A- #BookReview: This Great Hemisphere by Mateo Askaripour

A- #BookReview: This Great Hemisphere by Mateo AskaripourThis Great Hemisphere by Mateo Askaripour
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction, speculative fiction, political thriller
Pages: 432
Published by Dutton Books on July 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

From the award-winning and bestselling author of Black Buck : A speculative novel about a young woman—invisible by birth and relegated to second-class citizenship—who sets off on a mission to find her older brother, whom she had presumed dead but who is now the primary suspect in a high-profile political murder.
Despite the odds, Sweetmint, a young invisible woman, has done everything right her entire life—school, university, and now a highly sought-after apprenticeship with one of the Northwestern Hemisphere’s premier inventors, a non-invisible man belonging to the dominant population who is as eccentric as he is enigmatic. But the world she has fought so hard to build after the disappearance of her older brother comes crashing down when authorities claim that not only is he well and alive, he’s also the main suspect in the murder of the Chief Executive of the Northwestern Hemisphere. 
A manhunt ensues, and Sweetmint, armed with courage, intellect, and unwavering love for her brother, sets off on a mission to find him before it’s too late. With five days until the hemisphere’s big election, Sweetmint must dodge a relentless law officer who’s determined to maintain order and an ambitious politician with sights set on becoming the next Chief Executive by any means necessary.
With the awe-inspiring defiance of The Power and the ever-shifting machinations of House of Cards , This Great Hemisphere is a novel that brilliantly illustrates the degree to which reality can be shaped by non-truths and vicious manipulations, while shining a light on our ability to surprise ourselves when we stop giving in to the narratives others have written for us.

My Review:

Shakespeare said it best, but the Bard said an awful lot of things very, very well, which is why we keep quoting him. In The Merchant of Venice (Act 1, Scene 3), there’s a famous proverb that says that, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” It’s something the reader is forced to reckon with in This Great Hemisphere – even if the characters for the most part don’t have the education to recognize the phenomenon.

They’re not supposed to. That’s part of the story. In fact, a more accurate paraphrase of that quote as it applies to This Great Hemisphere would be that “the devil can WRITE Scripture for his purpose.” because that is exactly what has happened during the five centuries between our now and the future experienced by Sweetmint and her people.

As Sweetmint discovers over the course of this story, there’s another quote that applies even more, from a part of the Bible that the powers-that-be of the Northwestern Hemisphere have undoubtedly excised as part of their thoroughgoing revision of Scripture to suit their purposes. It’s the one from Ecclesiastes (1:9) that goes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Or as it was put more succinctly in Battlestar Galactica, “This has all happened before. All of this will happen again.”

But Sweetmint and her friends do not know any of this when her story begins. It may have all happened before – in fact it has all happened before – but it hasn’t happened before TO HER and her perspective is what carries the story from hope and compliance to desperation, rebellion and tragedy. And maybe, just maybe, back to hope – or at least a brief approximation thereof.

But what is it that has happened before? Sweetmint’s story – or the story that takes place around her and through her, is just the kind of metaphor that science fiction does well when it takes an issue that is real and present – and generally terrible – and shifts it in time and space, alters just a few of the parameters – and forces the reader to see an obscured truth for what it really is.

This Great Hemisphere is set on Earth, five centuries into a future where a portion of the human population is born invisible. Because humans are gonna human, and governments always need a common enemy to class as less than human to keep everyone else in line, invisibles have been cast as a threat and dehumanized in every way possible. They are denied higher education, voting rights, land ownership, good jobs, good housing, etc., etc., etc. Denied all of those things by law and forced to live in remote villages so that the dominant population can never really know them so that they can be more easily demonized.

Sweetmint is supposed to be a “model Invisible” and has earned a place as an intern – not a servant, but an actual intern – with one of the men responsible for the creation of this system. He’s using her for the next step in his “great plan”.

But we see this broken society through Sweetmint’s eyes as the scales are removed from them. She learns that nothing she believes bears much of any resemblance to any objective truth and that the system is rotten from within – always has been and intends to always be so.

What makes the story so compelling is that even as we watch it unravel, we’re still riveted by her attempts to force a new way through. That even though it may be hopeless in the long run, there can be a reprieve in the short run – and possibly more. And we’re there for her and for it – even if the specific future she hoped for is not.

Escape Rating A-: I obviously had a lot of thoughts about this as I was reading it, and I have more. It’s that kind of book.

It does absolutely fly by. The author has done an excellent job of creating a world that is firmly rooted in the history we know and yet manages to shine a light on it from a different corner. Using invisibility as a metaphor for race allows the reader to be firmly grounded in our own historical perspective and yet provides a vector by which anyone can imagine themselves as Sweetmint because there are circumstances in which anyone can be rendered invisible.

I’m all over the map on what I thought and felt about this book, and it’s making writing it up all kinds of difficult. On the one hand, as I said, it’s compelling to read. On a second hand, I felt like the social issues part was a bit heavy-handed – but at the same time, I recognize that my own background makes me more familiar with some of the issues – albeit from a slightly different angle, and as someone whose read a lot of history the repetitive patterns are not exactly news.

From the point of view of someone who reads a lot of science fiction, this very much fits into the spec fic, SFnal tradition of exploring an all too real past and present issue by setting it in either a time or place away from the here and now. Something that even the original Star Trek series did both well and badly – sometimes at the same time – and there’s an episode that’s particularly on point in this regard, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

In other words, in yet another attempt to make a long story short and probably fail at it again, This Great Hemisphere is a compelling story, both because of Sweetmint’s originally naive perspective and because the actual political machinations going and increasing enmeshment in the consequences of them – sometimes intentionally but often not. And the ending – oh that was a stunner in a way that just capped off the whole thing while still leaving just a glimmer of possibility – if not necessarily a good one – for the world in which it happens.

Review: The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

Review: The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona DavisThe Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Dutton Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

A Good Morning America Book Club Pick!
“A page-turner for booklovers everywhere! . . . A story of family ties, their lost dreams, and the redemption that comes from discovering truth.”—Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Shoemaker's Wife

In nationally bestselling author Fiona Davis's latest historical novel, a series of book thefts roils the iconic New York Public Library, leaving two generations of strong-willed women to pick up the pieces.
It's 1913, and on the surface, Laura Lyons couldn't ask for more out of life--her husband is the superintendent of the New York Public Library, allowing their family to live in an apartment within the grand building, and they are blessed with two children. But headstrong, passionate Laura wants more, and when she takes a leap of faith and applies to the Columbia Journalism School, her world is cracked wide open. As her studies take her all over the city, she finds herself drawn to Greenwich Village's new bohemia, where she discovers the Heterodoxy Club--a radical, all-female group in which women are encouraged to loudly share their opinions on suffrage, birth control, and women's rights. Soon, Laura finds herself questioning her traditional role as wife and mother. But when valuable books are stolen back at the library, threatening the home and institution she loves, she's forced to confront her shifting priorities head on . . . and may just lose everything in the process.
Eighty years later, in 1993, Sadie Donovan struggles with the legacy of her grandmother, the famous essayist Laura Lyons, especially after she's wrangled her dream job as a curator at the New York Public Library. But the job quickly becomes a nightmare when rare manuscripts, notes, and books for the exhibit Sadie's running begin disappearing from the library's famous Berg Collection. Determined to save both the exhibit and her career, the typically risk-adverse Sadie teams up with a private security expert to uncover the culprit. However, things unexpectedly become personal when the investigation leads Sadie to some unwelcome truths about her own family heritage--truths that shed new light on the biggest tragedy in the library's history.

My Review:

Once upon a time, there really were apartments built into at least some of the branches of the New York Public Library, including the branch on 5th Avenue – the one with the lions. So the apartment that Laura Lyons and her family live in really did exist, and was occupied by the real-life family of the first Superintendent, John Fedeler, who had an interesting history but thankfully no stories of stolen books – not that THAT doesn’t happen in plenty of libraries in real life. As the source material the author lists at the end demonstrates all too clearly.

While NYPL’s iconic Schwarzman Building is nearly as much of a character in the story as Laura Lyons and her granddaughter Sadie Donovan, the heart of this timeslip story revolves around the ways that family legacies and family stories shape our lives for both good and ill.

The story runs on two parallel tracks, both wrapped around the enigma of a series of thefts of rare, collectible books from NYPL’s rare book collection. And the way that both series of thefts implicate the Lyons family, past and present, and call into question their honor, their honesty and their service to a beloved institution.

Laura Lyons story is both the most difficult, and the most dynamic, as she starts her story in 1913 as a traditional wife and mother, albeit with a rather unusual address, an apartment on the Mezzanine level of the 5th Avenue branch of NYPL. Her journey is the longest and the hardest, as she struggles to make her own place in a world that expects her to stand quietly and respectfully behind and not beside her husband, the first Superintendent of the grand, new, library building.

But Laura wants to be more than a wife and mother. She wants to be a full participant in the rapidly changing world around her, and even more, she wants to help lead those changes. In her quest to become a journalist, she steps out of her husband’s shadow and away from her traditional role to find her own voice and her own life.

The gap left by her frequent absences causes a rift in her family, a rift that leaves a crack through which her son falls – into the clutches of an unscrupulous young thief and conman. Someone who gives the boy the attention and direction that is missing from his own family. Leading to the destruction of her husband’s career and his legacy – but to the making of Laura’s own.

In parallel, we see her granddaughter Sadie Donovan in 1993, the new and temporary curator of the now-famous Berg Collection – a collection that includes a walking stick that once belonged to her grandmother, the famous, and occasionally infamous feminist essayist Laura Lyons. When Sadie’s new position is threatened by another series of thefts from the Berg Collection, thefts that strikingly parallel the events that destroyed her grandmother’s family, history repeats as the granddaughter is under exactly the same suspicion that her grandfather was so long ago – that she is the insider responsible for the thefts.

In her quest to exonerate herself by finding the thief, Sadie investigates the events of the past – a past that her mother refused to discuss – ever. But in that search Sadie finds the link between her now and Laura’s then, and a truth that gives her all the answers she never knew she needed.

Escape Rating A: I have to say that this story had me at library. The idea of living in a big library like NYPL is probably every booklover’s dream. So the story of Laura and her family being fortunate enough to live inside that iconic building would have captured me if the story had been all sweetness and light. Which it isn’t, and that’s what made it so good.

I also have to say at this point that I am a librarian, and have to say that the description of Sadie’s career and day-to-day working life rang a lot of bells for me. What she did, how she got there, how she felt were all very reminiscent of my own working life. I was a working librarian in 1993 just as Sadie was, and her experiences were similar enough to my own that she was easy to identify with.

On my third hand, there are parts of Laura’s story that feel like they are in dialog with yesterday’s book, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, in spite of the stories taking place on opposite sides of the Atlantic and nearly a century apart. Both Laura and Agatha were women who straddled the line between being traditional wives and mothers and wanting more for themselves and more from their partners. That so little had changed about traditional women’s roles and how much censure women received when they deviated from those roles makes the century that separates them seem much shorter than the 80 years that separates Laura from her granddaughter. Laura’s messages about women’s lives and women’s labor and women’s need for both true partners and real independence has resonance because there’s still so far to go. There was in 1993 and there still is today.

But the heart of this story is the secret. The secret of how to steal from the locked cages of the Berg Collection. It’s a secret that is discovered by one generation and taught to another. A secret that breaks Laura Lyons’ family. A secret that reaches down through the generations. A secret that taints the life of her daughter and very nearly ruins the life of her granddaughter, just as it did her husband’s life.

The investigation of that secret, an investigation that fails in the past but finally succeeds at the end is so simple that you’re surprised no one figured it out sooner – including the reader. It’s also complicated by the weight of the secrets and lies that accreted around it, and so devastating that it nearly claims another generation of victims.

Sadie doesn’t so much uncover the secret as stumble over it, but the way that her stumbling takes her through her family’s history is absolutely captivating every step of the way.