Category Archives: Yrsa Sigurdardottir

I Remember You – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Yrsa Sigurdardottir has become one of my favourite thriller writers after just two of her detective novels. There is something about the way she can write the grimly fascinating with such humour that really works for me. So when it came to a spooky choice for The Readers Book Club, now Hear… Read This!, I decided to choose her first foray into horror, I Remember You, as a choice of this month’s episode as I thought it would be just the chilling read for this time of year.

Hodder & Stoughton, 2012, trade paperback, fiction, translated by Philip Roughton, 400 pages, kindly sent by publisher

I Remember You is told through two alternating tales both set in Iceland. Out over the water on the Westfjords three friends head to an isolated village where they have bought a ramshackle old house to do up as a future guest house and investment. They are remote, the weather is turning and many, including one of their number, think that they are crazy for heading out there. As the trio start to try and make the place habitable strange things start to happen and it becomes apparent that someone or something wants them to leave.

Back on the mainland a school has been vandalised and an elderly woman has committed suicide, nothing seems to connect these two or does it? A young psychiatric doctor, Freyr, is called to both cases and soon learns that what has happened to the school has happened before in the past and, more shockingly, the woman who killed herself seemed to be obsessed by his son who vanished a few years ago. Soon enough strange things also start happening to Freyr and make him start to question his own scepticism and look back on the case of his missing son.

I really enjoyed being chilled and thrilled by Yrsa and I genuinely did get creeped out by the book as Yrsa, as with her crime novels, slowly creates a sense of unease and toys with the reader. Admittedly the first time I had a genuine moment of fear was because I was reading it and had forgotten that some of my lights are on a timer and so when they went out I royally jumped out of my skin. That said, even when I was reading the book with the lights on there were several times when I thought that something was moving just out the corner of my eye. It was quite unnerving, but a sign the book was definitely doing what it set out to. It is all done very deftly with a nice sense of pacing about it too; sometimes there is a small sensation of fear, others more of a sudden bang.

Freyr started slightly when a click suggested that someone had grabbed the doorknob. Again the door opened as slowly as before, and stopped once there was a small gap. The fluorescent bulb could be heard clicking once more, now with apparently greater frequency.
‘Hello?’ Freyr leaned over the desk to try to see through the gap. There was nothing but the blinking of the faulty ceiling light. ‘Hello?’ A chill passed over him when a familiar voice whispered in response to his call. A voice that had always been lively, contented and joyful, but that now sounded cold and lifeless. A voice that seemed so near, yet at the same time so infinitely far away.
‘Daddy.’

Iceland is a perfect setting for a ghost story too. Having been last year I discovered just how ‘other worldly’ the place is. In the remotest parts there is little to see bar some trees, rocks and snow for miles and miles around. There is also the real sense of the mythical there and whether you have been or not Yrsa nicely winds in elements of folklore and superstition still thriving in Iceland along with more topical items like its economy, particularly in Freyr’s narrative which seemed much more bedded in the modern world as we know it, the friends on the island less so, that seemed to be a place time had forgotten – a place of little electricity and no phone signals, making it easier to be creepy whilst in a modern setting, something I think is very hard to do.

I will admit I had a small wobble or two with the book. Firstly, I missed Yrsa’s humour and wit, which Last Rituals and My Soul To Take are so brimming with thanks to their protagonist Thora. That said has there been any laughs then I would imagine a lot of the tension would have been lost, yet it is Yrsa’s dark humour that is such an important aspect of her writing. What I did like very much was how the supernatural tale had to encompass a crime procedural as the police get involved with Freyr’s case. This felt very real, as I mentioned before Iceland is a place where myth and folklore still linger and people are open to all sorts of ideas. It also reminded me of a reversal of My Soul To Take where Yrsa takes a crime novel and gives it a hint of the supernatural, I think I liked that one a little bit more

 Secondly, with any alternating tale there is the possible danger that the reader will like one more than the other. Whilst I was enjoying the thrills and spills as Katrin, Gardar and Lif built the house in the haunting wilderness, I found that I was so gripped by Freyr’s story across the water that sometimes I really wanted to get back to that. The trio’s tale was interesting, and indeed has most of the scare in it because of the setting, yet Freyr’s situation with his son just had that added emotional depth and was out of the norm of a normal ghostly tale than the other which felt more familiar within the ghostly drama. I also had a slight issue with how the two separate tales intertwined. Whilst the twists and turns as it went on were brilliant, the tension getting tighter and tighter and me getting more freaked out, when I got to the last few chapters I thought ‘oh is that it’ mixed with ‘well honestly, how were we meant to guess that’. Saying that though, I thought the last paragraph was utter genius and pleased me no end.

I think I Remember You is a very good modern ghost story with an unusual crime thriller twist. It is a tale that will make you feel very uneasy and give you the desired chills you will be looking for picking up a book of this genre. I am also fascinated by the fact that it is partly based on a true tale, I just wonder which bit? You can see a piece by Yrsa on visiting the abandoned town of Hesteyri, where the book is based, here. I would recommend you give this a read if you are an Yrsa fan, and Iceland fan or just fancy reading something chilling, I very much enjoyed it.

Oh and if you want to hear even more about the book you can here Kate, Rob, Gavin and myself talking about it on the latest episode of Hear… Read This! where we have a whole spectrum of thoughts on the book.

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Filed under Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Yrsa Sigurdardottir

My Soul to Take – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Sometimes there are books that you read at just the right time, sometimes there are books that you read in just the right place. It is very rare that you read something at just the right time and in just the right place, however with ‘My Soul to Take’ by Yrsa Sigurdardottir I think I just managed to get both spot on as I read it in Iceland, where it is set, and during the dark autumn nights, perfect for a chilling murder mystery with a slightly supernatural twist.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2010, fiction, 456 pages, translated by Bernard Scudder & Anna Yates, kindly sent by the publishers

In 2006, heroine of ‘Last Rituals’, Thóra is in the middle of a very boring dispute over letter boxes in her work life and having to deal with her children, one who has got his equally teenage girlfriend pregnant, her difficult ex husband and the fact that her finances are in tatters.

So when a client of hers, a bit of a hippy, Jonas Juliusson invites her to come to his New Age Health Spa as he believes it is haunted by a young woman and a young girl and so wants to sue the sellers whilst offering some free respite she can’t turn him down. No sooner has Thóra arrived the body of Jonas’ architect is discovered having been mutilated and raped and Jonas becomes the prime suspect but Thora suspects there is much more going on than meets the eye and, of course, there is.

So how does this link with the story from the beginning in 1945? Well I am not going to tell you that am I as I want you to run out and get the book because it’s so good. I can say that I had no idea what the link was or indeed who the villain of the whole novel was until very close to the end because Yrsa fills this book with so many characters motives and twists and turns you are always second guessing and you second guess is invariably always wrong. I will say that the period of history, and this doesn’t give anything away, and the role of Iceland and the Nazi’s in WWII was a really interesting part of the plot, and therefore the book, because I had no idea about any of that at all and found it grimly fascinating.

I will say that I do think that Yrsa Sigurdardottir is swiftly becoming one of my favourite voices in crime at the moment.  With ‘My Soul to Take’ she does all the things I loved in ‘Last Rituals’ that I loved all over again but keeps it feeling fresh and new. There is the supernatural element, is there a ghost or not, the folklore of the country, the rather grisly murders (made all the worse by the fact you do feel you have an emotional connection to the victims which I always think makes everything more heightened), the sense of atmosphere of Iceland and, equally importantly, a dark and wry sense of humour running through it. It’s rather like its protagonist Thóra in many ways actually. There was one scene that made me laugh and laugh but I worry if I shared it with you I would be judged and you may never come back to this blog again. Let us move on shall we and have a nice picture of the lake I sat reading this by in Iceland…

A beautiful lake in Iceland, possibly inspiration for the first murder scene in ‘My Soul to Take’?

If you are looking for an intelligent crime novel that has an original gutsy heroine, victims you empathise with, clever crimes and more red herrings than, erm, a red herring factory then I would highly recommend ‘My Soul to Take’. I should add here that while it is the second in the series it would stand alone, however if you are like me and you have to read a series from the start then do pick up ‘Last Rituals’ as soon as you can, go on, get it now. I am certainly looking forward to the third instalment of Thóra, though before I turn to that I am going to read Yrsa’s latest novel ‘I Remember You’ which is a standalone horror, perfect for this time of year and arrived just this morning.

Who else has read any of Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s novels? What did you think? Do they get better and better? What are your thoughts on the humour in these novels? Have you been completely flummoxed by the killer the whole way through too?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Last Rituals – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

I always feel a bit bad when I say that I enjoy crime fiction, not because I don’t rate the genre (quite the opposite in fact) but because there is always that worry that if you say you enjoy crime novels and a good murder then you might be a secret homicidal psychopath. Not the image you want to be putting out there really is it. Yrsa Sigurdardottir has stopped me feeling strange about saying this both having met her at The Manchester Literature Festival (you can hear me interview her here) and having read her first crime novel ‘Last Rituals’ which you may have already guessed by now I thoroughly enjoyed.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2008, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

I have to admit I do like books that are rather dark and brooding and that is just the atmosphere that Yrsa Sigurdardottir sets with her debut crime novel ‘Last Rituals’. After a student, Harald Guntlieb, is found dead (well he falls out of a cupboard onto his professor) at the University of Iceland, lawyer Thora Guttmondsottir is asked by his family to look into the case, she initially isn’t sure she wants the case but is won over by the amount of money it will earn her. A man has been arrested for the crime however the Guntlied family think different and so want her and another investigator they have hired, Matthew Reich, to find out what really happened.  

So far, so typical crime set up. Yet this is by no means a run of the mill crme novel, it is the character of Thora and the landscape of Iceland and its past that will have you hooked and gives the novel a real edge. Thora is not perfect, but she is very real and she shows real back bone both in her personal life when dealing with her ex-husband and in her professional life when wryly taking on Matthew who seems to believe he is the one in control. She also has a wonderful humour about her, rather deadpan and cynical which really made me laugh out loud on several occasions, mainly in her dealings with Matthew but really in anyone who she meets, especially her receptionist/PA/secretary Bella who, to put it mildly, is utterly inept.

‘Someone phoned’ Bella mumbled, glued to her computer screen.
Thora looked up in surprise from hanging up her anorak. ‘Really?’ she said, adding in forlorn hope: ‘Do you have any idea who it was?’
‘No. Spoke German, I think. I couldn’t understand him anyway.’
‘Is he going to call back perhaps?’
‘I don’t know. I cut him off. By accident.’
‘In the unlikely event that he does ring back, even though you cut him off, would you mind putting the call through to me? I studied German and I speak German.’
‘Hmph,’ Bella grunted. She shrugged. ‘Maybe it wasn’t German. It could have been Russian. And it was a woman. I think. Or a man.’
‘Bella, whoever calls – a woman from Russia or a man from Germany, even a dog from Greece that speaks in tongues – put them through to me. Okay?’ Thora did not wait for a reply, not expecting one anyway, but walked straight into her modest office. 

Laughing out loud at a murder mystery, unless a cosy crime maybe which believe me this isn’t – far from it, is not something I was expecting and I found it really refreshing. Having been lucky enough to have met the author and chatting with her I can see where it comes from but I must also praise Bernard Scudder who has clearly translated this wonderfully. The dry sense of humour of the book wasn’t the only thing which set it apart, I loved the fact Yrsa also brings in Iceland’s history.

I cannot really say how without giving anything away (the plot is a good one and makes the reader do lots of second guessing whilst turning the pages), but one of ‘Last Rituals’ strands involves the tales of medieval witchcraft and witches. Yrsa has clearly researched all of this heavily and yet it never came across as showing off, it just fascinated me. This is a side of Iceland I had never heard of (not that I know mc=uch about Iceland apart from the fact I have always wanted to go) so between the joys of spending time with Thora and then having the unexpected added bonus of learning about a macabre and unsettling historical and religious period of Iceland’s history made this an almost perfect read. I was gripped, entertained and horrified – brilliant!

I like books where the dark, and sometimes horrific, is merged with a sense of humour, ‘Last Rituals’ is a book that nailed this for me. It is a rather disturbingly graphic crime novel; it is also one which has a real sense of humour about it thanks to its protagonist the delightfully imperfect Thora. I cannot wait to read the rest of this series so far; with great writing and such a great main character it looks set to become a firm favourite. If you love crime and haven’t read Yrsa Sigurdardottir then you really must (and in fact you can as part of today’s Savidge Reads Advent Calendar). I have already taken the next in the series ‘My Soul to Take’ off the shelves and will be reading it in the next few weeks.

Have you dipped your toes into this series? If so what did you think? Have you found any other crime novels that are dark and yet darkly funny (I have just thought of the Kate Atkinson books actually) that you would recommend? Have you discovered a wonderful new crime series this year and if so what was it?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Yrsa Sigurdardottir