Review: “Secret Passages in a Hillside Town” by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Olli Suominen, publisher, husband, and father, lives in small town in Finland. His two most distinguishing traits are a tendency to lose umbrellas and a penchant for detailed, disturbing dreams. When the town is gripped by the surprising bestseller, How to Live a Cinematic Life, by local author, Greta Kara, Olli, like many of his fellow citizens, joins a film club whose mission it is to work through Greta’s film suggestions and the advice based thereupon. It turns out that Greta is looking for a publisher for her upcoming book, a magical travel guide set in the small hillside town of Jyväskylä, where both she and Olli grew up. When she reaches out to him via Facebook, Olli’s life is thrown into turmoil.

Up to now, you might think that Secret Passages is just another novel about an unhappy man trapped in an unhappy relationship looking to rekindle a long-extinguished romance. You would be wrong. This is, after all, a book of magical realism, where abovementioned passages appear in unlikely places and lead to unpredictable destinations, with unforeseeable results. The events that happen to Olli and Greta in the course of the story are rooted in a long-buried secret from their shared past whose actual enormity is skilfully and purposefully unveiled to the reader chapter by chapter, like a bud blossoming in slow motion. In the end, the novel presents two alternative courses of action, but can there be a happy ending in either one? I’m not going to tell you, because Secret Passage in a Hillside Town is a book you need to read for yourself to experience its beauty and tragedy fully.

Besides being an engaging read, this novel is also a wonderful example of an excellent translation, work that in my opinion isn’t really appreciated enough. In this case, translation credits go to Lola M. Rogers.

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town is published by Pushkin Press. I received a copy via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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Review: “How to Love a Jamaican” by Alexia Arthurs

Short stories are a genre I never paid much attention to. Sure, I have some Bradbury on my shelf, alongside Salinger and Roald Dahl, but the label “short story” was not a good endorsement to get me to read a particular book – until recently. Interestingly, it’s been the young, female writers that have awakened a never-before-suspected passion for story collections (and poetry, but that is another thing altogether). Alexia Arthurs is one of these writers that should not be missed.

The most significant summary of Ms Arthurs’s biography is the fact that she was “born and raised in Jamaica and moved with her family to Brooklyn when she was twelve.” This real-life experience informs the characters and narratives in “How to Love a Jamaican.” The primary focus lies on female characters (although brothers, lovers, fathers, and other males are definitely present, and one story is even told from the perspective of a male narrator): Mothers and daughters, grandmothers, best friends, and even mermaids make appearances. Ms Arthurs ponders questions of identity and heritage, often leaving her characters in a state of tension as they struggle with finding a place for themselves in their given circumstances. From the get-go, her writing style is lively and immediately engaging. I found myself looking forward to meeting each new character as one story after another unfolded among the pages. Often, the reader is left with a sense of profound loss or melancholy, a clear sign of how masterfully Ms Arthurs manages to engage her audience.

Oddly, the one story that did not resonate with me at all was the rather long title story, and the reason for this disconnect was the irritating use of grammar. Within the narrative, Arthurs continually switches between past and present tense, without a clear indication of the purpose of this narrative device. While the main character, a successful singer more than casually reminiscent of Rihanna, clearly struggles with her own loneliness and the death of an acquaintance, this pain stays well locked on the page, making her seem distant and therefore not quite relatable. Then again, never having been a famous anything myself, perhaps I’m missing a crucial piece of experience in order to fully “feel” the story.

“How to Love a Jamaican” is published by Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine. I was provided a copy by Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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Review: “Woodcutter” by Shaun Baines

From the publisher’s description:

“SOME FAMILY TREES ARE MEANT TO FALL…

On the run from his criminal family, Daniel Dayton returns home to Newcastle Upon Tyne when his abandoned daughter is attacked.

But his family have problems of their own. Targeted by a brutal mercenary, their empire is destined to be destroyed should Daniel refuse to help.

Betrayed by his parents. Despised by his brother. In love with his sister-in-law. Home has become a dangerous place to be.

Daniel wants his daughter safe. And he wants his revenge, but in the shadowy streets of Newcastle, things are never what they seem.”

If you want to know what Shaun Baines’s debut novel is about, this blurb will give you the right idea without me having to provide spoilers. At first, I found it somewhat difficult to really get into the rhythm of the story, primarily because the writing reminds me very much of the German dimestore publication, “G-Man Jerry Cotton”, which is full of gangster jargon and clichés. Then again, ol’ Jerry has been going strong since 1954, so clearly, this type of writing does not necessarily speak against a book. In fact, as I continued reading, I eventually stopped noticing (or possibly, Mr Baines hit a more literary stride in his writing style). Mind you, this says nothing at all about the quality of the story yet; just be forewarned that if you tend to be as picky as I am, you may have a tough time enjoying Woodcutter.

‘Yeah, yeah, but what about the STORY?’ Well, dear readers, here you are in luck: Mr Baines skilfully weaves a tale of conflict and deception, with clever twists and turns that maintain the suspense. By the middle of the book, I was so engrossed that I felt compelled to keep reading all the way to the end! The deviousness of those aiming to use Daniel Dayton for their own purposes runs deep, indeed. I am pleased to say that although I am not aware of any plans for a follow-up, Mr Baines has certainly left himself the option to write one (or more), having established his characters, some future conflict, and even potential storylines.

Woodcutter is published by Thistle Publishing. I received an advanced copy for review; all opinions are my own.

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