Things that Fall from the Sky, by Selja Ahava

In real life, mental illnesses are caused by brain chemistry, genetic predisposition, life experiences—things that can be rationally understood, for the most part. It’s only in fiction that I see someone driving themselves insane. At least, this is what I saw in Selja Ahava’s disturbing Things that Fall from the Sky (translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah). In this novel, two characters contemplate Chance while a third loses herself to mixed up memories of her lost mother, TV mysteries about a Belgian detective, and fairy tales. I kept reading because I wanted to know if this trio would make it out the other side of their tangled thoughts.

Saara is around eight years old when her mother dies in a freak accident. She and her father, Pekka, are whisked away by Auntie Annu—who somehow wins the lottery twice. The sudden shock of his wife’s death sends Pekka into a helpless, angry spiral. Saara is mostly left to fend for herself, especially after Auntie Annu’s second lottery win sends her into her own confused funk. As I read the first two sections, which cover the immediate aftermaths of Saara’s mother’s death and Annu’s second win, I felt so angry at these adults on Saara’s behalf. I can understand that everyone needs to grieve no matter how old they are, but someone should make sure that any children are guided through their grief so that the child doesn’t, say, become obsessed with having chalk outlines of herself drawn on the floor.

The last third of Things that Fall from the Sky is set four years after the death of Saara’s mother. Auntie Annu has gone off on a trip around the world looking for stories about people who have really weird luck and/or experience really strange disasters (following a letter exchange with a Scot who was struck by lightning five times). Pekka has partnered with a Swedish woman. They’re expecting a child with a rare, usually fatal genetic condition. Sadness and bad luck just can’t seem to leave this family alone. The last third ended up being the most bizarre of the three sections as it is narrated by Saara, who is haunted by her mother and her mother’s mixed up fairy tales.

I…don’t know quite what to make of Things that Fall from the Sky. I wanted to read it because the publisher’s description led me to expect that was about Luck and Chance and Fate. I wanted to follow characters who pondered their rises and falls, like a modern version of the medieval Wheel of Fortune. Instead, I had a novella about how the vagaries of life can push people over the edge. Some characters are shaped by their experiences into someone new. One was still transforming, but I wasn’t sure what Saara was going to become. If Ahava were an America, I would have predicted that everything would end up alright for Saara and her family. Because Ahava is Finnish, I don’t have a lot of hope.

Evil Things, by Katja Ivar

Some settings seem tailor-made for sinister plots. Mid-twentieth century Finland, as portrayed in Katja Ivar’s series debut Evil Things, is clearly one of them. The small towns near the Soviet border are economically and emotionally depressed; cold, dark, and wet; and full of people who definitely want to be left alone. It’s not the sort of place to welcome one of the country’s first woman detectives. 

Prickly Hella Mauzer has been exiled to remote Finnish town for unclear but definitely sexist reasons. Every time she tries to do something more than the most boring police work, Hella is shut down. It’s only through clever manipulation that she gets a reluctant okay from her boss to investigate the disappearance of an old man in an even more remote village closer to the Soviet Border. The village priest’s wife had sent in a letter to the station, asking for someone to come out. Not only is a man missing, but his young grandson is without a guardian and has refused to ask questions about what happened.

Evil Things shifts between Hella’s perspective and that of the priest’s wife, Irja. Not only do we get a few clues and a few red herring to keep the plot ticking over, we also get to dive deeply into Hella and Irja’s psyches. Hella is angry at the pervasive demeaning sexism, so much so that she attempts to act brusque and matter of fact when what she wants to do is shake people until their teeth rattle until they admit that she’s right. Irja is quieter, but no less of a chameleon. While she’s attempting to be the perfect priest’s wife, Irja is hiding heartbreak over her own lost child and her subverted ambitions.

It’s fortunate that there is so much character development, at least for the protagonists, because the plot goes in weird directions as Hella investigates. I don’t exactly like it, because I really wanted the book to go in a more traditional, Scandi-noir direction instead of the thriller-ish direction it ultimately takes. If nothing else, I appreciated that character development and the author’s attention to detail in creating the tiny village where most of the action takes place.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

White Hunger, by Aki Ollikainen

Trigger warning for rape.

After reading White Hunger, by Aki Ollikainen and translated with only a few vocabulary hiccoughs by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah, I’m not sure if the Russians or the Finns write the most depressing books. This novel is set during a famine in the winter of 1867-1868. Even though it’s a scant 97 pages in the kindle version, it is packed with tragedy, pathos, and unease. I think I can only recommend it to readers who are looking for something that will make them sob. 

The first few chapters are old from the perspective of Teo, a Helsinki doctor who is worried about appearances even as he regularly visits a sex worker and takes “payment” from women who are brought to him to see if they have a sexually transmitted infection. These opening chapters give us a sneak peak at a politician who is determined to take what he thinks is the long view by spending money on trains instead of imported food. The Senator, as he is known, might have been seen as a leading statesman if it weren’t for the fact that Finland is in the middle of a famine. People are starting to leave their farms looking for food and work, desperate for a chance at survival. Parish priests, almoners, and the wealthy (or even slightly better off) refuse to do much more than offer the road people a poor, grudging meal and send them down the road. Some of these people do worse.

Most of the novel, however, is narrated by Marja, a peasant woman from the north of Finland, and her children. Through their eyes, we see Marja, Mataleena, and Juho, leave Marja’s husband in their cabin to die while they go looking for food. (Marja’s husband starved himself so that they could eat. He was too frail to take to the road with them.) First, Mataleena provides a child’s confusion about leaving her father and having no where to go. Like so many of the other people around her, she has no idea why she’s hungry. She has a feeling like she should be provided for, but all she can hope for is a small bowl of gruel. Later down the road, Maria takes up the narrative thread. Marja’s chapters are full of misery. Kindness is harder to find than food. And, because she’s a woman, Marja risks more than just hunger and disease on the road. The last chapter is narrated by through the blended perspective of Teo and Juho, as the famine winter drags on.  

The epilogue, I will warn you, is a punch in the gut.

I suspect that White Hunger has two objectives. First, it succeeds in capturing a small piece of Marja’s hunger and desperation as she tries to find a place for her family. Second, I found that the book created a slow, burning anger at the people in the cities and in the government who whine about appearances or not getting the credit they think they deserve while a humanitarian crisis is in full progress all around them. So many doors are closed in Marja’s face that I grew furious on her behalf at the people who were only looking out for themselves. So many people hoard what they have so that they will be the ones to see the spring, even though there’s no way they can know how long the famine will last. I feel as though some of those privileged folk would be facing a violent revolution if the rest of the population weren’t so very, very hungry.

The Dark Blue Overcoat and Other Stories from the North, edited by Sjón

36417302The stories in The Dark Blue Overcoat are written by authors from every Scandinavian country, including the Faroe Islands. At least two of the authors are indigenous. They are also translated into English by a complement of translators. Under Icelandic author Sjón’s direction, the stories take us across the north from remote villages to cities, ethnic Scandinavians to immigrants—all with a distinctly un-hygge sense of fractures in culture and society.

Some of the standout stories from the collection include:

“Don’t Kill Me. I Beg You. This is My Tree,” by Hassan Blasim and translated by Jonathan Wright. This story features an Iraqi refuge in Helsinki who now works as a bus driver. We know him only as the Tiger and it isn’t long before we learn that he received asylum under false pretenses. In this story, the Tiger is haunted by what may be the ghost of a man he murdered in an orchard before he fled the country.

“May Your Union Be Blessed,” by Carl Jóhan Jensen and translated by Kate Sanderson. What I love most about this odd little story set in the Faroe islands is that the main text of the story—a gossipy family history full of sex—is immediately contradicted by corrective footnotes full of academic references to what “really” happened in the Ryggalt-Hermanson family. I could feel the amused smirk on my face the entire time I was reading it. Also, I am always a sucker for archly written footnotes.


Obligatory fjord photo (Image of Geirangerfjord, Norway via Wikicommons)

“San Francisco,” by Naviaq Korneliussen and translated by Charlotte Barslund. This story moved me most. Here, Fia, a Greenlander, makes her way across the United States on a mourning journey after the death of her lover, Sara. This one of the longer entries in the collection, giving us plenty of time for Fia to reveal the shame she feels about her sexuality and her overwhelming guilt at possibly causing Sara’s death in a motorcycle accident. When Fia arrives in San Francisco, a place she knows as a safe, open city for LGBTQ+ people, there’s a small glimmer of hope that Fia might be able to become confident in her sexuality.

Some of the stories are stranger than others. Some are distinctly poststructural or supernatural. At the end of the book, I was left with the impression that Hamlet’s Danish rot had spread across the region. There are a lot of broken families here, and a lot of alcohol abuse. Readers looking for comfort on cold winter nights should look elsewhere. But readers for whom Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is not unsettling enough should enjoy this collection.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

36623661Do not be fooled by the cover of Secret Passages in a Hillside Town. Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s novel, skillfully translated by Lola Rogers, is a lot deeper than the lightness of the cover implies. At the start of the book, Olli Souminen is a middle-aged man with a middle-aged life. He works for a small publisher in Jyväskylä, Finland. His wife is a teacher. His son is a quiet boy. Things only start to change when old friends from his childhood reach out on Facebook—then the memories come slipping back and Olli gets another chance at the life he might have had.

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town is a complicated book. In one plot, we have Olli navigating his reconnection to his old love Greta Kara and the members of the Tourula Five, a group of friends who solve a case like a Finnish version of the Famous Five. In another, there are Olli’s dreams about a girl in a pear-print dress, who reawakens his libido. In yet another, we see Olli’s memories about his summers with the Tourula Five. My first impressions of all three were as deceptive as the book’s cover. The more I learned about Olli and his past, the more sinister things became.

Throughout the book, there are excerpts from Greta’s books. Both of them advocate a “cinematic life.” Instead of living a life of inertia, of what she calls the “slow continuum,” a cinematic life means being spontaneous, seizing unique moments to make new relationships or trying something out of the ordinary. Greta also believes that there are places where its easier to live a cinematic life. As she and Olli get to know each other again, they seek out these places and start seizing moments—even though Olli is married and he is being pressured to be friendly with Greta. Olli’s memories reveal that his childhood with the Tourula Five were not as idyllic as he’d come to believe. But when forces start to conspire to rewrite Olli’s life, he (and I) has to wonder if it’s possible to have a guilt-free, consequence-free second chance.

I can’t say much more about what happens in Secret Passages without ruining it. What I can say is that I enjoyed the book the more I read. The translation helped. Rogers did brilliant work in keeping the story’s secrets until they needed to be revealed. When the bombs went off, I was left with an astonishing tale of second chances and the possibilities of a cinematic life.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. This book will be released 18 September 2018.

The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen

35960911Jaakko Kaunismaa is having the worst day of this life. At the beginning of The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen and translated by David Hackston, Jaakko learns that he has been fatally poisoned and that his wife is cheating on him with the delivery boy of their mushroom company. He only has a few weeks to live, according to the doctor, in which to figure out who wants him dead.

In almost any murder investigation, the family and friends of the victim are asked if the deceased had any enemies. As the soon-to-be-deceased, Jaakko is discovering that there are a surprising number of people might want him dead. There’s his wife. There’s his new competitors, a trio of very threatening men who want in on the surprisingly lucrative mushroom business in Hamina, in southeastern Finland. Jaakko can’t go to the police because there’s no proof that his poisoning is intentional or accidental yet. Because he’s not dead, there’s not really a crime for them to investigate. So, in spite of his declining physical condition, Jaakko sets out to solve his own murder.

Because Jaakko is an amateur detective, he blunders through his investigation like a bull in a china store. He makes radical decision about his company. He says provocative things to watch people’s reactions. He asks his employees to spy for him. His actions stir up hornets nests all over the place and no one has a clue what’s going on. Then, the stakes get raised even higher when some of those competitors try to speed up his murder.

The Man Who Died is a blackly comic novel, surprisingly given its premise, and I chalk it up to the fact that most of the characters have no idea what they’re doing. Things go spectacularly and hilariously awry more often than not. Jaakko does eventually find out who poisoned him, but I think this mystery ended up being more about the journey than the destination. It is a story about a man who is murdered, yes, but his murder is a catalyst to rip off his blinders and really examine his complacency. Once those blinders are off, Jaakko gets the chance to go out with a bang.

I strongly recommend this book for readers who like puzzles and off-kilter fiction. I loved this book, so much that I read it all in one sitting.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. 

The Midwife, by Katja Kettu

Finnish Lapland is a brutal place. It’s above the Arctic Circle. It’s remote. Until the Russian Revolution and World War II arrived, even the modern world hadn’t touched it much. In Katja Kettu’s The Midwife (translated by David Hackston), we see a level of horror visited up on the Finns and Sami who live there that the history books didn’t prepare us for. In the course of one year, the titular midwife lives through a compressed version of the Finnish war experience.

The midwife, who is only know by the names other people give her like Weird-Eye and Fräulein Schwester (Nurse) and Wild-Eye, never expected to be a wife and mother like the other girls in her village. Not only does she have eyes that don’t line up, she is told that she is barren due to a childhood accident. Instead of bearing children, she helps other women do so, using a mix of local witchcraft and modern medicine taught her by the original midwife. Wild-Eye might have gone on delivering babies if she hadn’t seen Johannes Angelhurst at a checkpoint and become instantly attracted to the SS photographer.

In other hands, The Midwife would have been an ethically questionable romance novel. In Kettu’s hands, however, it quickly becomes a dark tale of trauma, war crimes, and obsession. Wild-Eye pulls strings to be assigned to the medical staff at a prisoner of war camp on the Titovka River. Her “love” for Johannes blinds her to the camp’s real function and she becomes an accessory to murder via unethical medical experiments. Johannes, suffering from post-traumatic stress after witnessing the massacre at Babi Yar is even more blind due to his amnesia and addiction to amphetamines.

It’s a mystery for much of the book how Wild-Eye and Johannes will come together. We know they will, because they take turns narrating the story and addressing their thoughts to each other from some point in their future. We also have excerpts from letters from Wild-Eye’s missing father, who apparently works for both the Nazis and the Russians, to add to the mess the midwife has found herself in.

I enjoyed putting together the fragments of information gleaned from the letters and Wild-Eye and Johannes’s accounts, enjoying the book overall, until the tide turns against the Germans. Johannes loses whatever pull he had with the camp commander, which Wild-Eye was hoping would keep her safe. When Johannes disappears into his drug-fueled delusions, Wild-Eye is taken to the barracks were she is repeatedly sexually assaulted by the camp’s guards. The Midwife fills with shocking sexual violence that will be triggering to a lot of readers. I only kept going because I wanted to see how the plot threads would connect.

The Midwife is a difficult read that may tempt readers because of its setting. I enjoyed the elements of local witchcraft that Wild-Eye swears by and the descriptions of the landscape. Kettu is a skilled writer, able to keep multiple fully-realized threads going and working together. The violence, however, was graphic and misogynistic to a point that almost led me to give up. So, caveat lector.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 October 2016.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

I imagine that authors dread the question “Where do you get your ideas?” as much as I dread the question “What’s your favorite book?” Inspiration is as personal as trying to identify a favorite story. In fact, I suspect that answer to both questions is similar. Where do you get your ideas? Everywhere. What’s your favorite book? Most of them. That said, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen has turned the question of where writers get their ideas into a sinister tale of vampiric writers and the creatures that haunt them in in The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyThis edition was translated by Lola M. Rogers.

Ella Malina is a substitute teacher in Rabbit Back, Finland, a town with a stunning literary reputation. It’s the home of Laura White, an internationally celebrated children’s author. White is also the head of the Rabbit Back Literature Society, a group of nine writers she mentored as children. The writers have gone on to success in most genres. They are reclusive; White doesn’t give interviews. But there’s a chance that someone will become the tenth member of the society. Being invited to join is an almost certain guarantee of literary success. Decades have gone by, however, since anyone has joined the society. It’s the long shot of all long shots that Ella is invited to join after White reads Ella’s story in the local paper.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society has no straight plot lines, it seems. Just when I thought I was figuring out where it was taking me, the plot would take a sharp left turn into something new—usually something sinister. The beginning of the book made me think the book was about a woman, Ella, losing her father to Alzheimer’s. Then Ella was invited into the society. Then White disappears and Ella’s literary hopes disappear.

The book settles down (a bit) after the first half, after Ella decides to return to what she does best: literary research. She uses the Society’s Game against the members to get information about their earliest days and find out about the missing tenth member that no one talks about. The Game is essentially interrogation. The challenger asks the challenged a question. The challenger is allowed to hurt and drug the challenged to get the whole truth out of them. Then the roles are reversed.

It doesn’t take long for Ella—and us readers—to work out that the Game is the source of quite a lot of the Society member’s work. Through interrogation about the most intimate and sensitive topics, the writers glean feelings and memories that they will put into their next projects. Under White’s tutelage, the writers have become permanent outsiders. It seems they can only observe. While at the local grocery store, Ella runs into one of the writers, who tells her:

But if you want to find characters for a book, this is a good place to do it, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I found bits of a serial killer’s mother, half a hero’s lover, and three whole peripheral characters today. A nice haul. (n.p.*)

When I read these lines, I was strongly reminded of all the fearful jokes I’ve seen about writers. “Be careful! Or you’ll end up in my novel!”

I found the writers’ isolation and methods very interesting,  but the supernatural elements that are hinted at throughout the book only really come into play near the end of the book. I’m still not sure how I feel about how Jääskeläinen ultimately used them other than that I wanted more Finnish folklore. This sounds like I think this novel has missteps, but that’s not quite true. The Rabbit Back Literature Society works and I enjoyed it. It just didn’t go in the direction I wanted; that’s hardly the book’s fault.

* 2015 kindle edition by Pushkin Press.