Tag Archives: Manchester Literary Festival 2011

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

The News Where You Are – Catherine O’Flynn

Sometimes an author event can be the perfect nudge needed for you to pick up a book you have been meaning to read for ages. This is certainly the case with Catherine O’Flynn’s second novel ‘The News Where You Are‘ which I have been ‘meaning to read’ (those immortal words) since it came out after I read, loved and admired her debut novel ‘What Was Lost‘ back in those hard to imagine pre-blogging days.

Penguin Books, paperback, 2010, fiction, 320 pages, from my personal TBR

Frank is a local television presenter in the Midlands where he is seen as a bit of a joke, because like his predecessor Phil has built his career on making rather lame knowing jokes on air. The only difference is that Phil went from Franks job to becoming a huge tv celebrity, until he was killed in a hit and run. Phil’s death becomes another addition to the deaths that Frank becomes rather obsessed by, only these other dead people are the lonely souls forgotten by most who have no one not successful TV personalities, and who, apart from Frank, have no one show up at their funerals.

This could be easily enough of a story for a novel yet Catherine O’Flynn adds much more into the mix by bringing in Franks family. We meet his wife Andrea and daughter Mo, who show that Frank isn’t some death obsessed oddball, as well as his widowed mother Maureen who lives in a home. Maureen, who is one minute heartbreakingly sad one minute and hilariously wicked and vicious the next, adds a whole new strand to the story as does Franks dead architect father. Maureen represents the loss of youth and seeming happiness, his father a loss in general but as the buildings he designed start to be knocked down O’Flynn brings up the subject of the modern world and it’s obsession with ‘out with the old and in with the new’ both in the form of people and in the forms of the objects all around us.

I am hoping I am not making the novel sound too melancholy as whilst there are some heartbreaking moments (I would never have thought a scene at a car valet in an industrial estate could actually choke me up, but O’Flynn made it happen) it does have some moments of high humour and genuine celebration of life.

There are three other things that make this book stand out and excel. Birmingham is not used as a setting enough in fiction, and is a city at once beautiful and absolutely not, O’Flynn embraces this and makes the reader. The cast of characters in the forefront are marvellous and those on the periphery too are wonderful; the bad joke writer, the forgotten wife, the tv wannabe and the ladies in the bakery, whoever they are they live and breath. Adding the mystery element of a hit and run is just the final master stroke. In fact I kept thinking of Kate Atkinson only less mystery, more its surroundings and the people it effects even though you don’t think it would.

It would be easiest to describe ‘The News Where You Are‘ as a tale of a local tv news reader, who is obsessed with the past and lonely people being forgotten, trying to discover the mystery behind his predecessor, and now friend’s, hit and run whilst also trying to deal with his parental relationships I would make it sound like modern day mystery meets family drama. It is, yet that summation simply doesn’t do this superb novel justice. This is a novel brimming with as many ideas and characters as it brims with joy, sadness and comedy. It’s a book that encompasses human life and all those things, emotionally and all around it physically, and celebrates them. I loved it and will be recommending this, if rather belatedly, to anyone and everyone.

Who else has read Catherine O’Flynn and what did you think? I should mention I saw her talking about the book as part of Manchester Literature Festival and if you pop to the sixth episode of The Readers here you can hear me interview her after the event, and catch up with all the other events I went to and authors I met.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Catherine O'Flynn, Manchester Literary Festival 2011, Penguin Books, Review

October’s Incomings…

So yet another month has whizzed by and its time for me to let you know what has plopped through the letterbox over the last month. I am mad with all things Green Carnation shortlist, my Mum and everything else at the mo so forgive the slightly short and instant introduction.

  • Lethal Investments by K.O. Dahl  – I met the author at Manchester Literature Festival and he very kindly gave me a copy of his book after I interviewed him all about Nordic crime and the appeal of it. This is his latest novel in the series but he said it’s the one I should start with, you can’t argue with an authors orders can you?
  • My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher – I have this in hardback but I think it’s getting a second major push, with an audio version read by none other than David Tenant, I started reading it but I was getting a bit over emotional, I will try again.
  • Divorcing Jack by Bateman – A book to read before I interview him for The Readers.
  • Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – and the festive reads start coming in. I actually need to read ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ don’t I?
  • Ashes To Dust/My Soul To Take/The Day is Dark by Yrsa Sigurdardottir – another author that I had the pleasure of meeting, and therefore reading, because of Manchester Literary Festival. She was hilarious and the first in the series ‘Last Rituals’ is brilliant, review coming soon.
  • The Doll Princess by Tom Benn – unsolicited copy of a debut novel about post apocalyptic Manchester which isn’t out until the spring but being set where I live the publishers knew I couldn’t resist this.
  • Someone Else’s Garden by Dipika Rai – another novel from an author I met at Manchester Literature Festival.
  • The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam – another novel from an author I met at Manchester Literature Festival.
  • She’s Leaving Home by Joan Bakewell – I am interviewing Joan next week at Waterstones Deansgate and so am having a bit of a Bakewell-a-thon. I have read her first ‘All The Nice Girls’ (review coming soon) and an now dipping into her essays before I read this over the weekend.
  • The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie – unsolicited copy, love the title and the story of two young boys in a welsh mining town sounds interesting.
  • 666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs – I feel a bit bad I haven’t read this yet, but I will be as he is at Bookmarked with Ben Aaronovitch on Monday. I am dubious about reviewing it after I have read it as I know him, and you know I know him. Mind you if you know that and I am honest does it matter?
  • The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz – The official return of Sherlock Holmes and approved by the Conan Doyle estate. I am very excited about this and about taking The Bookboy to meet him tomorrow.
  • The Horror of Love by Lisa Hilton – a book about the relationship between “two people – Nancy Mitford and the Free French commander Gaston Palewski – who conducted a less than ideal love affair in post-war France” I am a Mitford addict of course I need to read this.
  • Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire – the final (I think that’s true) novel in Maguire’s wonderful Oz stories which started with one of my favourite novels ‘Wicked’. Perfect world to be lost in during these autumn nights.

Have you read any of these of anything else by these authors? Which would you like to see me read next? What have you had arrive or been out and bought, borrowed or begged for bookwise of late?

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Filed under Book Thoughts

Manchester Literary Festival 2011

Today is the opening of Manchester Literary Festival and I am rather excited about it. When I was in London I did the Jewish Book Festival as well as Wimbledon Book Festival, but that was it. Weirdly the bigger festivals (no offence to the above two) seem to happen outside of London. I’ve always found that odd, and odd they always happen at the same time of year! How can readers get to all of them?

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Anyway I am going to be reporting on the Manchester Book Festival for the blog and also for ‘The Readers’ (a podcast me and Gav Reads launched today) so I am very excited. Tonight’s opening event looks to be a real treat as Colm Toibin and Alan Hollinghurst are in conversation with each other, I can’t wait to see how that plays out. I will be reporting back in due course, I have my trusty notepad at the ready…

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I’m planning on seeing as much of the event as possible including Michael Frayn, Emma Jane Unsworth, John Niven, Tahmima Anam, Dipika Rai, Kishwar Desai, Thomas Enger, K O Dahl, Yrsa Siguardottir, MJ Hyland, Patricia Duncker, David Lodge, Catherine O’Flynn, Anthony Horrowitz and Jeffrey Eugenides. Oh, and have a team at the Literary Quiz. Phew. The next few weeks are going to be great.

Let me know if you have any insights on the authors above, or would like any questions put to them, or if indeed you will be there. Would love to say hello to you all!

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Filed under Manchester Literary Festival 2011, Random Savidgeness