The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyTitle: The Rabbit Back Literature Society
Author: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Translator: Lola M. Rogers
Published: first published in Finnish in 2006; English translation published in 2014; this edition published 20 January 2015
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, mystery
Rating: 7/10

The little Finnish town of Rabbit Back is famous for being the home of world-reknowned author Laura White, who penned the Creatureville series of children’s books. Laura White is also famous for having started the Rabbit Back Literature Society – a small group whose members she personally selected in childhood and trained to be writers. The Society was meant to have ten members, but as far as anyone knows it never had more than nine. Now, three decades later, all the members are all well-known authors themselves, but the search for a tenth member continues.

Ella Milana is shocked when she is offered this prestigious position. Having just returned to her home town, she works as a substitute teacher of Finnish Language and Literature at a local high school. She wrote her PhD thesis on the Creatureville books, but has only one piece of published fiction – a short story in Rabbit Back’s literary journal, inspired by her recent experience of finding out that she can’t have children. Apparently Laura White was so impressed by the story that she offered Ella the tenth membership, which includes a stipend to support her during the training.

However, the whole thing turns out to be decidedly odd and more than a little bit disappointing. At the party where Ella is supposed to meet Laura White, the author is only seen for a few brief moments before she falls and disappears in a whirl of snow. With no one around to give her the training she expected, Ella turns to her first love – research – to uncover the hidden truths of the Society. No one knows what Laura White’s methods were. Although the members were once close, they no longer seem to talk to each other. Ella quickly realises that there was once a tenth member whom no one outside the society has ever heard of. She also notices that there are books from the Rabbit Back Library whose words are changing (thereby altering their plots) and one of the society’s authors seems to know about it. So, while the town searches for Laura White’s body, Ella uses her new membership solve the mystery of the Rabbit Back Literature Society.

Ella seldom finds what she expects, and you, the reader, probably won’t either. Rabbit Back is quite a strange place thanks to the influence of Laura White and her books. There are also lots of otherwordly phenomena – lapses in memory, disturbing sightings, inexplicable animal behaviour, and of course the altered books in the library and the manner of Laura White’s disappearance. These things set the novel firmly in the realm of fantasy, but it’s not the kind of book where one or two knowledgable characters eventually reveal all. None of the characters know what’s really going on; the best they can do is try to speak truthfully about the things they’ve seen and experienced and it’s up to Ella – and the reader – to piece that information together.

This sort of thing can be frustrating, but I think Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen hits the right balance, revealing just enough to keep the reader satisfied, while keeping a few secrets that you continue thinking about the story once its over. For me, it also helps that the story is wrapped in folklore and mythology; that sort of thing always piques my interest. It seems that myth and folklore formed an important part of Rabbit Back’s heritage, and the Creatureville books tapped into that, ensuring that it remained a major part of the culture. If you were familiar with Finnish folklore you might get more out this novel; I often felt that the plot and characters drew from tales I, unfortunately, hadn’t heard of.

Overall though, I thought the novel wasn’t just about the various mysteries at play in the plot and but also about the mystery of literature itself, which can never be unravelled. It frequently portrays authors, fiction and the creative process as something alien and enigmatic. People desperately want to understand it, but understanding remains elusive.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the cult that’s grown up around Laura White. She’s like the god of Rabbit Back: people treat her with a sense of awe and reverence, and being chosen for the Society is considered the greatest of honours. The culture and businesses of the town have all been heavily influenced by Laura and her books, often to a bizarre degree. For example, residents can pay €80 for “mythological mapping”, which involves getting a detailed explanation of all the mythological creatures occupying your property. Early in the novel, Ella notices a news story about a farmer who found a potato shaped like one of Laura White’s characters. This is crazy enough, but it gets creepy after the author disappears: people start having nightmares about Laura White’s body climbing into their bedrooms and reading their Creatureville books aloud.

Notably, we never “see” the author herself in the narrative, except for the few moments before she disappears. We only hear about her through other people, so she remains remote, obscure. Mythical, you could say, especially since many of the town’s unexplained phenomena are related to her.

Some of the other writers have large roles in the narrative, but thanks to Laura White they all share an elevated status. They joke about being demigods, and on several occasions, non-members are referred to as “ordinary people”. Those “ordinary people”, of course, buy into this idea as well.

Jääskeläinen, I think, is taking a playful dig at the celebrity and mystique surrounding famous authors. The worship of Laura White becomes almost laughable, while the Society authors tend to have a sardonic attitude toward their own fame.

Of course, there’s also a darker side to this, not only because of the nightmares about Laura White, but because of what all this implies about her life, and what being in the Society meant for its members. It seems unlikely that Laura White had any friends; she was intensely loved and admired in a way that also left her completely alienated. No one seems particularly upset about her disappearance and possible death; this incredible mystery isn’t even a major subject in the novel and Ella actually gets tired of the whole thing because it has nothing to do with her research.

I agreed that her disappearance didn’t feel all that important; the past is far more interesting than the present, with all its murky secrets. Here Jääskeläinen explores some of the more questionable aspects of crafting literature, particulary the way authors use the lives of others to create fictional ones. To help them write, the Society has a secret practice known as The Game. Invented by Laura White, it has strict rules and regulations, and basically involves forcing other members to answer any question as truthfully as they possibly can, even if that means taking drugs to help them overcome any inihibitions. For Ella, this presents the perfect opportunity to gather material for her research paper, but for the rest of the Society it has been a way of mining human experience to find material for their books.

It’s a brilliant idea, and probably taught the authors far more about humanity than they would ever have learned otherwise. However, it also raises quite a few ethical issues and has had serious consequences for the members’ relationships with each other. How much can you take from other people? What happens when life and fiction start to intersect? The book plays around with that question throughout, and I’ll leave you to discover the many ways in which it does that. It’s certainly not a conventional mystery novel, but if you like a bit of fantasy, folklore, mythology and metafiction in the mix, then check it out :)

 

Daily Reads: 27 February 2015

Morning everyone :)

My Daily Reads don’t have a lot of actual reading today; just some cool stuff that’s popped up recently.

Academic ExercisesIf you haven’t already done so, you should really take advantage of Subterranean Press’s Humble Bundle sale. You can:
– Pay what you want and get seven ebooks.
– Pay above the average amount and get an extra twelve ebooks
– Pay $15 dollars or more and get EVERYTHING, which amounts to $123 of sff ebooks.

I might have bought this for the K.J. Parker collection alone, but it’s also got a ton of short fiction by authors I’m really excited to read – Elizabeth Bear, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Joe R. Lansdale, Maria Dahvana Headley, Kat Howard, Tim Powers… Yeah. Best. Deal. EVER.

In case you didn’t know, Subterranean Press is a specialist publisher of sff and horror, producing exclusive titles by some of the best authors in the field. Their print copies are all special editions (hardcovers with leather or cloth binding, often signed, sometimes in slipcases, etc.). They also have loads of ebooks and used to have an excellent magazine, which you can still access for free.

Three Parts Dead

Hopefully that won’t keep you too busy just yet, because Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog and Susan from Dab of Darkness are hosting a readalong of Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone, starting in March. I’ve got a copy that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, so I signed up. It’ll be a very relaxed pace (about 100 words per week), and you can sign up on either blog by leaving a comment. You can blog along if you want, or just blog hop and comment on the weekly discussions.

Finally, Cat Hellisen is doing us all a huge favour by compiling a list of spec fic by South African authors.  Let her know if there’s anything she should add.

Happy reading!

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.

Up for Review: Bones & All

I don’t read a lot of YA, but my interest tends to be piqued when I get offered things like a book about a young cannibal who wants to eat the people she cares about.

Bones and AllBones & All by Camille DeAngelis

Camille DeAngelis will take you on a haunting journey of self-discovery in her debut novel, Bones & All.

Maren Yearly doesn’t just break hearts, she devours them.

Since she was a baby, Maren has had serious trouble accepting affection. Any time someone gets too close to her, she’s overcome by the desire to eat them.  Abandoned by her mother the day after her sixteenth birthday, Maren goes looking for the father she has never known, but finds much more than she bargained for along the way.

Faced with a world of fellow eaters, potential enemies, and the prospect of love, Maren realizes she isn’t only looking for her father, she is looking for herself. The real question is, will she like who she finds?

 

Bones & All will be published on 10 March 2015 by St. Martin’s Press.

Links
Camille DeAngelis: Website l Twitter (@cometparty) l Facebook
Bones & All on Goodreads
Read an excerpt
St. Martin’s Press

Sister Sister by Rachel Zadok

Sister SisterTitle: Sister Sister
Author: Rachel Zadok
Published: 20 April 2013
Publisher: Kwela Books
Source: own copy
Genre: fantasy
Rating: 8/10

Thuli and Sindi are twins who were once so close they climbed into each other’s dreams. They have a subtly magical connection that no one else sees. But now they wander, homeless and lost, following the highways of Joburg. Several years before, something came between them when an uncle they didn’t know existed came to visit with news of their dying grandmother. He set in motion a series of revelations and events that mangle the twins’ close relationship. The narrative alternates between the two timelines: Thuli narrates the surreal present-day story, while Sindi takes us back to the preceding years when everything went so disturbingly wrong.

Sister Sister takes place in an unspecified near-future South Africa, after “the petrol car amnesty, when everyone was meant to change to electric” (17). Thuli and Sindi were born the day before the change, which the newspapers called “The Dawn of Fresh New Era” (17). The girls’ mother kept the newspaper clipping, and for a while the twins thought that they were the “new dawn” the article referred to.

The truth is harsher than the simple shattering of childhood beliefs. Thuli and Sindi might have been born into a changing world, but that world was always out of their reach. They grew up in a township and their mother would never have been able to afford a car. When they take public transport it’s in illegal “b-diesel junks” where they are packed in tightly with other passengers. The man who rents their tiny house out to them also converts the old cooking oil from a fried-chicken franchise into fuel.

It’s interesting to note that this often makes the novel feel as if it were in the postapocalyptic or dystopian genre, even thought it isn’t. The poverty of life in a township is in itself a kind of real-world dystopia. Then, when they’re homeless, the twins exist outside of any normal society as we understand it, and encounter sinister underground communities.

In addition, their surroundings are always filled with the imagery of broken, dead or discarded things. We first see Sindi, she’s been sleeping “in a wreck at the side of the road […] on the only seat that hasn’t been ripped out to find a new life as somebody’s couch” (13). Later, she hungrily devours dog food pellets that “crunch like chicken bones in her teeth” (23). Not only does the idea of eating dry dog food come as a sad shock, but the fact that Thuli’s reference for crunchiness is “chicken bones” is telling. Similarly, I find it unnerving when she says “I can almost taste the sweetness of her sweat on my tongue, a faint whiff like roadkilled dogs baking in the sun” (41). It says a lot about the twins’ lives.

Everywhere they go they find rubbish, wrecked cars, dilapidated buildings; signs of poverty and neglect. Lost souls wander seemingly endless roads, and the threat of danger is always present. The story of a classmate who was raped and killed hovers over them. Even at home the twins risk getting beaten by their violent mother. When visit the village of their birth to see their dying grandmother they find it deserted, ravaged by AIDS, and vultures feed on dead livestock. Grim as this all is, Rachel Zadok’s incredible writing gives the story an eerie, monstrous kind of beauty, which is often evoked by the folklore woven into the tale. It alternates between feeling fantastical and disturbingly real.

The thing is though, this isn’t actually set in a fantastical or science fictional world. The only major differences are the ban on electric cars, and the unbearably hot weather (presumably due to climate change). Mention is made of abandoned houses, although the novel doesn’t really get into the reasons for this. Otherwise, it’s a lot like South Africa today, in terms of both poverty and affluence. The twins watch people driving to work. They gaze through steel bars at the safe gated communities where they will never live. There are “crazies” wandering the highways on foot, but a friend who read the book with me says she instantly recognised them as a standard feature of Joburg’s freeways.

The plot fits perfectly with this setting. Rather than being able to grow and blossom, the young twins are caught up in a dire story over which they have little control. Often when they’re able to make decisions, they’re bad or hopeless decisions. When homeless, the focus is on basic survival. In the earlier narrtive, they become the victims of family drama and poisonous traditional or religious beliefs. In an interview with the Mail and Guardian, Zadok said that her “fascination with belief systems and how they affect cultures and the individual” was what most likely inspired Sister Sister, and indeed issues of belief come up again and again.

The twins’ mother left her village partly because of the stigma associated with twins, who are believed to be bad luck. When they return, the village’s desolation (caused by HIV/AIDS) is blamed on the twins. Not that they bear the burden equally – because Sindi has a stutter and seldom speaks to anyone except Thuli, she is often frowned upon while her friendly sister is favoured. This in turn ends up affecting Sindi’s beliefs about herself and her sister in ways that divide them and drive the plot forward. Belief in this context is never abstract: it is manifested in vivid, prophetic dreams, in the ways the sisters connect with each other and perceive their world, and in the actions the characters choose to take.

I’m not going to say much more about the plot because it might be better to just watch it unfold. That said, it can be a difficult novel to get into. Thuli’s sections of narrative are narrated in a very surreal style, in which dream and memory aren’t always easily distinguished from reality. The world itself might also take some getting used to. Because I’m the kind of pendantic reader who stalls or flips back and forth between the pages if I don’t know exactly what’s going on, it took me about a week to get through Part One, which is only 55 pages long. But if you find it similarly difficult, just hang in there. Sindi’s narrative is more straightfoward and I flew through Part Two in less than a day. It’s also worth keeping in mind that when Thuli starts the story, she is hiding something important from herself and the reader. She tells us, sadly, that “remembering’s hard. The world’s an ugly place and memories aren’t something to unwrap like birthday presents” (63).

It makes sense then, that the novel is slow to reveal its secrets, even the ones you might have already guessed at. Not that figuring out the mystery spoils the story, because it’s just like Thuli says – the world is ugly and these memories aren’t a delight to uncover. Even though I soon figured out the gist of what happened to the twins, that knowledge never lessened the impact of events.

Admittedly, if I had known exactly what this story was about, I might not have read it. Child abuse, poverty, AIDS, homelessness – the novel features all of these things and I normally shy away from these topics as too harrowing unless I’ve braced myself to deal with them. However, Zadok handles the story with such grace and creativity that the novel can be a wonderful read without ever detracting from the seriousness of its subject matter.

I also think that the speculative aspects were crucial, not only to my enjoyment but to the novel as a whole. By setting the story in an alternative/future South Africa that seems postapocalyptic or dystopian but isn’t, Zadok evokes the otherworldly reality of poverty and homelessness. Similarly, the story’s fantastical elements give it a dreamy quality that often serve to detach Thuli and Sindi from their world, as if they’re moving within an interstitial space where they can never get a tight hold of reality or be fully in control.  The fantastical also just makes the story incredibly beautiful and haunting. Sister Sister is the kind of book that gets me excited about South African sff not only because it was a good read but because it explores the ways in which writers can use fantasy to tell South African stories.

Daily Reads: Malinda Lo on perceptions of diversity in book reviews

Glasses Journal

Today I was reading author Malinda Lo’s wonderful series of articles entitled Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews. Her goal was to discern and critique the way reviewers think about diversity in fiction, and how that informs their opinions. Lo focuses on the shorter trade reviews of YA books, but the issues she raises can be applied to all kinds of reviews of books in any genre.

 

Part 1: “Scarcely plausible”
The first post includes the introduction to Lo’s topic and some notes about her methods, but the main issue is the way reviewers sometimes criticise a novel’s diversity as being “contrived”. This seems to be a fundamental problem, so I pulled a few quotes from Lo’s article (emphasis in bold is my own):

The critique of The Doubt Factory‘s “perfectly ethnically and sexually diverse” cast as “scarcely plausible” reveals a deep-seated belief that a group of people are unlikely to be ethnically and sexually diverse. As in Stranger, this diverse cast is read by the reviewer as contrived — as something constructed in a less-than-subtle manner by the author, and thus as unrealistic. In the review of On a Clear Day, the statement that “Effort has clearly been made to diversify this cast” suggests that this diversity would not have existed naturally; it needed effort.

 

What disturbs me more than a review’s denial that diversity is realistic, however, is the belief that purposely creating — contriving with “effort” — a diverse cast is pandering to the diversity movement that has been simmering for decades, and has exploded in YA and children’s literature over the past year.

 

It reveals a belief that simmers beneath all those critiques of diversity as implausible: the belief that nonwhite, LGBT, and disabled characters are simply unnecessary; that adding in these perspectives derails a story; that “reality” is white and homogenous.

 

Part 2: So many (too many?) issues
This post addresses the idea that including too many issues gets in the way of good storytelling. Reviewers often want things to be simpler and easier, but one of the problems with this is that it excludes people who have to deal with multiple minority identities (e.g. black, gay, Muslim).

 

Part 3: A lot to decode
This is a particularly interesting issue, which I’ve struggled with more than the others – if a book is written from the POV of a non-dominant culture, to what extent should it cater to those outside of that culture (typically white or westernised readers)?

Lo finds that many reviewers criticise diverse books for not explaining unfamiliar cultures to readers, and for using unfamiliar slang and non-English words. The underlying assumption here is that most readers are white and westernised, and thus it is of utmost importance to cater to them, rather than anyone else (who might not need or want all those explanations). As she politely suggests, you could just try harder – if you stumble at something unfamiliar, look it up, figure it out from context, or ignore it and keep going. Just like you would do with any other word or concept you don’t know.

And maybe take a moment to consider the validity of your opinion as a reviewer:

Instead of demanding glossaries and criticizing a book for including non-English words and non-Western cultures, reviewers who find these kinds of novels “frustrating” should consider whether they are culturally informed enough to review the book properly. Not all books are meant for white/Western readers. This is not a problem, and I hope that reviewers and review editors will realize this.

 

Part 4: Readers may be surprised
This one addresses cases where the limited or bigoted perspectives of reviewers affects reviews. For example, a reviewer might criticise a minority character for being unrealistic because they do not fit the reviewer’s idea of that identity. Or, a reviewer might express surprise at the existence of a certain community, because the reviewer’s understanding of the world is pretty narrow.

 

Overall, these articles have me thinking about how I’ve handled issues of diversity in my own reviews, and how I should do so in future. On the one hand I do want to highlight diversity and related issues for readers, to spread the word about more diverse books and capture the interest of those who are looking to read more widely. But in doing so, am I also portraying those books as non-standard, with dominant cultures as the norm? Or is it fair to argue that that’s just the way things are anyway, so it helps to single certain books, characters or themes out in the hope that the literary scene as a whole eventually becomes more diverse?

Mind you, I often feel a bit odd when pointing out diversity in novels, as if I’m pointing at someone and going “OMG look! This guy is black and gay! Isn’t that just wonderfully exotic and therefore awesome?” There have been a few occasions when I was treated as kind of exotic or weird (How can you be (South) African, your skin is [the wrong colour]! Oh, you speak English!), which I found ridiculous and annoying if not offensive. Still, I think it’s ok to say that you find someone’s identity new and interesting and you’d like to know more about them. I suppose it’s a matter of approaching them with respect rather than just curiosity?

Then I got to thinking about books with a lot of unfamiliar content – words, cultures, etc. I see no problem with looking things up, but having to do it too often really is going to get tiresome. But if I don’t know enough about the context, should I be writing a review? Well, I think there’s a loophole here – make it clear that your opinion comes from a position of general ignorance, and don’t automatically turn your failure to understand something into a criticism of the book. Trying to read out of your comfort zone is admirable, but it doesn’t lend any kind of authority to your opinion.

Anyway, I’ve blathered on for long enough now. Does anyone else have any thoughts on discussing issues of diversity in reviews? Or is it something you feel safer avoiding?

 

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.

Photography for this post is courtesy of Ruth Smith. You can view or buy her work here, or contact her at photobunny24@gmail.com.

Daily Reads: 16 February 2015

I’m just going to avoid talking about how very very long it’s taking me to finish my current review, and instead give you a moment to appreciate the Joey Hi-fi cover of my current read – Fletcher by David Horscroft, published by Fox & Raven.

FletcherDavid Horscroft is a South African novelist and Fletcher is his debut, a postapocalyptic sf thriller with one of the most insanely violent main characters I’ve ever read. I took a break from all its bleeding and screaming to see what was happening on my favourite blogs.

I’ve been seeing the Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear floating around the internet lately, but, for no reason in particular, I didn’t take a closer look. However, I put it on my priority list after reading Bear’s guest post about writing an authentic prostitute character for whom selling sex is a job, not a definition of who she is. Yay for interesting, complex female perspectives :)

Then today I learned that Neil Clarke, creator of Clarkesworld magazine, is publishing a new digital-only sff magazine called Forever. I find this both exciting and kind of depressing. Exciting because I’m expecting more wonderful sff from it, and depressing because I feel like I’m being buried under all the short fiction I need to read. But the nice thing about this new magazine is that, for now, it will only have one novella and two short stories. That means I might actually be able to finish reading one in a month! I used to be able to do that with Clarkesworld, but they’ve since expanded to six stories a month, and I never get around to reading all of them. I know I don’t have to; it just feels good to finish the whole magazine.

Finally, there’s this nice, short personal essay by Haralambi Markov on writing queer characters in sff – the fear of doing it, and why you absolutely should do it. The essay is part of Lightspeed magazine’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter campaign. Can’t wait to check out that edition :) Surprisingly, this brings me back to Fletcher, whose raving psychopath protagonist also happens to be openly bisexual… Lemme go see if I can finish that book tonight.

Happy reading!

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.

Photography for this post is courtesy of Ruth Smith. You can view or buy her work here, or contact her at photobunny24@gmail.com.

Guest posting at A Dribble of Ink

I was thoroughly chuffed when Aidan from the Hugo-award winning A Dribble of Ink asked me to do a guest post for his blog. My initial ideas were a tad ambitious in the context of my current time constraints, but I ended up writing what I hope is a fitting tribute to South African speculative fiction and its fundamental role in getting me to read local fiction (because, sadly, there was a time when I avoided pretty much all of it). You can read my post here.

After reading some dreck this morning about how sff should only be for fun, never political, and always exactly the same as it was in the fifties, it occurs to be that my post might come off as having similarly apolitical sentiments. I sincerely hope not, especially given the novels I recommended, which are all political or progressive to some degree. If anything I feel that pleasure and politics are not mutually exclusive, and that a book can be entertaining or beautiful and still tackle weighty themes. Rather, my gripe with (English) fiction publishing in South Africa was that for a long time there seemed to be some kind of resistance to publishing anything that wasn’t deadly serious and unwaveringly realist. I was almost afraid to read an SA novel because it would no doubt be harrowing. It’s only recently that I’ve seen more variety, and it’s the publication of spec fic that encouraged me, first to give local fiction another chance, and then to read as much of it as I could find :)