Review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

PAPERBACK; 346 P.
TRANS. LOLA M. ROGERS
PUSHKIN PRESS, 2014/2006
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Only nine people have ever been chosen by renowned children’s author Laura White to join “The Rabbit Back Literature Society,” an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: Ella, a young literature teacher. Soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual known as “The Game”? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura White’s winter party? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, as Ella explores the Society and its history, disturbing secrets that had been buried start to come to light…

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is the debut novel of Finnish author Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen and it was originally published in 2006. The English translation, published in 2014, was chosen as one of the Waterstones’ 2014 Book Club books. Had it not been for the popularity of the translation, I’d probably have never heard of this book – which is quite bizarre, I admit. However, the literary premise of the book sounded intriguing, so I decided to give the book a go.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society follows Ella Milana, who is a recent Literature Studies graduate and whose Master’s thesis focuses on children’s author Laura White’s Creatureville series. Ella is currently working as a substitute teacher in her home town, Rabbit Back, which consequently is also the hometown of Laura White and the famous Rabbit Back Literature Society. Ella’s life is at a crossroad – she has recently separated from her fiancée who could not deal with the fact that Ella can never have children, her father suffers from Alzheimers, and the substitute teaching offers no joys either. However, when Ella receives a tampered copy of Crime and Punishment, she discovers that there is a mystical disease that is changing all the books in the library. Soon after she receives an invitation to join the prestigious Rabbit Back Literature Society. However, Ella’s dreams of finally meeting the elusive Laura White are crushed when the author suddenly disappears into the air in the middle of Ella’s welcoming party. Now Ella is left to her own devices to navigate her way through the mysteries of the society.

The story of The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a mix of magical realism and the questions of authorship and inspirations. The book introduces a variety of characters, and as Ella plays “The Game” with the other members of the society, they all bleed. Rabbit Back is not a your typical Finnish small town, for there are many curious incidents, people lost in the woods, strange sights, and stray dogs (we rarely have those in Finnish cities). The magical elements don’t take the center stage in the book, but they provide a fairytale-esque backdrop to the story itself. Despite the whimsical cover and the fact that a lot of the book focuses around fairy tales and folklore, The Rabbit Back Literature Society is definitely a book for adult audiences. It includes some violent scenes as well as some seriously dark undertones.

Despite some of the gruesome elements in the story, I loved this book. It put me under a spell and confused me all the way from here to Sunday. In the end, I didn’t really know what was real and what wasn’t, which is a mark of a well-executed magical realism book. The subtext on authorship, integrity and inspiration was thought-provoking and offered insights I hadn’t come across before.  My only concern is that with a story as wide and large as The Rabbit Back Literature Society there might have been a bit too many elements in  the story for it stay coherent. By cutting out some of the plot lines and backgrounds, there might have been more depth to individual characters and themes.

The book presents an abundance of questions without providing all the answers, but there are a lot of hints. Some you can deduce by by reading between the lines – although people might interpret these hints differently. The Rabbit Back Literature Society would be a great book club book because it offers a variety of themes and I think is made to be talked about. I’d highly recommend this to everyone who isn’t too queasy about grit and enjoys being lost in magical realism.

4/5

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Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Six Other Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald

PAPERBACK; 202 P.
PENGUIN, 2008/1932
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Full grown with a long, smoke-coloured beard, requiring the services of a cane and fonder of cigars than warm milk, Benjamin Button is a very curious baby indeed. And, as Benjamin becomes increasingly youthful with the passing years, his family wonders why he persists in the embarrassing folly of living in reverse. In this imaginative fable of ageing and the other stories collected here – including “The Cut-Glass Bowl” in which an ill-meant gift haunts a family’s misfortunes, “The Four Fists” where a man’s life shaped by a series of punches to his face, and the revelry, mobs and anguish of “May Day” – F. Scott Fitzgerald displays his unmatched gift as a writer of short stories.

This book is part of the Jazz Age January event hosted by Leah at Books Speak Volumes

Around this time last year, I read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and dived deep into the dazzling 1920s. I’d never before made a conscious effort to look up titles published in certain years and found the experience of immersing into a time period very enjoyable. Thus when Leah announced that she’d be hosting another Jazz Age January, I signed up immediately. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I wanted to read, except that I wanted an American narrative instead of a British one. Thus I ended up browsing the shelves of my local library, contemplating between Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Six Other Stories is a collection of seven short stories, compiled from three of Fitzgerald’s short story collections. Three of the stories are from his first collection, Flappers and Philosophers (1921), three from the second collection Tales of the Jazz Age (1922) and the last story was part of the Babylon Revisited and Other Stories (1960) collection. The stories are all set around different characters in various life situations; the title story being probably the most famous one. As with many short story collections, there are some that are absolutely wonderful and that you want to continue reading, and some that you don’t really care for that much. My favourites in this collection were definitely Heads and Shoulders and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as well as “O Russet Witch!”.

Fitzgerald’s writing is stunning and he has a talent on incorporating a variety of feelings between his lines that slowly seep into your consciousness. Although The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Six Other Stories was a short read, I took breaks between the stories, because I feared that the magic would disappear if I would read it too quickly. I really enjoyed reading Fitzgerald again – I’ve only read The Great Gatsby before -, but I must admit that as a whole the collections didn’t quite live up to my expectation. Fitzgerald captures the sense and the feel of the time well in his short stories, and I’ll definitely continue to read more of his works in the future. I’d recommend The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Six Other Stories to those who loved The Great Gatsby and want to try out some of Fitzgerald’s short stories.

3.5/5

 The years between thirty-five and sixty-five revolve before the passive mind as one unexplained, confusing merry-go-round. True, they are a merry-go-round of ill-gaited and wind-broken horses, painted in pastel colors, then in dull grays and browns, but perplexing and intolerably dizzy the thing is, as never were the merry-go-rounds of childhood or adolescence, as never, surely, were the certain-coursed, dynamic roller-coasters of youth.

Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

HARDCOVER; 557 P.
TRANS. AIRA BUFFA
WSOY, 1983/1980
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

From Goodreads:

The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. His tools are the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Aquinas, the empirical insights of Roger Bacon – all sharpened to a glistening edge by wry humor and a ferocious curiosity. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where “the most interesting things happen at night.”

I began reading The Name of the Rose already at the end of 2014, but because I was reading the German translation my pace was really slow. So after about 60 pages I decided to switch into the Finnish translation and consequently start from the beginning. Umberto Eco is an Italian author and a professor of semiotics, and his debut novel, The Name of the Rose, became an instant bestseller soon after it was published in the 1980s.

The Name of the Rose is set in a Benedictine monastery somewhere in Northern Italy in 1327. The story is narrated by Adson of Melk, who as an old monk records the experience he had as a young novice travelling with the Franciscan monk William Baskerville. Brother William has been asked to mediate between the Franciscans and Dominicans, who are divided about the question of wealth in Church. However, as he arrives to the Benedictine monastery that has been chosen as the meeting ground for the two parties, he is asked to investigate a mysterious death of a monk. The monastery is famous for hosting one of the largest libraries of the Western world, and as more bodies begin to turn up, it seems that mysterious library has a part to play in the mystery. Woven around the historical murder mystery, The Name of the Rose also features wide political, religious and scientific debates of the Middle Ages.

I remember watching the film adaptation (with Sean Connery as William Baskerville) with my family a few years back, and their exasperated sighs of “The book was SO much better”. Thus I was aware of what the story was about, but had luckily forgotten the “whodunnit”. As I mentioned, I read the beginning of the book in German and the whole book in Finnish, and though there were a lot of good things about the Finnish translation, I did have some issues with the stylistic choices (rant here). Nevertheless, for me the most important part of The Name of the Rose was not the accurate historical setting nor the mystery, but the actual debates. The book challenged my worldviews and prompted me to think about the issues also in modern context. For example, the debate about laughter and jesting in relation to religion made me view the news on the Paris attacks in a different light.

For all its merits, The Name of the Rose is, however, not without a fault. The author tends to describe things with overly long lists and there are occasional cases of information overload. Popularising scientific studies into a mystery novel without making it too fact-heavy is hard, and I applaud Eco’s attempt. The combination of medieval studies, biblical analysis, literary theory and a murder mystery is very unique, and as I read on, I really immersed myself in the time period. The occasional quotes in Latin did sometimes break the spell, as I had to flip to the back to see the translation, but they also provided the sense and style of the time. The main character is very Sherlockian in his deduction (as the name suggests), but not overly detached. The Name of the Rose might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you enjoy a good historical fiction that doesn’t dumb down the information, I’d very highly recommend that you pick this up. It is also a book about books, so for all the bibliophiles out there – look this up.

4.5/5

“Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.”

BBC’s Greatest Novels of 21st century (so far)

A few days ago BBC Culture published a list of 12 books that its critics had together voted as the greatest novels of 21st century so far. This caused a lot of discussion and, due to popular demand, the site later on published also the rest of the books that made the top 20. The list features titles from 2000 to 2013 but, funnily enough, none of the titles coincide with the BBC Big Reads (2003) list that was voted by the public.

I enjoy reading “Best of…” lists because I think it’s a great tool of giving recommendations, but in addition, it also tells a lot about the person(s) who make the lists. My first reaction to the reading the list was shame that I hadn’t read any of the books mentioned. I have read Zadie Smith (who along with Adichie has two titles on the list!) and Jeffrey Eugenides before, but the rest are all new to me authors that I’ve only heard praised. I must admit that I feel a bit hesitant about reading Bolano’s 2666 because I’ve heard that besides being a massive book, it is also very complex. But maybe in the future… Many of the listed titles, such as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Middlesex, were already on my mental to-read list, so I think I’ll add also the rest to my TBR 254 list, making it TBR 274!

The BBC 12 Greatest Novels of 21st Century So Far:

1. Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
2. Edward P Jones, The Known World (2003)
3. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)
4. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)
5. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001)
6. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)
7. Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)
8. Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
9. Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001)
10. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
11. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000)
12. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

The runners-up were:

13. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (2013)
14. WG Sebald, Austerlitz (2001)
15. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (2011)
16. Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty (2004)
17. Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)
18. Zadie Smith, NW (2012)
19. Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (2004)
20. Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire (2003)

If you’ve read any of the books listed here, please let me know what you thought of them and which ones you’d suggest to start with. Cheers!

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

PAPERBACK; 248 P.
BLOOMSBURY, 2009/2007
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

It’s 1946 and author Juliet Ashton can’t think what to write next. Out of the blue, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey – by chance, he’s acquired a book that once belonged to her, and, spurred on by their mutual love of reading, they begin a correspondence. When Dawsey reveals that he is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Juliet’s curiosity is piqued and it’s not long before she begins to hear from other members. As letters fly back and forth with stories of life in Guernsey under the German Occupation, Juliet soon realises that the society is every bit as extraordinary as its name.

This book has been around for a while now, but it still seems to be one of those undiscovered gems of historical fiction. I’ve seen Alexandra from Diverses & Avariées among others recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and spotting this book with an intriguing monster of a title on my library’s shelves, I picked it up. Based on the synopsis at the back, I was expecting a light read with historical fiction elements, but I didn’t expect to be so enthralled by it. There have been news that the film adaptation rights have been sold, but the actual production is currently postponed. Nevertheless, should the story ever reach the theaters, it’s always best to read the book first, right?

The story of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society begins with the author Juliet Ashton who is touring the country to promote her book, a collection of humouristic columns written and published during the war. Despite the success of her writer persona, the happy-go-lucky Izzy Bickerstaff, Juliet feels uninspired to write. However, one day she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams who has somehow acquired her old copy of Charles Lamb’s writing. Dawsey, who is of Guernsey, praises Lamb’s writing, asks if Juliet could recommend him a bookseller who’d have more of his works, as he would like to talk more of Lamb in the meetings of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Intrigued by the surprising letter and the curiously named society, Juliet begins a correspondence with Dawsey and discovers the island that spent years under German Occupation.

The first thing that you notice about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is that it an epistolary novel – meaning it is told entirely by letters. This makes the story seem very personal and you soon get the sense of characters personality through the letters that they exchange. Some letters are longer, describing a certain event or an appearance of a new person, others are small notes sent from house to house. There are small gaps between the letters, and you only find out about the events as they are told to other people. The style and the variety of characters provided an opportunity also for a larger exploration of life during WWII and the hardships, as well as small joys, that were experienced during those times.

I very much enjoyed the style of writing, and it definitely made me want to travel to Guernsey and to see the island myself. In the afterword, the author Mary Ann Shaffer explains her long-standing fascination of the small island, and reading the book, you certainly get a sense of the setting. The island of Guernsey is situated in the English Channel, technically closer to France than England, and it was the only English soil occupied by Germans in WWII. As I mentioned in my Bout of Books update, it is also the first Detour stop on my Reading England 2015 challenge. However, the story of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is very much about the people, and in that sense it’s very similar to The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  I’d highly recommend this book to all the readers because of its extensive literary side plot, but also to people who enjoy WWII fiction with a heartwarming twist.

4.5/5

That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.

Found in Translation: ‘White Hunger’ Giveaway

Oh my God, YES!
I have been praying for this books to be translated into English, so I’m extremely happy to hear that this is happening! In my opinion it’s definitely one of the best Finnish historical fiction out there! I suggest that you sign up for the giveaway and also check out the other cool posts on The Oxford Culture Review.

The Oxford Culture Review

We have two copies of White Hunger to give away to our readers! Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah and published by the fantastic Peirene Press (you can read an interview with ex-Marketing Director Maddy Pickard here), this debut novella by Aki Ollikainen has proved extraordinarily successful in its native Finland. Winner of the Best Finnish Debut Novel 2012 and Finnish Book Bloggers’ Best Book 2012 amongst others, this is the first time that this book will appear in English. The novella is set in 19th century Finland, and follows a young woman’s journey from Finland to St Petersburg in a desperate attempt to save her young children from starvation.

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To be in with a chance of winning one of the copies, all you have to do is like us on Facebook and share the post about the giveaway. If you’re not on Facebook then…

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Review: Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass #1) by Sarah J. Maas

EBOOK; 404 P.
BLOOMSBURY, 2012
SOURCE: PURCHASED

Meet Celaena Sardothien.
Beautiful. Deadly. Destined for greatness.

In the dark, filthy salt mines of Endovier, an eighteen-year-old girl is serving a life sentence. She is a trained assassin, the best of her kind, but she made a fatal mistake: she got caught.

Young Captain Westfall offers her a deal: her freedom in return for one huge sacrifice. Celaena must represent the prince in a to-the-death tournament—fighting the most gifted thieves and assassins in the land. Live or die, Celaena will be free. Win or lose, she is about to discover her true destiny. But will her assassin’s heart be melted?

Throne of Glass is one of those YA fantasy series that is rather hyped up at the moment, with many people offering rave reviews. Thus when I was looking for something interesting but lighter to read during the holidays, I decided to give it a shot.

Throne of Glass follows a 18-year-old female assassin named Celaena Sardothien, who was the number one assassin of Adarlan before she was betrayed. Now enslaved in the salt mines, she is one day given a chance to win her freedom – by competing to become the King’s Champion. Funded by Prince Dorian and trained by Captain of the King’s Guard, Celaena enters the competition despite the inner conflict she feels towards the cruel King. However, as the young assassin prepares for the competition and trains in the castle, her fellow competitors start mysteriously turning up dead. Something dark is happening inside the castle walls and if Celaena doesn’t watch her back, she might be next…

Throne of Glass is one of those books that heavily rely on the main character. Before I’d even heard of the series, everyone was singing praise to Celaena for being a kick-ass female assassin. To be honest, I was prepared to hate the book and the main character. However, from the very beginning the writing cleverly brought me face to face with my own prejudices, and made me put them aside. Celaena is kick-ass but she is also vain and head-strong, and her unlikeable faults made me actually like her a lot more. The story was interesting, and as the first book in the series, it laid a lot of intrigue to the world, the its history and the characters. However, the  love triangle of the book (and probably the whole series) was a bit too obvious from the very start, and already one third into the book, I had formed an idea of the “who’ll-end-up-with-whom” plot. But despite some of the overused YA tropes, I found myself really enjoying Throne of Glass and hoping for more things in the future. I’m not absolutely sold on the series (yet), but I do plan to continue reading the series and to see how some of the plot lines develop. It’s not the best fantasy that’s out there, but it’s a nice change. I’d recommend Throne of Glass to readers who enjoy YA fantasy as well as to those who have been feeling hesitant to pick it up.

4/5

“You could rattle the stars,” she whispered. “You could do anything, if you only dared. And deep down, you know it, too. That’s what scares you most.”

Bout of Books 12.0 – Update #2

Bout of BooksHello dear readers!

Since my first Bout of Books update covered the readathon from Monday to Wednesday, this part will look at how my reading week from Thursday to Sunday?

On Thursday, my day was pretty busy and it wasn’t until 7 PM that I found some time to settle into the corner of my sofa and read. I began by reading around 50 pages of The Name of the Rose, but because it is a very thought-provoking read, I feel the need to pause every once in a while to think about the issues mentioned in the book. And as much as I enjoy challenging books that force me to think bigger questions, it just wasn’t what I wanted to read at the moment. I wanted a book that I could immerse myself into, which is why I began reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society that everyone has been encouraging me to pick up. And I instantly fell in love with its epistolary style.

Pages read: 73
Pages read in total: 334
Currently reading: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco AND The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Scaffer & Annie Barrows

Friday was my “back-to-school” day, filled with excitement for the new semester and friends I hadn’t seen during the holiday season. In the evening I curled up with a cup of tea and reached for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, immersing myself to the post-WWII England and the lives of the inhabitants of the Guernsey Island.

Before going to sleep, I stopped to think about what it was that made me pick up TGLPPS instead of The Name of the Rose. I enjoyed both books very much, but for some reason I kept putting The Name of the Rose on the back burner. I guess the reason stems from the news of the past week – the tragedies of Paris terror attacks – and the polarisation of Europe. Let me explain: The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery set in a monastery in the Middle Ages, but it is also heavily interwoven with religious debates and politics of the time. For example, debates on whether or not Jesus ever laughed, whether laughter is sinning, and how Christian heresies are the cause of the actions of the Church. Although these discussions are set in the frame of the 14th century Europe, there are still points that echo into the modern society and the recent #JeSuisCharlie. My heart goes out to the families of the people in Charlie Hebdo, as well as to the other victims, and I hope that the events won’t further polarise the already tender relationship between the two cultures living in Europe. Reading The Name of the Rose, I can’t help but to play it against the recent events, which is not a good association. Sometimes reading can offer further understanding of the situation and relief to sadness, but sometimes you just want to escape.

Pages read: 71
Pages read in total: 405
Currently reading: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco AND The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Scaffer & Annie Barrows

On Saturday morning, I enjoyed a late breakfast with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. In comparison to my yesterday’s post, this book also has darker shades, as it deals with the German Occupation during WWII and the suffering that went on during those years. Part of me would like to believe that this was all just the writer’s own flare, but the truth of what happened might be even more terrifying than that. A lot of the book is set on the Guernsey Island on the English Channel, and the descriptions of the island definitely have inspired me to consider it as one of the places that I’d love to visit someday.

The Reading England 2015 challenge that I’m doing this year is catered to classics, so I can’t officially set this book on the list of “visited counties”. However, I am going to add my own little twist to my travel plan – A (Modern) Detour. My plan is to write down all the non-classic books in 2015 that were set in England and their setting, to see how far and wide I traveled without a map. I might not write a review of all the books, but I will definitely try to update the list throughout the year, along with the original challenge. Guernsey will have the honour of being the first detour, but I’m convinced that there’ll be more to come.

Pages read: 137
Pages read in total: 542
Currently reading: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

On Saturday night I couldn’t put The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pee Pie Society down, so I ended up finishing the last 11 pages after the clock had transitioned into Sunday. Ah, the book is such a treasure – heartwarming and vivid! I could barely catch any sleep after finishing it.

I spent Sunday baking, cleaning, catching up on podcasts and making paper stars. I think I’ll try to keep up with making paper stars for every book that I read, but since I’m not really naturally crafty, I’ll doubt that it’ll stick the whole year. I kept reading The Name of the Rose in between the different activities, and I’m slowly reaching the conclusion of the mystery. Again, I have nothing but praise for how the story is constructed and all the research that Eco has made for the book. Naturally there are some moments of information overload, but as the topic is surprisingly interesting – who’d known? – it can be easily ignored. As I’m writing this post, I’ve put down the book for the night. It would have been awesome if I could have completed The Name of the Rose within the Bout of Books readathon week, but I’m not really that bothered. I enjoy taking my time with this book, so I’ll let it simmer.

Pages read: 147
Pages read in total: 689
Currently reading: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Overall, I did finish one play and one book during the week, and my weekly total is almost 700 pages – that’s approx. 100 pages per day! I’m very pleased with how the readathon turned out and hopefully these updates haven’t bored you to death. Now I have some reviews to write, so expect those during the next week!