2013 Books in Translation

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

 Translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a book that I’d seen lots of praise for on Twitter so when I received an unsolicited review copy of the new paperback release I was interested to see if it would live up to the hype. 

The beginning of the book was excellent and I was immediately intrigued by the strange story of books within a university library which began to change slightly, containing different plot elements to their original. The initial feel of the book reminded me of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but unfortunately the plot changed into something more weird and unbelievable – containing many elements I struggled to enjoy.

There were hints of brilliance in this book, but the occasional excellent piece of writing only seemed to expose the ordinariness of the rest of the text. It’s hard to know if this was a result of the translation or whether the choppy text was present in the original Finnish version. 

Ella found it difficult to stay away from papery dust of the library for any length of time. Even now, as she approached the place with the problematic Dostoevsky in her bag, she was overcome with the same veneration she’d felt as a child. She had been the kind of child you find in every library, lugging around stacks of books. Once, when she was sick in bed with pneumonia for two weeks, the librarian had called at her house to ask if everything was alright.

The central character was Ella and I found that she was well drawn, but the rest of the cast were vague in comparison and I often got them mixed up – a problem exacerbated by the large number of characters. As the book progressed I became frustrated by it. The plot became increasingly unrealistic and I didn’t care about what was happening to the characters. The introduction of “The Game” marked the start of my problems with the story and I’m afraid nothing failed to interest me as much as the initial chapter. 

The large number of positive reviews from the science fiction & fantasy corner of the blogging world make me think this book is more suited to those who love that genre. I suspect I missed some of the references to other books in this cannon of literature and I didn’t enjoy the mystical elements as much as others. If you’re the sort of person who is happy to be led along strange paths, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy dark fable-like tales then this is for you.


The thoughts of other bloggers: atmospheric story that’s hard to categorize. Books, Bones & Buffy

 …an exploration of how stories can define us, and what it means if reality doesn’t measure up. Follow The Thread

A clever novel with an original plot but I did not find it as captivating as I had hoped. Orange Pekoe Reviews

2013 Recommended books

The Mouseproof Kitchen by Saira Shah

The Mouseproof Kitchen

Five words from the blurb: baby, disabled, motherhood, France, cookery

The Mouseproof Kitchen is a searingly honest book about the mixed emotions experienced by parents when they have a disabled child. The book begins with Anna giving birth to Freya, a baby with profound disabilities. Freya will never be able to walk or talk like ‘normal’ children and is plagued by a series of medical problems. Confused and upset Anna persuades her husband, Toby, to move to France in order to escape their claustrophobic city life. The dilapidated house they purchase on a whim takes their mind off Freya’s problems initially, but the emotional turmoil builds as Anna and Toby battle with their shattered expectations of parenthood.

The characters and emotions in this book were so vividly described that most of the time I felt as though I was reading an autobiography. Saira Shah has a child with cerebral palsy and it is clear she has put much of her personal experience into this novel. The honesty and complexity of the emotions were insightful and never became sentimental. I’m sure they’ll give comfort to anyone who has experienced something similar.

The writing was thought provoking throughout and it raised interesting questions about modern parenting and the role of the disabled in society. I found myself highlighting numerous passages and I’m sure I’ll be thinking about the issues involved for a long time to come.

I listen to the rough rasp of her breathing, wondering what I’ll do if the breathing stops. In some ways, it would be the easiest thing. In other ways, unbearable. We lie, the baby and I, in this womb of a bed and hide from the outside world. 

The book also contained wonderful descriptions of France – giving glimpses into everything from the problems of renovating houses there, to the joy of preserving figs and cherries. The food aspects of the book were particularly interesting to me and I loved reading detailed descriptions of various traditional French recipes. 

As you can tell, I loved this book. Some might complain that there were too many coincidences, but I was so wrapped up in the lives of these wonderfully drawn characters that I didn’t care. I highly recommend The Mouseproof Kitchen to anyone who enjoys reading about realistic characters battling with complex emotional issues.


2013 Non Fiction Other Prizes Recommended books

A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson

A Sting in the Tale Shortlisted for 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

Five words from the blurb: bumblebee, expert, protect, research, dangers

I picked up a copy of this book because the author was planning to talk at my local library. I didn’t have a particular interest in bees, but Dave Goulson is an inspiring man and he’s made me look at them in a new light.

The author is a Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Sussex and has published over 200 scientific articles on the ecology of bees and other insects. A Sting in the Tale is a witty, accessible book that summaries most of what is known about bumblebees today.

The book is packed with amusing anecdotes about the difficulties of studying bees; whilst also giving sound scientific information about the problems facing their population in the UK today. It is one of those wonderful books that enables someone with limited knowledge on a subject to understand and become fascinated by something they’d normally overlook. I had no idea that bumblebees are necessary to pollinate tomatoes and a whole industry has been set up to produce commercial bumblebee nests, which are then shipped to tomato glasshouses around the world:

The only tomato growers left out of the bumblebee bonanza were those in Australia, where there are no native bumblebees, and where importing foreign species is strictly forbidden. Tomato growers on mainland Australia still have to hand-pollinate their plants; teams of workers are employed, each of whom is equipped with a slender vibrating wand. Every flower has to be touched with the tip of a wand if it is to set fruit. As might be imagined, this is tedious work in a large glasshouse – some commercial operations cover hundreds of acres and contain literally millions of tomato flowers – and the labour costs are substantial.

I also knew nothing about the problems this creates with the spread of disease and the hybridisation of native species. I discovered that I knew far more about the problems facing honeybees than those of bumblebees and am pleased I’ve now rectified this situation.

The only problem is that this book concentrates on bees in the UK. Much of the information will be interesting to those in other countries, but those wanting to know specific information about bumblebee species in other parts of the world will probably be frustrated.

It would also have been nice to see photos/charts to enhance the information given. The presentation at my library included a lovely selection of images and it would have been nice to see these in the book.

A Sting in the Tale is a very important book. Many species of bumblebee in the world are facing extinction and I don’t think many people realise this, or how important they are. I urge you to read this book and I hope that the Bumblebee Conservation Trust goes from strength to strength.


2013 Books in Translation Chunkster Thriller

From the Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami

From the Fatherland With Love

Translated from the Japanese by Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf, and Ginny Tapley Takemori

Five words from the blurb: Japan, invaded, North Korean, troops, death

From the Fatherland, With Love is a political thriller which describes a scarily plausible series of events in which North Korean special forces invade Japan. The book begins with them taking a sports stadium and its 30,000 occupants hostage and then shows how they progress to take control of increasingly large areas of Japan. The detail was so convincing that I spent most of my time worrying about the fact this book is in the public domain and terrorists could copy the clever (but devastating) ideas. I hope that authorities in Japan have read this book and closed some of the loopholes in their security and that terrorists don’t try to replicate any of the scenarios in this book, anywhere. Please visit to find about diy techniques.

I’m not normally a fan of thrillers, especially politically motivated ones, but there is something about the North Koreans that makes them especially compelling. I loved the background detail which explained what it was like to grow up under a tyrannical leader and how this upbringing changes the basic personality of the North Koreans. The interaction of the invading troops with the Japanese people was fascinating, although I suspect that most of the brilliant observations will be lost on those who aren’t familiar with the Japanese culture. I didn’t understand all the references to the Japanese political system, but a small amount of googling allowed me to understand the basic chain of command and I didn’t feel as though I was missing out on much.

 …the various intelligence services in Japan had no history of sharing information, and there was no system in place for integrating intelligence. In the event of an emergency or major disaster, it fell to the Security Council to collate information and direct the appropriate response to the crisis, but the various intelligence agencies lacked the channels for passing information to the Council in the first place. Why didn’t the Japanese government take intelligence seriously?….Suzuki thought there was a simple reason for it: that it simply wasn’t seen as necessary and therefore wasn’t considered important. Japan had no history of invasion by foreign countries, and was not composed of different ethnic groups with conflicting interests. For centuries domestic relations had been far more important than foreign ones, and the country was simply unable to adapt to the changed circumstances.

The book is 666 pages long and it did take a large investment of time to complete. There was a small section in the middle where I lost interest, but the momentum quickly picked up again and I was hooked through to the end. It isn’t a fast paced read, but the reader is desperate to discover how everything unfolds and so it remains gripping throughout.  There were a few too many characters for me, but I was impressed by the complexity and depth of the majority of them.

From the Fatherland, With Love is very different in style from Piercingthe only other book by Ryu Murakami that I’ve read. Piercing was very short and chilling. The only element shared by the books was the occasional gruesome scene involving blood-splattered violence; otherwise it would be impossible to tell that they were both written by the same person.

Overall this is a very intelligent book. It gives a chilling insight into the holes in Japan’s security; whilst at the same time giving a thorough examination of the Japanese and North Korean culture. Recommended to anyone who likes to learn from their literature.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 …a great story, and one whose ending works very well. Tony’s Reading List

…a compelling and shocking read. A Common Reader

…a wonderful cast of characters in a tale that rollicks along with all the mayhem, violence & action one expects from a Ryu Murakami book  The Parrish Lantern


Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter

Eleven Days

Five words from the blurb: mother, soldier, Afghanistan, courage, love

I received a review copy of this book last summer, but it didn’t make it to the top of my TBR pile as military stories aren’t normally my thing. Luckily I was persuaded to give it a try by David, one of my regular commenters. He hopes it will make the Baileys’ longlist on Friday and, having now read the book, I agree.

Eleven Days isn’t a typical war novel. It’s a subtle investigation into the mindset of a soldier, showing how the presence of danger affects both those on the battle field and their loved ones many miles away. The book begins in May 2011 with Sara discovering that her son Jason has gone missing during a Special Operations Forces mission in Afghanistan. Through a series of flashbacks the reader discovers Jason’s reasons for joining the Navy and what happened to his father, David. It also shows the mixed emotions of a mother desperate to hear the truth about where her son is.

The writing quality was superb – it captivated me and took me on an emotional roller-coaster, without ever becoming sentimental. Tension was built in a subtle way, but this never felt like the main objective of the book. Instead it questioned the way society thinks about its armed forces; showing a spectrum of opinion through clever use of characters caught in their own uncertain turmoil.

Most people might concede the merits of World War I or Korea but be unable to identify the details. And most people, in the abstract, prefer butter to guns, but most mostly prefer not to think about it all. Has it always been that way? Does a public’s opinion rise and fall like a stock on the occasion of new information and new numbers – of dead, of days fighting, of the change in the price of gas? More likely it fluctuates with something more banal and abstract: the length of their attention span.

I loved the way this book avoided graphic images of war and violence. Instead it focused on military training, showing how soldiers adapt to harsh environments before heading out to a war zone. The detailed descriptions of US Navy SEAL training were fascinating to read and it was interesting to learn that mental training is given the same priority as physical fitness.

It also perfectly captured the relationship between a mother and her grownup son, showing the difficulty of letting him learn from his mistakes and the grief of no longer being the person in control of his life.

I’ve read lots of war stories, but Lea Carpenter somehow managed to capture a fresh angle on the subject. I made a mistake in leaving it out of my Baileys’ Fiction Prize longlist prediction last week. It deserves to be on the list and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the judges recognise its brilliance.


2013 Chunkster Historical Fiction Recommended books

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things

Five words from the blurb: botanical, explorer, woman, independent, evolution

The Signature of All Things was the best novel I read in 2013. It is a rich, atmospheric story about one woman and her passion for moss. I know that sounds like the dullest premise imaginable, but Elizabeth Gilbert has woven horticultural details with amazing characters and a heartwarming series of events to create a fantastic novel that gets better every time you think about it.

The book begins in 1800 with the birth of Alma Whittaker. Her father’s passion for botany infects her and she gains an interest in moss. Her studies soon get her thinking about evolution and this leads her on a journey that encompasses several continents and enables her to meet a range of fascinating people.

I’m not a keen gardener, but I found the details about plant collecting and classification fascinating. It was eye-opening to learn about the infancy of this industry and the difficulties faced by those trying to cultivate plants like vanilla for the first time.

The book was made extra special by Alma Whittaker – one of the best female protagonists I’ve ever come across. It was a rare pleasure to be able to follow a character from birth into old age with a complete understanding of their fears, desires and motivations. I loved the way that she changed and developed as she aged:

“But you are still young, so you think only of your own self. You do not notice the tribulations that occur all around you, to other people. Do not protest; it is true. I am not condemning you. I was as selfish as you, when I was your age. It is the custom of the young to be selfish. But someday you will understand that nobody passes through this world without suffering – no matter what you think of them and their supposed good fortune.”

Racist/homophobic attitudes were occasionally difficult to stomach, but I think they helped to show how far we’ve come since then.

The plot was slow, but it never dragged and I loved being immersed in the past. Everything appeared to be incredibly well researched (although I’m no expert) and I loved the way that fact and fiction were blended together. It was simply good, old-fashioned story telling with no tricks or gimmicks.

The Signature of All Things is one of those books that sounds far less interesting than it actually is. Trust me. Give it a try!