Book review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

29 10 2016

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is a Finnish teacher and speculative fiction writer who has, to date, released three novels and one short story collection. His work has won the Atorox and Tähtivaeltaja awards, as well as several Finnish short story competitions.


The Rabbit Back Literature Society (Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta, 2006, translated by Lola M Rogers) is Jääskeläinen’s first novel, and thus far the only one available in English translation. (His second novel, Secret Passages in a Hillside TownHarjukaupungin salakäytävät, is scheduled for an English-language release in a year’s time.) Jääskeläinen’s work is frequently described as ‘Finnish Weird’, which seems appropriate enough: it’s certainly Finnish, and it’s definitely weird. It doesn’t, though, exhibit much overt commonality with what I’ve read thus far by Leena Krohn or Johanna Sinisalo, other writers whose work is often categorised as Finnish Weird.

Ella Amanda Milana is a literature teacher in the (fictional) Finnish town of Rabbit Back, a town made famous as the home of the reclusive Laura White, Finland’s most famous children’s author (I’ll tactfully avoid open speculation as to whom White may be modelled on, but Jääskeläinen has been careful, in any event, to muddy the tracks). As well as her own series of Creatureville books mixing mythological species with jovial themes and dark undertones, White is also noted as the founder of a local writers’ club (the Literature Society of the title), the membership of which is restricted to her ten chosen protégés. Or, rather, her nine chosen protégés, because in three decades, White still has not selected a tenth member for the prestigious society. Until, that is, she comes across a short story written by Ella Milana …

But Ella has other things preying on her mind. For example, there’s the strangely-mutable text of the library book she’s just finished reading, there’s the strange doings of her gardening-obsessed, poetry-infused father, there’s the strange preponderance of not-quite-tame dogs which hang around everywhere in Rabbit Back. Above all, there’s the bizarre, aloof behaviour of the Society’s members themselves. Curiosity gets the better of Ella, and she accepts White’s invitation to join the Society. But if she thought the Society’s members were odd when viewed from a distance …

RBLS‘s focus, insofar as it can be said to have one, would seem to be on the clannish stand-offishness of writers, and on the deconstruction of literature’s reputation. Several of the Society’s longstanding members—the gourmandising,  pastry-obsessed serious novelist Martti Winter, the duplicitous librarian / children’s writer Ingrid Katz, the incurably-jaded TV scriptwriter Toivo Holm—are shown in unflattering detail, much of which is revealed through the codified interrogation of The Game, a kind of ritualised, weaponised Truth Or Dare played between Society members. There’s a decidedly sinister edge to many of the developments in the story, and one’s never quite sure whether the book is about to turn irredeemably dark, or simply grow progressively stranger.

Thematically, RBLS has some common ground with the ‘Tuesday Next’ novels of Jasper Fforde—the intrepid, bookish young female protagonist confronted by mysterious literary revisionism in a book-obsessed realm—but the style and tone of Jääskeläinen’s book is very different than Fforde’s works, with much less emphasis on textual wordplay and playful literary name-dropping and more on, well, straightforward leftfieldedness. It’s a difficult book to summarise without giving away important plot points, which I’d rather avoid in fairness to the prospective reader. It’s written well, though the prose never achieved, for me, full immersion, and it’s peppered with intriguing extrapolations, the relevance of which sometimes becomes clearer, sometimes not. I’m not sure how much of this is deliberate, how much is culturally-specific allusion to which I’m more-or-less blind, how much, perhaps, is first-novel syndrome. It’s definitely an interesting book, though it often seems deliberately distancing as well.

Ultimately, I can say that the book left me with a sense of lingering puzzlement, a sense of elements not completely worked through to a clear conclusion, while nonetheless offering, somehow, the shape of such a conclusion. (Much like this review.)

Book review: The Butterfly Effect, by Pernille Rygg

24 10 2016

Pernille Rygg is a Norwegian novelist who has written three novels, published between 1995 and 2000. Of these books, her two murder mystery novels, both featuring the amateur detective Igi Heitmann, have also been translated into English.


The Butterfly Effect (Sommerfugleffekten, 1995, translated by Joan Tate) is Rygg’s debut, and therefore marks Igi Heitmann’s first appearance. Igi, a psychologist by training, is the recently-bereaved daughter of Andreas Heitmann, a police-officer-turned-PI who was investigating a case for Siv Underland, a young woman who turns up dead in a snowdrift on the outskirts of Oslo with a pair of bullet holes in her head, shortly after Heitmann senior’s cremation following his death in a hit-and-run accident. With no evidence of an assailant, and evidence that Underland herself had fired the gun that is found at her side, the police seem intent on treating Siv’s death as a suicide—but how is it that she managed to get off a second fatal shot? Igi believes that Underland has been murdered, and sets out to finish the case her father took on. She learns that Siv had been seeking answers on the disappearance, over a decade ago, of Petra Holmgren, the daughter of the Underlands’ one-time neighbours. Petra’s body ultimately comes to light (so to speak), which begs the question: how are the deaths of Petra, and Siv, and Igi’s father connected?

This is a dense and heavily-populated mystery novel which makes few concessions to the reader. There’s a tendency to begin scenes without preamble, and I often found it difficult to keep straight which thread Igi was currently following, and how the people she was seeking out were connected to the central matter: it’s the sort of book in which a dramatis personae would not be a gratuitous addition, but a welcome quick-reference tool. Despite the absence of such a feature, the book is certainly well worth persevering with: while Igi’s a little too ready to push her luck, displaying an audacity that only occasionally ends in disaster, she’s undeniably insightful, clearly intelligent, and possessed of a genuinely interesting perspective. Rygg has given her an intriguing home life, well-portrayed: a bisexual transvestite husband Benny, whose romantic dalliances tug at Igi’s heartstrings; a disapproving socialite mother and humourless, status-obsessed stepfather; and a loose cluster of high-achieving, bohemian-leaning friends. The broader community, among whom Igi searches out those who may have knowledge of the deaths, is also conveyed with an endearing mixture of curmudgeonliness and clarity. I’m tempted to say that the book has a noirish tone, but this applies much more to the setting than to the prose. The writing is highly expressive and tends to introspection (which would seem to be Igi’s default setting), but the action scenes are efficient and resonant.

The sequence of crimes is well-constructed, and is resolved in a satisfying manner; the human story of Igi herself is also well-handled, and the book achieves one of the best endings I’ve encountered. I’m looking forward to exploring the other Igi story (The Golden Ratio) in due course, and expect that I will end up wishing there were more to follow (which, given that Rygg’s most recent book was published in 2000, may well be a forlorn hope). But in any case, I’m of the opinion, after this one, that Rygg should be better known than she is.

Book review: The Armies of Memory, by John Barnes

21 10 2016

John Barnes is a US science fiction writer whose novels have several times been nominated for the Nebula Award (and once for the Hugo). One of those Nebula nominations was for A Million Open Doors, the first book in his ‘Thousand Cultures’ sequence focussing on the exploits of OSP special agent / lute musician Giraut Leones. (One of my recent blog posts explored the blurbish irregularities of the second book in that sequence, Earth Made of Glass.) The backstory to the ‘Thousand Culture’ books is that an initial disapora resulted in the colonisation of the habitable planets in Sol system’s neighbourhood by a diverse set of slightly more than a thousand designed cultures ranging from the fanciful to the austere, between which interstellar traffic ceased for several hundred years, then was rekindled with the discovery / invention of a technology, the ‘Springer’, permitting the instantaneous teleportation of people and objects across interstellar distances. Giraut’s own home culture of ‘Nou Occitan’ derives from an idealised (romantic, chivalrous, somewhat misogynous) reworking of society within medieval Occitania, with a focus on singing, duelling, drinking, and womanising (all in accordance within certain societal expectations).


The Armies of Memory (2006) is the fourth, most recent, and very possibly final book of the Thousand Cultures series. It opens with Giraut’s preparations for the public concert he is giving to mark his fiftieth birthday, a concert which nearly ends disastrously as an audience member makes an attempt on Giraut’s life with a concealed maser. (The concert would have been controversial in any event, given Giraut’s presentation of a new song-cycle exploring the life and death of the polarising prophet-politician Ix; the attempted assassination ensures a great deal of additional attention, not all of it welcome.) Things snowball from there, but in a fashion that seems extremely haphazard. This isn’t a book which telegraphs its central theme within the first chapter or two; instead, it feels almost picaresque, and indeed three sections of the book were first published, as shorter works, in Analog.

The story is told in Giraut’s own voice, with a mixture of world-weary pretension and self-deprecating pomposity: it is, all things told, quite an endearing voice, and a refreshing one to encounter in a serious work of SF. I’ll quote just a couple of snippets from the first two chapters:

Dad, Paxa, Laprada and Raimbaut comprised the Office of Special Projects team that I commanded. At least the OSP thought I commanded them. Actually I filled out the paperwork and did the apologizing after the team accomplished a mission. As for giving orders and having them followed, I’d have had better luck trying to organize an all-ferret marching band.


There are no more than a dozen occupations—political agent and artist are two—in which everything you do becomes part of your job. They are the only tolerable things to do with your time, as far as I’m concerned.

A song is not a tool for changing a human heart in the way that a wrench is a tool for changing a bolt, but it was the tool I had, and I was the tool the OSP had.

The voice gives the series a more playful-seeming edge than it would otherwise have, in much the same way that the Culture ship names in Iain M Banks’ novels are always something to watch out for: it provides a surface sheen, a levity, to something which turns out to be surprisingly serious-minded and multilevelled. (Indeed, one of the things that’s most impressive about the ‘Thousand Cultures’ series, and this book in particular, is the attention-to-detail offered to societal or industrial applications of ‘springer’ technology, of ‘psypyx’ recordings of human identity—permitting, often but not always, a means of reincarnation within a new, fast-cloned body—and of AI and the human resistance to AI. It conveys, quite clearly, a future which feels ‘cluttered’ and lived-in.)

The Armies of Memory isn’t as iconic a work as either A Million Open Doors or Earth Made of Glass, each of which in its own way is an outstanding piece of SF; this last book in the series is a little too scattered in its focus, and lacks the sheer propulsiveness of plot of those earlier books. But this, I think, has to represent a conscious choice by Barnes, who’s clearly capable of delivering  a tightly suspenseful, action-filled and more-or-less linear narrative, and has chosen here to attempt something different, by way of closing out the series. It works, for the most part, and it’s compelling enough (once things properly get moving, which does take a while, but Giraut’s head is an interesting place to be in regardless of whatever’s transpiring around him), with just enough left unresolved that one might hope Barnes will yet return to the series, even though this book does finish up with something that feels very much like a conclusion, a coda.

What appeals to me most about the series, ultimately, is its sense of cautious hope, its unwillingness to edge into dystopia. Well, that and the wordplay. And the swordplay. I’m probably not a million miles wrong when I say that the series is like a cross between The Princess Bride and Bladerunner.

Trouble brewing

20 10 2016

The following is offered without further comment or apology:

Heinrich’s Beer Garden in Munich always celebrated Oktoberfest with a beer-judging competition, with a celebrity guest judge. One year a very surprising judge came forward: the Norse god, Thor. When Heinrich cautiously asked what his credentials were, as judge, Thor glowered and replied that he’d knocked back enough of the stuff in Valhalla to be able to tell the good stuff. Which sounded sensible, and there was no question that a Norse god in his tavern would be a drawcard, so Heinrich accepted Thor’s offer to judge.

It didn’t go well, though. When Thor, his speech slightly slurred and, if anything, a little louder than before, announced that only one brew was worthy of his commendation, Heinrich pointed out that the rules of the competition required that a prize be given to one entry each in the categories of lager, ale, stout, pilsener, porter … Thor cut him off, remarking that he’d only been served the one style of brew, and so of course he’d only found one winner. When Heinrich began, awkwardly, to remonstrate, Thor brought the argument to an abrupt close by bringing his weapon down on the bar, then stalking off.

The damage was severe. If it was to open again, Heinrich’s Beer Garden would be looking for new premises. When interviewed about the disastrous competition the next day, Heinrich said that he should have predicted the outcome, knowing what he did of the judge. “After all,” commented the rueful publican, “when what you have is a hammer, everything looks like an ale.”

On the vexatious nature of physicality

17 10 2016

The difference between trading in ideas—such as, for example, fiction—and trading in objects—such as, for example, handcrafted steampunk props—is that one doesn’t actually sell an idea, one sells access to an idea, but one sells an object, to which one then no longer has access. ‘Handcrafted’ is probably a bit of a stretch, in this instance, because the base materials I’ve been using are cheap, mass-produced toys and implements, which I’ve then glued or cable-tied together, and then given about four coats of paint and varnish. But, in memoriam, as it were, of some of the props I managed to rehome (in what can best be described as a sequence of bittersweet acts of commerce) at last weekend’s wonderful Steampunk Victoriana Fair in Goulburn, here are a couple of items of which I now only have the photographs, and the explanatory notes:


The great assassin-poet Colleen McCudgell has said that, ‘given my choice of all the weaponry on God’s good, green earth, I’d much prefer to adopt the simple lead-weighted sock as the tool of my trade, by virtue of the delicious sound it produces, honest, rich, and resonant, when brought down, just so, upon the unsuspecting victim’s head’. Regrettably, McCudgell was forced, by a persistently squeaky brass leg, to adopt less directly percussive methods of unsuspecting-target elimination. Foremost amongst these in her arsenal was the Fauntleroy & Magnussen Rangeblaster Deluxe.

The Rangeblaster Deluxe was originally designed as a sniper’s weapon, with its superior Zeiss-Hornswoggler optics capable of pinpointing human targets at distances as great as eight leagues. However, its incapacity to inflict anything more substantial than a moderate flesh wound or painful bruise at distances exceeding two leagues was, to say the least, a cause of frustration amongst its users, and it fell largely from favour shortly after its introduction in 1873. McCudgell, however, took to it with alacrity, seeing a way to turn the firearm’s shortcoming into an advantage. ‘What other weapon,’ she asked, ‘would allow one to extirpate a target whilst improving one’s physique through the lengthy pursuit of one’s wounded prey?’ For this reason McCudgell, although scoring poorly on the Assassin’s League tables of the day, is now fondly remembered as the progenitor of the increasingly popular fitness regime Assassercise, ‘an impromptu and unpredictable sport, as likely to involve mountain-climbing, sewer-running, or roof-leaping in place of conventional cross-country, but wonderfully exhilarating—for one of the participants, at least’.


The Croydon firm of Geo. Dottlesworth & Sons was well known to tobacconistas of Victorian London, and during their heyday in the 1870s and 1880s they produced an astonishing profusion of ‘Pipes for the Gentleman Adventurer’. One of the most intriguing items offered in their six-volume 1882 catalogue was this ‘Dottlesworth Infusohaler’, which comes to us from the collection of the Lindsey-Doyle family. While the Infusohaler, in common with most of the pipes in the Dottlesworth range, could be deployed ‘for the Smoking of Conventional and Exotic Tobaccos & sundry other Varieties of Dried Foliage’, its primary purpose was as a portable, convenient, impromptu receptacle ‘in which could be Brewed all manner of Teas and Other Flavoursome Infusions’. The Infusohaler, which when first introduced featured the smallest valve-and-ballcock assemblage then known, also incorporated a small heating element of ‘quickened pitchblende’ which provided the warmth necessary for teamaking; the tea, once brewed, could either be sipped from a thimble-sized, electrum-plated cuppette—sadly not retained with the specimen on offer here—or, ‘for Gentlemen in a State of Haste, Inhaled’.

It is believed that this Infusohaler was in the possession of Sir Henry Lindsey-Doyle from 1882 until his death, from a mysterious pneumofungal disorder, in late 1887. Sir Henry’s body, naturally mummified, was bequeathed to Science and can still be seen on display in a glass cabinet within the foyer of the London School of Anatomick Curiosities, Grotesqueries, and Cautionary Examples.


Book review: The Hummingbird, by Kati Hiekkapelto

14 10 2016

Kati Hiekkapelto is a Finnish writer, punk vocalist, and performance artist who has worked as a special-needs teacher for immigrant children. Her crime fiction has been nominated for the Glass Key and Petrona awards. She’s written three novels to date: The Hummingbird (Kolibri, 2013, translated by David Hackston) is her debut.


Detective-Inspector Fekete Anna (known to her colleagues as Anna Fekete) is a Hungarian-Yugoslav immigrant newly stationed in the city in Finland’s north where she spent her teenage years. Her hopes for a gentle introduction to her new job within the Violent Crimes Unit are dashed on her first day by two deeply-disturbing cases, which each cut to the core of Anna’s identity: one, a claim of impending honour violence against an immigrant schoolgirl, and two, the brutal shotgun slaying of a jogger in the parkland where Anna herself jogs. It’s not helped, too, that her assigned partner, Esko Niemi (who takes an almost instant dislike to Anna), is a middle-aged detective whose racist tendencies are scarcely more well-concealed than his drinking problem. But Anna finds allies within the Violent Crimes Unit as well, chiefly Sari Jokikokko-Pennanen, the other female officer on the team. Hiekkapelto gets under the skin of each of these characters (and several others besides), presenting them as fully-realised, three-dimensional, complex individuals whose lives intrude on their duties and vice versa. I may well be mistaken in attributing the plain-spoken, cogent nonsentimentality of the prose to some peculiarly Finnish characteristic, but it’s a style I’ve noticed also in the work of Johanna Sinisalo (Birdbrain) and Tove Jansson (her adult fiction, of course, but also the last two Moomin books).

The schoolgirl’s honour-violence claim is withdrawn (a retraction which Anna refuses to accept at face value, despite being instructed by her supervisor Virkkunen to drop the case). And there are very few tangible clues at the site of the jogger’s slaying, since a downpour during the night of the murder has washed away almost everything of potential forensic value. A second, near-identical homicide, forty kilometres from the site of the first, reveals new evidence, but nothing ties the two crimes together except for the plastic necklace of an Aztec god which is found in the pocket of each victim. Every trail of evidence which the officers of the VCU follow leads not to a definitive indication of any suspect, but to further confusion and contradiction.

I haven’t made a study of Scandinavian crime-fiction debuts, but Hiekkapelto’s is impressive, every bit as assured and immersive as those of Mari Jungstedt (Unseen) and Åsa Larsson (The Savage Altar). (As it happens, Åsa Larsson is name-checked in The Hummingbird, as one of three authors—Chandler and (I presume Håkan) Nesser are the others—whose books on a suspect’s shelf are indicative, in Anna’s opinion, of ‘good taste in crime fiction’.) There’s an enviable sense of grit to Anna’s backstory, to the portrayal of a troubled community in Finland’s hinterlands, to the multilayered depiction of the outsider’s lot within a country that is at times generous, at times mistrustful and insular. And Anna herself is a marvellous creation, an unorthodox left-of-centre detective who drinks and smokes more than she wishes to, runs less often than she feels she should, and maintains an awkward interaction with both the Finland which adopted her as a child and the Serbia to which her mother has again retreated. The writing, too, is very well executed: the book is a joy to read, and the sense of mystery holds to the last few pages. I felt that the resolution was wrapped up perhaps a little too neatly, but this is a minor criticism given the absolute surefootedness in every preceding chapter.

Oh, and (though I know I shouldn’t be fixated on such things) the book even has a low-key Moomin reference. What’s not to like?

Cover versions

12 10 2016

I noticed something, today, about two books in my TBR pile. They’re both, as it happens, Scandinavian crime (Iceland and Sweden respectively), but I don’t think that exactly explains the thing I noticed. It’s probably easiest if I show you:

Or, wait, let me rotate one of those for you:

Um, how does this happen? In two books of Nordic crime both first published (in English) in 2012?

That’s a rhetorical question, mainly, because the answer’s reasonably obvious. It’s an effect of reliance on Shutterstock and similar online photo warehouses. The Internet makes possible many things, including the inadvertent duplication of cover images …