Tag Archives: Iceland

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

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

I have been dragging my heels about writing a review of Hannah Kent’s debut novel ‘Burial Rites’ for quite some time. Not because this is a bad book or one of those books that you read and promptly forget, quite the contrary, it is a book that I enjoyed (read loved) so much and found so powerful that anything I write about it will barely do it justice and so I will have to go and sit in a corner and sulk for the rest of the day. As I am quite good at sulking when the need arises, I will give it a whirl – though I am doubly cross with myself for losing the notes and page quotes I had on the book, all thanks to an iPhone resetting. But let’s discuss the book shall we rather than my insecurities or technological faux pas.

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Picador, 2013, hardback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is the late 1820’s in Iceland and the lives of District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and daughters Lauga and Steina, are changed on their farm of Kornsá when the news that they will be housing a criminal in the lead up to her execution, for we are in times when prisons do not exist. The criminal in question is Agnes Magnusdottir who, many believe, killed ‘healer’ Natan Ketilsson and his neighbour along with Sigridur and Fredrik who are to be housed elsewhere for fear they will concoct some tale or escape. This is not only a time of no prisons but a time when the law simply states that you are guilty unless proven otherwise and with just three people’s word the likelihood, once the King across the sea grants it, is that you will be killed. It is from the time that Agnes is housed in Kornsa while she waits the final verdict and judgement that makes up the story of ‘Burial Rites’.

As many of you may or may not know the actual case of Agnes Magnusdottir is a true one, indeed she was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, yet despite knowing that from the beginning as the novel winds on the more you hope that the outcome will not be the one it is (this happened to me again very recently with Meike Ziervogel’s ‘Magda’ which I can’t wait to tell you about soon) especially as Kent weaves her fictionalised version of events as to what Agnes’ life was like from childhood leading to her first meeting with Natan and what followed, which of course I will not spoil for you because the story of ‘Burial Rites’ to my mind is the story of the person behind the true story and Kent tells it beautifully.

A good story is lost without great characters and atmosphere and Kent has these both in abundance. We spend the beginning of the novel away from Agnes yet hearing much about her through the mouths and tales of others. So when we meet her we already have a vision in our heads of some calculating witch. It is this same image that Margret and her daughters also have and so the very idea of having this woman sleeping in the same house as them is beyond terrifying and Margret is a hard woman at the best of times. Yet as the novel moves forward and they, and we, meet Agnes they start to question themselves and the assumptions they have made about her, especially as Agnes starts to tell her story to the visiting Reverend ‘Toti’ who has been sent on a mission to save her soul before she dies.

The other aspect of the book I loved was Iceland itself, the atmosphere of the place is brought fully to life by Kent, who chose to go there after never having seen snow in her native Australia and there learnt of Agnes’ tale. Cleverly she never needs to describe the ‘other worldly’ sense of Iceland in great detail, she structures the scenery in short sharp sketches and it constantly broods behind every scene. Having been to Iceland myself (and shamefully having not shared that trip with you on the blog last year, why ever not I do not know) I could probably have pictured some of the setting but I stayed in Reykjavik with two little trips out into the sparse wilderness, nothing quite as sparse as Kornsá though yet I felt by the end of the book I had been there living out a winter with them all. The book also packs an emotional punch. As I mentioned earlier we know the outcome of the events from the start, as the countdown increases and the pages of ‘Burial Rites’ lessen in our hands the sense of dread increases and I have to say I found the end of the book incredibly moving.

The lovely Sandra was indeed right...

The lovely Sandra was indeed right…

There is no question that Hannah Kent has crafted an incredibly beautiful novel with ‘Burial Rites’. It is a book which has a sense of isolation and brooding menace throughout and a book where the prose is as sparse (you feel not a word has been wasted) as the Icelandic landscape it is evoking. It is one of my books of the year without question and one lots of people can expect in their season stockings in a few months time. I strongly suggest you read it.

Who else has read ‘Burial Rites’ and what did you make of it? You can hear Hannah and myself talking about it (without spoilers) here. Which other books have you read set in Iceland, as I am a bit obsessed with the place – I have already cottoned onto Yrsa Sigurdardottir – and would love to read more novels and non-fiction alike set there, especially now the darker nights are here as its very Autumnal now in the Wirral.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Hannah Kent, Picador Books, Review

Icelandic Reads, Authors & Bookshops…

Now if all goes to plan then I should be spending a long weekend in Iceland for work this weekend from Friday to Monday, if not then I will be going in a few weeks so it is relevant either way. Those of you who pop by regularly will know that if at all possible I like to read books set in the country I am visiting if I can, or works written by authors from that country. So, which books set in Iceland or written by Icelandic authors would you recommend I read?

I must admit that I do have one series set in Iceland that I really love and that is Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s crime novels which feature lead character, and lawyer which is a bit different, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. Well when I say I love the series, I loved the first ‘Last Rituals’ and so will be packing the second ‘My Soul To Take’ to have with me on the trip. But what others must I try and get my mitts on?

Oh and if any of you have been or indeed are from Iceland (in which case let me know and lets do coffee), can you recommend a wonderful bookshop or two there I can hunt down for a nosey? Thanks in advance (and if that wasn’t enough I have another set of books on a certain subject I will be asking for you help with tomorrow!)

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Filed under Random Savidgeness