on 4 January 2015
I just wanted to add to the deserving 5-star reviews of this wonderful book, probably the best thing I read in 2014. It's not for everyone, I agree, but if you love books and magical realism done with an engaging style, then this may be for you. The curious title relates to a small society of writers in the curiously titled town of Rabbit Back. There are only nine of them until they're joined by a tenth, whose experience is detailed in the book.
There are many mysteries. Who is the mysterious author who decides who should be invited to join the society? Why does she suddenly disappear? Why do some of the classic works in the library keep changing plot? Then there is the curious Game, which gets very creepy indeed.
I guess there are a few unresolved ideas, and some odd plot devices that won't appeal to all. But I loved it.
on 12 April 2014
I rarely write reviews, but this is such a wonderfully different book that I know I will read again and find things that I missed. Worth a read!
on 17 February 2015
I can't make up my mind. Odd suggests unusual but not strange, which is really too weak for this book. Weird is certainly nearer the mark. And this story takes all sorts of strange directions. It is anything but predictable and not satisfying for the reader. If the author is making a point I don't have the remotest idea what that is.
on 23 September 2014
A great read, entertaining, funny in places, moving, disturbing and totally mysterious! Enchanting and magical with some fantastically cynical and unique passages about life, love and death.
Left me wanting more explanation, but not actually needing any.
Will be recommending to my friends and family.
on 10 February 2014
The Rabbit Back Literature Society is something special. Originally published in 2006 it was translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers. It's hard to judge how successful the translation is as I'm unfamiliar with both Finnish and Finnish literature and I don't know whether the translation has kept the rhythm and the beats of its original language. Unfamiliarity with the original language also makes it hard to judge some of the linguistic quirks of the novel as it's unclear whether things that bugged me were due to authorial choice or whether this is just a normal Finnish practice. One of the things that I really had to get used to was the fact that our protagonist, Ella is often referred to by not just her first and last name, but even by her full name, Ella Amanda Milana. This just felt strange to me and shook me out of the narrative a number of times at first.
Jääskeläinen gives us a fascinating narrative, which frames a mystery which is unravelled in sometimes almost dreamlike flashbacks related by the members of the Rabbit Back Society. These members run the gamut of genres and are all successful authors. Some of them receive more page time than others and not all the members spill as part of The Game, which is the way we get to know some of them better. The three other members, other than Ella, the reader gets to know well are Martti Winter the successful literary writer, Ingrid Katz, the YA writer, and Arne C. Ahlqvist a.k.a. Aura Jokinen, the SF writer. Through them we get glimpses of the legendary and mysterious Laura White and the genesis of the Rabbit Back Literary Society. I found their reminiscences fascinating and often chilling, but they always handed both Ella and the readers clues to solving the mystery of Laura White and the reputed first tenth member of the Society.
The Game the Society members play with each other is an interesting device, which allows Jääskeläinen to showcase the somewhat sinister undertones to the Society and give his protagonist a way to get to the bottom of the book's central mystery. It's also very much not a game and seeing the lengths they will go to in obtaining what they want can be somewhat disturbing. The book is also rather meta at some points, concerned as it is with writing and writers. However, it's also very much a literature scholar's narrative as Ella often approaches events from this angle and connections are drawn between books, authors and themes, all to aid Ella in solving the puzzle. The structure of the novel is interesting; the interweaving of third-person past and present, interleaved with first-person narration and fragments from newspaper articles, creates depth and background to the text without Ella or the narrator having to tell the reader things outright.
Jääskeläinen's book is more magical realist than straight-up fantasy, but I can see it appealing to those who like supernatural mysteries. I really enjoyed The Rabbit Back Literature Society. It was an interesting story, with some fascinating exploration of the human psyche and an intricate narrative structure. If you're looking for something speculative outside of the norm, then The Rabbit Back Literature Society comes highly recommended.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.
on 28 March 2016
I can honestly say this is the weirdest, most fantastical and most irritating books I have ever had the pleasure of reading. It is a book which leaves the reader with a thousand questions, and ends with an answer to a question we haven't even asked. It is wonderfully frustrating in its nonsense, I can't explain why I like it, heck, I can't even explain it.
In some ways, my love for this book is similar to the plot: it has no rhyme or reason. The writing is blunt at times, other times almost syrupy sweet and overly descriptive. It starts bluntly, crosses through time, space and people, as well as media, through diaries and letters and recollections. The protagonist is both likeable and relateable, but also frustrating and sometimes even annoying. The sanest character appears to have been the father with severe dementia, and the entire town of Rabbit Back appears to be under the spell of the mysterious author, who enters dreams one moment and haunts gardens the next.
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen appears to have come up with a thousand brilliant plots, purposefully left them unfinished and then threw them altogether. You start the story thinking all is well. Then there comes a mystery, which, well, fine. But then comes a series of entirely unconnected events, and another series of entirely unconnected events, until they all end up in a tangle which even the protagonist, and quite possibly the author, cannot unscramble.
[Spoilers] This book ultimately is one for the reader to interpret. Characters can be likeable to some, and not to others. We are all left with questions, but quite which ones we dwell on the most depends on the person. Laura White, the author who set up the Rabbit Back Literature Society, disappeared in a snow flurry when she was coming down the stairs of her house at a party. She is a respectable children's author, an international celebrity, a beloved, if reclusive, inhabitant of a small town. By the end, you aren't quite sure whether she's human, or whether she's even real. Is she Mother Snow, is she a force of nature? One moment she appears kind, the next cold. The universe changes around her, as if it must fit her rather than the other way round, but when she is gone (is she gone? Can she ever be gone?) the mysteries still remain, and are still created as well.
This book is variously populated by an overweight, cynical author, psycopathic Game players using drugs and torture to extract information, harried widows, an entire world of dreamers, house elves, garden elves and apparently shed elves, dogs (and dog warfare), phantoms and spirits, librarians, shop owners, doctors, professors, sci-fi writers, forgotten children and book bacteria. The mundane and the magical are inseparable, the boundaries between both blurred and ever changing, if they even exist.
You end the book with no clue about what happened, what's going on and what you're supposed to feel. I can honestly say this is the most messed up, weirdest, strangest books I have ever read. It is funny, sad, pretty, sexual, magical and just plain crazy. I don't know why I'd recommend it to anyone or why I would give it five stars except I feel I should. This book is not about logic, it's about feelings, at least it is for me, so perhaps that's fitting. Congratulations to the author for making me write a review, 56 minutes past midnight exactly, because I couldn't get to sleep with this book in my head.
on 27 February 2016
Ok, so I'll admit I was drawn to this book for its stunning cover; and therein ends my love affair with this book. It was just plain wierd, often slow and I'm not entirely sure what the point was!
It reads like a Finnish folk story, goblins and elves and fairies and a there's whole load of unexplained things happening. The Finnish names don't help either, trying to prounounce them in my head just added to the frustration.
In part one we learn more about Laura's life and relationship with her parents and school which all seems relatively normal if a little boring.
But then we move into part two and the strange disappearance of author Laura White and the effects on the townfolk and the Society members - this is where the strange stuff starts happening and I totally lost the plot...yes, exactly that, I really had no idea what was supposed to be going and I found it a slog to read this section.
In part three there's these truth games with the purpose to get its members to 'spill' their deepest most innermost secrets but why?? And they were taking this 'yellow' truth drug, I mean why would you do that?. This Literature Society was so revered that its members were doing all this weird out of character stuff just to be included, they were successful published authors, surely they no longer needed this 'notoriety'.
There's nothing wrong with the actual structure of the book and the writing is perfectly acceptable, if somewhat simplistic, I just didn't get it.
If you liked The Night Circus or even The Invisible Library or any kind of magical realism I suspect you'd like this, unfortunately not for me.
on 20 October 2015
This book wasn't what I expected it to be. Not at all. I bought it on a whim when I read an article about how it was one of the best books of the year and a must-read. Even though it was enjoyable, I would never have categorized it as a must-read, let alone one of the best books of the year.
The way it was described, I was expecting a thriller that will make your toes curl. Murder, mystery and suspense were all things I was waiting for. Unfortunately, although there was mystery, and an alleged murder/disappearance, there was very little suspense to make your toes curl.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society is about a very secretive and important society of the best writers in Rabbit Back. They consist of 9 members, never picking the 10th member before - until Ella. Ella is a literature substitute teacher who lives at home with her mother and peculiar dad. After a series of strange and not so important events, Ella is picked to be the 10th member of this elite Society. However, before she can truly become a member, her welcome party is attacked by a bizarre snow storm of sorts, in which Laura White, the head of the Society, disappears. Ella begins to understand that all is not as it seems in this Society, and wants to find out where Laura disappeared to and why.
So begins a series of interviews with the rest of the Society members, who obviously have a lot hidden and Ella starts to uncover that a 10th member did exist at one time many years ago. She tries to figure out what happened to him and after weeks and months of this, Laura is assumed dead, and Ella believes that this boy may have been murdered.
It's a good book, an interesting story, but not what I expected going into it. It is well written though, and I did want to know what happened to that little boy who disappeared and Laura White. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a lot of loose ends left unresolved, but overall an entertaining book.
on 4 February 2015
Ella Amanda Milana is a literature and language teacher at a high school in Rabbit Back, a smallish town in Finland. She’s grading essays one day when she comes across one that insists Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov killed the pawn broker with piano wire and was shot by the prostitute with a heart of gold. Upon confronting the student, she’s handed the book he read, which is, indeed a legitimate copy of Dostoevsky’s classic.
She consults the town librarian, Ingrid Katz, (who is also a famous author and member of the elite Rabbit Back Literature Society) who behaves rather suspiciously and says the book is probably a misprint or joke and puts it away. After stealing a stack of books Crime and Punishment is part of, she hurries home and looks through them, learning that, in the ‘new’ versions quite different things happen from the ones she’d read. (Meursault is rescued by Joseph K for one.) But that’s only the beginning of the mysteries about to be laid at Ella Amanda Milana’s feet.
An aspiring author, and long-time devotee of both the town’s most famous resident, world-renown children’s author Laura White, as well as the carefully chosen nine writers White began nurturing three decades before known as The Rabbit Back Literature Society, Ella is beside herself when she is invited to become the tenth, and final, member.
Then there is a tragedy, as will happen, which reveals a decades-long mystery, as will also happen. Ella sets her mind on solving it and is quickly introduced to something called The Game, which sounds like great fun but is something much more sinister. It’s useful for her mystery-solving purposes but she’s going to have to sacrifice a great deal of herself.
And off down the proverbial rabbit hole they all go.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen is about books and writing and memory. And the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and what happens when doing so is no longer an option–when we’re forced to let go of words and allow pure emotion to take over or risk losing the thing that means the most to us.
Within the first two pages this book was clearly barreling right up my street and with every page it came closer like that boulder in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. With that sort of connection to a piece of writing the risk of the pay off not, well, paying off, looms large. I am notoriously hard on endings, but in this case I actually clapped my hands on the last page. I don’t know if a book ending has ever provoked that response before, but if so I don’t remember.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society will speak to readers who enjoyed The Secret History by Donna Tartt or Ghost Story by Peter Straub. All three books are about insular intellectual societies with something dark at their hearts. All also have scenes of frigid beauty–snow and ice are nearly their own characters in both Rabbit Back and Ghost Story.
There’s also a bit of Haruki Murakami about the thing. Just enough to keep appearing at the edges of the reader’s mind after putting down the book. The book jumping–books altering their plots–put me in mind of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. Something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on also reminded me of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, as well. At any rate, if you enjoy any of those books, give this one a go.
This one is definitely going on my best of 2015 list. We’re hardly a fortnight into the year, but I loved everything about it. The writing was top rate (it was translated by Lola M. Rogers) and it’s the sort of book that lingers in the mind.
I recommend this one for those who like a little magic and mystery with their literary fiction. 5/5
[I received a free copy of this in exchange for an honest review but I’ll be pressing copies on several people quite voluntarily.]
on 26 November 2014
I’ve had my eye on this book for a while, intrigued by the title and the cover that doesn’t give much away. Having finally read it, I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it’s a curious, different read. Not at all what I expected (which was a book about books, or reading, I suppose), but good nonetheless.
The novel is set in Rabbit Back, a small town that evokes the same feelings I have when I remember reading Enid Blyton as a child. In theory it’s a perfectly normal town – provincial and a bit insular, perhaps, but nothing out of the ordinary. But there’s a definite sense right from the start that there’s more to Rabbit Back. In any case, Ella is not thrilled to be living in Rabbit Back, sharing a house with her mother and teaching literature, until two unexpected things happen: first, a copy of a classic novel that she has taught for years is inexplicably corrupted; and second, Ella is selected to join ‘The Society’.
The Society is the pride of Rabbit Back, a group of writers personally selected by famed but reclusive children’s author Laura White. The writers were chosen as children and despite the Society having space for ten members, there have only ever been nine. It’s been a long time since a new member was selected, and Ella is honoured to have been chosen. But she never gets to meet Laura White herself, and soon discovers that there’s more to the Rabbit Back Literature Society than the outside world knows.
This group of nine have grown up together, and not everyone is pleased to welcome a new member – particularly one who seems to keen to unearth the secrets of the Society. Ella has to figure out The Game, the epicentre of group dynamics, whilst also trying to understand who Laura White is and what has happened to her, and whether there is any connection between the Society and the ever-spreading ‘book virus’ in Rabbit Back.
I guess this would be classified as magical realism, perhaps, or maybe it’s just the uncanny. It’s lots of little mysteries and puzzles wrapped up in one strange but intriguing package. Not all of those mysteries are resolved by the end of the book; many questions still remain unanswered, which is a little frustrating. But this didn’t feel like a careless oversight on the part of the author; rather it felt like a deliberate choice and actually quite in keeping with the slightly unsettling, never-quite-knowing-what-could-happen feel of the whole novel. I read something that suggested it has a ‘very Finnish atmosphere’ and compared it to The Moomins – I don’t know enough about Finnish culture to know how representative this is, but I thought it was an interesting comparison. And certainly The Rabbit Back Literature Society is very different to most other things I’ve read, including French and Spanish literature as well as English-language books.
One thing I did really love is the beautiful writing, which I attribute as much to a skilled translator as to the original author. I don’t often use the ‘highlight’ feature on my Kindle, but I found myself highlighting odd passages as I read, like this one:
‘Falling in love with a person’s momentary being was as irrational as falling in love with the left side of his face, or the back of his head, or some other individual part of him. That was why Ella couldn’t really blame her former boyfriend for not knowing how to love her once her childless future was made visible.’
It’s not an overly philosophical novel, but Ella is quite a reflective and philosophical person, so there are passages such as this that jumped out at me or resonated with me. At one point, Ella remembers believing as a child that everything must be being recorded by some kind of higher being, because how could the most precious moments be completely fleeting and transitory? These moments are at once beautifully written and a window into Ella’s psyche, which just happened on many occasions to echo my own.
In part related to the lovely writing, I also enjoyed the characterisation of the Society members. They are all in some way slightly eccentric, and their colourful personalities result in some quite comical situations. Overall the humour in the novel is on the dark side, but there are some more straightforwardly funny moments. Often those moments are quite visual (the writing in general is very good at evoking strong mental pictures), and actually I can imagine a TV adaptation of The Rabbit Back Literature Society working very well, for this reason amongst others – that’s something I’d love to see.
Overall I’d say the nature of the genre and plot mean this is not a particularly easy read – it’s one that takes a bit of concentration to follow. But it’s fun and different and really did keep me interested throughout. What’s stayed with me is that overall sense of magical realism and some key scenes, rather than the specific trajectory of the plot, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.