Monday, 24 August 2009

Last Rituals - an intriguing new Icelandic mystery series

Cath at Read-Warbler and I got together and decided to review a book that we were reading at the same time. This wouldn't be so surprising except that we live an ocean apart! I love how books cross time and space to join people together.

We both had picked up Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, the debut mystery of a series featuring Thora Gudmundsdottir, an attorney and single mother of two. To give you a little background, I'll copy from the back of the book, since I am awful at short storylines (I once failed a test at age 10! that asked me to write something in under 25 words. My teacher taught me the word 'verbosity', saying I suffered from it.)
"At a university in Reykjavik, the body of a young German student is discovered, his eyes cut out and strange symbols carved into his chest. Police waste no time in making an arrest, but the victim's family isn't convinced that the right man is in custody. They ask Thora Gudmunsdottir, an attorney and single mother of two, to investigate. It isn't long before Thora and her associate, Matthew Reich, uncover the deceased student's obsession with Iceland's grisly history of torture, execution, and witch hunts. But there are very contemporary horrors hidden in the long, cold shadow of dark traditions."

What this blurb doesn't say is that this is also a book about family - broken families, families with secrets, families where love isn't so easy to find. It also has more humour than I have encountered in the other Icelandic series I am reading, by Arnaldur Indridason - unexpected jokes the author makes through Thora about how Icelanders see their city, their streets, their driving, a sense of humour borne out of survival. I really liked Thora. The other thing the blurb doesn't say is that Matthew has good knowledge of the victim's family, and we aren't sure until near the end if he is Thora's friend, or monitoring the discoveries on the family's behalf.

I began the book review by asking the first question:
1. What made you pick this book up?

Susan: I read a review of Icelandic mystery writers somewhere (I can't find
out where now, the list I had turned out to be for Swedish crime writers)
and Yrsa Sigurdardottir's Last Rituals was on it. So when I saw Last Rituals
in the book store, I grabbed it. It's her first book, so it must have been a
review that I saw. Basically it's Icelandic, so I was interested!

Cath: I saw mention of it on Danielle's blog - A Work in Progress. I
previously had no idea that there *were* any Icelandic crime writers! Not
that I'd given the matter a great deal of thought because if I had I would
have realised that there had to be. Anyway, when I looked the book up I
decided I that I wanted to read it and found it quite easily in the library.

Me again:
2. Do you read many books that are translated (ie written first in a foreign

Susan: Yes. Well, I should categorize that - I really read mysteries that
are translated. From Iceland - Arnuldur Indridason, from Sweden - Henning
Mankell, Asa Larsson, Ake Edwardson, and new to me Karin Fossum and Steig
Larsson, and from France - Fred Vargas.

Cath: Before Last Rituals, no. Since then, by some odd coincidence, I've
read three! Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel and the first two Inspector
Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri. Oddly enough they're all crime books,
although Grey Souls is slightly more than that. I clearly have an interest
in crime stories set overseas.

Another question from me:
3. What do you enjoy most about foreign language books?

Susan: I love the different view we get of other countries. Even when the
syntax of the English is a little bit strange - a direct translation, not
always idiomatic translation - I am fascinated by what that shows about the
writer and language, and I wish I could read in the original language.
Because Sweden and Canada share long cold dark winters, their gloom is
similar to Canada's bleak view and nature landscape that fills most of our
writing. Pine trees, cold winter nights, below freezing temperatures, broken
by short, searing summers when no one wants to sleep because it's light out.
I really enjoy seeing the world through another's eyes - it is sometimes
disconcerting, true, but I find it refreshing too. I also enjoy seeing how
people are characterized, what is similar about police procedurals,
investigating crime, and how similar people are no matter where they are in
the world. I also learn alot about places this way, not as a travel
guide, but as how the cities and streets are written about.

Cath: That's a difficult question because I'm not sure I've read enough to
judge properly. I *think* it's the glimpses of cultures that are quite
unlike your own. The Inspector Montalbano books, for instance, are set in
Sicily, where, if the books are anything to go by, there is a culture of
corruption and crime which impinges on the lives of everyone who lives
there. Whether this is a serious worry in the lives of normal people, I
don't know. Reading books like these tends to create certain questions in my
mind which I then search for the answers to. So the answer to the question
is probably that foreign language books broaden the mind and make me want
to read many more books from overseas - but not necessarily translated ones or, necessarily, of the crime genre. For me I think it's almost a secondary way of indulging in armchair travel.

Cathy finally got a turn! She asked:
4. Is there something about Iceland that particularly fascinates you?

Susan: I'm not sure. I became fascinated when I lived in England, and it
became a weekend getaway for the English - just a short plane ride away, and
very cheap! All of a sudden, I wanted to see the geysers, the volcanic
earth, and Reykjavik, and I have never lost the desire to go see. I think I
am fascinated by how this culture developed so far away from the rest of the
world, and what it's like that far north and still have a culture, a capital

Cath: Yes but I'm not sure when my interest began. It could have been when I
read Avalon by Anya Seton... *many* years ago. The heroine (I can't even
remember her name) is captured by Vikings and taken to Iceland and I found
myself fascinated by the landscape and the history. I'd love to go there to
see the bleak volcanic landscapes for myself - geologically speaking I think
it's the youngest country in the world and that's an amazing concept to take
in, the fact that it's still growing and changing. One of these days I
*will* go.

Cath's next question was:
5. Have you read any other Icelandic authors?

Susan: Yes. Arnuldur Indridason is one of my favourite mystery writers! I
love Erlendur's sense of justice no matter how long it has taken, his
struggles as a father and divorced husband, and the cases he gets are
interesting. There is room for a lot of darkness in the human heart, and
pathos and tragedy. Against this are the police, some of whom are funny,
some bitter or mean, set against Erlendur and is determination to pursue a
case until answers are found.
I was so happy when I saw there was another Icelandic author writing
mysteries! So I was always going to read Last Rituals.

Cath: The simple answer to this is 'no'. To my shame I've always been completely unaware of Icelandic authors. But I do now have one other on my tbr mountain - Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indridason, which I'm really looking forward to reading.

Cath's third question was:

6. As a working mother, did you find Thora's problems with mixing her
home-life and work true to life?

Susan: Yes! and it really added to the character, that she was juggling
both, and that her kids were moody and didn't always want to go with their
father. Very true to life.

Cath: Judging by my daughter's problems as a single mother it did seem to me
to be quite true to life. I liked that aspect of it too, as crime writers
usually focus on male policemen, it seems to me, and it was refreshing to
have a glimpse of life from a female perspective. It made me think about
reading other crime novels where the main 'investigator' is female. Ones
that spring to mind are the Kate Martinelli series by Laurie R. King and
P.D. James's Cordelia Gray books - but there must surely be a lot more?

I then asked two extra questions:

7. Did you enjoy the mystery? What was a strength and a weakness?

Susan: Yes, I enjoyed the mystery very much. I didn't guess who the killer
was until near the end, and then I couldn't figure out how it was done.
One streggth were the characters - they were all well-drawn, from Thora, to
her associate Matthew Reich, to the various suspects - I had no difficulties
telling anyone apart, or remembering who was who. I enjoyed the various
viewpoints as well, which added to the mystery, without revealing too much.
One weakness was the discovery of some key evidence - wouldn't the person
involved who hid it, have tried to retrieve it? It would have been more
interesting if the house had been broken into and the area searched, then to
have it accidentally discovered. That wasn't quite believable. All this time
and the person never noticed it.....

Yes I did enjoy the mystery. Like Susan. I was close to the end before it dawned on me who the killer was. One strength of the book, for me, was how well the author concealed that. I thought that was very nicely done.
No real weaknesses jumped out at me, but of the book in general I could say that at times the translation was slightly simplistic. But that's real nit-picking and not something terrible; possibly it's symptomatic of many translations as I noticed it in the Andrea Camilleri books too. But in neither case was it enough to put me off.

And my final question:

Bonus question: Would you recommend the book to be read?

Susan: Yes! 4.7/5!!!

Cath: Yes, I most certainly would! It's a skillful crime story with an unusual setting and well worth anyone's time and trouble.

Cath asked her two final questions:

Bonus Question 1: Did you find the rather macabre
background to this story - the manner of the student's death and so on - at all off putting?

Cath: I suppose I should have done, after all he fell out of the cupboard onto a tutor with his eyes gouged out and some weird markings on him and from then on there were some startling revelations about his interest in witchcraft and odd sexual practises. But the truth is I didn't find it off putting at all. I suppose I like reading books that deal with off the wall subjects and, it has to be said, that Yrsa Sigudardottir deals with these matters in a way that doesn't go into *really* gory detail. She states what happens in quite a matter of fact way and that's fine by me. If the details had been dealt with in the manner of say, a real horror story, then my reaction would doubtless have been different as I don't deal with blood and gore at all well.

Susan: Like Cath, I should have - some the sexual practices and how witchcraft was portrayed was gruesome, but the author deals with it matter-of-factly - this is what the victim was interested in - and like Cath says, the gory parts are NOT dwelled on. This is a crime novel with some horror aspects, which I found made it more intriguing. I do wish though that some good witchcraft would be portrayed for once. I get tired of it always being portrayed as leading to a bad end, when for the most part, the religion is about living in the world in a responsible way. Other than that, I found the macabre aspects very well done.

Bonus question 2: Are you planning to read book 2 in the Thora Gudmundsdottir 'My Soul to Take'?

Cath: Yes, I am. I'm keen to see what the author will come up with next in the way of a crime plot but also to see how her relationship with Matthew matures and how a certain occurrence within her family pans out. Hopefully it'll be a nice long series.

Susan: Oh yes! Please let it be out soon, because it looked very interesting - involves a haunted hotel......definitely an area of interest for me (hauntings, ghosts). Plus, as Cath said, there is that family angle that is very interesting too. I did enjoy her children, and the ex, and the partnership with the other lawyer, very much. Definitely a series to keep reading.
This was fun to do with Cath! I really enjoy sharing reading experiences with a blogging friend, and then sharing with you how we found the book. I enjoy reading other bloggers when they do the same thing. I love seeing what people liked in a book, what they possibly didn't, and also the give-and-take as they/we make up the combined review style. I hope you enjoyed this too, and possibly brought a good mystery to your attention!

RIP IV news:
Now, onto some very good news: Carl has announced that we should check out his blog tomorrow!!! YES, THAT MEANS RIP4!!!!

I just checked for the link, and IT"S UP NOW! Link Here, it's here, it's here, RIPIV is here!!!
Oh yes, it's time for ghost stories and monsters and things that make my blood run cold! Hurray!!!!

And I was just on-line to my library last night, requesting some books for the challenge. See you at the challenge site! As Deslily keeps saying, let's hope Mr Linky works this time.....

***Added after initial posting: funny, isn't it? Because of Cath, I now have a new book to get: Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel sounds so interesting. And I just saw on that the new book - the sequel to Last Rituals - by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, My Soul to Take, is out in hardcover. I love it when there are lovely, lovely new books to look forward to reading!!!


Cath said...

Goodness, I think we must have been posting at exactly the same time. How strange. And I definitely like the cover of yours better than the copy I read. :-) This was such fun and a good mental exercise for my middle-aged brain! Thanks for reading along with me.

Hope you enjoy the Philippe Claudel. I found it a very intense but satisfying read. I learned a lot.

I should really go to bed now but I can't resist nipping quickly over to Carl's site to have a look at the RIP post. I didn't expect it to be up so quickly.

Stacy said...

I just read your joint review at read_warbler and really enjoyed the two perspectives as well as the two different covers. I am off to see if this book is available in the US.

Daphne said...

Another good book set in Iceland is Smilla's Sense of Snow; have you read it? It's pretty dang great writing.

Booklogged said...

This was such a fun post. I haven't read any Icelandic books although I've read reviews of some that have been tugging at me. The last thing I need to do is to start a new mystery series. It's also the first thing I want to do.

It's such a fun idea to read the same book as another blogger and compare and ask questions. I'm off to check out Cath's blog.

Table Talk said...

I've had mixed success with Scandinavian Crime novels. Some I've loved, others moved so slowly I gave up the struggle. This sounds as though it will be well worth exploring though. Off to the library site!

DesLily said...

I was just at Caths site.. one thing I can say for sure.. if you are going to read a series of books that have been translated I would make sure they are ALL translated before you begin! I have only read one series of books that were translated: Cornelia Funke's Inkheart books.. two books were out and I awaited the last book.. it came out in German and then took over a year to get translated to come out in english! I am not patient! LOL

Anonymous said...

I didn't know there were Icelandic mystery/crime novels. I will definitely look into this series, it sounds like a lot of fun. Glad youboth enjoyed it so much.

Ana S. said...

lol, I suffer from verbosity too, so you have my full sympathy :P This sounds like a book I'd enjoy - it would probably help me get over my inexplicable reluctance when it comes to mysteries. And plus, Iceland! I have a thing for Iceland.

PS: Sent you a long overdue e-mail. Sorry for being so slow!

Jodie Robson said...

I really enjoyed reading both lots of reactions to this book, which I read recently too - lots of interesting comments, and what you say about Indridason makes me want to read his books. I've wanted to go to Iceland since I was little - not sure I'll ever get there now.

And RIP4 - oh great! Off to look now. What are you going to read, I wonder?

Susan said...

Cath: I think we were posting at the same time. I had to go to bed then, so I'm popping over after I answer my lovely commentators, to see yours! :-D

The Philippe Claudel is out of print over here, so I have to hope our library has it.
And the RIP 4....I think we're sharing a book, I'll email you.

Book Psmith: I hope you can get it there! Thanks for coming to both our blogs! I'll come visit you too after I'm done here.

Daphne: I have loved Smilla's Sense of Snow for years now! It's due for a reread. when I read it, it was the first Scandinavian book available in English for a very long time. It is so beautiful and haunting. 'dang' good writing is right! lol I'm so glad you know it too!

Booklogged: It's the third time I've shared a book review, and each time - with Nymeth, Molly (My Cosy Book Nook) and now with Cath, I've really enjoyed the experience. If you think you might be interested, let me know!

i love how you put that while it's the last thing you should do, it's what you WANT to do!!! Mystery series are so habit-forming. I love getting to know the characters more and more as the series progresses! Which ones do you love?

Table Talk: I think it really depends on the writer. I seem to have really lucked in with the mystery writers I've found so far. They are all good. Did you see the Guardian link to the 10 best Swedish crime writers? I can send you the list, if you like. Have you tried any Henning Mankell yet? he's another I really like, too. Maybe I'm just a bit gloomy like the Nordic mentality is!! So I relate well to them all!

Deslily: I know! Waiting for translation can be hard! Especially as Arthur Indridason has more books in Icelandic that haven't been translated yet, and waiting for them to be translated...!! I feel so impatient for the next one, sometimes!

How come I didn't know Funke's books were translated??? And why am I one of a few who didn't like the first one much? I so want to!! The new Funke is out now though, isn't it, for over a year now?
Now Pat dear, surely you've read Hans Christian Anderson? His fairy tales are translated, you know..... :-D lol just kidding, some people really don't like him. I of course cried over every story and loved them to bits. That dark Scandinavian thing again!

Rhinoa: Hi, it's been too long since I've been to see your site! I've missed you! I keep forgetting you read mysteries too. You read so much fantasy! lol So far the Icelandic ones are the two mentioned - Indridason and Sigurdardottir - and I really recommend Indridason for moody atmosphere, and quiet crimes - not serial killers, he specializes crimes of the past affecting the present.....I'm glad you enjoyed our shared review!

Nymeth: I know, of all the kinds of books you read, how strange that it's not mysteries, and you have a psych degree! Maybe because you do, you know too much about how people fool themselves, so mysteries don't hold any appeal for you? Just guessing....I know people who won't read any horror, or fantasy, so its' not unusual for it to be mysteries. I just think of all the good series and writing you are missing! I might have to work on changing your mind! lol

You too, Iceland? I wonder what it is with that tiny island up in the North that we are all fascinated by? That it's so far from ordinary civilation? And still civilized?.... I know the remoteness appeals to me.

PS I love the email! thank you! :-D

Susan said...

Geraniumcat: Iceland again! I'm really curious, do you have any idea why so many people are attracted to this tiny island? why so many in the UK go over there? Like I say above to Nymeth, is it that it's far from anywhere, and still civilized? I have to go see your blog to see if you had a review of it (did you?)- and I'm so glad I can get you and so many people interested in Indridason! He really is good. I'm reading The Draining Lake right now, and thoroughly enjoying it.

I have a potential list ready for RIP4, but it's not firm yet - I feel like I'm missing something. Why, what were you going to read?

DesLily said...

we were very poor and books were a luxury so I never read fairytales as a kid..mostly I remember them from movies (tv)and funny, but the movie Hans Christian Anderson i loved because of Danny kaye! I'm not sad I didn't read a lot when very young, but glad we had an old love of stories isnt' bound to just books (I don't say that lightly) i love books..but love movies too. I can't seem to get enough of either!

not everyone liked Inkheart..i loved it and have read it twice already, so I know this to be a true statement lol.. and although the movie missed a lot I enjoyed the movie too and now see "MO" as Brandon Frazier..and he fits the part well. lol..and of course I adore Andy Serkis who played the evil Capricorn. (golum)
so many times , how much we love a book or don't love a book, depends on our moods and needs at the time we read them, so that something in them clicks with us and cements the fact that we like or do not like certain books.

DesLily said...

gollum even.. sheesh.. not enough coffee yet

Ana S. said...

Believe me, Susan, I know as much (or as little) about people as the next person ;) And I think that's true of a lot of people with psych degrees too. I bet someone like Chris, who actually works in the field, knows things that the rest of us don't simply because he's seen so much. But they don't teach you any big secrets in those psychology textbooks :P In fact, reading fiction has taught me a lot more about how people work than theory ever did.

And my comment sounded all wrong! I'm not prejudiced against mystery, I just never seem to pick mystery books up for some odd reason. The ones I've read, though, I have enjoyed. What is a series that you think would be good to suck me in?

And yes, I think the remoteness of Iceland is definitely part of the appeal!

Susan said...

Deslily: It's ok to love movies as much as books! lol We didn't have a tv on and off during my childhood - my mother didn't like it (still doesn't) so it wasn't part of my childhood regularly until my mid-teens! I know, I was a strange child in the 1970's!! lol and early 1980's....I really enjoy how you talk about movies, and love them. I enjoy movies too, but I find a tactile sensation lasts longer with books, and I love that I can hold it in my hands.

I do have to see the movie Inkheart, and there were things I did like about the book! Hmm, that would be Brendan Fraser for one! lol and all those books. Maybe if I read it again, this time not expecting anything (because everyone had loved it so) I might enjoy the ending more. Some of it was good - I think I gave it a 3 or 3.5 out of 5!

Nymeth: I know the psych degree doesn't teach much! I took a course, my sister has a degree in it, so does my ex-husband....I'm not sure what I meant by that comment, so I'll think about it more - maybe the darkness people can be prone to in themselves, and so maybe you don't like mysteries? Hmm, I will think about it. And a good series to get you started! Well, the Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson blends fantasy and mystery! so that's a good one, lol! You know Rhinoa and Kailana and I love them :-D

I could certainly use some island living after this week at work! lol

Anonymous said...

Hi. Just ordered the book on your recommendation!
I've just recently discovered Scandinavian crime fiction myself and have blogged about Larsson and Karin Altvtegen. As I also blog about spinning and knitting and ceramics you may have to dig deep but a search on the little Liljt widgit should bring it up.
Do you know the Scandi crime blog... at
It has good leads to follow up on as well.
As an Australian living in a rural area I really enjoy the cultural differences that reading such novels reveals.
Ta for this.

Susan said...

Ms Bubblefish: Welcome! Thanks so much for leaving a comment.....I will come find your site. I haven't heard of the scandinavian crime blog, so I'm going to check that out too! Thank you so much! I'll also come see your reviews :-D
I think one of the most powerful and amazing things about books is how they can bring worlds, societies and other cultures to us, without our having to leave home - or, in your case, being so far away from everything, yet, you experience the world through books. I'm getting a very different view of Sweden from Larsson's book, which I've just started, than I have from either Mankell or Edwardsson, and I really enjoy the different feel. Suddenly Sweden feels more real to me! I hope you enjoy Last Rituals :-D

tanabata said...

This sounds great! It's going on my wish list. I love reading books in translation although not many of the ones I've read have been mysteries.. yet anyway. I've got a few in my stacks though so it's only a matter of time.

Susan said...

Tanabata: Oh, I hope you can get it over there! What other translated books/mysteries do you have in your piles waiting to be read?