The Stockholm Octavo: A Novel

The Stockholm Octavo: A Novel

by Karen Engelmann

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061995347
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/23/2012
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.42(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.34(d)

About the Author

Karen Engelmann lived and worked in Sweden for eight years. She has an MFA from Goddard College in Vermont. She lives in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Interviews

Q&A between Karen Engelmann, author of The Stockholm Octavo, and Eleanor Brown, bestselling author of The Weird Sisters

What inspired The Stockholm Octavo?

Some years ago, I had an opportunity to devote some extra time to writing and was drawn to the subject of folding fans. Once considered indispensible, fans were nearly forgotten, but my mother had collected them, and their beauty, craftsmanship, and fragility fascinated me. Doing research, I read a great deal about the 18th century (when fans were a must for any fine lady.) While both these topics suggested France, I had lived nearly 9 years in Sweden and decided to look there for inspiration instead. Swedish friends supplied me with books, which I read (very slowly) with growing fascination; this was dramatic material that English language readers knew very little about, especially the Gustavian age. At some point during this germination period, a friend gave me an old German pamphlet, “Bilder Zaubereien” (The Magic Picture Book.) The magic lay in the books construction: eight sections of eight pages each that only revealed themselves when the pages were flipped in a specific way. The fluttering of pages was reminiscent of a fan and the fact that I have always loved the number eight inspired me to construct a story that was the literary and physical equivalent of this clever pamphlet. Putting form over content is no way to write a book; I failed miserably and put the project aside, but my interest in fans, the number eight, and late 18th c. Sweden held fast. Eventually I entered an MFA program with the intention of using the material in eight short stories connected by a folding fan. In fact, the project began with eight character sketches, but it soon became clear that my characters needed more pages and grew into a novel set in 1790 Stockholm. The means of connecting the eight became the Octavo. And the fan? Well, what's an assassination without an interesting weapon?

There's such an impressive amount of detail in the story, on topics as diverse as cartomancy, herbalism, secret codes, and Swedish history. What about these subjects caught your attention?

The last item on your list holds the key to all the others. Once I opened the treasure chest of 18th century history, I couldn't help but find all manner of weird and wonderful topics that fascinated me and defined the age. Card play was a primary source of entertainment throughout Europe. In 1770, Ettiella wrote one of the first books on cartomancy using a piquet deck, and in 1781 the Italian tarocchi deck became a means of divination as the Tarot. The healing arts were based in plant remedies, but apothecaries sold ground Egyptian mummies as a curative powder. Women used the movements of their folding fans as a secret language. Kings employed astrologers and magicians to decipher the signs and alchemists to fill their bankrupt treasuries. All of this seemed utterly foreign at first, but gradually I connected to the needs these 18th century people felt: the desire to know the future, to heal (or harm) with medicines, have wealth and security, create art, find love, connect to others, have a life with meaning. Not so different, really. These historical details lured me into the world of 18th century Sweden, and the motivations behind them let my characters inhabit it fully.

I've never been to Sweden, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't know Stockholm is a city made up of islands until I read your book! Where does your interest in Sweden and its history come from?

My connection to Sweden began (as do many of these international adventures) with love. I will spare you the sappy details, but I maneuvered my way to Stockholm via a sketchy study abroad plan in order to be with the man I eventually married. The study plan was a complete bust, but we moved to Malmö and lived there for nearly 9 years. I absorbed a great deal of Swedish culture during that time, but my interest in history came only after returning to the U.S. Perhaps it was a way of examining where I had been and an attempt to understand the roots of that environment — so elegant and austere at the same time. Once I latched onto folding fans and the late 18th century, the Gustavian age was waiting to be explored; it is a period much written about that still holds great fascination for Swedes and was a pivotal time in their history. Delving in was sheer delight, and I hoped to bring some of that history (albeit in a fictional and even fantastical fashion) to readers.

Your characters are so vivid and memorable — mysterious Mrs. Sparrow, the elegant and dangerous Uzanne, sweet but clever Johanna, and the narrator, Emil, who is both sympathetically hapless and astonishingly brave. What inspires your characters?

My characters are made from this recipe: consider the many fascinating people you have encountered in your life — from artists to xenophobes. They are all the raw ingredients and inspiration needed to begin. But art can imitate life only to a certain point: fiction demands more. Combine experience, education, observation with imagination and a generous sprinkle of lies, then make a claim that there is no resemblance to any person living or dead. Work hard to understand where your characters come from and where they want to go, literally and figuratively, so they have substance and genuine flavor. Then spice them up to serve the story. If additional color is needed, life often supplies it. For example, during a time I was trying to understand Mrs. Sparrow, I was in a cab when the driver announced (unsolicited) that she had the Sight, told me how it came to her, what it felt like, and what she saw. Throw that into the mix. Once you have everyone in place, stew for several years. Adjust seasonings. Cut the fat. Love your creations deeply. Serve in the most beautiful way possible.

One of the things I love about The Stockholm Octavo is that I honestly have never read anything quite like it — I could compare it to everything from Dangerous Liaisons to The Da Vinci Code. What are some of the books and authors that inspire you?

So many books! So many authors! There are ideas, characters, techniques and styles in nearly everything I read that I want to steal (like your wonderful symbiotic first person plural in The Weird Sisters.) But to narrow it down, books that allow a heightened or expanded version of reality have always been inspiring to me. Attending Catholic school meant reading the Bible, the lives of the saints and other religious texts. I confess to reading a lot of comic books while growing up and still like graphic novels. The Brothers Grimm (the gory, scary versions) were an early influence and a good lesson in how to write a page-turner. I was enchanted with the meeting of gods and mortals in Greek mythology as a child, and thrill to modern interpretations like the play Metamorphosis by Mary Zimmerman and the novel The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. A few books that directly inspired The Stockholm Octavo would have to be Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, and His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. These novels all presented complete and complicated worlds (and in the first two examples, historically grounded.) The characters were compelling and the stories riveting. But the writers didn't hesitate to introduce ghosts, golems, or a parallel universe or two, allowing the unknowable to co-exist with the commonplace. I wanted my novel to express the notion that history is, to a certain extent, a mystery, and I took courage from these authors and their wonderful work.

The title of the book comes from Emil's search for his “octavo”, eight people around him who influence the events of the story. Do we all have an octavo? Who would be in yours?

By the time I finished writing The Stockholm Octavo, Mrs. Sparrow had me convinced that the Octavo was as fine a theory as any to explain the complex web of connections that direct the course of a life. Sparrow believed most people have at least one Octavo and suggested that we might have multiples. If you stop to consider, I think you could identify at least one Octavo of your own. I listed one of mine in the acknowledgements — the eight people that surrounded the writing and publication of this novel. The Octavo is a theory easily examined in retrospect. The challenge is having a skilled Seer correctly interpret the cards in advance and guide the Seeker to the most beneficial outcome!

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The Stockholm Octavo: A Novel 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Totally absorbing,on so many levels!! There are books for historians, for lovers of mystery, for romantics, and for those intrigued by politics - this book has it all.  This novel invites the reader to savor the subtleties of life in Stockholm of the late 18th century and to explore the nuances of court life and the magic of the Octavo. The novel unfolds, layer by layer, and is best read while in a good reading chair, for time will fly in this absorbing story.  I loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I highly recommend this book without reservation. It's a real page turner with suspense, humor, intrigue and history. I appreciate Engelmann's way with words and found myself transported to another country during a different era. Look no further, if you're searching for a unique tale cleverly constructed by a true artist!
ReaderRaven More than 1 year ago
I savored every page of this beautifully written, many-layered story.  Engelmann expertly weaves the various story threads and characters into a solid, spellbinding tale of political intrigue, romance, revolution. sinister villains and mysterious heroes - all leading up to the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden.  I was particularly fascinated by the Octavo itself - a spread of 8 cards that help people realize their dreams. Loved the way the author incorporated the language of fans and how, for purposes of this book, women used them to captivate...and kill. I found myself limiting the number of pages I would read each evening....just so I could make the book last.  The Stockholm Octavo is one of thosebooks that weaves a spell around the reader as they read - it is a matter of pure magic! Fabulous job, Ms. Engelmann.  I hope we get to see more of your work - soon.
jsbmd More than 1 year ago
I read scientific and technical writing voraciously. And most of why I do is to understand the "what", "how" and "why" of things. If you are curious, then this book is for you. The Octavo character development is amazing, written so that you feel and believe you are in the room with these characters from Gustavian Stockholm. And once drawn in, the book/story provides a fascinating tale of intrigue and human relationships. What drives ambition? How do people resist and/or use temptation for advancing their agenda? Why do people behave as they do? I realize this is written as a piece of fine literature, and perhaps the publisher and author don't realize it, but it is also a terrific study of human character and behavior. Don't start with a textbook, dig in here and you get those insights with some serious entertainment. Look forward to more enthralling insights from this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The journey stops at the last page, but the imagination continues to massage the ideas contained in this compelling story of intrigue, magic and romance.  I stopped frequently, because I wanted to savor the concepts of the Octavo, and because I did not want the book to end.  Sadly, the novel ended, but I can play the Octavo still, I can imagine the future for the characters, and I can dream of a sequel.  I treasure this story.  Thank you Karen Engelmann, for the gift.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love 'not quite knowing' where the author is taking me while still being thoroughly engaged. The writing is uncluttered, imaginative and smart. It 'felt' similar in style to The Night Circus. Certainly if you enjoyed that, read this!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just a bit too long - middle of the book dragged and almost lost me.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm only halfway through, but would definitely recommend this for anyone who likes historical novels. Lots of good cultural detail.
WindOwl More than 1 year ago
Writing was good but story unraveled and left me very dissatisfied with ending. Midway through the book the characters simply fell apart. Not enough explanation of the Octavo or the parts. This could have and should have been an excellent book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was really looking forward to delving into some labyrinthine twists & turns of plot, with the subject of card divination being one that seemed rife with possibilities. I followed the twists & turns until the subject matter turned to a weird & stuffy obsession that these women of the upper class had with their fans. I was totally turned off to think that they had nothing better to do than to play cards & covet each others' elaborately decorated fans, even to the point of theft & murder. This left me hung up halfway through the book. Hate to not finish a book, but couldn't get past these self-centered, trivial & repulsive characters! Sorry. It seems the author has some genuine potential, given a more reader-friendly subject!
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AnneTressa More than 1 year ago
You'll love it!
blondemd77 More than 1 year ago
why is the Kindle ebook $11.99?