a blank slate

a blank slate

Month: November 2014

Mini Reviews from July – November

Be prepared for a long post. I have resigned to the idea that I won’t be able to blog about every book I read any longer. I haven’t had enough time to mull over and reorganize my thoughts on every single book I read over the past four months, but I did make some notes that I want to share on the blog. I abandoned Goodreads sometime in August and I’d rather keep log of my reads here on the blog than there. I have skipped the summaries, linked to Goodreads, you can hop on over to read about the plots. Each of these books is worth a try, even though I haven’t rated them all the same (I’ve turned stingy with my ratings of late, 3 is for a pretty good book.) Six of my stand-out reads from July to November, here I go:

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman … 5/5
genre: urban fantasy fiction

There is a review on Goodreads of this book, a great review about how Gaiman understands and uses magic and fantasy. Neverwhere is the perfect fantasy, the kind that reestablishes and transcends your idea of the genre. (Does that make any sense?) It is the kind of book that makes you giddy with its earnest detailing. But I love Neverwhere the most for how intensely literary it is, how it fits in with my new postmodern obsession. Because I just reread American Gods, I found myself comparing the two. Where American Gods is bogged down by symbolism, Neverwhere has weaved it subtly but inextricably into a wildly entertaining narrative. The book feels complete. It’s a history that Gaiman has given us a fleeting glimpse into. I am convinced the characters and the illusion are real to the writer – he knows what happened before and after the book, and has let us in on a part of his secret knowledge. A must read if ever there was one.
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green … 3/5
genre: young adult fiction

I knew going in how much of a hit or miss read The Fault in our Stars was going to be. And I didn’t totally love it, as I had predicted, for either of two reasons – not because it was too sad, or made me cry. But, a) Because, I just didn’t get it. I don’t think it had the intended effect on me, because all I felt was: that didn’t have to happen but I knew it was going to happen, anyway, so, while it was very sad, what could I have done but wait for it. b) If this was the intended effect and it was supposed to make me feel something, like understanding the inevitability of death or appreciating life more, it was a stupid effect. I do know the nothing we can do against fate and all this did was remind me. I didn’t feel terrible at the end, I didn’t cry (it’s not like I never can, I cried when Marley died, and he was a dog.) The book built up to something huge that it failed to deliver. There were parts of the book that were truly moving and filled with hopeful humour that got lost in the overreaching philosophized ending.

genre: contemporary literary fiction
I have spent the last three months reading more recommendations than ever, because it’s too annoying to risk a dull read when you have so little time to spend with books. The best sort of recommendations are the smaller books – so that if they do turn out to be not-your-type, you don’t owe anyone the courtesy of trudging through seven hundred odd pages – and this was one of those. A quick strange read, this book is succinctly described in its blurb as a “portrait of marriage.” Can something be laid back and intense at the same time? That’s how this book feels. With little over a hundred pages, it is a breeze of a read. I wouldn’t call it a short story collection, but it has the meandering often disconnected feel (plot-wise) of one. But the author writes with a cool cutting precision. She serves you dollops of wisdom that seem to come out of nowhere and in a dubiously uncaring tone. It’s genius writing. Also, masterful characterization.

genre: alternate history, fantasy fiction 
Stephen King is right – when isn’t he? – this book is terrifically entertaining, if not much else. It has one of the best beginnings I have ever read: the discovery of a dragon egg and the question of who becomes its aviator provide at once a thoughtful glimpse of the social structure of Novik’s England and plant us right in the middle of action. The points of view of the dragons, Temeraire in particular, will make fascinating read for pet-owners. But it’s not just the dragons and their relations to the masters that add intrigue to the book – the fast war scenes with dragon armies and the descriptions of training sessions and such are very exciting. The descriptions of war strategies, the references to Napoleon bring to mind Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but it’s a pale likeness. Read the book to have fun, enjoy a new kind of world, and you’ll love it. But it won’t meet any more expectations. The next time I have a few hours to kill, I’ll give the sequel a try. (I rarely read series, so this is saying something.)
genre: anthropology, philosophy, non fiction
It was at one of my two libraries back home that I found myself reading more non-fiction than fiction. I stumbled upon A General Theory of Magic by Marcel Mauss, and it left me completely intrigued. I read later than Mauss is a well known and widely criticized French sociologist – the best kind. So of course, I had to read The Gift when I found it at my university library. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies is a book that explores the social, legal, religious and economic reasons that lead to the web of conventions and obligations associated with the exchange of gifts. It makes an endlessly interesting read, if you’re prepared to take some judgments and conclusions with a pinch of salt, and refuse to be intimidated by the complicated academic writing. It’s also hilarious in its sincerity, and presents ideas that can be very useful, if wielded correctly. Paraphrased from the introduction:

Charity is meant to be a free gift, a voluntary, unrequited surrender of resources. Though we laud charity as a Christian virtue we know that it wounds. The whole idea of a free gift is based on a misunderstanding. A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction. According to Marcel Mauss that is what is wrong with the free gift.

genre: mystery, adult fiction

Don’t say it, I know I’m crazy that I never got around to writing about this, I’ve just been too busy. The Silkworm is an amazing read, though (and I feel bad admitting this) not quite as held together as The Cuckoo’s Calling. It‘s in the theme that this novel falls strikingly short of Rowling’s usual best, for me. The Cuckoo’s Calling dealt with a glitzy paparazzi-infested world, which her success surely brought Rowling uncomfortably close to. But the sequel deals with something that Rowling must know all too well: literary circles and the publishing world. And I feel that Rowling can’t quite keep her personal voice out of this book. It reads too opinionated and sceptical in places that I’d rather it had stayed objective; an otherwise invisible narrator seems to adopt a scathing tone when commenting on self-publishing, for instance. But of course, the book is also brilliant on so many levels. The plot is daring, the characters are wicked, and through each of these Rowling seems to warn us not to assign her a comfort zone. As for the delicately beautiful partnership between Cormoran Strike and Robin, I have no words. This is not a series you want to miss out on.


Have you read any of these? Or are you planning to rush to Amazon to buy these? Because you should. But in the meanwhile, I could really use some advice on time management. Do you blog about all the books you read? I discovered that a blogger I read makes notes for reviews while she reads. How do you ensure the blog survives?

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?
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.
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.
did you find the inspiration for Witchcraft Couture?
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
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.
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?

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.”

“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?

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.

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?

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?