her new middle grade novel (designated for readers roughly eight to twelve years old), Dear Sweet Pea, which is on bookshelves now.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Dear Sweet Pea is set in a small Texas town where, following a recent and amicable divorce, thirteen-year-old Sweet Pea’s mom and dad live in near-identical houses on the same street. Sweet Pea finds this same-but-not-the-sameness frustrating as she splits time between the two houses. School is equally challenging as well since a former best friend, now frenemy, creates new drama. In the middle of all these changes in Sweet Pea’s life, her eccentric neighbor and newspaper advice columnist, Miss Flora Mae, asks Sweet Pea to water the plants and forward the advice column correspondence while Flora Mae’s out of town. Sweet Pea intercepts a few letters and gives some advice of her own.

Despite transitioning to a middle grade book after her earlier YA novels, Murphy’s writing is confident in both its style and storytelling. The vocabulary and sentence structure are streamlined for younger readers (but also kept this big kid reader very entertained). Murphy creates a beautiful array of characters from Sweet Pea and her classmates to assorted teachers and parents. My favorite might just be the deliciously eccentric Miss Flora Mae who keeps her most important documents in the oven and who the local kids suspect may be a vampire. Murphy perfectly captures the feeling of being caught halfway between childhood and teenagedom as well as the uncertainty of not knowing how to move from one stage to the next. Dear Sweet Pea is ideal for fifth to seventh grade readers (and anyone who remembers what those in-between years were like).

For fans craving the next movie adapted from Julie Murphy’s work, Disney Channel has your back as they are developing a movie version of Dear Sweet Pea!

Read if you like: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh as well as Dumplin’ and Puddin’ by Julie Murphy.