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One From the Archive: ‘The Rabbit Back Literature Society’ by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen ****

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen was first published in Finland in 2006.  The novel in its lovely Pushkin Press edition has been translated from its original Finnish by Lola M. Rogers.

The novel’s protagonist, twenty six-year-old Ella Milana, is first introduced to us as ‘the reader’.  She is a Finnish language and literature teacher – ‘a dreamy substitute with defective ovaries and gracefully curved lips’ – who has returned to her hometown, Rabbit Back, to work as a substitute at the high school.  Whilst living in her childhood home once more, Ella finds herself with rather a lot to deal with – along with a stressful pile of marking each evening, her father is suffering from quite extreme memory loss, and all that interests her mother are ‘television shows and entering raffle drawings in the hope of winning a prize’.

Ella’s story begins when one of her students is found reading an incorrect version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which the plot has been altered considerably: ‘… the existence of the irregular Dostoevky deeply offended her, and when she was offended she could sometimes do impulsive, purely intuitive things’.  When returning it to the local library, Ella becomes suspicious that the librarian is not more surprised by the incident: ‘A prank like that would take a very unusual saboteur and it was hard to imagine what the motive would be.  And how could such a book remain in circulation for nearly twenty years without anyone noticing anything strange about it?’

The Rabbit Back Literature Society of the novel’s title is ‘a collection of gifted children who would, with [Laura] White’s guidance, grow up to be writers’.  Promising students at the Rabbit Back school have work sent to local and revered children’s author Laura White, who is continually involved in ‘her search for the new members she desires’.  At the beginning of the novel, however, the society has had no new members for three decades: ‘The possibility of joining the society was practically theoretical, since the entire present membership – nine lifetime member authors – had all joined in the first three years after the Society was established in 1968’.

After one of Ella’s short stories is published in a supplement in the local paper, however, she is invited to join the Society.  We are given quite a fascinating insight into the world of the elite in consequence.  At a society get together, for example, ‘The members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society don’t seem to be talking with each other.  They pass close by each other now and then, but never look each other in the eye, never indulge in conversation.  One could very easily assume that they don’t know each other at all’.  Two elements of mystery – one of which revolves around a shadowy past member whom nobody really remembers, and the other of which deals with the sudden unexplained disappearance of Laura White herself – soon come to light.

Bookish Ella is a character whom I found myself immediately endeared to: ‘She’d read more than was healthy, hundreds of books every year.  Some of them she read twice, or even three times, before returning them.  Some of them she would check out again after letting them sink in a while.  She’d thought at that time that books were at their best when you’d read them two or three times’.

The novel’s third person perspective focuses mainly upon Ella and her place in Rabbit Back; a lot of thought has clearly gone into her character, her past and her actions. Such care has been taken over the translation of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and it flows wonderfully.  The whole is compelling, and is filled with some lovely passages and ideas.  There is a creative aspect to be found in The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and Jaaskalainen has woven in elements of magical realism here and there, which add a wonderful balance to the whole.  The novel becomes darker as it goes on, and it has been so well crafted that it is a true joy to read.

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One From The Archive: ‘The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’ by Louise Murphy ****

First published in 2013.

9780142003077I am drawn to stories set during the Second World War, particularly when those stories are involved with survival.  I will read anything to do with this topic, from the diaries of those who hid from captors, to fictional accounts of the ways in which both capture and death could be evaded.  I also love fairytales, and modern day adaptations of old favourites.  I had therefore had my eye upon Louise Murphy’s The True Story of Hansel and Gretel for quite some time, and began it as soon as I had procured a copy.

Throughout, I found the novel incredibly powerful – unsettling so at times.  The sense of place and atmosphere which Murphy built up were truly stunning.  I loved the way in which she transferred the fairytale to a believable historical setting – World War Two in Poland, where two young children – renamed Hansel and Gretel by their father so that they appear to be more German – are left in the woods.  They soon come across the house of an elderly lady named Magda, who is purported to be the town’s ‘witch’.

Throughout, Murphy has successfully brought some of the horrors of the Holocaust back to life, and she describes the struggle for survival which Hansel and Gretel and their new family endure so poignantly.  Each scene, particularly with regard to the darker ones, were incredibly vivid.

The author has created a wonderfully crafted and memorable tale, which I found very difficult to put down.  Murphy’s ideas were so clever throughout, and the original tale woven in so cleverly, that I am hoping she will continue the theme of updating fairytales, making them fit into both our generation and our history.

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One From the Archive: ‘In Falling Snow’ by Mary-Rose MacColl ***

 

First published in 2013, the premise of the novel appealed to me immediately.  In 1978, an elderly widow named Iris Crane, who lives in a quiet part of Brisbane, is invited to a World War One reunion in France, and is quickly ‘overcome by memories of the past’.  As a young woman, Iris travelled to France at the start of the First World War, following her younger brother, Tom, who joined up and left home.  Her intention at first is solely to bring him back to the safety of Australia, but she soon finds herself working at a field hospital at an old Abbey in Royaumont.  She is tasked under the capacity of being a personal assistant of sorts to the sometimes formidable Miss Ivers, merely due to her competence in French.

Part of the present-day story which runs alongside Iris’ memories deals with her granddaughter, Grace, a doctor and mother of three.  Interestingly, Iris’ tale makes use of the first person perspective, while Grace’s is told by an omniscient third person narrator.  This technique worked well to break up the plots and different generations of characters, but Grace’s portion of the plot did also feel rather detached in consequence.  I found myself far preferring Iris’ part of the story; whilst Grace’s had some interesting elements within it, it seemed a little lacklustre, and I could not make myself like her as a person.  Some of the decisions which she made did not seem at all rational for an educated woman in her position, and she did not come across as a believable protagonist.  The only character whom I felt endeared to in In Calling Snow was Grace’s young son, Henry; for the most part, he felt like a realistic construct.  He was also the least predictable of MacColl’s creations, and I believe that this helped towards my liking him.

There is real strength in some of MacColl’s prose, but the conversations let it down somewhat for me.  They did not feel quite balanced, and at times were either unnecessary or unrealistic.  Some of the descriptive phrasing was nice enough, but a lot of the prose lacked depth, particularly given the emotion which should have been packed into every page of such a novel.  I was reminded in part of Kate Morton’s work in In Falling Snow, both in terms of the dual storylines and familial saga aspects of the plot, but I do not think that MacColl quite pulled off the story as well as Morton could have done.  I did find a couple of discrepancies within the plot too – with regard to Henry’s age, for example.

I really liked the general premise of In Falling Snow, but it fell a little flat for me.  Some elements were perhaps not executed as well as they could have been.  The denouement was also quite precitable.  Iris’ gradual memory loss was handled sensitively, however, and I admire MacColl for being able to put this element of the plot, and her sympathy for Iris’ situation, across so well.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Curious Invitation: A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature’ by Suzette Field ****

Happy New’s Eve, all!  How better to celebrate on this special day than to read about parties from literature?

‘What do Plato, Jane Austen, Dickens, Proust and Jackie Collins have in common?’ asks the blurb of Suzette Field’s book, A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature.  Very little, you might argue.  And you would be wrong according to the author, who believes that their common link is that ‘they all wrote a good party’.

9781447228967Field, one of ‘London’s top party organisers’, has collected together a whole host of ‘famous fictional festivities’.  Some of the parties throughout have been lifted straight from the pages of famous novels from around the world, whilst a few ‘spring from the writer’s bizarre imagination, like Douglas Adams’ flying party above an unknown planet from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’.

In her introduction, Field sets out the criteria which she tried to stick to whilst writing A Curious Invitation.  She states that ‘they had to be parties that are described in works of fiction, rather than the parties given or attended by writers’, all had to be taken exclusively from works of prose rather than poetry or plays, and all needed to be ‘as varied as possible in terms of genre, country, period and style’.  She has aimed to create an ‘eclectic collection of balls, fetes, soirees, garden parties, receptions, proms, feasts, bacchanals and orgies’.

Thus, A Curious Invitation includes a vast range of sources, from The Great Gatsby and The Brothers Karamazov to Mansfield Park and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.  There is an entry from the Bible, another from one of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books, and another from The Fellowship of the Ring.  Each party has been set out well and a variety of points pertaining to each festivity has been included in each case.  These range from a clear heading which states in which book each party can be found and the author who wrote about it, along with the dress code, guest list, food and drink served, the conversation, the entertainment, ‘the outcome’ of the party and ‘the legacy’ of the author.

The venues include a country inn, a German club known as ‘The Onion Cellar’, the house of a marquise, a grand apartment in Moscow which has been commandeered by the devil, and ‘a goddamn Beverly Hills palace’.  The locations of these venues are as far-flung as Italy, New York, Japan, Brussells and Pall Mall, and even space and magical lands.  The hosts range from ‘bald, fat’ Trimalchio in The Satyricon, who is described as ‘the perfect vulgarian host’, to a young French boy named Frantz ‘who is a student or a sailor or perhaps a midshipman cadet, no one knew for sure’.  With regard to the invitations, in The Great Gatsby ‘people were not invited – they went there’; in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, ‘the guests invite each other to the party and the hostess herself is the last to find out about it’; and in The Fellowship of the Ring, Biblo’s invitations are all penned in gold ink which ‘would have been the ultimate status symbol among the local hobbitry, if it weren’t for the fact that just about everyone who lived in the area had been sent one’.

A Curious Invitation is well written and well considered, but one cannot help feeling that it would come across in a more positive manner had the author not used part of her introduction as a self-publication exercise.  Despite this, it is fun, quirky and different and is sure to make a great gift for anyone who enjoys entertaining.  A useful bibliography sets out every considered source, and the commentary which runs throughout has been written in a likeable and informative manner.

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One From the Archive: ‘Christmas Pudding’ by Nancy Mitford ****

Time for something seasonal!

In Christmas Pudding, Christmas itself is only a passing event. It is used mainly as an excuse in which to draw all of the characters together. In this way, it can be read at any time of year, and does not merely have to be saved for over Christmas time. The book is set in a rented house in Gloucestershire, which has been commandeered over the Christmas period by ‘sixteen characters in search of an author’. We meet Walter and Sally Monteath who live rather beyond their means, novelist Paul Fotheringay and his fiancee Marcella Bracket – ‘a social climber of the worst kind’ – Bobby Bobbin and his sister Philadelphia… The list goes on.

9781907429590The novel is incredibly amusing from the outset. There are such gems as ‘Philadelphia Bobbin… hoped that death would prove less dull and boring than life’, and Lady Fortescue losing her husband ‘respectably, through his death’. When Sally Monteath is asked about the impending christening of her baby daughter, she says ‘well, if the poor little sweet is still with us then we thought next Tuesday week (suit you?)… I should like the baby a good deal better if she wasn’t the spit image of Walter’s Aunt Lucy’.

The characters are the definite strength of this novel, and what a strength they are. Mitford has a wonderful way of crafting those who people her stories, and the ones she has selected to feature in Christmas Pudding crash together in the most hilarious of ways.

The novel is, overall, entertaining, amusing and relatively light, and certainly one of Mitford’s best. The book itself is a delight. Capuchin Classics refer to it as the ‘jewel in the Mitford crown’, and I wholeheartedly agree with them. Whilst it is perhaps the least well known of Mitford’s novels, it is by far one of the best.

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One From the Archive: ‘Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories’ by P.L. Travers ****

Virago’s delightful Christmas gift book for 2014 is P.L. Travers’ Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories.  In the early 1940s, Travers – most famous, of course, for her charming Mary Poppins books – wrote these stories, which she gave as Christmas gifts to her friends.  Each was published in a limited run of 500 copies – ‘Aunt Sass’ in 1941, ‘Ah Wong’ in 1943 and ‘Johnny Delaney’ in 1944 – and they are now available to a wide audience for the very first time.

In Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories, Travers focuses upon three quite unusual characters, all of whom inspired her childhood.  They range from ‘eccentric great aunt’ Christina, who was known as Sass and was the inspiration for Mary Poppins, to a Chinese cook and a ‘foul-mouthed ex-jockey’.

9780349005683Victoria Coren Mitchell’s foreword is rather lovely, and so nicely written.  She begins: ‘These stories should be a delight for any reader, but particularly magical for fans of P.L. Travers; great masterpiece, the Mary Poppins stories.  Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations’.

As in Mary Poppins, Travers’ descriptions are lovely, and her characters sparkle with vivacity from the moment in which they are introduced.  Aunt Sass, whom it is believed is based upon Travers’ own great-aunt Ellie, is ‘stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving’.  ‘Like Mary Poppins,’ writes Coren Mitchell, ‘she twinkles and snaps in spits and spots’.

In her title story, Travers describes the way in which ‘Everything in the world came back to herself – or her family.  She used notable people simply as a background for her own life…  The universe and other unknown worlds swung about the central pivot of Aunt Sass and those nearest her…  She was like the central shaft of a merry-go-round.  When her whistle blew the family revolved about her like so many wooden horses’.  Parallels can certainly be drawn between Aunt Sass and Mary Poppins in sentences such as this: ‘The gruff words were immediately discounted by the smile that lit the grim face with a radiance more moving than beauty’.

In ‘Ah Wong’, a family of Australian children try to convert their quirky Chinese cook to Christianity, with some quite amusing results.  In the third and final story, ‘Johnny Delaney’, the title character, with his ‘little thin bow-legs’ and ‘black, Irish head’, works on the family’s plantation and is a jack-of-all trades: ‘I suppose you would have said that he was primarily a jockey.  That, at any rate, was the form of address he preferred.  But he was also groom, stable-boy and carpenter; even, when labour was short, a cane cutter, and sometimes a feeder at the mill’.  In each successive story, elements of darkness creep in, and everything has a hidden depth of sorts.

In Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories, Travers lets her readers in, just a little, to her craft: ‘We write more than we know we are writing.’  The places which spring from her pen are so richly described that it does not take long for the scenes which she depicts to become vivid.

Despite the title of the collection, the stories themselves are not festive; they are merely autobiographical tales which show those who had a large impact upon Travers when she was young.  Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories is amusing and heartwarming, and would make a charming addition to any bookshelf.  The book contains lovely illustrations by Gillian Tyler, which match the tales beautifully.

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One From the Archive: ‘Christmas at High Rising’ by Angela Thirkell ****

‘Christmas at High Rising’ by Angela Thirkell (Virago)

The tales collected in Virago’s beautiful Christmas at High Rising are hailed as ‘warm and witty wintertime stories’.  The blurb describes the feel of the stories as ‘charming, irreverent and full of mischievous humour’, and states that ‘they offer the utmost entertainment in any season of the year’.

Indeed, only two of these stories relate to Christmas in any way, and one of them can only be said to rather loosely.  The eight tales in this collection – originally published between the 1920s and 1940s and collected together here for the first time – have titles which range from ‘Pantomime’ and ‘Christmas at Mulberry Lodge’ to ‘The Great Art of Riding’ and ‘Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out’.

Christmas at High Rising is one of the almost thirty volumes which make up Thirkell’s beloved Barsetshire sequence of novels.  It stands alone marvellously, and does not have to be slotted into the series in any particular order.  Each page feels remarkably witty and fresh, and is not at all dated.

Thirkell’s depicts individuals so well, and her characters and their foibles are set out immediately.  In ‘Pantomime’, we meet a man named George Knox, who ‘suddenly felt that as a grandfather he ought to take a large family party to the theatre’, and who, filled with his own importance, has ‘already begun to dramatise himself as Famous Author Loves to Gather Little Ones Round Him’.  Later, he is described as dressing himself ‘in a large hat and muffler as Famous Author Takes Country Walk’.  Her characters are also not at all afraid to speak their minds.  When George Knox tells a female acquaintance named Laura that he wishes to take her and her son, along with two of his friends, to a pantomime, she responds with a, ‘Now, George…  this is an awful treat that you want to give us, but I suppose we shall have to give in’.

The children which Thirkell creates are particularly vivid.  Each and every one is shrewd and rather hilarious.  Tony, one of the recurring child characters who appears in the majority of the stories, says such things as: ‘Mother, did you hear me laughing at the funny parts [in the pantomime]?  I have a good kind of laugh and I expect the actors liked it’.  There is a real sense of Thirkell’s understanding of her young charges throughout, and she clearly takes into account the disparities which just one or two years can make within childhood.  The young brother and sister in ‘Christmas at Mulberry Lodge’, for example, ‘lived in London (which Mary knew was the capital of England but William was too little to know about capitals)’.

Do not be put off by the specific seasonal title, as Christmas at High Rising is just as appropriate to read over a summer holiday as it is the festive season.  Here, Virago have printed a great little collection of stories, which provides a great introduction to Angela Thirkell’s wealth of work.

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