Sara Stridsberg – The Antarctica of Love

Sara Stridsberg – The Antarctica of Love

Kristina is waiting to die, finally. She does not live anymore, she has been murdered and dismembered in the woods outside Stockholm, but she only really dies forever when her name will be spoken for the last time. So she floats in between the world and eternity, sees how her parents bury what has been found of her. She also visits her kids in their dreams, kids for whom she so hard wanted to be a good mother but unfortunately couldn’t be. Her life with Shane has always been a struggle and she somehow has always known that growing old wasn’t meant for her.

Sara Stridsberg’s novel is – despite the cruelty of the topic – wonderfully written and a poetic masterpiece. It opens with a description of what Kristina feels last, how she perceives nature during her last minutes when she is to become a part of the lake and the earth. It is also the story of a drug addict, a young woman who comes from a struggling family and does not find herself a place in the world and quickly relies on diverse substances to help her forget the darkness she finds outside and inside herself. It is a life lost, a life which could have become so much but didn’t.

It is heart-breaking to read the young woman’s account. How casually she tells the reader that at first, nobody misses her, neither her mother, nor her father who hasn’t seen her for years, nor her children. Yet, the later live a new life and her daughter might hardly remember her, too early in her life was she taken away and put into a foster family. Yet, this was the best Kristina could do for her, at least once in her life she did something right despite the feeling of loss.

When she was pregnant, she wanted to get clean, to be a good mother, to care for Valle and Solveig. However, the craving was always too strong, harshness of life always brought her back to the drugs. She feels ashamed for not having been able to care for the kids. But she has always lived in the darkness and the rare rays of light couldn’t lead her to another life.

A life not lived and yet, as humans, we are just a blink in eternity. In 2019, “The Antarctica of Love” was awarded Sveriges Radios Romanpris, a Swedish literary prize for the best novel of the year. It wasn’t the first time Stridsberg’s work was highly appreciated. She uses language in a unique way which does not only touch you profoundly but goes deep down into you and reaches you at your core having the novel make a deep impression that stings.

Max Seeck – The Ice Coven

Max Seeck – The Ice Coven

The disappearance of a famous blogger does not seem to be a too interesting case for Jessica Niemi and her team of Helsinki police. After a big music business event, she did not come home and has since vanished into thin air. Her roommate also cannot contribute anything to Lisa Yamamoto’s whereabouts. When the body of a Ukrainian prostitute in Manga clothing is washed ashore, the investigators do not link the two events immediately, but, bit by bit, they untangle the complex web and soon find themselves confronted with a network of ill doings which goes far beyond the city limits. While working on the most challenging case of her career, Jessica is still mourning the loss of her former boss and friend while Erne’s successor openly hates and threatens to expose her, thus destroying her carefully constructed life.

Already in the first case for Jessica Niemi, Max Seeck masterfully crafted a highly complex plot which was great to follow as a reader. “The Ice Coven”, too, seems to be not too mystifying at the beginning but then it slowly unfolds its whole potential and turns into a high-paced thriller. The short chapters add to the suspense which rises and only climaxes at the very end even though long before you were fooled to believe you know what is going on.

Apart from the crime story, the book’s most outstanding element is the protagonist. Being familiar with the first instalment, you already know her backstory, the things she hides from her colleagues and the demons that haunt her. Still, there are some white spaces to be discovered in further stories which I am eagerly looking for.

A multi-layered thriller which is hard to put down once you started.

Thora Hjorleifsdottir – Magma


Thora Hjorleifsdottir – Magma

After some time in Denmark and a long trip to South America, Lilja returns to her home town Reykjavik where she falls for a well-read student. She only works in a café and thus always feels a bit inferior to the intelligent young man. Nevertheless, she quickly moves in with him, knowing that she is not really his girlfriend but rather the person he shares the bed with. She calls him very private as he does not invite her to his family or friends and accepts his conditions in return for his love. Yet, this toxic relationship leaves its scars on her – figuratively on her soul, feeling not good enough for him and therefore accepting other women besides her, and very visibly on her skin when she discovers that cutting can release some stress.

Told by a first person narrator, the reader is quite close to Lilja and her thoughts. At first, she seems to be quite some tough and modern young woman who lives her life according to her own ideals and standards. Gradually, however, the downwards spiral is set in motion turning her into a vulnerable and dependent woman who is caught in the negative view of herself. Thora Hjorleifsdottir’s novel “Magma” tackles a complex and difficult issue but makes it easy to understand how some women end up in unhealthy relationships and do not find – or even want – a way out.

Lilja, on the one hand, can clearly name how she is being treated. How recklessly he chats with other women online while she is in the same room or even meets them the same day they have a date. She falls for him and accepts being treated like some second rate being, listens to him praising his ex-girlfriends in front of her and even gives in when he asks for things which clearly transgress her boundaries.

She believes she deserves being treated like this, she is not pretty enough, not good enough, not clever enough, too sensitive, behaving horribly – simply crazy, a failure. If only she could be the girl he expects her to be, then he could also love her. The narrator does not sound foolish or naive at all, even though it is obvious that this thinking isn’t healthy, we all know these kinds of toxic thoughts which are hard to get rid of even if you are standing with both feet on the ground and having a healthy self-image.

At the end of the day, it is simply how women end up being abused and ill-treated by men they believe – despite everything they go through – love them. It starts with small signs until the chain of events once set in motion cannot be stopped anymore and ultimately heads towards a complete disaster.

Wonderfully written in a reduced, direct style which makes it easy to follow the line of thoughts and go down with the narrator. More than once, you want to shout at her or take her in your arms, so heart-wrenching it is to see what’s happening without any possibility of interfering.

Lisa Taddeo – Animal

Lisa Taddeo – Animal

Joan flees New York to California after he lover Victor shot himself publicly in front of her. With little money left, she finds a small place to stay and she also finds the woman she was looking for. Alice, whom she had tracked online over all those years. She thinks back to what her life had to offer so far, her mother who was unable to love her, her father whom she admired childishly. Both have long been gone. Joan can run, but somehow her bad luck follows her, she seems prone to attracting all kind of evil and so it does not take too long until it comes back to her.

Lisa Taddeo made her debut with “Three women“ which I already liked a lot. In her latest novel, too, complicated relationships between men and women are central to the story’s development. The narrator herself is unable to love unconditionally, she needs to have the upper hand over her lovers, yet, this presumed precaution measure fires back and somehow she is stuck in the role of the kid who is longing for being loved. She is addressing her account of the events to somebody, yet it takes until the end for the reader to understand whom she tells about her life.

From a psychological point of view, Taddeo has created quite interesting characters. Violence and love are constantly opposed and they seem not to able to exist without each other. Joan’s grandmother has been raped, a dramatic experience of violence, yet, we do never learn about what this did to the woman. On the other hand, Joan’s mother does not seem to be a direct victim, yet, she reacts quite strongly and refuses her daughter the love she craves for. The women in her family are no good role models, yet, her father, too, does not provide a good example of how to behave, especially at critical moments in his life. As a consequence, Joan is unable to lead a relationship at eye level and feels the need to protect herself from the things that might happen.

Thus, as a grown up, Joan replicates what she has seen as a kid and ignores the effect this might have on others, only when she is confronted with a kind of mirror, her genuine feelings offer her another way.

“Animal” is all but an easy read, yet, it offers a lot of food for thought and raises important questions concerning central human emotions and behaviour. I am not an expert, however, I would classify Joan’s thinking with all those flashbacks as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which is highly likely from her family’s history. In this respect, the author very successfully displays the impact of traumatic events on untreated children.

Zakiya Dalila Harris – The Other Black Girl

Zakiya Dalila Harris – The Other Black Girl

Nella Rogers has achieved what she could only dream of, at 26 she is editorial assistant at one of the most prestigious publishing houses. The only thing she has been struggling with the last two years is how the idea of diversity has never entered her workplace, after the Asian girl left, she is the only person with a different background. Things change when unexpectedly Hazel is employed and gets the cubicle next to her. Nella senses immediately that with another black girl, they might finally make a change in publishing, promote more diverse authors and bring forward new topics relevant to a large audience which wasn’t addressed so far. However, it does not take too long until Nella’s work life starts to go downhill.

Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel has been called one of the buzz books of 2021 by several magazines. I was intrigued by the blurb immediately, a kind of horror version of “The Devil Wars Prada” sounded totally enthralling. For a long time, “The Other Black Girl” could fulfil the expectations, there is a highly uncomfortable feeling creeping around, yet, the end was a bit too much for my liking.

Nella is quite a likeable young woman, hardworking and even though not an activist she is following the Black Lives Matter movement even before this becomes a widespread phenomenon and big news. She imagines being able of making a change in the publishing industry but first needs to get at the position where she has the actual power to do so. Therefore, she is quite assimilated and she swallows comments from her colleagues even though they might be quite offensive for persons of colour. With the arrival of Hazel she seems to get an ally and befriends her immediately.

For the reader, even though there are some chapters which seems unrelated to Nella’s story but hint at some goings-ons beyond her scope, it is obvious that Hazel is not the friendly and reliable colleague Nella assumes, this was an aspect which annoyed me a bit, I didn’t get the impression of Nelly being that naive and credulous at first and would have liked her to be a bit cleverer in relation to what happens at her workplace.

The novel, however, is quite strong at portraying Nella’s feelings as being the only black girl, the role she assigned to as representative of a totally diverse group which is just too simplistic, yet, nobody really seems to care about the concept of diversity, having one black girl is enough. She has other issues than her colleagues, especially the talk about hair was quite a novelty, even though this is a huge topic if you do not have the easy-care blond hair.

Overall, I liked the writing and found Nella’s perspective and the insight in the publishing world interestingly realised.

Anna-Lou Weatherley – The Woman Inside

Anna-Lou Weatherley – The Woman Inside

Shortly after her fiancé left her, Daisey gets drunk during a professional event. The same evening, she is attacked in her flat but unexpectedly can survive. Yet, he has no memory at all of what happened and of who her assailant might be. She is not the first, London is haunted by a clever man that much some DNA finding can confirm, more is not known. A complicated case for Detective Dan Riley and a lot of time pressure since they are sure that Daisey is not the last. But then, things seem to fall into place, all evidence hints at Daisey’s ex Luke who behaves highly suspiciously, too. Dan remains sceptical, he is sure that there is much more behind the coward murders, however, who might have a reason to direct police’s attention towards Luke? Can the forensic psychologist whom Dan is forced to consult shed new light on what the investigators have found?

I totally adored Anna-Lou Weatherley’s novel “The Stranger’s Wife” and her latest thriller did not disappoint me, either. It is not just the classic play of who is quicker and cleverer – the police or the murderer – it is the psychological profile of the wanted person which is extremely interesting and cleverly drafted to make it a really exceptional thriller.

Daisey is hit twice, first, her fiancé leaves her for a younger woman, then, she is attacked and seriously injured. Additionally, she cannot pay the expensive flat alone, this is why a new colleague moves in with her. She isn’t alone anymore, but her mental state is unstable. She seems to hear voices or people moving around in the flat, mixes up what her new flatmate tells her and she has some flashbacks which bring back fragments of the evening in question. She is really not doing fine and quite palpably, the horror isn’t over for her even though many friends and the police take care of her.

The narration is interrupted time and again by a second line of the plot which is set about two decades in the past and tells the story of twins who are quite close but also mysteriously witness some serious misadventures. It is obvious from the start that this part gives insight in the murderer’s childhood and provides the reason for his strange behaviour. However, you cannot link this narration to any of the characters of the present.

A mysterious plot which remains blurry for a long time but does not lose its suspense. A superb read which I enjoyed from the first to the last page.

Robert Cole – A Breeze Across the Aegean

Robert Cole – A Breeze Across the Aegean

After his wife’s death, Nicholas has lost the energy to live and fallen into a dark hole. When he takes a holiday on the Greek Island of Rhodes, the incredible happens. He meets a woman who immediately sparks something in him. They are on the ferry to Halki and agree to meet in the afternoon before taking the ferry back to Rhodes. Yet, Alessandra does not show up. Nicholas is disappointed but apparently, she did not feel the same as he did during their brief encounter. Back in England, he goes on with his life when one evening, he sees a report about a young woman gone missing – Alessandra. Could he have been the last person to see her alive? He contacts the police and the parents before he resolves to return to Greece and to have a look himself since no one seems to be really preoccupied. He cannot simply do nothing when the one person who brought back his will to live has gone missing. It does not take long for him to be sure that there is much more behind Alessandra’s disappearance than just a woman who decided to start a new life and cut all former strings.

Robert Cole’s debut novel is a mixture of suspenseful crime and interesting dive into ancient history. Nicholas’ search for Alessandra is strongly linked to the past of the Greek islands, old trade routes between Europe and the Middle East as well as modern trade – which is rather of the illegal kind. Stolen goods of inestimable value, belonging to the world heritage which in the turmoil of wars fall into the hands of shady businessmen. Some of the history is well known, a lot was also new to me and I found it wonderfully integrated into the thrilling search for the young archaeologist.

Strongest is certainly the atmosphere of the islands which offer such a long and great history which finds its place in the novel. Even though Nicholas is a bit naive at times and irresponsible at others, I found this characters quite charming to follow. He cleverly understands the evidence and draws the right conclusions leading step by step him closer to Alessandra and some very dangerous dubious men.

Not an absolutely thrilling psychological mystery, but rather an entertaining, yet nevertheless enthralling, trip into history.

Kate Stayman-London – One To Watch

Kate Stayman-London – One to Watch

Bea Schumacher is successful blogger – fashion blogger even though as plus size woman this is not necessarily a field where people would expect her. After being disappointed again by Ray with whom she has been in love for many years now, she accepts the offer to take part in the TV show “Main Squeeze” where 25 men compete for her love. Is this a way of finding the perfect match? Bea is hardly convinced and the first encounter with the good looking competitors seem to confirm her worst expectations: disappointed by her body shape, they do not shrink from humiliating her in front of a large audience. But slowly she discovers that some might be able to see beyond her body and detect the woman that she is. Yet, can this really be true or is it just to promote their own popularity?

Kate Stayman-London’s novel oscillates between totally hilarious and deeply sad while addressing some absolutely serious topics. The text is a collage of different text types, the actual narration is interrupted by Bea’s blog entries, Internet comments and newspaper articles which makes it a lively and authentic read since this is how we consume information today: they come in different shapes and only together do they form a whole picture. However, the story relies on the protagonist, a woman who is easy to sympathise with, you simply cannot not love Bea.

What I appreciated most, was how Bea’s weak sides were presented. Never has she felt at ease in her body, the pressure of fitting in and fulfilling certain expectations of the female body’s look have haunted her since her teenage years. Nevertheless, she has become a spokeswoman for those who do not conform which is easy as long as she is more or less invisible behind her blog – being exposed on TV is a different story. TV just like the fashion industry is all but diverse in all respects. The novel convincingly criticises this, yet, they depend on the audience who also needs to move on and open up for other protagonists.

A novel to dive in and enjoy the read.

Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

The unnamed narrator is visiting a friend with terminal cancer who is in hospital in another town. She stays with a retired librarian with a cat but her host is quite reclusive and they hardly have any contact during her stay. Between the visits, she ponders about other people in her life: her former partner of whom she attends a public speech on the dystopian future we are facing, her old neighbour who can hardly manage alone, a woman she met in her gym who went through drastic changes, each of them starting point for another in-depth reflection. Her encounters reflect the whole range of people and therefore also introduce pestering issues of our time: the way women are judged and how their position in society and in a family is seen, how we treat the elderly and – the most important aspect – how do we want to die and what will remain of us. Quite unexpectedly, her poorly friend asks her a favour which will target core questions the narrator cannot easily answer for herself.

Just as in her former novel “The Friend”, it is a minor event – then an abandoned dog, here a visit to the hospital – which initiates an interesting journey into the depth of human nature. The narrator’s experiences and encounters are analysed and questioned, it is an introspection which nevertheless is far from very individual and personal but, quite on the contrary, concerns everybody. Especially being close to a dying friend has a huge impact on her thinking, far beyond the question if we should rather ask “What are you going through” instead of “How are you”.

The core issue revolves around suffering and pain and the question how much a human being can endure. How do you go on living in a world which does not seem to have a future, at least not an interesting or desiring one. The plot is minimal, at times rather feels like a collection of anecdotes, but looking at it as a whole, you get an idea of the protagonist who is sad, to a certain extent disillusioned, but not grim. She is still capable of attachment and fondness, even though she knows that it won’t last this time. Every single word becomes meaningful and should be use with care therefore.

Repeatedly, Nunez also has her narrator share her reading experiences with the reader and thus transgresses the boundaries of genres once more. She certainly pushes the limits in many respects and engages the reader in thinking. One of the most interesting questions for me was the one rotating around the problem of what can be reported and by whom the act of narration should be carried out, especially when it comes to experiences of general interest. The narrator questions if there is even a language capable of conveying experiences adequately or if, in the end, all language must fail to authentically depict what somebody underwent.

Nunez’ language surely is plentiful enough to engage you in an interesting inner – and hopefully also outer – dialogue.

Anna Bruno – Ordinary Hazards

Anna Bruno – Ordinary Hazards

THE FINAL FINAL has been Emma’s and Lucas’ preferred bar for years. But on her 35th birthday, Emma isn’t anymore the woman she used to be. She is drinking alone, acknowledging the other regulars and thinking about what has gone wrong in her life during the last couple of years. Her professional choice which deeply annoyed her success-oriented father, her marriage with Lucas which was never easy but also not too bad, the happiness when their son Lionel was born. And now she is sitting in a bar drinking and ignoring the texts from her friend Grace who seemingly has arranged something for her birthday. The more the evening advances the more the tension in the bar rises and unexpectedly, she learns things which lead to a dramatic end.

What I liked most about Anna Bruno’s novel were first, the atmosphere of the bar and second, the development of the protagonist. On the one hand, we have a place where you typically do not find an average single woman drinking alone. At first, everybody is friendly, they have known each other for years but keep a natural distance, they are only bar acquaintances it seems with no further connection and know not to trespass the personal sphere of each other. Over the course of time, you learn more about the other guests and slowly the heat is rising. This comes quite as a surprise which only underlines how perfectly this has been developed.

The whole plot centres around Emma and her pondering. It does not take too long to understand that something important must have happened that lead to the separation and deeply impacted her psychological state. It is just those things that happen in life, evidently ordinary hazards.

I loved the structure of the novel, having two timelines interwoven which each other which culminate in a distressing climax. Vividly narrated at a moderate pace, I really enjoyed delving into it.