Pola Oloixarac – Mona

Pola Oloixarac – Mona

Mona, a Peruvian writer who has been living in California for some years, is invited to Sweden as she has been nominated for the notable Basske-Wortz prize, one of the most renowned literary awards of Europe. Together with other authors from diverse countries, she is to spend a couple of days in a remote resort where they have talks and give presentations. Rivalry starts immediately, some of them Mona has known for years and met at literary festivals before, others she admires for their work. However, the young woman is not too much concerned with the possibility of being awarded a famous prize, it is her life that matters most at the moment. Her body is covered with bruises and she cannot recollect where they stem from. Also her abuse of diverse substances follows her to the Swedish secludedness – travelling to the end of the world does not mean you can escape your demons.

The setting the Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac has chosen for her third novel is perfect for a small community under a magnifying lens. None of them can escape and they have to face each other – as well as themselves. For the protagonist Mona, she herself comes to scrutinise her very own situation: where does she stand as a writer and why does her current novel refuse to advance; where do these bruises come from which hurt and yet do not give a clue of what might have happened; how to people perceive and classify her as a woman of colour who, as a doctoral candidate at one of the most prestigious universities, penetrated into an area which normally is closed to people with her background.

Even though I found the ending rather confusing, I totally enjoyed reading the novel which is remarkable due to its strong protagonist and quite a unique tone of narration with strong images and brilliant use of language.

Karin Smirnoff – My Brother

Karin Smirnoff – My brother

After years away, Jana returns to the Swedish village she grew up in. There is only her twin brother Bror left of her family. But as soon as she arrives, all the memories of her childhood come back. Her father, a brutal alcoholic who used to beat their mother and the kids, the mother who only ever told them to pray but never stepped in against the violence the kids had to endure. All those things Jana wanted to forget resurface, but there are also other things she wants to know after all this time: where is her daughter and who was Maria?

“I always assumed that something was wrong with me. The classic therapy answer was that I ended up in the same situation again and again in order to relive my childhood. “

Karin Smirnoff‘s novel lives on a very gloomy atmosphere. A snowstorm sets the mood on the very first page. Just as the fierce and merciless nature, the people also treat each other without too much softness in this remote area in the north. It is a story of violence and abuse, of adults looking away, not protecting children and a community which prefers to remain silent over stepping in. The result are scars on the outside and inside and two childish souls marked forever.

“All one can do is pray she said. And how we prayed. Childish prayers for help. “

Jana and Bror’s childhood is the most horrible story to imagine. Afraid of the father, every week hoping that he might die before returning to their home on Friday evening when he used to first drink and then hit whoever got in his way. The mother weak on the one hand, herself victim of constant beating, maybe having given up the hope for a better life, on the other hand, ignoring what her husband does to the kids.  Surely not a novel easy to read. Bror’s addiction and Jana‘s tendency to end up with men who show similar patterns like her father are the logic consequence.

Yet, there is more than the inner circle of the family, the whole village is full of secrets, things which are common knowledge but never told which Jana, now a grown-up and strong woman, uncovers.

To call the novel an enjoyable read would be totally inadequate, there is nothing to enjoy when reading about child abuse and domestic violence. However, the characters are authentically drawn and the dynamics within the village are interesting to observe.

Fredrik Backman – Anxious People

Fredrik Backman – Anxious People

A story about a bank robbery. Or about an apartment viewing. Or about a bridge. Or about a hostage drama. Or about a father and his son. Or about a mother and her daughters. Or people who make a poor decision. Anxious people who are not sure if they will see tomorrow and if so, what tomorrow will bring. After the bank robbery went totally wrong, the bank robber storms into an apartment viewing and takes all the prospective buyers hostage. Unsure of what to do since this wasn’t planned at all, the situation gradually gets out of control since the captives are prepared to do a lot, but not being kept hostage, at least not by a failed robber. On the opposite side, two policemen, father and son, have to cope with the situation which becomes highly complicated when they realise that the robber has obviously vanished into thin air after the captives have been freed. Some of them must have helped the robber to escape, but who and, more importantly: why?

I have totally adored all novels written by Fredrik Backman and also his latest did not disappoint: a brilliantly constructed plot with highly lovable characters and – as expected – a wonderful narrator who puts the story into the right perspective. Backman is one of those authors who creates those characters at the fringe, who are a bit different, maybe even strange, who do not easily socialise but who, if you take a closer look, are adorable and at the core, just good people.

It is all but easy to tell a story full of human drama with a light-hearted tone which makes you laugh out loud and keeps your spirit high even though the characters’ lives are actually a sequence of disappointments and failures. Their ways cross several times, not too unexpectedly in a small Swedish town, and with each encounter, if they are aware of it or not, trigger a slight change. The exceptional circumstances provide them with a chance of opening up, of telling their story and secrets and realising that they are actually not alone with the ghosts who haunt them.

Fredrik Backman surely is an outstanding writer with not only an eye for the fascinating detail which is easily overlooked but, first and foremost, an advocate for the seeming odd characters who deserve a closer inspection because they actually have great stories to tell.

Stefan Ahnhem – X Ways to Die

stefan ahnhem x ways to die
Stefan Ahnhem – X Ways to Die

Detective Fabian Risk actually could do with some free time to get his family together after the awful events that nearly killed his wife and daughter. Yet, he and his colleagues still have a serial killer on the loose and the killing of people does not stop. Even though the cases could hardly be more different, he senses that there must be some connection. They are finally getting closer to him, but while the Swedish seaside town of Helsingborg is gripped in fear, Fabian also has to complete his very own mission: His former colleague Elvin did not die from suicide, it was forensic scientist Ingvar Molander and obviously, Elvin had put the clues together correctly. Yet, there are still some missing pieces that Fabian needs to uncover before he can finally arrest him, knowing that he has not only a very clever nemesis who knows the rules of the game, but also one who is totally reckless and ready to do everything to get away with much more than one murder.

Stefan Ahnhem continues the story exactly where it ended in “Motive X” and does not waste any time but plunges directly into the plot. Just as in the novel before, “X Ways to Dies” moves at an extremely high pace and cleverly combines the different plot lines that finally tie the knot together. For me, Ahnhem is a worthy successor and heir of Stieg Larsson who set new milestones with his Millennium series; Ahnhem follows his footsteps in many respects by delivering a demanding plot full of suspense.

The latest instalment answers many questions which remained open in the one before thus completing the story and bringing it to a convincing end. What I totally adored was the fight between Risk and Molander, both very clever and certainly belonging to the best in their jobs thus fighting at eye level and giving a lot of insight into police work.  Several setbacks make Risk an authentic and credible protagonist who also shows his weak and vulnerable sides.

The only question left to be answered: does and if so how can the story go on?

Stefan Ahnhem – Motive X

stefan-ahnheim-motive-x
Stefan Ahnhem – Motive X

It’s only four weeks after his life was almost completely devastated, but now Fabian Risk sees light again when his daughter Matilda wakes from the coma. Yet, there is not really the time to spend it with his family since Helsingborg police have several tricky cases to solve: a young boy is found dead in a washing machine, a woman is killed and a third murder case also does not seem to have any recognizable pattern. The team’s nerves are on the edge since all of them also have to fight with their own demons. For Fabian, there is also something that has been nagging him since they found their former colleague Elvin dead in his apartment: he cannot believe in the suicide theory and slowly, the pieces seem to fall into place, but does he like the result? Could one of their colleagues actually be a serial murderer?

Stefan Ahnhem continues in this instalment of the Fabian Risk series exactly where he stopped in “18 below”. Quite often you can read a novel form a series without knowing what happened before, here, however, you will certainly not understand a lot without any prior knowledge. And it is obvious that there is more to come since, unfortunately, the big questions are not answered and this is why I could not rate it with five stars.

Again, the author underlines why he is one of the big names of Scandinavian crime. Ahnhem does not tell one story, but he has several plots running parallel, oscillating between them and pushing forward the pots at a very high speed. Admittedly, I could not really say which one is the most important plot here, but it made completely sense since life isn’t a succession of stories that wait in line until their time has come. This happen at the same time and rarely do you have the time to only focus on one case or problem at a time.

Since there is so much going on in “Motive X”, the character development is a bit reduced, but Risk seems to have found his private case to investigate all alone. This will surely be decisive for his life, even more than his family life which is in a very fragile state. Whom I followed eagerly again was Irene Lilja, she surely is somehow out of control, but her motives are good.

All in all, a great read with all the ingredients for a thriller that hooks you at once.

Stefan Ahnhem – 18 Below

stefan-ahnhem-18-below
Stefan Ahnhem – 18 Below

A curious accident turns out to be the beginning of an incredible series of murder. On a hot summer day, a car speeds through Helsingborg and is only stopped by the water front. The autopsy of the body reveals that he has been dead for at least two months, the body frozen. When Fabian Risk and his colleagues investigate the victim’s life, they come across a case of not just stolen identity, but also stolen millions from the rich man. Obviously a doppelgänger has taken over his life and transferred all his money. A great strategy and as it turns out, it has been working for quite some time already. While Fabian’s full attention is demanded at work, his marriage comes to an end. His wife seems to eventually make a big with her art work and his kids are immersed in other things. No one in the family pays attention to the other anymore which turns out to be a serious mistake, since all of them get in danger, again.

Part two of the Fabian Risk series is a psychological thriller that cleverly combines the detective’s police work with the developments in his private life. I liked the protagonist in this second novel a lot more than in the first since he now has become a real team player and not the single cop who can do all on his own. What I also liked is that his Danish colleague reappears and that her story, too, is continued.

At the beginning, the thriller starts with quite a strange case of murder and does not seem to turn out too complicated. Admittedly, for me having the two cases, one on the Swedish and one on the Danish side of the Øresund, seemed to be a classic setting with enough to solve for the two teams. Yet, Stefan Ahnhem could really surprise me with what a net of crime he has woven here. The more the novel advances the more you can just read and stare and admire the complexity of the plot. The action accelerates increasingly and this the further you get the harder it becomes to put it away. A great read and surely makes you eager to read more of Stefan Ahnhem.

Johannes Lichtman – Such Good Work

johannes-lichtman-such-good-work
Johannes Lichtman – Such Good Work

After losing his teaching job at a college because of his very peculiar assignments, Jonas Anderson moves to Sweden to change perspective and to have a fresh start. Even though he is some years older than the students there, he socialises with them easily and leads the life he had in his early 20s. After the break-up with his German girlfriend, he moves from Lund to Malmö, the town where 2015 masses of immigrants from the Middle East arrived. Seeing the hottest political topic in front of his own door, Jonas decides to get active and to volunteer in the work with the migrants, too. He soon realises that all that is meant to be supportive and good, doesn’t necessarily turn out to be such a good idea in the end.

Johannes Lichtman’s novel isn’t easy to sum up or to describe since his protagonist goes through tremendous changes throughout the novel which also affect the plot and the tone a lot. I really enjoyed the first part a lot when we meet Jonas trying to be a creative writing teacher. The tone here is refreshing and the character’s naiveté makes him sympathetic and likeable. With moving to Sweden and becoming a stranger and outsider, his role changes, yet, he still needs more time until he actually grows up and does something meaningful with his life.

The last part, his work with the unaccompanied minors, was for me personally the most interesting because I could empathise with him easily. Having myself worked with those youths when they came to Germany in 2015 and 2016, I went through the same emotions that Jonas went through. And I had to do exactly the same learning process: you want to help and you have good ideas, but actually they sometimes go past the needs of the refugees. The struggle between the news where all the immigrants were treated as a homogeneous mass and where the focus was put on the danger that came with them, and the everyday experiences with real people made it often hard to cope with the situation. In this respect, Lichtman did a great job because he depicted reality as it was back then.

All in all, a novel that addresses so many different topics with a lively and highly likeable style of writing, a great read not to be missed.

Fredrik Backman – Us Against You

frederik-backman-us-against-you
Fredrik Backman – Us Against You

Is there a future for the small community of Beartown in northern Sweden after all that happened last season? Summer is almost over, but how should life go on without a hockey team? The best players have left and taken the coach with them. Peter Anderson, the ice hockey club’s GM, is left behind with a mess; when the club presents the new coach – a woman – this seems to be the last nail in his coffin. But Beartown is not a place where people give up, they all fight, for different goals, with different motives. And slowly a new team forms and life comes back to the community. Hockey is not all there, hockey is everything and for the sake of the game, you sometimes have to cut back your own interests.

I have read several novels written by Fredrik Backman, also the first of the Beartown series which I find absolutely necessary to understand this one, and I still do not know how he manages to drag you so completely into the novel and to make you want to cry several times.

Even though in this instalment, there is not the big culminating point to which the plot inevitably heads like in the first one, you can feel the suspense throughout the whole novel. After what had happened before – the rape, the hatred, the taking sides – the characters now need to adjust their lives, somehow get back to a kind of normal which isn’t the normal they had known before. This is where the greatest strength of the author lies: he manages like hardly any other to portray the nuances in the feelings, contradicting emotions and strong convictions which cannot be explained since they have always been there and are true therefore.

His characters walk on brittle ground, any second, it all could explode and the whole community could end in total chaos. They move carefully, but sometimes also like a bull in a china shop, but they are aware of each other and especially of the other’s needs. What is so special about Beartown is the strength of the people when they are needed. They all have a good heart, the fight hard, but they also know that as humans they have to take care of each other and that life is not always fair but that they can balance the unfairness with their actions.

No, life is never easy in Beartown, many suffer a lot and you wouldn’t want to change places with them. Yet, on the other hand, what more could you hope for than a place like this small town and its inhabitants?

Again, it is a novel about hockey. But also about love and hate. Life and death. Violence and peace. Just about everything that matters. And above, wonderfully written so that you can hardly put it away once you’ve started reading.

Fredrik Backman – The Scandal/Beartown

fredrik-backman-the-scandal
Fredrik Backman – The Scandal

A small town in northern Sweden. There is not much that connects the people in Beartown, it is too small and too insignificant to be known beyond the town’s limits. Yet, when the junior hockey boys win the semi-finals, for the first time in history, something big can happen. Beartown has always been a hockey town, if you don’t play, you are nobody. If you are not connected somehow with the local club, you are an outsider. Peter is the manager of the club and of course his wife Kira and their kids Maya and Leo also have to live for the club. Coach David has raised a generation of winners and with this junior team, they can finally pick the fruits of many years of hard work. But one evening will change everything, old friendships and loyalties will be tested, values will be questioned. The town will never be the same when the scandal comes to light.

I have read novels by Fredrik Backman before and really like his style and his eye for the detail in creating singular characters. However, “The Scandal” is so much more than interesting characters at a crucial moment of their life, it is the portrait of a community, the study of an average small town and the way these places work and how the individual is just a small cog in the machine. Admittedly, I also wouldn’t ever have imagined that a novel about ice hockey could be interesting, but it is.

First of all, the structure of the novel is full of suspense. You get to know the small town, all the important people, logically connected to the club, yet, the narrator warns you quite early that something is about to change everything, that things are not going to stay the way they are.

We have the kids, the boys playing hockey, friendships based on doing sports together, on being in a team, on standing in for one another. We have the girls who only play a minor role in the public opinion since they do not play hockey, there is no girls team, they are just a reward for the successful player, an accessory to decorate oneself with. We have the functional and the dysfunctional families, the rich and the poor, the local heroes and prestigious and the outsiders whom everybody ignores. Beartown is just like any small town anywhere in the world.

When the scandal finally becomes known, people have to take sides and have to admit to their values: is winning with the club more important than the individual’s fate? Whose side do you take, whom do you believe? What are you willing to give up and risk for a hockey team? Many are ready to forget long-time friendships, to forget their ideals, to place success before justice. It is impressive how Backman traces the development of the mood in town, how the machine finally starts and how opinions are formed.

Actually, it is not a novel about hockey. It is a novel about you and me and the question what is important in life and what you are willing to do to defend your principles or to be successful.

Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room

johan-theorin-the-darkest-room
Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room

Winter on Oland, the Swedish island the Westins have just moved to. Joakim is on his way home when a tragic message reaches him: his daughter has died in an accident. However, when he arrives home, it is not his daughter but his wife Katrine who drowned in the cold sea. How could this happen? Why was she at the shore at all? Joakim struggles with the new situation when their home seems to start speaking to them. It is his daughter who seems to be especially responsive. She can talk to her dead mother and thus an old tradition of Eel Point is kept alive: every Christmas, the dead return to tell their story.

“The darkest Room” is the second of Johan Theorin’s Quartet set on the second largest island of Sweden. This time he combines a crime story with spooky elements to which the weather conditions fit perfectly: a winter storm is coming and people retreat to their homes. We have the ideal setting for a classic ghost story: a haunted house, a mother killed and her murder still unsolved, a child responsive to the dead, a protagonist who does not really believe in old stories but has to surrender to what is happening. Apart from this, Theorin has a second plot which we follow together with the police: a series of robberies on the island disturbs the quiet life of the islanders.

The novel is a wonderful read for winter evenings, particularly because of Theorin’s capacities of creating an intensive atmosphere which drags you into the story.