2

A Perfectly Restrained Saga: The Brothers

brothersThe Brothers by Asko Salhberg

I am embarrassingly late with this review…

Finland, 1809. Henrik and Erik are brothers who fought on opposite sides in the war between Sweden and Russia. With peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm. But who is the master?

First Impressions: Wow. I was immediately drawn into the landscape, characters and story. Is the landscape and setting the most important part of this story.

Highlights:  I think the isolation and bitingly chilly environment is the star of this novel as it shapes the characters and the action. Even though there are mentions of the nearby village or regional towns they seem incredibly distant even when the characters visit them. I found the rural-town divide very interesting along with the historical context.
This is a novel of two brothers and their cousin but it is no way a purely masculine story. I particularly enjoyed the stories of the women and finding out how they found themselves in their current situations. Despite the brevity, everyone’s story is told which makes it very clever storytelling.
Also – it is a beautiful edition.

If I was an editor: I did think the Farmhand’s story was one revelation too many – the others were more interesting – but it was necessary to the whole story. I think I’m being a little fussy when making this observation!

Overall: A fantastic epic saga that the author has successfully  restricted to 112 pages. Now that’s restraint! For lovers of Burial Rites and Wolf Winter.

 

2

Just Keeps Getting Better: The Defenceless

defencelessThe Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto

When an old man is found dead on the road – seemingly run over by a Hungarian au pair – police investigator Anna Fekete is certain that there is more to the incident than meets the eye. Anna’s partner Esko is entrenched in a separate but equally dangerous investigation into the activities of an immigrant gang. Then a bloody knife is found in the snow, and the two cases come together in ways that no one could have predicted. 

First Impressions: Another complex and compelling crime for Anna and the team to solve!

Highlights: Many of the things I loved about The Hummingbird carry over to this second novel in the series. What I didn’t mention before was the way the author so perfectly captures the pull between two geographic locations, neither of which feels 100% like home. The author is also really clever in not just sensationalising problems with the arrivals of refugees and asylum seekers but describing matter of factly the long term social problems of those granted residency. How she has managed to do all this and still have at the core of the novel an intriguing police procedural is amazing! I also liked how Esko’s character is developing. I have a soft spot for the gruff and cantankerous detective!

If I was an editor: It’s hard to find fault with this novel but I can say that I did prefer the crime in the previous novel but that really would be hard to top! Also, I would have liked more mystery with the Hungarian nanny. What else could she be hiding? Maybe we find out in the next book…

Overall: How many months until book 3 is published?

 

3

Addictive and Contemporary: The Hummingbird

suspect XThe Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto

Anna Fekete becomes a criminal investigator in a northern Finnish coastal town and is thrust into a sensational murder investigation: A young woman has been killed on a running trail, and a pendant depicting an Aztec god has been found in her possession. Can Anna catch the Hummingbird before he – or she – strikes again?

First Impressions: This story is highly addictive from the start and I love the setting in the northern Finnish town.

Highlights: There is so much to love in this crime novel. Anna is a very interesting character with her background and quirks. At times I thought that maybe she needed to be a bit more hard boiled but by the end I realised the author had got the balance right. You read a lot in the news about the advantages women in Scandi countries have and this is reflected in the story with the working lives and independence of some of Anna’s colleagues. I also developed a soft spot for Anna’s partner Esko by the end.
The refugee situation was interesting to read about and I had some of those thought provoking moments you get when you read books in translations – wow, the situation for refugees is the same in Finland as the UK. In the past I would have added Australia to this comparison but off-shore detention makes it hard to draw parallels to any other system. On a more whimsical note, I liked the inclusion of Marianne sweets – my grandmother has always had a bowl of these in her sitting room and I even found one of my Christmas Mariannes hidden under the computer table when I sat down to write this review!

If I was an editor: I did wonder if Esko would be able to get away with some of his comments and attitudes in a modern Finnish workplace that should promote equal opportunities… but perhaps he could. There’s always the veneer and the reality. As an aside, I was also surprised at how a progressive country like Finland doesn’t yet have honour violence laws. The references to balcony angels surprised me and were incredibly sad.
Early on I did wonder if Sari’s extended chatting to Anna was typically Finnish and maybe the author was using this as a device to provide background in this first novel. As it turns out, no, that’s just Sari’s character and she can be a breath of fresh air.
Finally I loved the elderly residents interviewed during the investigation and would have loved them to be even more eccentric!

Overall: Addictive with an interesting crime at its centre. I must admit that I had bought and read the second book before even contemplating this review!

 

12

February in Finland 2016

February in Finland

This month I’d like to get back to my Finnish heritage and read some novels from Finland that have been languishing on my TBR pile for too long. There are four novels I plan to start with:

Two Crime Novels

The Hummingbird by Kati Heikkapelto

The Healer by Antti Tuomainen (I have already read his fabulous second novel Dark as My Heart)

Two Literary Novellas from the Peirene Press

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg

*****************************************************

I have about 5 other books on my shelf but I will start with these.

Finnish novels are usually overshadowed by the Scandi neighbours but it seems there is a small but steady stream now being translated into English.

If you happen to read a Finnish book this month or have done in the past, please leave your link or any comment below.  English and Suomi welcome 🙂

2

Icy and Atmospheric: Wolf Winter

Wolf WinterWolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

1717: A Finnish family move to the isolated Blackasen Mountain in Swedish Lapland. Winter sets in and the Lapps call it a Wolf Winter: the kind of winter that will remind people they are mortal and alone. A body is found on the mountain and only the newcomers are interested in knowing who committed this murder. What secrets does the mountain community hold?

First Impressions: I was instantly transported to 1717 Lapland. I felt the isolation and, as the story progressed, the oppressiveness of the snow.

Highlights: I loved the historical context of this novel. I can’t believe I am about to say this but I wanted more information about the wars Sweden was involved in as the trickle down effect they had on the settlement was just not enough! The priest was my favourite character and I wanted to know more about him. I thought he was the best written character which is interesting as the author is female and the other two main characters are also female. There is so much in this novel and the author has struck the right balance between the mysterious and reality. It’s a fascinating community she has created, a snapshot of another era. The role of women was definitely complex. Based on other reviews I was worried that Maija may be a snowbound Miss Marple trying to solve the crime but no, she was merely curious and her involvement in trying to solve the case was believable. On a different note, I really enjoyed reading the extras at the end of this novel. These sorts of author interviews are usually superficial but Ekback was answering some really probing questions!

If I was an editor: The novel is primarily about relationships with murders and disappearances muted in the background and adding to the atmosphere. It was therefore a little surprising at the end to see such a focus on how much the disappearances were disturbing the community. The answer to the crimes and disappearances also felt too modern.

Overall: A perfect remedy for those still suffering from Burial Rights withdrawal.

Wolf Winter: 5 stars

Thank you to BookBridgr for a copy of the novel to review.

0

Clever but not Captivating: The Rabbit Back Literature Society

The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyThe Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

I love Pushkin Press and was thrilled to see them publish a Finnish novel in translation.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is an exclusive club in the town of Rabbit Back. Children’s author Laura White selects and trains the members who all become exceptional authors. Language teacher Ella is delighted to become the tenth member but her admission into the society makes her aware of murder and mayhem. Can she get to the bottom of Laura White’s disappearance from the winter party?

First Impressions: I liked the character of Ella and I liked the way the author included lots of irrelevant detail about different characters and events such as Ella’s barren ovaries. (This is revealed the first page or two, it’s not a spoiler!).

Highlights: I liked the way the fantasy elements were like blurred edges around the story. Blink and you miss them. Fantasy for non-fantasy reading adults.

If I was an editor: I would wish I cared more for the mysteries of Laura White and her Society. I didn’t dislike reading this novel but I didn’t find the elusiveness of Laura White (Tove Jansson?) particularly compelling. Most of the information was revealed through exposition which can become a bit boring. At one point it did seem that the plot was going to become a murder mystery but that only seemed to raise my hopes. I had also hoped for a stronger Finnish setting as so few contemporary Finnish novels are translated into English.

Overall: A clever novel with an original plot but I did not find it as captivating as I had hoped.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society: 3 Stars

 

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0

Lost in Translation

Purge by Sofi Oskanen

Please look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin

Purge by Sofi Oksanen  was heavier in content than expected; I skimmed the blurb and wasn’t necessarily expecting historical fiction. However, I always like an unanticipated journey when reading a novel and this novel did not fail to disappoint.

Aliide is an elderly woman living on the edge of a village in an Estonian forest. She challenges the stereotype of the elderly right from the beginning by showing how alert she is to ploys used by gangs to rob and harass people. One morning she finds a distressed young girl, Zara, in her garden. Zara seems to be tainted by involvement in a gang; is she there as a decoy for a more sinister crime?

As the novel progresses the stories of both women are revealed with Aliide’s story taking the reader to both WW2 and Soviet Estonia. I’ve studied a reasonable amount of history but I had never thought exclusively about Estonia. The fact that this novel describes a moment in history from an Estonian point of view was really interesting. I really got the sense that prior to the war the country was not purely a homogenous Estonian population. Rather it seemed to be a crossroads with people from all surrounding countries drawn there for work including an established German community in the novel.

I also found it interesting that at times of difficulty the old Finnish marrka was used on the black market as a trustworthy ‘hard currency’. Furthermore, Finland was seen as ‘the west’ and many characters would lament that they wished they had left for Finland when they had the chance.

The poverty and suffering in the countryside as a legacy of communism is rather uncomfortable at times. Issues of young people’s migration to cities and other countries also permeates the story. Interestingly, on a recent trip to Helsinki I was quite aware of the large number of young Estonians in the hospitality and service industries.

For the most part the novel is a rather bleak read and some scenes are quite uncomfortably violent. The broader themes of the novel encompass both women’s stories but I really do not want to give them away. Be warned that the book description on Amazon has a spoiler.

One thing that let the book down was the implied Estonian nuances about life in some of the longer passages of description. The whole novel was very readable but someone with an insight into the unsaid parts of Estonian culture may have found some parts of the novel more satisfying.

When I felt I was missing some cultural knowledge in Purge, it reminded me of another book in translation I read recently – Please look after Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin.  I was initially drawn to the mystery of what happened to the elderly family matriarch when she disappeared in the Seoul subway. The story is told from multiple viewpoints with different members of the family revealing to the reader their private lives and surfacing feelings of guilt about not noticing Mother more.

I enjoy reading family dramas but this one just did not captivate me enough. I felt the writing a bit stilted which may have been due to the translation. I can be quite forgiving about this but my main feeling throughout was that there was too much cultural understanding embedded in the novel which made it difficult for me to appreciate the story. I have read quite a few books set in Asia – including a few set in Korea – so I am quite open minded about the cultural differences. In this book the parents lived in the countryside which may have added a different layer of difficulty to the story as they were quite old fashioned in their ways. The lack of communication and awareness between the family members was also something I could not relate to easily. I imagine this book was popular in Korea but I just found it too difficult to become fully absorbed in the story.

Purge: 4 Stars
Please look after Mother: 3 stars

More about Korea I have read:

A Step from Heaven by An Na – A short and poignant exploration of the Korean immigrant experience in the USA. It is narrated by the family’s young daughter.  The sadness and cruelty in the story really brings a tear to the eye. Published about 10 years ago. It’s a shame that vampires, magic and angels have pushed this sort of YA novel to the margins.

All Woman and Springtime by B.W.  Jones – About two female orphans in North Korea. The story branches out to South Korea and beyond. It really made me think about the North Korean diaspora.

Drifting House:  Krys Lee – An interesting collection of stories about family, duty and the struggle between the generations when western influence abound. I particularly liked the sedate friendship that developed between two retirees in the USA.

1000 Chestnut Trees by Mira Stout – I read and loved this when it was first published in 1999. It takes the reader back to the partition between North and South, and the current DMZ.

If you know any other great novels in translation please let me know. Any Estonian suggestions are welcome!