Thursday, November 20, 2014

Writing is travelling into the unknown: author Katarina West on her inspiration, the "perfect novel" and more

About the author: Born in Helsinki, Finland, Katarina West lives in an old farmhouse in Chianti with her husband and son, and when not writing, she is fully immersed in the Tuscan country life, from jam-making and olive-oil-picking to tractor maintainence. Witchcraft Couture is her first novel.

About the book: Witchcraft Couture is a dark fantasy steeped in Finnish mythology, a cautionary tale reminiscent of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, written in the lush style of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Here is the review on Tabula Rasa. 

Links: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

In this interview, Katarina discusses her writing process and inspirations, leaving us with her brilliant concoction of the "perfect novel."

Why do you write?
Because it’s the thing I love most to do, because I don’t know how else to exist, and because I have done it – in one way or the other – for most of my life. It’s not the easiest choice for a profession, and in some sense I believe it’s not a choice at all, but something you just have to do, no matter what. There have been dark periods and crises during which I decided I will not write any more. But after a while I was always back writing again.

What do want readers to take away from your writing?
A possibility to escape, in the widest and deepest sense of the term, which is something I appreciate most as a reader. That wonderful feeling when you enter an imaginary universe, complete with its characters, sensory details, little stories and emotions, and when you’re inside that world it feels more real than your everyday life. And after you have finished the novel it still lingers in your mind, and you keep wondering why the characters acted the way they acted, and why the end was the way it was, and what must have happened to the characters after the story ended.

They say, "Write what you know." Do you agree?
Yes and no. Once I read an interview of Somerset Maugham – who is one of my favourite authors – and he said something similar, and afterwards I have often tried to follow that advice, choosing settings and social backgrounds I know well. And in a sense it is true, that you write best about something that you have experienced and breathed in your own life. But then there is also the fact that writing itself is an act of gambling, it’s about closing your eyes and travelling into the unknown, and going beyond the boundaries of what you already know.   

Where did you find the inspiration for Witchcraft Couture?
Two things inspired me. One was the Finnish national epic Kalevala and the magic tool, Sampo, which plays a leading role in it. The Sampo has always fascinated me, and already years before I started to write Witchcraft Couture I knew that one day I would like to write about the Sampo. Another inspiration was my own life, or actually my writing, and the fact that in the past I suffered from creative blocks. So I wanted to write about a man – a fashion designer – who was just as insecure as I was, and destroyed his designs the same way I destroyed my texts. And then one day he found a magic machine that transformed even his worst designs into masterpieces. So this was the start, and it intrigued me.

Which are your three all-time favourite books and why?
My all-time favourite book is Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, which I read during a summer holiday when I was about sixteen. I read it several times in a period of four, five days, first in a haste and devouring each word, and then slowly, underlining sentences, thinking, studying. It was something I had never read before; it was like falling in love. That was the first time I realised how complex fictional characters can be – and once you’ve started journeying on that road, there’s no turning back. Afterwards I’ve always sought that same earthquake-like reading experience, but sadly, no other book has ever had quite the same effect on me – not even Dostoyevsky’s other, more famous novels.

As for the two other all-time favourites… well, it varies. I have periods when a certain author is my absolute favourite and I try to read whatever he or she has written. But then that period comes to an end, I don’t know why, and I find someone else.

I suppose I'm always constructing in my mind the Perfect Novel. Everything in it is absolutely flawless: its characters have the warmth of John Irving's best heroes, its language the intensity of Toni Morrison’s books, or the sarcasm of Etgar Keret's stories, or the bubbly lightness of Sophie Kinsella's narrative voice, or rich fantasy of Stephen King's thrillers… And yes, I could go on forever with this list, because I really am omnivorous when it comes to reading.

Lovely interview, thanks Katarina! And readers, Witchcraft Couture is available to buy on Amazon. Grab your copy now!

Don't you love the idea of the Perfect Novel? Mine would have some combination of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (like Good Omens) with J. K. Rowling's characters and Stephen King's genre-defiance. What would be the ingredients to your perfect novel?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Re-reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman

My plan was to finish reading this during the R.I.P. Challenge, but these days I suffer from no time. It took me over a month to read the book, but what a month.

“Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you - even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition. Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.” 

Summary: Days before his release from prison, Shadow's wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.

My thoughts: When I first read American Gods, it was all new to me. The word I used to describe the book was fascinating. That’s not the right word to describe the book. Gaiman is fascinating. As are The Graveyard Book, Coraline, Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. American Gods is disturbing, strange, real and not fascinating. I did like the book then, but not as I should have, because it is a book that would not make complete sense if it were new to you, or you new to it.

Some would say Gaiman’s writing is an acquired taste – but I don’t agree with that either. Though loaded with allusions in this book, his writing style is basically direct. His snippets of insight into people and places are universally relatable. But a reader of American Gods should have a knowledge of mythology and appreciation of storytelling. You can’t afford to be world-weary, rather be world-wise. You cannot be hesitant in your approach to it and you cannot expect to fall in love with it. American Gods shouldn’t be your first taste of its genre of dark, bleak humour and whatever you call it. It is a book better read slowly than devoured and best enjoyed on a second or third reading.

The old gods in American Gods are delightful. Wednesday (think Woden's Day) is your typical high-minded deity: cruel, careless and vindictive, not to mention, nosy. He loves his power and his care for people holds only so far as it is reciprocated. The old gods are only impressions of their original versions worshipped across the world, carried to the shores of America through half-remembered tales and customs of their native people. So they all have a bit of America in them, from their people slowly merging with the new world. Wednesday, Low-key, Nancy, Jacquel and Ibis, for instance, make wonderful retold approaches to the old Norse and African biggies. And there are so many smaller gods, smaller myths, every character has a purpose (a counterpart) and I can't even imagine what treasure chests of knowledge Gaiman's mind must hold. The new Gods are, well, they are perfect mirrors of the new world, not altogether pleasant.

But more than the gods, American Gods is about people. American Gods is about belief, and how limiting it could be. It also attempts to show the power of stories. Stories are alive, they change as the tellers grow, and the world changes too. Gaiman tells us some of these stories, some old tales of the gods who then travelled across the world with their believers. It's when it talks about belief and stories that American Gods reminds me of Terry Pratchett and his books that do an infinitely better job portraying the ideas - like Small Gods and Hogfather, and even Good Omens for that matter.

“This is the only country in the world," said Wednesday, into the stillness, "that worries about what it is."
"What?"

"The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.” 

American Gods is a nostalgic look at America, which is a character all by itself. The mixing of religions and the alienation, the insiders and the misfits, the otherworldliness, the disconnectedness in geography and culture, everything that comes under Americana, is built with mastery. It is about the absurd beauty of myths, about nightmares and dreams taking flesh and blood form, about the horrors that unarguably pour out of our own minds. It deals with death in a manner no book I have ever read has. The book is cold and blunt and emotional at the same time. It's very essence lies in its secrets; it has more than one thing to say and you can be never be quite sure of them all. It is perfect, almost.

Why? Ok, the thing that makes me not like American Gods is that it is too commercialized, sensationalized. The subtlety that Gaiman is capable of is absent. It isn't simply the emphasis on "anything can happen" that makes Gaiman put it all out there – the loud, brazen, dirty seems at times like a deliberate genre-defining kind of addition, and that's where American Gods gets on my nerves. It reads attention-seeking in parts, and by extension, dishonest. The climax, as with so many books of this great a scope, is a little disappointing. Not because it isn't a resolution I wanted, it is. But the writing loses its lucidity, its clarity towards the end and the finale is a rushed affair.

I've been told I should read his novella The Monarch of the Glen, from Fragile Things, to get closure for Shadow. Maybe I will. Meanwhile, now that I am done ranting, I would love to know what you make of this book. Some books are meant to be reread. Do you agree?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Five Signs A Bookworm Isn't Getting Enough Books

Would you keep a pet goldfish out of water? Or neglect feeding a child? In much the same way, it is your job, as a member of a bookworm's life, to ensure that she gets a constant supply of books. If you notice any of the following symptoms in a bookworm, chances are she is not getting enough books. It is for you to discover why and rectify the situation.

Stage 1. Disinterest: If a bookworm seems disinterested in the world around her, it is because she misses the fantastical, intriguing worlds of her books. Remember, these are the ones that help her cope with the routine. Give her a book, and she'll be back to normal in no time. 

Stage 2. Irritability: Is she annoyed all the time? A bookworm, when confined in real life for too long, begins to show signs of irritation at everything mundane. If she snaps at you, ignore her, tell her to stop what she's doing and place a book in her hands. This is the best way to avoid further complications.

Stage 3. Over-talkativeness: Does she burst into long unstoppable monologues? Please understand, a book-deprived bookworm is likely bored out of her mind. She expects you to be the entertainment she's missing. Either stand up to the demands of the role or give her a book to read. However, be warned that if you choose the latter and do give her a great book, she may never speak to you again.

Stage 4. Sleepiness: If a bookworm tends to doze off at even the most random times of day, she is probably trying to dream up the worlds she is unable to read about. She will inevitably reach a stage when the dreams will not be enough. A bookworm in this stage of book-separation needs immediate attention. The ideal cure is a page-turner, a mystery or a thriller, to keep her awake long enough to adjust her sleep cycle.

Stage 5. Hallucinations: Did she just call you Harry? Say something about rescuing Sirius? Is she trying to fly a broom? Lead her to her favourite bookshelf, leave the room and don't return for at least a week. This bookworm is in need of serious help and you're not it.

There may be numerous doubtless justified reasons for a bookworm not getting enough reading time. But just remember, no work is worth this high a cost.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Side Characters Who Deserve Their Own Books

1. Ollivander from the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling - His first name was apparently revealed to be Garrick on Pottermore. I have always found him one of the most fascinating "minor" characters in the books. Anyone who is that charming in a supporting role deserves a book of their own. Wand-making adventures, imagine that.

2. Dick Hallorann from The Shining by Stephen King - Oh, we do see more of this guy in Doctor Sleep, but that wasn't nearly enough. He is one of my favourite Stephen King characters, because he makes few appearances and still leaves an impact. I'm sure you'd agree he needs a book of his own, about how he discovered his shining, how learned to use it, or his life after the Overlook incident.

3. Francis Adirubasamy (Mamaji) from Life of Pi by Yann Martel - I love this book. And Mamaji, the swimmer responsible for the tragic French naming of Piscine Molitor Patel, is one of the most eccentric, brilliant characters ever. Pi does tell us a lot about him in the earlier pages of the book, but I'd love to read a book about the man, even if written in a vastly different vein from Life of Pi.

4. Professor Van Helsing from Dracula by Bram Stoker - If we count all the Dracula fan fiction ever created, I'm sure there are books on Van Helsing. I have seen the Hugh Jackman movie, which in all honesty, sucked. But I just wish Stoker had written something on his history. He is such an interesting character.

5. John Uskglass (the Raven King) from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke - God, I wish she'd write a book on the Raven King, already. You just can't create such a big, legendary character and basically only look at him from the points of view of two stuffy Englishmen. It's not fair, the ruler of Faerie deserves more. 

This is the topic for Top Ten Tuesday today, over at The Broke and the  Bookish. Hop on over to participate! Which minor characters would you like starring as leads?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Witchcraft Couture by Katarina West

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on November 20. Don't forget to grab your copy! Also, watch out for an interview with author Katarina West in the coming week, discussing her favourite reads and inspirations.

Summary: Is there such a thing as stolen genius, and if there is, can it turn against the very person who stole it?

Oscar Pellegrini is a talented fashion designer with a deadly enemy: his own critical mind. He destroys much of what he designs and has been drifting for years. A chance encounter with a former girlfriend triggers a creative crisis so deep that he escapes to Russia. Just when he thinks he has lost everything, he discovers a magical machine, called the Sampo, that can turn ordinary outfits into irresistible shining triumphs. Oscar takes the machine back to Italy - and before he knows it, he has become a fashion messiah Celebrities and socialites are fighting to wear his gorgeous garments. But the happily-ever-after ending turns into a nightmare, as he is haunted by his creations. Drawing inspiration from Finnish mythology and the epic Kalevala, Katarina West has spun a story on madness, guilt and cumbersome art.

My thoughts: Katarina West's writing reminded me of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. She has a sort of romantic writing style, which goes beyond vivid detailed descriptions. The writing is evocative and sensual. And written in the form of a diary, it is personal taken to an almost voyeuristic extreme; be it when Oscar talks about his creative block, his guilt and self-doubt or his lovers. Something like this -

There were also times when my thoughts embarrassed me: it seemed such an ordinary thing to do, to fall in love. Yet then I happened to see her, and at that very instant I turned all rigid, and soft, and felt roused, and nervous, and insecure, and hopeful, and intrigued, and beneath all that, in the depths of my nerves and veins, in that terrible vortex of dreams and desires, I felt her presence, and it kept drawing me towards her; and that attraction had no rational cause, it entailed no why, or when, or how – no, it simply existed, with the inevitable simplicity of a law of physics, and as such, it was flesh over reason, blood over spirit, and once it had come upon you, there was nothing you could do about it. 

Oscar Pellegrini is an unreliable narrator. He is moody, neurotic, obsessive, insecure and as the Sampo begins to affect him, he becomes increasingly crazed and incoherent. His creative blocks at the beginning, his spurts of inspiration and the final breakdowns soon get tedious and repetitive. The pace of the book is far too slow for what is essentially a mystery, the build-up is gradual and eventually, after trudging through half the book, my curiosity over what the Sampo would do to Oscar waned. This genre-defying slowness and length also makes it like Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. So if you had issues with one, you might not like the other.

At its core, Witchcraft Couture is simply a "magic always comes with a price" cautionary tale. Oscar is gifted in the style of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from Perfume by Patrick Süskind. Except, in Oscar's case, the extra-ordinary in him is an external force, like a lifeline, making him an anti-hero not unlike Dorian Gray, whose power rests in his portrait. Witchcraft Couture is a unique turn on a classic tale - you can draw comparisons with everything from Doctor Faustus to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 

I love the way West has portrayed the artist. Oscar's talent has a life of its own. His crises, his muses and frenzied work, his visionary ideas and the way he perceives the world through colour and texture, along with all his troubles characteristic of a genius - his inability to fit in, his mood swings, his obnoxious fantasies - the book conveys them remarkably aptly. West shows us both Oscar's artistic point-of-view and his rational understanding of what the world thinks of him. He makes a very interesting impression that sticks with you. Katarina West displays the world of fashion in as much honest and gory detail as the world of publishing is shown in Rowling's The Silkworm. One of my favourite descriptions is,

There is no vaccination against creative blocks. And nowhere else are they as devastating as in fashion which, unlike art or literature, dies the moment it is born.

For those who love lush prose, long winding monologues and character-driven stories, for fashion and art enthusiasts, I highly recommend Witchcraft Couture by Katarina West. This book made me mull over and ask myself the eternal unanswerable question: what matters more - plot, characters or a little of both. Which would you pick?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I'd say I don't remember the last time I read a young-adult book, only I do. Just the other day: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I liked it, maybe a little more than I'd expected, enough to read in one sitting. So I read a book by an author who so often gets mentioned in the same breath as John Green. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is another YA book that comes highly recommended. And this, I loved!

Summary: (from Amazon) Eleanor is the new girl in town, and she's never felt more alone. All mismatched clothes, mad red hair and chaotic home life, she couldn't stick out more if she tried. Then she takes the seat on the bus next to Park. Quiet, careful and, in Eleanor's eyes, impossibly cool, Park's worked out that flying under the radar is the best way to get by. Slowly, steadily, through late-night conversations and an ever-growing stack of mix tapes, Eleanor and Park fall in love. Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits: smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Rating: 3.5/5 - I only do ratings when the review is kind of a rant, and doesn't really make it clear just how exactly much I liked the book.

Bono met his wife in high school, Park says. 
So did Jerry Lee Lewis, Eleanor answers. 
I'm not kidding, he says
You should be, she says, we're 16. 
What about Romeo and Juliet? 
Shallow, confused, then dead. 
I love you, Park says. 
Wherefore art thou, Eleanor answers. 
I'm not kidding, he says. 
You should be.

My thoughts: The story is so cheesy. I know: it's got two misfits falling in love over a bunch of 80's songs, which they can't help quoting from every three seconds. There's a lot of gooey dialogue that made me roll my eyes for being just so... teen. Of course, my teenage years were some of the most ridiculous times of my life, where I did and said the craziest things and had high school smack me in the face a lot, so there were times when I felt the characters in the book just needed to grow up, already. All their immaturities and insecurities are frustrating and maudlin. But then that's the point, Eleanor & Park captures exactly what it is to be a teenager. Illogical and overloaded on touchy-feelies; even the smart kid sometimes thinks the stupidest things, the usually no-nonsense girl acts all silly around the boy she likes, even the biggest bully can abruptly turn nice. Anyone who asks for explanations has forgotten what it's like to be sixteen. 

Eleanor's real problems - her creepy step-dad, her abused careless mother, her must-wear-mens'-clothes poverty - and Park's troubles with his dad, who finds him too girly, are frequently taken somewhat casually. But it was this subtlety that I actually liked, the writer has this almost lighthearted way of dealing with and writing about big issues. I mean all the concerns stared me right in face. But I felt like Eleanor was doing the best she could when she sneaked out to meet Park in the middle of the night risking so much, because if it's ever justified to do something shallow, it's when you're a smitten sixteen-year old. I didn't expect Park to understand Eleanor's broken family or realize the extent of her troubles, because to him family meant something simpler; he had parents who were completely in love with other. Making rash decisions, not giving every action a thought is what kept them innocent teenagers, and Rowell lets them live in their little bubble, if only for a while. This makes their breakthrough moments even sweeter. A well written book manages to be dead serious without monologues of philosophizing. I think Rowell pulls it off.

The sentences are crisp, the dialogue snippy and the narration flits between Park and Eleanor. There are times when the point of view changes thrice on the same page, which is distracting and a little lazy, not much effort goes into seamlessly moving from scene to scene. Rowell does have an eye for detail and is a good describer, but she is awfully repetitive. (Red hair, red hair, freckles, big, Eleanor = not conventionally pretty.) It's a YA novel and probably couldn't resist its few typical gimmicks. Basically, I suppose it's no great work of literature (although, what is?, really) but it's a charming book. Worth a shot, at least.

A couple of favourite quotes (descriptions) that aren't snappy chit chat:

When Eleanor was a little girl, she'd thought her mom looked like a queen, like the star of some fairy tale. Not a princess – princesses are just pretty. Eleanor's mother was beautiful. She was tall and stately, with broad shoulders and an elegant waist. All of her bones seemed more purposeful than other people's. Like they weren't just there to hold her up, they were there to make a point.
Eleanor looked a lot like her. But not enough.
Eleanor looked like her mother through a fish tank. Rounder and softer. Slurred. Where her mother was statuesque, Eleanor was heavy. Where her mother was finely drawn, Eleanor was smudged.

(Eleanor, on herself)

But Park didn't have any luck – or status – to spare on that dumb redhead. He had just enough to keep himself out of trouble. And he knew it was crappy, but he was kind of grateful that people like that girl existed. Because people like Steve and Mikey and Tina existed, too, and they needed to be fed. If it wasn't that redhead, it was going to be somebody else. And if it wasn't somebody else, it was going to be Park.

(Park, initially, on being nice to Eleanor)

P.S. Here's a link to John Green's review of Eleanor & Park. Interesting, huh? Do you read any author reviews of books? I only trust recommendations that I find on Neil Gaiman's blog.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov

I read a lot these days, putting all my spare time into it. What I need to catch up on is my reviews. This is an interesting book I read the other day that I'd highly recommend to mythology and language buffs. I mean, look at the cover, wouldn't you like to know where all those words came from?

I had a couple of hours to kill at the university the other day, so I wandered into the Mythology and Religion section of the library, which these days has turned into a default response to free time. A slim book caught my eye, Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov.

The book is just what the title says, an account of Greek (and Roman) myths and the many words coined from them. The book begins at the beginning, with the first thing that ever came into existence, which the Greeks called Chaos. From the void came the deities, like Gaia (Roman Gaea) and Ouranos (Roman Uranus.) Their children were the Titans. Kronos, the most powerful Titan, revolted against and drove away Uranus. The Titans were followed by the Olympians, when Zeus tricked his father Cronus, defeated the Titans and imprisoned then. The book then retells the stories of demigods and monsters, the tales of men and heroes and lastly, the legend of the siege of Troy. It's a simple but detailed account, nice for those not familiar with the myths and not too long to bore those who already are. 

Asimov spends a long time listing all the planets and stars named after the Greek mythical beings, but since I'm no expert in astronomy, I could only comment that I found it interesting. What I really liked were the little bits of information, from the obvious like all geo- words being derived from Gaea, to the fact that there is an atlas bone in our body, which is aptly the one our head rests on. Eos, sister of Hyperion and goddess of dawn, gave us the word 'east.' The Roman god of sleep was called Somnus, as in somnabulist, and his son was the god of dreams, Morpheus, as in morphine. Pan was a son of Hermes, and had hindquarters, legs, ears and horns of a goat. The Roman equivalent of Pan, the spirit of nature, was Faunus, who gave us both 'fauna' and 'faun.' Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit trees, which is where pomegranate comes from, as does Pomona Sprout!

In the chapter about the siege of Troy, which obviously was my favourite part, Asimov retold the Iliad myth, pausing to name the many phrases derived from it. I was thrilled, because the only one I ever knew was "Achilles heel." But I did have a feeling that some of them were a bit stilted. Tell me if you've seen any of these used, "the apple of discord," "to sulk like Achilles in his tent," "I fear the Greeks, even when they come bearing gifts." Other phrases not related to the Troy myth that Asimov mentioned included "to cut the Gordian knot" from a story of Alexander the Great and the gorgons, "to throw a sop to Cerberus" inspired from the three-headed dog guarding hell.

Asimov has also written the book Words from History. I can't wait to get my hands on that!