Tuesday, October 15, 2013

WITS Book Reviews October 2013

Book Title: The Stockholm Octavo
Author: Karen Engelmann
ISBN: 978-0061995347
Publisher: Ecco/Harper-Collins
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 2013
Book Length in Pages: 432 pages
Reviewer: Deborah Wilbrink


Mystery, political intrigue, scandal, culture, and a search for love–all set in 1791 Sweden. Engelmann, who lived in Sweden for eight years, has written a masterful first novel that reeks of reality that could only have been founded on deep research.

Unfolding the story like one of the ornamental fans upon which the plot turns, young Emil Larsson relates how his secretaire job in the Customs House depends upon securing a stabilizing marriage. With no prospects and no family contacts to help, he shares this with his friend, Mrs. Sparrow. Not only does Sparrow preside over a popular house of gaming, she is also a seer. Using a specially developed deck of cards based on Masonic principles of Divine Geometry, Mrs. Sparrow spreads a golden path for Emil. His fate is entwined with eight others found in the spread, including her: The Stockholm Octavo. With Mrs. Sparrow’s ties to Sweden’s controversial king, the Octavo expands. With the intruding background of the French revolution and Sweden’s disempowered nobility, Engelmann entangles her characters in the larger intrigues and trends of the times.

I asked the author about the unusual deck of cards used by her character Mrs. Sparrow. The creation of the cards and spread were synchronous with her writing process. “The Octavo in The Stockholm Octavo is a form of cartomancy that was created for the novel,” says Engelmann, “and came out of the writing process and the research. The early drafts of the book included the concept of eight characters that surrounded and influenced a significant event, and I called this eight the Octavo. But it took me several drafts to discover for myself what the Octavo was and how it worked.

“The early versions involved loads of card games—a primary form of social interaction in Sweden during the period. The narrator, Emil Larsson, frequents the gaming rooms of Mrs. Sparrow. Her character was inspired by a historical figure, Ulrica Arfvidsson, who lived in Stockholm during that period. Ulrica used tea leaves, coffee grounds and cards to predict the future. My research of gaming revealed that using cards as a means of divination was formalized in the late 18th century; the first book on cartomancy was published in 1770 by Jean-Baptiste Alliette (under the pen name Etteilla.) Etteilla used a standard French deck of 32 cards plus one, but also mentioned an Italian deck used for the popular game tarocchi. This deck of 52 plus 22 trump cards was the tool of choice for another Frenchman, Antoine Court de G├Ębelin. When his essay on the subject was published in 1781 it began the occult sensation we know as Tarot. It was a perfect method for Mrs. Sparrow and for my book.”
The well-played characters traverse all the social layers of Swedish society from King Gustav III to scullery maid and all between. All of course, seeking betterment, whether by sponsorship of an opera or by making the best rabbit pie to please one’s employer. Love lingers just beyond all the action, waiting to be claimed. Engelmann has written a first novel that dances with elements of mystery, history, romance, and treatise, a genuinely original work that delights, leaving one breathless for more.

Title: Protocol 7
Author: Armen Gharabegian
Publisher: Arctica Studios LLC (January 5, 2013)
Reviewer: Dana Micheli

Have you ever read a book that’s dangerously good? Dangerous in the sense that once you start reading it, everything on your “to-do” list falls to the wayside because all you want to do is find out what happens? Armen Gharabegian’s Protocol 7 is such a book.

Protocol 7 opens in England, 2039. It is a world where artificial intelligence units are as commonplace as smart phones, yet some things have not changed; namely, relying on man’s best friend and a bottle of thirty-year-old Scotch for comfort. At least that’s what Oxford professor Simon Fitzpatrick does when he learns that his father, Oliver, has been killed in Antarctica. But while his beloved Great Dane, Jake, brings Simon some small measure of solace, the drink does nothing to dull the anger. For despite repeated attempts to get information on the circumstances of his father’s death, no one is breathing a word.

That all changes with a ring of the doorbell. When Simon answers, he finds his old friend and current CIA operative, Jonathan Weiss, standing at his door. Underneath his flippant demeanor, Weiss is there to deliver a very serious holographic message…from Oliver Fitzpatrick! At first Simon is thrilled to see his father’s face, but then he realizes that something is…off. His father is acting so cheerful that something must be wrong.

Citing the message as evidence that all is well, Weiss tells Simon to stay put, relax, and wait for his father to contact him directly. But Simon knows that if he waits he will really lose his father forever. Ignoring both Weiss and a UN quarantine on Antarctica, he heads off in search of Oliver, with no idea that he will stumble upon a conspiracy that makes the Da Vinci Code seem trivial.

Gharabegian is a beautiful writer; he has the ability—all too rare these days—to strike a balance between gripping commercial fiction and literary prose. He also manages to depict a technologically believable future while allowing us to hang on to the creature comforts of today.

As I reluctantly turned to the last page of Protocol 7, I was genuinely disappointed that it was over. The good news is that this is only Part 1 of Gharabegian’s Antarctica Trilogy. I have no doubt that Part 2 will be just as destructive to my “to-do” list—and yours as well. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!  

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