Review: The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanThe Lost Plot (The Invisible Library #4) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, libraries, steampunk
Series: Invisible Library #4
Pages: 367
Published by Ace Books on January 9th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

After being commissioned to find a rare book, Librarian Irene and her assistant, Kai, head to Prohibition-era New York and are thrust into the middle of a political fight with dragons, mobsters, and Fae.

In a 1920s-esque New York, Prohibition is in force; fedoras, flapper dresses, and tommy guns are in fashion: and intrigue is afoot. Intrepid Librarians Irene and Kai find themselves caught in the middle of a dragon political contest. It seems a young Librarian has become tangled in this conflict, and if they can't extricate him, there could be serious repercussions for the mysterious Library. And, as the balance of power across mighty factions hangs in the balance, this could even trigger war.

Irene and Kai are locked in a race against time (and dragons) to procure a rare book. They'll face gangsters, blackmail, and the Library's own Internal Affairs department. And if it doesn't end well, it could have dire consequences on Irene's job. And, incidentally, on her life...

My Review:

Like the rest of the Invisible Library series (start with the first book, The Invisible Library, and settle in for a marvelously good time!) The Lost Plot has a strong flavor of the old movie serial “The Perils of Pauline”. I would say “out of the frying pan and into the fire” but that phrase just isn’t sufficient to describe Librarian Irene Winters’ many (many, many) hair-raising adventures.

Either those frying pans are bubbling on top of an institutional sized range, with frying pans as far as the eye can see, or it’s an endless stack of frying pans on fires, getting progressively hotter as they go, all the way down.

Irene gets in trouble a lot. To put it another way, Irene has lots of adventures, in the sense that adventure is defined as something that happens to someone else, either long ago, far away, or both. I’d love to have a drink with her, but I wouldn’t want to be her.

In this particular entry in the series, Irene starts out attempting to carry out a simple retrieval mission for the Library. For once, she’s even planning to conduct it above board – buying the book the Library wants rather than just stealing it. This was her first mistake, but certainly not her last.

Irene’s last mistake is undoubtedly going to either be fatal or see her as the head of the Invisible Library – possibly both. But not yet. Nowhere near yet.

This time, Irene finds herself stuck in the middle of dragon politics, a situation that up until now she has carefully tried to avoid at all costs. But this time, as is usual for Irene, even though she doesn’t go looking for trouble, it inevitably finds her.

Getting involved in dragon politics might get her killed. And that might be the least bad of the many available possibilities. It’s almost certainly going to cost her relationship with her apprentice Kai. A relationship that Irene has attempted to keep as loosely defined as possible, because she doesn’t want to lose Kai in her life in any capacity, even though Kai is himself a dragon.

More dangerous all around is the possibility that in the fallout from this ever-growing clusterf**k, the Library will lose its not merely prized but absolutely vital neutrality in the endless conflict between the dragons and the fae, who respectively represent order and chaos. Because its only in the middle ground between those two vast forces that human beings can thrive. If the Library loses its neutrality through thoughtless political machinations (or Irene’s inability to counter those machinations) there’s not much hope left.

The needs of the many, as always, outweigh the needs of the view, or of the one. And it’s up to Irene to find a way to meet those needs, no matter what the cost is to herself.

Again.

Escape Rating A: I used the Star Trek paraphrase for multiple reasons. Irene is always at the sharp end of the spear, in danger of losing something (or many somethings) that she holds dear in order to preserve the balance. She’s always in a “mission impossible” situation, where the Library will cut her loose and disavow any knowledge of her actions if things go wrong.

But it’s the setting of this particular entry that really made me think of Star Trek. The alternate world in which Irene finds herself this time is an over-the-top version of America during Prohibition, complete with goons with “tommy guns” on every corner. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Original Series episode A Piece of the Action, which has a similar setting.

One of the interesting things about this series as a whole is the way that it has eschewed the traditional conflict between good and evil for the much more interesting and nuanced balancing act between order and chaos. This is the same battle that played out in Babylon 5, and illustrates yet again that neither of those forces are good or evil per se, but that extremes of both are bad for humanity.

Irene is as intrepid a heroine as ever, always running and dancing as fast as she can to stay a half step ahead of the doom that is inevitably following her. I absolutely love all of her adventures and can’t wait for more.

Reviewer’s Note: I loved this book, but it is difficult for me to review. It is one of the books that I read at my mother’s bedside while she was in hospice. I needed something that would take me mentally away from the circumstances but still leave me reasonably present for the inevitable. I got lost in The Lost Plot and it proved to be a perfect distraction.

Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence

Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie SpenceDear Fahrenheit 451: A Librarian's Love Letters and Break-Up Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, libraries, nonfiction
Pages: 288
Published by Flatiron Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A Gen-X librarian's snarky, laugh-out-loud funny, deeply moving collection of love letters and break-up notes to the books in her life.

Librarians spend their lives weeding--not weeds but books! Books that have reached the end of their shelf life, both literally and figuratively. They remove the books that patrons no longer check out. And they put back the books they treasure. Annie Spence, who has a decade of experience as a Midwestern librarian, does this not only at her Michigan library but also at home, for her neighbors, at cocktail parties—everywhere. In Dear Fahrenheit 451, she addresses those books directly. We read her love letters to The Goldfinch and Matilda, as well as her snarky break-ups with Fifty Shades of Grey and Dear John. Her notes to The Virgin Suicides and The Time Traveler’s Wife feel like classics, sure to strike a powerful chord with readers. Through the lens of the books in her life, Annie comments on everything from women’s psychology to gay culture to health to poverty to childhood aspirations. Hilarious, compassionate, and wise, Dear Fahrenheit 451 is the consummate book-lover's birthday present, stocking stuffer, holiday gift, and all-purpose humor book.

My Review:

There’s a song in this book, or at least a subtitle, “To All the Books I’ve Loved Before”. And that observation also nicely encapsulates the level of snarky librarian attitude displayed throughout.

And this is also a terrific book to highlight Banned Books Week this week, as so many of the classics (and definitely less than classics) that the author pens her virtual missives to have been banned or challenged at one point or another.

Her letter to Fahrenheit 451 is every bit as meta as it should be. This absolutely timeless story about banning books has itself been banned multiple times in multiple places. Reading it reminds all of us librarians and our allies what it is we fight for when we fight for the freedom to read. And it’s a damn good book.

But the letter I particularly loved was her love letter to To Kill a Mockingbird, which has also been banned and challenged for decades. She loves it, because To Kill a Mockingbird is responsible for her lifelong love affair with books and reading. Not because she herself has read it, but because it is the book that turned her older sister into a lifelong reader. And it is her older sister who passed that gift that keeps on giving, to her.

There are love letters, and sometimes hate letters and snark-filled letters, to some other books that may not be classics, but still get regularly challenged. Like Twilight, which is as far from classic as it gets. Many people loved it, but that does not mean it will survive the test of time that makes a classic. Its derivative, Fifty Shades of Grey, also comes in for its fair share of that same attitude.

They’ve both been banned, Twilight for its witchcraft, and Grey for its sexuality. Having read both, these are books that I personally will be happy to see fall into the scrap-head of history – or the weeding pile of many libraries, but not as banning. They’ll always, and they should always, be available to whoever wants to read them. Which doesn’t mean that I’ll ever think they’re great lit – or even terribly entertaining lit. And yes, I read them both.

While her letter to Fahrenheit 451 is the author’s chance to talk about book challenges and book bans, many of her other letters and comments get into some of the nitty gritty of being a librarian surrounded by books. And involves some of the things that librarians have to do to maintain the libraries that surround them. Her letters to and about books that she is weeding, and the reasons that it may be time for some books to go, speak directly to the librarian in all book lovers.

And last but not least, of course, she makes book recommendations. It’s something we all do, because none of us can resist trying to matchmake every reader (and non-reader) with the perfect book for them.

Reality Rating B: I didn’t expect to read this cover to cover. It looks like the perfect book to dip in and out of. But the letters are like potato chips, you can’t read just one.

At the same time, I found myself wanting to quibble and argue with the author – as all book lovers are wont to do about what books they love best – and least. And it does have a bit of a feeling of “insider baseball”. I enjoyed Dear Fahrenheit 451 because it spoke directly to me as a librarian and reader. I have to wonder whether it will have that same effect on someone who is not both.

Except for Agatha Christie, who has definitely transcended her genre and become a “Classic”, the author doesn’t seem to be big on genre fiction. So if you’re looking for letters to science fiction, mystery or romance books, you won’t find much here. (If you’re looking, let me help. I’d be thrilled!) However, there are plenty of YA books that get a mentioned. Which is good, because there are plenty of challenges to YA books.

But the book does say a lot about the book lovers love of reading. And for that it’s awesome. And her letter to The One Hour Orgasm will absolutely leave you in stitches.

Review: The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Burning Page by Genevieve CogmanThe Burning Page (The Invisible Library, #3) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, libraries, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #3
Pages: 336
Published by Roc on January 10th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Librarian spy Irene and her apprentice Kai return for another “tremendously fun, rip-roaring adventure,” (A Fantastical Librarian) third in the bibliophilic fantasy series from the author of The Masked City.
 
Never judge a book by its cover...  Due to her involvement in an unfortunate set of mishaps between the dragons and the Fae, Librarian spy Irene is stuck on probation, doing what should be simple fetch-and-retrieve projects for the mysterious Library. But trouble has a tendency of finding both Irene and her apprentice, Kai—a dragon prince—and, before they know it, they are entangled in more danger than they can handle...   Irene’s longtime nemesis, Alberich, has once again been making waves across multiple worlds, and, this time, his goals are much larger than obtaining a single book or wreaking vengeance upon a single Librarian. He aims to destroy the entire Library—and make sure Irene goes down with it.   With so much at stake, Irene will need every tool at her disposal to stay alive. But even as she draws her allies close around her, the greatest danger might be lurking from somewhere close—someone she never expected to betray her...

My Review:

invisible library by genevieve cogman us editionThe Burning Page isn’t coming out until tomorrow, but THIS was the book I wanted to read over the weekend. And I’m glad I did.

Irene is a representative of the Library. That Library, and her missions for it, are described in the first madcap book in the series, The Invisible Library. The Library binds all the worlds of the multiverse together in invisible chains, linking all of them to Library, to reality, and to each other in a powerful and symbiotic weave.

The various worlds exist on a loose continuum between total order and absolute chaos, and the Library exists to preserve the balance, attempting to make sure that neither faction ever gains complete ascendancy.

This isn’t purely altruistic, or purely in the pursuit of power. Living beings, particularly living humans, need a bit of both to survive and thrive. Humans do best in those worlds that are somewhere around the midpoint. Worlds that are too orderly fall into tyranny and stagnation, to the point where even the avatars of order, the dragons, cannot survive in them. Likewise, worlds of complete chaos, the realms of the fae, are also anathema to humans, who become mere puppets of the most powerful fae and have no wills, lives or identities of their own. They are all supernumeraries in other beings’ dramas. Even the fae need at least a tiny bit of order, even if it is only the framework provided by the stories they act out.

Neither is a good way to live. At least if you are human. And the Librarians, at least so far, are all human.

masked city by genevieve cogmanIrene, on probation after the events in The Masked City, is still the Librarian-in-Residence on the chaos-tinged world where Peregrine Vale exists as the local avatar of the “Great Detective” in a London shared with fae and werewolves, and where zeppelins navigate pea-soupers that never quite thin.

Irene’s apprentice Kai, the dragon who would be a Librarian, is there with her. But who is mentoring whom, and who is protecting whom, is always a point of negotiation.

Meanwhile, Irene is being hunted by the rogue Librarian-turned-chaos-agent Alberich, who hopes to recruit Irene and replace the Library with a chaotic institution of his own invention. Alberich wants power, and Irene wants stability. Or so she thinks.

What she has discovered is a taste for adventure – and it might be the death of her and all she holds dear – if she can’t manage to be adventurous enough.

Escape Rating A-: The wild ride begun in The Invisible Library continues with death-defying adventures that span from a too-orderly Imperial Russia to a werewolf den under Irene’s own London. She is kidnapped, drugged, jailed and very nearly seduced, always jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

If you like your adventure as a series of disaster-defying feats of derring-do (with occasional forays into politics and idiocy) this series is an absolute winner from beginning to end. But start at the beginning, not just for the setup, but because the roots of the story here in The Burning Page were planted in the first two books, and are just coming into bloom in this one.

There’s a lot going on in this story, as there is in all of the books in this series so far. The action pauses only briefly, and then just to lay down potential plots for the next books. Not to mention potential plotting in this one.

While The Burning Page is a story where all the chickens from the previous books in the series come home to roost, it also further the develops the strange and often strained relationship between Irene, Kai and Vale. No, we’re not at a threesome. We’re also, thank goodness, not in a love triangle. Kai, as a dragon, wants to protect Irene. As much as he cares for her, he is still having a difficult time recognizing that while protecting her would make him feel better, it would make her either run far and fast or become something and someone she has no desire to be. It would be a negation of her essential self. On that other hand, Irene took her nom-de-guerre because she has an understandable fascination with Sherlock Holmes analogs. How much of what she feels for Vale has to do with him, and how much with who is resembles is not something that she is able to resolve.

She is also a person who has generally preferred the company of books to people, and while her people skills are rusty, she is making her way along as her worldview markedly changes. She is supposed to care for the Library above all, and is discovering that perspective altered.

lost plot by genevieve cogmanPersonally, I think she’s finally figured out that a good job won’t love you back, but we’ll see how that turns out in future books.

But the bloom is definitely not off this rose. While chaos has not, and never can be, defeated, its current schemes have been temporarily put into abeyance by the end of The Burning Page. I was very happy to discover that there will be more to come in future books, even if we have to wait a bit. The next chronicle of Irene’s adventures, The Lost Plot, can’t be found soon enough!

Review: The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Masked City by Genevieve CogmanThe Masked City (The Invisible Library, #2) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, libraries, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #2
Pages: 336
Published by Roc on September 6th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Librarian-spy Irene and her apprentice Kai are back in the second in this “dazzling”* book-filled fantasy series from the author of The Invisible Library.
 
The written word is mightier than the sword—most of the time...  Working in an alternate version of Victorian London, Librarian-spy Irene has settled into a routine, collecting important fiction for the mysterious Library and blending in nicely with the local culture. But when her apprentice, Kai—a dragon of royal descent—is kidnapped by the Fae, her carefully crafted undercover operation begins to crumble.   Kai’s abduction could incite a conflict between the forces of chaos and order that would devastate all worlds and all dimensions. To keep humanity from getting caught in the crossfire, Irene will have to team up with a local Fae leader to travel deep into a version of Venice filled with dark magic, strange coincidences, and a perpetual celebration of Carnival—and save her friend before he becomes the first casualty of a catastrophic war.   But navigating the tumultuous landscape of Fae politics will take more than Irene’s book-smarts and fast-talking—to ward off Armageddon, she might have to sacrifice everything she holds dear....

My Review:

invisible library by genevieve cogman us editionAs a great storyteller once said, “There’s power in stories, though. That’s all history is: The best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine.” This could either be a quote from any of the fae in The Masked City, or it could be the raison d’etre for the entire race.

The Masked City is just one front in the war between order and chaos in the multiverse that surrounds The Invisible Library.

Order is represented by the dragons, and chaos belongs to the fae. The Library does its best to maintain the balance.

These concepts of order and chaos do not represent good and evil in their absolutes. Just as in the Babylon 5 universe, both the forces of order as represented by the Vorlons and the forces of chaos known as the Shadows are interested in absolutes. Neither absolute is good for humanity as a whole.

The absolute of order is tyranny. But the absolute of chaos is neverending lawlessness, where might always makes right and the ends always justify any means at all. Neither is a particularly good place for me and thee.

In the multiverse of the Library, worlds exist somewhere on the spectrum between absolute order and total chaos. The Library is aligned with neither faction, and instead seems to confine its actions to the swath in the middle, where chaos and order exist uneasily side-by-side, and both dragons and fae occasionally bring their eternal conflict to places that are in contention.

The alternate where Librarian Irene Winters has taken the post of Librarian-in-Residence is one such world. The fae in this world have taken over the country of Liechtenstein, and the dragons seem to be mostly represented by Irene’s apprentice Kai.

But the fae, as chaos avatars, also love to sow chaos within their own ranks. And as near-immortals, they have eons to nurse their grudges and plot their revenge. Irene and Kai get caught up in one very sticky stratagem, forcing Irene to break the Library’s rules to rescue Kai from a nefarious kidnapping plot.

And prevent a war between the dragons and the fae that will wreck uncounted worlds and kill millions of unsuspecting humans.

Save the dragon, save the universe. All in a day’s work for an agent of The Invisible Library.

Escape Rating A-: Just like The Invisible Library, this is a story that always exists on the knife-edge of falling into its own chaos, but keeps leaping, dancing, and often careening out of the frying pan and into the fire. Irene is always within a whisper of failing and falling, but still manages to somehow move past the current obstacle to…the next obstacle. The story is like a platform-game, where the protagonist is always leaping to the next ledge and holding on by her fingernails.

The madcap nature of the adventure always reminds me of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate, without, so far, the romance.

One of the subthemes in this story, and one that Irene is both caught by and sometimes manages to catch, is the concept of the power of stories. One of the interesting things about the fae is that they derive much of their power from either driving or becoming an integral part of a story. The most powerful create the story, and everyone around them finds themselves playing specific roles in that story. Those roles are often dictated by archetype. The story here is one fae’s attempt to become kingmaker, warleader and shadow puppeteer by driving the dragons into a war with the fae. Irene is constantly looking out for herself, to prevent herself from being cast as the “spy-assassin-enemy” or even worse, the “too stupid to live” ingenue.

This is a concept that was explored much more fully in Mercedes Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series, starting with The Fairy Godmother. In that series, the agency was the universe rather than an individual person or people, but the idea was the same at its heart. People were fated to live out roles in the collective fairy tale unconscious. Subverting those roles, or pushing them into a path more desired by the protagonist, was an uphill battle.

burning page by genevieve cogmanAs it is here for Irene. She finds herself being challenged at every turn, as each faction tries to sweep her into their narrative and out of her own. Only her bond with the Library keeps her from sinking. But in the end, she is forced to create stories that will sweep others into her wake, in order to prevent the upcoming Armageddon. I can’t wait to see what kind of trouble finds Irene (and Kai) next in The Burning Page.

Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve CogmanThe Invisible Library (The Invisible Library #1) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, libraries, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #1
Pages: 352
Published by Roc on June 14th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Collecting books can be a dangerous prospect in this fun, time-traveling, fantasy adventure from a spectacular debut author. One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction...   Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it's already been stolen.   London's underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested—the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something—secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.   Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option—because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself...
FEATURING BONUS MATERIAL: including an interview with the author, a legend from the Library, and more!

My Review:

The Librarian (Discworld)
The Librarian (Discworld)

If Thursday Next (from The Eyre Affair) and Flynn Carsen, or if you prefer Jake Stone, Ezekiel Jones or even Jenkins (from the TV show The Librarians) had a love child, with Alexia Tarabotti (Parasol Protectorate), The Librarian from the Discworld (Ook!), Isaac Vainio (Libriomancer) and Dr. Skye Chadwick (Displaced Detective) serving as godparents, you’d get something like The Invisible Library.

Yes, I’ll explain this. Sort of.

This isn’t exactly a story about a magical library, even though the magical library is at the heart of the story. It’s more of a quest story, and a finding yourself story, with a bit of a coming of age story thrown in. There’s also an aspect of a Sherlock Holmes pastiche just to make things really, really interesting, as if the above wasn’t enough.

Our intrepid Librarian is Irene. (All Librarians take nicknames when they are inducted) That Irene named herself for “the Woman” in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Irene Adler, is no accident. Irene, like so many of us, has a penchant for Sherlock Holmes stories. She also seems to have a thing for Sherlock Holmes’ analogs in the alternate universes she visits on behalf of the Library.

The Library sends its Librarians out on missions to recover unique books from all the alternate worlds. As we and Irene discover in this tale, the reason for recovering said book is not always made apparent to the agent. For that matter, most of the things that the agent really, really needs to know to survive the mess they are about to be thrown into are often not revealed to the agent beforehand.

So Irene is sent to a chaos-infested alternate of Victorian London. The chaos infestation manifests with the presence of things that shouldn’t really be but do obey logical, if occasional farcical, rules. So there are vampires and werewolves in this London, along with all the dirigibles that any steampunk heart could desire. And it seems as if the Fair Folk, the fae, are controlling both scientific development and adding to the chaos.

Irene is tasked with begging, borrowing or if necessary stealing this world’s own particular copy of a collection of the Brothers Grimm. There is a story in there that the Library wants very badly. And so, seemingly, does everyone in that world, including the Library’s great arch-enemy and traitor, Alberich.

All that Irene has to aid her in her quest are her considerable wits, her apprentice Kai, who is definitely much more than he appears, and the aid of the local Sherlock, the Earl of Leeds. The very forces of chaos themselves are arrayed against her.

She’s not quite sure whether she’s been thrown out as mere cannon-fodder, or if there is a traitor behind it all. And if chaos consumes her mind and soul, she may not even care about the resulting destruction of worlds.

Escape Rating A-: The Invisible Library is the wildest of wild rides. Just like the chaos forces that Irene battles, the story often feels like it is in danger of careening off its tracks, only to right itself and race to the next potentially deadly crisis..

At the same time, a reader of fantasy will be able to see some of the bones behind this story. Because most of those bones are pretty damn awesome in their own rights, that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.

Just like “The Library” in The Librarians, the Invisible Library is a place that has access to anywhere it needs at any time. Its doors open anywhere and anywhen in all of the multiverses. Speaking of multiverse libraries, the Librarian in the Discworld has access to “L-space” the vast network of books where all great libraries are ultimately connected. It does feel a LOT like that, especially since Irene can use ANY library on the world she is visiting to connect to the Invisible Library as a temporary branch.

In the Displaced Detective series by Stephanie Osborn, her heroine creates a device that can explore those very same multiverses, and she also has a penchant for Sherlock Holmes. Skye Chadwick finds an alternate universe where Holmes was always a real person, and drags him to our 21st century to keep him from falling to his death at Reichenbach. Vale, the Earl of Leeds, is a living Holmes with his same methods, but just a bit more charm.

In Thursday Next’s world, books have power, and changing the words in those books can change the world. Irene’s mission is to find a book that either links the Library to this world, or has the power to change the nature of the world, the Library, or both. The world of the Parasol Protectorate is also a steampunk Victorian London filled with incredible adventures that includes dirigibles, vampires and werewolves. Alexia would be right at home on Irene’s mission. They’d probably get along like a house on fire – and might possibly set one on fire to aid in their escape from one disaster or another. And let’s just say that Isaac Vainio and Irene have pretty much the same job, and leave it at that.

But in all of those worlds, as well as the world of The Invisible Library, the story plunges from one desperate escape to another, always on the knife-edge of falling into chaos. And all along its madcap journey, it shimmers, shines and sparkles.

Hopefully, I’ve told you everything you need to know about why you should read this book, without actually spoiling a thing. But if you love books about the power of words and the power of books, The Invisible Library is well-worth checking out.

Reviewer’s Note: I have seen some places where The Invisible Library is categorized as a Young Adult Book. After having read it, I have zero clue as to why. Because it isn’t. Not that young adults who love any of the cited fantasy works won’t love this book, but this book is no more a YA book than they are.

Review: The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

Review: The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil GaimanThe View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: essays, fantasy, horror, libraries, nonfiction, science fiction, writing
Pages: 544
Published by William Morrow on May 31st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An enthralling collection of nonfiction essays on a myriad of topics—from art and artists to dreams, myths, and memories—observed in Neil Gaiman’s probing, amusing, and distinctive style.
An inquisitive observer, thoughtful commentator, and assiduous craftsman, Neil Gaiman has long been celebrated for the sharp intellect and startling imagination that informs his bestselling fiction. Now, The View from the Cheap Seats brings together for the first time ever more than sixty pieces of his outstanding nonfiction. Analytical yet playful, erudite yet accessible, this cornucopia explores a broad range of interests and topics, including (but not limited to): authors past and present; music; storytelling; comics; bookshops; travel; fairy tales; America; inspiration; libraries; ghosts; and the title piece, at turns touching and self-deprecating, which recounts the author’s experiences at the 2010 Academy Awards in Hollywood.
Insightful, incisive, witty, and wise, The View from the Cheap Seats explores the issues and subjects that matter most to Neil Gaiman—offering a glimpse into the head and heart of one of the most acclaimed, beloved, and influential artists of our time.

My Review:

“Fiction is the lie that tells the truth” – This is a quote that Neil Gaiman seems to have adapted from Albert Camus’ version: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

A good bit of this collection is about the creation of that fiction, not just his own, but also other people’s. So we get a look into how the writer does his craft, but even more of a peek at what the writer thinks about other writers’ books that he has known and loved. And sometimes that’s about the books, and sometimes that’s about the writer, and most often it’s about the love.

As a librarian, I have to say that the entire first section of this collection just warms the proverbial cockles of my book-loving and book-pushing heart. Because in it, Gaiman basically lays out his love of books and bookstores and libraries for the entire world to see. And his expression of that love is absolutely lyrical. It’s a paean to libraries and a clarion call to save them all wrapped into one beautiful ball.

He also talks a lot about the books that shaped him, both as a person and as a writer. If the “Golden Age of science fiction is twelve” or thirteen, as the age varies depending on what story he is telling, then Gaiman was exposed at just the right moment. But even if you are not a lover of science fiction, his story of escaping into books as a child will resonate for any adult who has spent their life escaping from it in books. We all started out young.

As a writer, Gaiman began as a journalist (not unlike his friend, the late, much lamented Terry Pratchett) and moved from writing for other people to writing the stories that, as he says, he couldn’t keep inside. And the stories that he wanted to read. Along the way, he passed through comic books, fantasy, science fiction and horror. As many of the languages of myth-making as he could manage. In various pieces of this collection, there are essays that speak to one or more of those interests, with digressions into movies and music.

But whatever he is, or was, writing about (or in some cases speaking about) the author’s voice shines through. And that love. Love for the genre, love for the medium, and especially love for the power of words and the worlds they create.

Escape Rating A: Because this is a collection of essays and whatnot, I don’t actually need to read the entire thing to write a credible review. But I had so much fun reading it that I could not make myself stop.

Also, I recently listened to the beginning of Neverwhere, read by the author. As I read The View From the Cheap Seats, I could hear the author’s voice in my head, especially reading the speeches. It’s a very distinct authorial voice, and a surprisingly excellent voice for reading.

(Some authors are notoriously bad at reading their own work. Gaiman is emphatically not one of them.)

trigger warning by neil gaimanAs an essay collection, while I wouldn’t say that it is uneven the way that last year’s short story collection, Trigger Warning, was, I would say that the appeal of the collection will depend on how closely the reader’s interests match the author’s.

Anyone who loves books and reading AT ALL will enjoy the first section, Some Things I Believe. Because the author believes A LOT about the joy of reading to move us and the importance of bookstores and libraries and of simply READING.

But other parts of the collection reflect different tastes and interests. As someone who reads a lot of science fiction and fantasy, the essays in those sections, including the speeches, had plenty of resonance for this reader. The stories within the stories, the tropes that are referred to, the people being honored, are all ones that I am not just familiar with, but frequently also love. And occasionally have my own stories about.

And his writing about science fiction and fantasy and being both a reader and a writer echo my own experiences in the SF fan community.

His speech about Tulip Mania as it relates to the Comic Book Industry (Good Comics and Tulips: A Speech) should probably be read by anyone interested in the economics of fads and/or the bursting of false-demand economic bubbles.

At the same time, the sections where I’m not as invested, aren’t as interesting to me. My taste in music is different from the author’s. So while I find his essays on music interesting, they don’t move me in the same way that the ones on SF and fantasy do. They are excellently written, but don’t touch a place in my heart.

But so much of this collection does.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer

Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua HammerThe Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: current events, history, libraries
Pages: 288
Published by Simon & Schuster on April 19th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.
In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.
In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.
Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.

My Review:

April 10-16 is National Library Week, so The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu was an absolutely irresistible title to review this week.

But the story in this book is a lot bigger than just the librarians, and goes a lot further back. Yes, we do have the story of the librarians who rescued the manuscripts, but also a whole lot more. Because the author has taken the story and set it into the history of the region, and provides the context for why the rescue was necessary.

So, this isn’t just the story of the librarians or the rescue. What we have is a history of Timbuktu and the region surrounding it. The author gives us an all too brief glimpse into the scholarly past of the town, and shows how this incredible treasure trove of manuscripts came to be in this city that is a byword for remote.

From the late 13th century through the early 20th, Timbuktu survived successive cycles of open and abundant scholarship, followed by waves of educational repression and suppression. When the scholarship flourished, manuscripts were collected and accumulated by the thousands. During the periods of repression, the manuscripts were hidden in private collections in the city and surrounding areas.

In the 20th century, a man named Abdul Kader Haidara inherited one of the largest of those private collections. He went from being skeptical about his legacy, to becoming a passionate preserver of not only his own archive, but of all of the manuscripts and scrolls that had been hidden, both in the town and in the large area surrounding it.

For decades, Abdul Kader sought grant funds, and eventually was able to create a world-renowned institute for the study and preservation of the manuscripts, said to number nearly 800,000 and nearly all irreplaceable.

But just as in history, his wave of open scholarship was succeeded by a wave of severe repression. In the 21st century, Al Queda and other intolerant forces began to scoop up territory around Timbuktu, as they inserted themselves into the power vacuum after the fall of Qaddafi. When an Al Queda offshoot took control of Timbuktu, Abdul Kader made plans for the manuscripts.

In a long and daring series of convoys, over desert trails and river voyages, and through military checkpoints that had to be bribed or evaded every step of the way, 95% of the precious manuscripts were evacuated to safety.

This is their story.

Reality Rating B: I’m not sure whether to call this one a “Reality” rating or an “Escape” rating. The story is real, but the manuscripts escaped.

This is really three stories rolled into one – first the history that made this collection possible. Second, the tragedy that made the rescue necessary. And finally, the rescue itself.

While the history of Timbuktu and its frequent scholarly golden ages was interesting, the recent history was sometimes hard to follow. While we know in general terms that many of the Islamic fundamentalist sects are extremely hostile towards any historical references that contradict their dogmatic view of history and religion, the attempt to provide the reader with context on which group controlled which part of Mali at which time, and why, often fell a little flat. There were too many names and dates, and not enough background to what made them different from each other.

History, or at least the parts of it that interest this reader, is about people. There were too many unfamiliar names and places infodumped on the reader in too few pages. At the same time, those expositions felt longer than the earlier history, or certainly dragged on longer than the story of Abdul Kader and the rescue of the manuscripts, itself.

It is in Abdul Kader’s story that the book really shines. We are with him as he shoulders the responsibility for his family’s collection, and we suffer along with all of his hardships on his dangerous and ultimately successful trips to acquire more manuscripts for the Institute that set him on his path. It’s his journey, his hopes, and his fears that bring the reader fully into this story and engage the mind, heart and imagination.

Speaking as a librarian, Abdul Kader’s story is one that makes me proud of my profession. He’s a librarian, a rescuer of history, and an inspiration to us all.

national library week 2016

Review: Patience and Fortitude by Scott Sherman

Review: Patience and Fortitude by Scott ShermanPatience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library by Scott Sherman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: current events, history, libraries, nonfiction
Pages: 205
Published by Melville House on June 23rd 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A riveting investigation of a beloved library caught in the crosshairs of real estate, power, and the people’s interests—by the reporter who broke the story   In a series of cover stories for The Nation magazine, journalist Scott Sherman uncovered the ways in which Wall Street logic almost took down one of New York City’s most beloved and iconic institutions: the New York Public Library.
In the years preceding the 2008 financial crisis, the library’s leaders forged an audacious plan to sell off multiple branch libraries, mutilate a historic building, and send millions of books to a storage facility in New Jersey. Scholars, researchers, and readers would be out of luck, but real estate developers and New York’s Mayor Bloomberg would get what they wanted.
But when the story broke, the people fought back, as famous writers, professors, and citizens’ groups came together to defend a national treasure.
Rich with revealing interviews with key figures, Patience and Fortitude is at once a hugely readable history of the library’s secret plans, and a stirring account of a rare triumph against the forces of money and power.

The iconic lions that welcome readers to the entrance of the New York Public Library’s Central Library are named “Patience” and “Fortitude”. This made me wonder about the names of the two equally iconic lions that guard the entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago. Those two don’t have official names, but their unofficial titles are “stands in an attitude of defiance” and “on the prowl”. The difference in names may describe the difference between New York and Chicago, right there.

At the entrance to the New York Public Library
At the entrance to the New York Public Library

But the patience and fortitude in this book about the New York Public Library and its most recent step into controversy may be better attributed to those who campaigned against what looks remarkably like a real-estate boondoggle, at least from the outside looking in.

There’s plenty of story here. It begins with the very origins of NYPL, and its rather strange and certainly unique financing. In spite of the name, NYPL was never a public library in the way that most of us think of one. It is not a department of the city of New York, and is not owned or managed by the city. Nor is it an independent taxing district as many libraries are in the Midwest (and probably elsewhere)

Instead, NYPL is a private non-profit entity that owns the buildings of the library, while the city provides funds for personnel and other services – funds which are then administered by the private non-profit. To add to the confusion, the research function of NYPL was never intended to be supported by taxpayer dollars. The intent was for the research library to be supported by donations.

So there are two effectively competing agencies housed uneasily under one administrative roof, while everyone hopes that someone else will pay the bills. A plan which never works, but does provide at least some of the genesis for the mess that NYPL found itself in from 2007 until 2014.

Entrance to Donnell Library Center
Entrance to Donnell Library Center

The plan was to sell both the Donnell Library and the Mid-Manhattan Library, and to gut the Central Library’s book stacks, then combine all the services into the single remaining building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. While the Donnell Library building was sold, the great recession intervened before any more damage could be done.

As the text makes pretty clear, it’s not that there wasn’t a financial crisis that needed to be solved, it’s that in the end, no one except the consultants and their staunchest supporters believed that the solution being proposed would actually solve anything at all. Those in opposition were convinced, and it looks like correctly, that the plan would cause structural damage to the Central Library building, further erode services both to the public and to researchers, and would not actually generate the income necessary to sustain the library. It didn’t help their cause that the claims of damage and rot to the structure of those incredible book stacks seemed overblown, and that no less drastic solutions were even considered.

In the end, it all looked like a grand shell game being played with other people’s money. In this case, NYPL’s money. It also looked increasingly to outsiders that even though no one involved from the library’s side did anything illegal, or made any money under the table, that there was more than a whiff of sweetheart dealing in the way that the properties were going to be, or in the case of the Donnell Library actually were, disposed of.

And no one anywhere should ever believe any consultant on a major building project who claims that there can’t possibly be any cost overruns. There almost inevitably are cost overruns, and the less you expect them, the more ruinous they are.

Reality Rating B+: Before I discuss the gist of this story, I need to insert a caveat or three. I am a librarian, and while I never worked at NYPL, I did work at two of the other city libraries named in the text, Chicago and Seattle. I also served in a middle-management position, not just at CPL and SPL, but also at several middle-sized public libraries, which gave me the opportunity to observe library board meetings on a regular basis, and interact with the boards of trustees at some of those institutions. What I am saying is that I know something about how the sausage is made, and can see similarities to situations I worked in fairly clearly.

So reading this book felt a bit like insider baseball. Some of the people involved were nationally recognized it the profession. And the situations they got themselves into had the ring of familiarity.

The financial situation at NYPL was never very stable. As a librarian, it was considered a great place to have on your resume, but a lousy place to actually work because NYPL did not pay a living wage for the city of New York. Reading the introductory chapters of this book makes it pretty clear why the finances were so precarious.

One of the things that I found amazing was the way that the powers that be at NYPL during this era used their unique situation to suit themselves. They went to the city hat in hand to beg for money for this project, while at the same time frequently ignoring Freedom of Information Act Requests and even demands from the press or the State Legislature for information, and they did it with impunity as a “private non-profit”.

The main part of this saga begins in 2007. This was just before the great recession dropped the bottom out of the real estate market pretty much everywhere. It was also the point where the Google Books project to digitize the collections of great research libraries, including NYPL, was in full swing – and before it ran afoul of the copyright laws in court. Some pundits on the bleeding edge were predicting that libraries would either be all digital or completely obsolete in a relatively short time. Basing the building design on a premise that hadn’t yet been proven looks foolhardy in retrospect. Especially when combined with the notion that “everything will be digitized” when the volume of “everything” that existed prior to the ubiquity of computers is much too high a volume to be digitized within the lifetime of anyone now living.

There has also been a longstanding shift in the library profession to a “give ‘em what they want” mentality. The other side of that coin is when “they” stop wanting something, it’s time to throw it out to make way for something new that “they” will want. This works fairly well in most public libraries, and is an absolute necessity because real estate and shelf space are generally expensive and always finite. But in a research library like the NYPL Central, the intention is to keep a broad and deep collection because we don’t know what some researcher will want 5 or 10 or 50 years from now. But we know that if we don’t preserve it, it won’t exist for that researcher to find.

A panoramic view of the Rose Reading Room
A panoramic view of the Rose Reading Room

And then there was the issue at NYPL that the steel book stacks are physically supporting the Rose Reading Room on the top floor. Take out the book stacks and the top floor becomes the bottom floor with a sudden and resounding crash. While there were designs to account for this, none of them seemed as sturdy, robust or even as beautiful and simply functional as the existing stacks.

Part of the plan was that the 3 million volumes housed in those stacks be relocated to off-site storage in New Jersey for better preservation. There was a frequently articulated promise that books would be made available within 24 hours. The problem with this part of the plan was that patrons already had plenty of experience with off-site storage, and 24 hours was known to be a laughable dream. Three or four days was considered an achievable dream, but a week was not unheard of.

As part of this phase of the plan, the powers that be conducted a stealth removal of the books in the stacks, sending them to off-site storage and to private warehouses. The stacks are now echoingly empty, even though the grand plan is dead, and some of the books are completely inaccessible. Others were lost in transition.

There have been any number of libraries and library directors who have found themselves in the midst of hurricanes of controversy over plans to vastly eliminate or move the collections of their libraries. One of the more infamous cases occurred at the San Francisco Public Library in the mid 1990s (see Nicholson Baker’s scathing book, Double Fold, for an example of just how acid the vitriol became). There are more recent stories from the Urbana Free Library in Illinois and the Berkeley Public Library in California. Every librarian knows that massively weeding or otherwise removing the collection is one of the fastest ways to generate negative publicity that libraries can fall into. But the librarians seem to have been left out of the decision-making loop in all of the planning for this great plan.

The NYPL Central Library, with its enduring and patient lions, is a living symbol of the city. It is also a storied place of history, where many scholars and writers did their research and composed some of their greatest work. It’s also a place that, in spite of its often shaky finances, fulfilled every library’s purpose of being the “People’s University” with its doors and its collections open to any researcher or reader who visited its hallowed halls. There were too many people, both famous and forgotten, who loved that building and the purpose it served.

The real estate moguls never had a chance. Just this once, the pen was mightier than the pocketbook. But it was still one hell of a fight.