The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible LibraryThis book caught my eye due to many things, but mostly that title, let’s be honest. An invisible library?? And then the descriptions promised librarians hunting down books across universes and I was SO SOLD.

When I started reading the book, though, I was torn. It starts off strong, with a Librarian hunting down a sneaky book in a magician’s boarding school and then returning to the Library to find yet more weirdness afoot. But then that weirdness leads to a posting in a quasi-steampunk-Victorian universe and I was like, well, at least that first part was good while it lasted.

I probably would have given up the book then, but I was off at a conference and not only was it the only print book I’d brought with me, but my hotel roommate was so excited that I was reading it that I figured I’d at least get far enough to give her a recommendation. And then I read the whole thing.

The Victorian-ness was still pretty meh, but once the book gets past building that setting it’s mostly all whiz-bang magic and sorcery and intrigue and subterfuge, so it’s A-OK in my book.

Aside from that setting, there’s also the setting of the Library itself, which exists between worlds and universes and collects books from all of them ostensibly to have a collection of ALL THE BOOKS and also to bring these universes closer together and to the Library and bring stability to the multiverse or whatever. This is much more interesting but very little explained, but I’m guessing that’ll change in future books (yay series!).

The actual story is about a Librarian named Irene who, after escaping that Hogwarts analogue, finds herself tasked with taking a relatively new recruit, Kai, into his first field assignment to recover a book of Grimm’s fairy tales. Said field assignment is in a place where magic and science coexist, but not peacefully, and Irene and Kai soon figure out that they are not the only weird powered creatures seeking the same book. Even worse, one of those people may be a mysterious, mythical turn-coat Librarian whose very name scares the pants off of most Librarians.

It’s a pretty standard story, but this is one of those books that recognizes that it’s got a pretty standard story, and in fact plays not only with the tropes of fantasy stories but with the conventions of literature in general, using them to help shape the story. It works fairly well, too, and even when it doesn’t quite work I’m always apt to find it entertaining.

All in all I ended up quite enjoying myself with this book, and I will probably seek out its sequel when that’s published here in the US later this year (darn you, UK originals!).

Recommendation: If you like magic and fairy tales and libraries and have a healthy appreciation of librarian stereotypes, you should probably seek this out.

Necessity, by Jo Walton

NecessityThis is probably a very strange book to read on vacation, but nonetheless I found myself at my in-laws’ beach house, hiding out from the sun and the heat (because dudes, it is HOT in Florida lately), fully engrossed with this book. And then when I finished it, I went swimming, because I’m not a heathen.

My sister-in-law asked me for some book recommendations while I was in the middle of this novel, and I was like, you should totally read this series! The first book is about setting up Plato’s Just City, and then the second book is about how that actually works in actual life with actual humans, and then this third one is about, um, I don’t know, it’s weird?

Now that I’ve finished the book, it’s still kind of weird, though really, so is the whole series, so. But those first two books are really easy to summarize, and this one is… not. It’s partially along the same lines as the second book, in that there’s quite a bit about how Plato’s thought experiment is interpreted by different people and how the various cities made up of these people interact and how they’re all really striving to be their best selves no matter the interpretation. But then there’s also, well, lots of weird god stuff.

Spoilers ahead, especially if you haven’t read the first two books!

So this book sees the death of mortal Apollo, who’s been learning important lessons about humans and their significance during the series. But of course, he’s a god, so he’s not actually dead and spends some time doing god stuff and god things and whatever, until he’s called by Hermes to go talk to Zeus and on the way determines that Athena (who set up the Just City experiment in the first place) has gone completely and totally missing, which is not actually possible. So Apollo has to go on, like, a quest to find Athena, who has left him some clues with various people in various times and all of this is moderately interesting but then there’s a whole thing with alien gods and stuff and I’m just going to give this whole plot the side-eye.

Way more interesting to me are the chapters from non-god points of view, talking about the stuff I said above with the Just City and whatnot, but then especially the chapters from the point of view of Crocus, who is a robot Worker with sentience and probably a soul and lots of interesting ideas about all of that. His very straightforward chapters are a lovely contrast to the incredibly confusing Apollo chapters.

Probably no spoilers after this!

All in all, I quite enjoyed this book, largely because of the way it plays off of the previous books and continues its own version of Plato’s Republic with commentary. You definitely would not be able to read this book on its own, and I wouldn’t say you absolutely have to read this if you’ve read the other two books, but if you read and and liked the other two this is a solid entry in the series.

Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell

Beat the ReaperSometimes the scariest thing about re-reading books is realizing how long ago you read them the first time… this one’s from waaaaaaaay back in 2009 when I was still posting reviews the day I finished every book. Oh, past self. You were so cute.

I picked this one out for my in-person book club because I remembered liking this book a surprising amount and because we’ve been reading a lot of relatively serious books lately and I thought a nice bonkers quasi crime novel would hit that beginning-of-summer sweet spot. After the turnout at the last few meetings, I was sure this ridiculous book would net me a handful of book clubbers, but instead this was our best turnout of the year. Don’t underestimate bonkers fluff, is what I’m saying.

My opinion on the book hasn’t really changed in seven years, although I thought it might when I started listening to it on audio. I guess I sort of had a voice in my head already for our hero, Peter Brown, and the narrator’s voice was just… not that. It was very impersonal and flat and matter-of-fact where I thought it would be more sarcastic and emotive, rather like that time I listened to The Eyre Affair. Also, I had forgotten about the twenty-seven (this is an estimate, I did not count them, though now I feel like I should have) F-bombs Peter lays out in the first, like, two pages, and I was very nervous that my book club would not make it past that minefield.

But either the narrator gets better or the story does or both, as I was quickly drawn back into the weird world of Peter Brown, ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection. His hospital is weird and terrifying, especially when your fellow book clubbers tell you that yeah, no, it’s totally believable that that terrible thing would happen in a hospital. His childhood is weird and awful as you learn more and more about the circumstances of his grandparents’ untimely demise and his entrance into the Mafia world. His present circumstances are weird and nerve-wracking as everything keeps going wrong, and then vomit-inducing at the end when a certain weapon is procured. Ugh.

I’m not sure I liked the book quite as much this second time around, possibly due to the only-decent narrator and the lack of footnotes (!) in the audio version or possibly due to the lack of surprise when the craziest of things happen. But I still enjoyed it immensely, and I was happy to find out that most of my book club agreed save for two very upset members who came just to tell me, personally, how much they hated the book. But they showed up, so the joke’s on them!

If you’re intrigued by the “ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection” conceit, and you like your crime hard-boiled, and you like your humor sarcastic and cutting, AND you don’t shy away from an F-bomb or twelve, this is definitely a book to pack in your beach bag this summer. There’s even a sequel, if you end up loving it!

Weekend Shorts: More Volume Ones

I feel like I read a LOT of Volume Ones these days, and then I just, like, forget to read the rest of the series. And it’s not like I’m reading a lot of terrible series; it’s just that there are so many new ones to try that the good ones still get lost in the shuffle.

But, whatever, here are three more Volume Ones to add to the collection!

Descender, Vol. 1: “Tin Stars”, by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen
Descender, Vol. 1I read the first couple of issues of this series in my catchup binge a couple of months back, and I was like THIS SERIES HAS A ROBOT BOY YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID. Which still stands, really, but I’m a bit less excited about it now.

These six issues lay out some very interesting backstory with the promise of intrigue and subterfuge, which are things I am a big fan of, in the present. But the intrigue is less about strategy and more about brute force, which gets boring pretty quickly. I’m really not clear what is up with all the people trying to find my Robot Boy, and I’m not sure the book is either, what with all the trips into Backstory Land that are much more interesting than the main story.

I do have the second volume on hand, purchased at half price before I had finished the first one, and so probably maybe someday I will continue on with the series. But there will be dozens of other Volume Ones ahead of it, probably.

Paper Girls, Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang
Paper Girls, Vol. 1This one, on the other hand, I’m regretting reading only because the next issue JUST came out and therefore a Volume Two is still in the distant future. Which is appropriate to the content of the book, I suppose.

The first issue promised me aliens in Cleveland, so of course I was all over it, but what we get is even stranger — time travelling teenagers in some kind of war with a different set of time travelling people, with dinosaurs, and Apple products, and I don’t even know what’s going on but man Cliff Chiang’s art is the prettiest.

This volume could almost have fallen into the same “too much brute force” category as Descender, but there’s enough subtle intrigue with the time travelers (and such a smart cliffhanger ending) that I am happily looking forward to more.

Preacher, Book 1, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Preacher, Book 1I guess this isn’t technically a “Volume One”, as it collects a few more issues than the official Preacher, Vol. 1, but it’s got a 1 on the cover so it counts!

I read this because the people at my favorite comics podcast did a show on it and while I usually skip the shows about things I haven’t read, the discussion was interesting enough to keep listening. That sounds like a vote for a series in my book! And then it was free on hoopla, so it was clearly fate.

But, well, I definitely won’t be reading more of this. Not because it’s not interesting, which it is, with its concepts of gods and religions and hate and fear-mongering and all sorts of other fun human stuff. And not because the art’s not gorgeous, which it is, with incredibly detailed drawings and lovely colors.

What it is is that the story and the art are both just too gruesome for me. There’s this crazy scene that I had to show my husband, because I couldn’t be the only one to see it, with a guy whose face has been flayed and, like, tacked back on, and it is objectively a fascinating panel and an intriguing bit of story, but the fact that it’s only marginally weirder and grosser than other bits of the story means this book is just not for me. I’m really wondering how this has been turned into a TV show, but I really don’t think I want to watch it to find out!

The Night Sister, by Jennifer McMahon

The Night SisterI made an agreement with my boss that we would switch off reading the books for the library book club, which definitely seemed like a great idea after my disastrous first outing with them. But then the next book up, this one, sounded actually pretty interesting and so I stole it from my boss so I could have a good book club experience.

The best-laid plans…

Except this time, it was the rest of the club (only half of whom even showed up) that hated the book, while I was like, wait, I thought it was pretty okay!

It could have been better, sure, but it was so squarely in my wheelhouse I couldn’t hate it when I tried. It’s got multiple points of view, multiple time period settings, interwoven plot lines, Big Mysteries, awesome lady protagonists, and a hint of the supernatural. It’s also a quasi-gothic novel, which is a genre of book that I seem to like more in theory than in the reading but I really like it in theory, so.

What actually happens in the novel: In the present day, a woman violently kills her family and herself, and her estranged childhood best friends, who are sisters, come together to figure out if it had anything to do with that Big Mysterious Thing that happened to them as children. In that childhood period, the Future Murdery Woman and the sisters hang out and navigate teenagerhood and also try to figure out the Big Mystery of the motel FMM’s family lives in. In the farther past, FMM’s mother navigates her own teenagerhood and also tries to figure out the Big Mystery of her sister, who she thinks might be a shapeshifting mare of the kind that her grandmother once warned her about.

It’s a fascinating novel, playing with genre and switching styles between the three time settings as the location setting stays the same — or rather deteriorates, as vacant motels are wont to do. There’s something cool to be seen in the fate of the motel through the generations and in how it is represented, first as a strongly gothic imposing presence and eventually just as a creepy sort of place. There’s a not-subtle nod to Hitchcock and Psycho included in the book as well, and he’s definitely a strong influence on the story.

Where it went wrong for the rest of the club and admittedly a little bit for me as well is the ending, which [SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH] takes what I expected to be either an ambiguous ending or a heavy metaphor about life and swerves to the completely literal, having those mares be real and having some of the characters actually be these shapeshifters. This revelation doesn’t quite fit with the tone of the rest of the novel and so is completely jarring, leaving me with a “Bwuh?” face and then a “Hmmph.” face as a finished it. But with some space between me and the book, I find that I kind of liked it as a “twist” ending. It reminded me a bit of another novel I read a few years ago, though I’m pretty sure there weren’t actual demons in that one? Man, I need to write more spoilers in my reviews so I can remember these books better.

That was a long spoiler tangent, sorry!

Anyway, I ended up liking the book more academically, for playing around with literary conventions, than for its entertainment value, as it is lacking a bit in the plot and character departments. My book clubbers would argue that it’s lacking completely in those departments, but I stayed intrigued the whole way through so I’ll give McMahon points for that. And I will definitely be putting her on my list of Authors Whose Best Works I Should Read Some Day, as she’s pretty prolific and has some apparently very good works to her name.

Recommendation: For those looking for a moderately spooky read and who like a novel that plays with convention and expectation.

Stiletto, by Daniel O’Malley

StilettoHas it really been four years since I read The Rook? On the one hand, it feels like I was just in that hostel in Belgium yesterday, and on the other hand, I feel like I’ve been waiting FOREVER for this sequel. I’m sure there’s a supernatural explanation.

True story, though: I was SOOOOER excited for the sequel up until I had the advance copy in my hot little hands, at which point I realized I remembered almost nothing of the first book and thus feared I would be completely lost. As a friend re-read The Rook, I contemplated doing the same, but I have so little time for reading I decided to just go for it.

And, well, it turned out okay! I think. It helps that the book is mostly not about Myfanwy, the awesome-pants protagonist of the first novel. Instead we start off following a team of Checquy operatives (supernatural mutant-type soldier-types) as they investigate a very strange house with a very strange Oblong of Mystery in the center of it. The Checquy soldiers storm the Oblong, but things go very pear-shaped very quickly to the strains of Bruckner’s 8th. As they do.

Meanwhile, we meet up with Odette Leliefield, a teenage girl who is part of the Grafters, the Checquy’s long-time archenemy, recently come to London to, uh, make up? Odette resents being trapped in a hotel for most of her trip, but since it seems like every time she leaves she ends up with Checquy agents hating the Grafters more than they did before, it’s probably for the best. Especially since Odette has some sad and terrible secrets in her past that might affect this reconciliation more than anyone knows…

I’ll admit this book started off a little rough for me, as the opening chapters were super simplistic and oddly casually racist. I’m hoping that’s because of its advance copy nature and that you won’t see that oddness. But once the story really got going, the oddness either went away or became background noise and I found myself tearing through the novel. It doesn’t have quite the same driving plot that The Rook did, but I was still very curious to see how things were going to go.

I love the way O’Malley sets a scene and plays with language and reality, so that even if what he’s writing makes no sense, it sounds good while you’re reading it. This book doesn’t suffer from Implausibility quite the way the first one did, but there are a couple places that don’t hold up to close inspection — but then again, it’s a book about mutants and body modifiers, so.

If you’ve read The Rook, you should absolutely check out this follow-up, and if you haven’t read The Rook, you should go do so now because it is soooooo good. And then you can read this one if you’re feeling wistful for weirdness.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesHey, look, another book club book! This one turned out much better than the last one, thank goodness!

I picked this one for my in-person book club off of a list of suggestions I got from my online book club friends, because man, I am so out of book ideas. (Do you have some? Let me know! Ahem.) I had heard enough of it to be like, “Oh, is that the one where the Earth’s spin slows down?” but not much else, but that sounded like a pretty good premise and something to talk about so I put it on the list.

Sometimes with these apocalyptic-ish books you get a story where it’s heavy on the plot and the Big Event is super important, and sometimes you get a story where a Big Event is happening but that really doesn’t matter at all except for setting. This book was, kind of surprisingly, right in the center of those two styles. We have a super important Big Event, but the focus is on the humans and how they’re reacting to the Event, both as humans do and possibly as is caused by the Event itself.

What happens, of course, is that the Earth’s spin starts to slow for no apparent reason. Scientists are like, WTF, but for most people it’s not a hugely big deal that there are now a few more minutes in the day. Except that the spin keeps slowing, and soon there are a few more hours in the day, and eventually a few more days in the day, and of course this insane day and night pattern takes its toll on the Earth and its plants and animals, especially those emotional humans.

What makes the book most interesting to me is that it’s told in the past tense, so we know that people are going to survive but we’re not quite sure how, and also that it’s told from the point of view of a young teenager, giving us the double uncertainty of adolescence and apocalypse.

It helps, too, that the sort of Big Conflict laid out in the story is so unexpected to me, this completely baffling conflict between the people who choose to live “on the clock”, following the standard 24-hour day regardless of what it looks like outside, versus those living off the clock and following the sun for their days and nights. You’d think it would be as simple as ignoring the people doing what you think is a crazy thing, but if you’ve lived in this world for any amount of time I think you can guess how ridiculous the tension between the groups gets.

Outside of that Big Conflict, the rest of the book is really a look at relationships and how they function under big stresses and little stresses and the everyday realities of life, which is a book I can totally get behind.

It’s not a perfect book, sadly, as the characters end up being a bit simplistic and certain actions and events are more cliché than I wanted them to be, but I think it does such a great job with its premise and elsewhere that it’s worth your time, especially if you have some people to hash out the details with.

Recommendation: For fans of quasi-apocalyptic books, weird science, and teen protagonists.