Book Review: Iceland, Defrosted

I’ve only reviewed a few books for the Lögberg-Heimskringla, but I think each one has been better than the last.  I recently finished Iceland, Defrosted by first-time author from across the pond, Edward Hancox.  Let’s just say Icelandair should be paying Hancox, because the book brought me this close to buying a ticket to Iceland.  Here is my review:

Iceland, Defrosted a warm read

Image courtesy of Edward Hancox
Image courtesy of Edward Hancox

Edward Hancox, like many of his fellow Englishmen, used to know very little about Iceland, assuming it was all about “polar bears and penguins… deep snow year round and the Northern Lights arching over frozen landscapes.” But with his first trip to Iceland eight years ago, and countless visits since, Hancox has developed an obsession with the people, places, and music of the island nation. And with the recent release of Iceland, Defrosted, Hancox has shared that obsession – and the real Iceland he discovered beyond the stereotypes – with readers across the globe.

The narrative roughly follows a path around the Ring Road, but incorporates stories from a number of different trips to Iceland, as well as stories of encounters with Icelanders abroad. Hancox weaves together anecdotes, trivia, history, a lot of music, and a continuous search for the Northern Lights and binds it all with contagious passion and an understated British humor. To those well-acquainted with Iceland, the book offers little new material; but Hancox’s genuine enthusiasm makes even well-worn topics readable.

Indeed, Hancox covers a fair amount of expected material – the vibrant Reykjavík nightlife scene, Iceland Airwaves, the best and worst of Icelandic cuisine, the surreal experience of visiting the phallological museum, curiosities of the patronymic naming system. But Hancox recognizes that what makes Iceland so unique is not the fact that it is home to Europe’s most powerful waterfall or that 10% of the country’s population once attended a free Sigur Rós concert (although he clearly enjoys sharing such facts). Rather, Hancox understands that Iceland’s greatest natural resource is its people: “I’ve spent time trying to get to know the people and places of Iceland; to experience more than just what is available to the average tourist on a weekend trip,” he writes. Hancox doesn’t just write about tasting hákarl – he writes about meeting a farmer who produces it and learning the ins and outs of the process behind the infamous foodstuff. And he doesn’t just explain who the húldufólk are – he writes about searching for them in Hafnarfjörður with a true húldufólk believer. These experiences and many more give the book an authenticity that elevates it from a mere tourist tale.

The author’s love of Icelandic music radiates throughout the book. Hancox includes snippets of interviews with Snorri Helgason, Sóley, Hafdís Huld and Lay Low, and admits that the one Icelandic musician who has rendered him completely starstruck is Jónsi. Meeting Jónsi backstage at a Sigur Rós concert in the U.K., the only question Hancox could think to ask is, “Can I have your photo?” Readers looking to include more Iceland in their music collections will appreciate Hancox’s list of “further listening” suggestions in the back of the book.

For Hancox, discovering writing went hand-in-hand with discovering Iceland. As he began exploring Iceland, he said in an interview, he needed a way to record his experiences and found photography lacking. A friend suggested writing. Before long, Hancox had written a few articles for the Reykjavík Grapevine and Iceland Review. The latter asked him to become a regular columnist. Writing Iceland, Defrosted was a natural progression.

Frustrated by the state of traditional publishing and bolstered by encouragement from supporters on Twitter and Facebook (even Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr tweeted in his support), Hancox used the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to finance the book’s publication. Within days of listing his project, his funding target was met. Ultimately, Hancox raised 179% of his initial goal.

Response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, with supportive reviews, a recent mention in National Geographic Traveller magazine, and continual reader interaction via social media. Readers have taken to sending in photos of the book set against an impressive array of backdrops across the world, including the Colosseum, Niagara Falls, and Lake Louise. Hancox said he is constantly surprised by the book, which he described as having a life of its own. Hancox spent six years writing Iceland, Defrosted and has no current plans for a follow-up, although he said he has contemplated writing a novel set in Iceland.

Whether he ever sees a pod of spouting whales or catches the elusive Northern Lights, Hancox has discovered a plethora of Iceland’s gifts, and his ability to effortlessly, humorously, and sincerely share those discoveries will make any reader warm up to Iceland, Defrosted.

Iceland, Defrosted is available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon. To connect with Hancox, visit icelanddefrosted.com, find Iceland, Defrosted on Facebook, or follow @EdHancox on Twitter.

Originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, November 1, 2013

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