The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman [Review]

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. And then I went out and bought a copy as soon as it was available because this series is THAT. GOOD.IMG_1018.JPG

I struggle to write a coherent review every time I read the next installment in this series. My vision gets blurry, and I struggle to find the right words, and all of that isn’t to say that there is nothing wrong with the book. It’s just that I don’t care about the flaws. I so desperately enjoy reading these that trying to maintain any amount of objectivity or clarity is improbable.

Let me also throw it out there that I read this months ago, but am just now sitting down to tell the Internet about it, so I’ve had some time to digest the story. There will be no spoilers from here on out for The Burning Page, but if you haven’t read The Invisible Library or The Masked City yet, proceed with caution.

Librarian Irene and her assistant (also dragon) Kai are reunited and back to work, though on probation. The fallout from Kai’s imprisonment is still being acutely felt, but there are new problems to contend with. When a gateway back to The Library malfunctions, Irene and Kai must make a hasty and dangerous escape from an alternate Revolutionary France. And they’re not the only ones having problems. Glitches and failures are being found throughout the library, and it is quickly discovered that The Library is under attack. Cue series baddie: Alberich.

There is a lot going on in this book. All of the threads that have been carried through the novels since The Invisible Library are still in play, and it makes life for Irene more and more challenging. Kai’s relationship to dragon royalty always seems to complicate things, and her friend Vale is suffering from Chaos poisoning/withdrawal. As always, the plot races along, and in hindsight, it’s hard to choose which threads I cared about most. Cogman is upping the ante and complexity with each book, but hasn’t (to date) dropped any balls.

I am,however, always left feeling like I want more character development. I get that all the worlds are ending and all, but I really care about interpersonal relationships, feelings, and yes, a little romance. I relish those bits of the story, and could always stand to have more of them. We’re just getting into it, and then some catastrophe is sprung on whoever is involved so we quickly transition back into the main action. If I wrote fan fiction, this universe would be ripe for some side-stories. Since I don’t, I’d be happy if the books were half as long again to make room for these stories.

My single concern about the series as a whole at this point is that this pace will continue in a way that ends up making things slightly ridiculous. There are only so many times you can bring the main character, all of her friends, and all the worlds to the brink of annihilation, so I am keeping my fingers crossed that she can keep the series feeling new and interesting without resorting to the end of days in every book.

To be clear, this hasn’t happened yet. I’m just ready for the next book now so I’m thinking ahead.

When the Music’s Over by Peter Robinson [Review]

*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

peterI tend to get a craving for a good mystery in the fall and winter months, when all I want to do is bundle myself in flannel and wool and drown my cold-weather sorrows in tea. It’s all very cozy, but I don’t like cozy mysteries. I like them visceral and shocking and knee-deep in the criminal psychology, or I like to follow a familiar detective around as they solve the latest crime in their own unique way. This book falls into the latter category, though I would argue that Robinson always does a good job of explaining the motivations of his characters.

When the Music’s Over is the 23rd installment in the Inspector Alan Banks series, and picks up with Banks just after he receives his latest promotion. Having to deal more with managing his staff and the politics of policing, he stays involved with a high-profile case involving an aging celebrity accused of rape decades after the crime allegedly occurred. At the same time, we also follow the murder of a young woman who is sexually assaulted, abandoned on the side of the road, and then is murdered shortly after. The cases involve some similar themes, but maintain their distinct story lines and give you a lot of bang for your buck, or intrigue for your page count.

I’ve read a lot of this series, though not every single book, and certainly not in order, but I do get the sense that while Robinson has always been good at developing complicated crimes with complicated motivations, his plots are getting more sophisticated, and are involving themes that are less black and white, and leave things much more up for debate not only between characters within the story, but for the reader. I find them fascinating, and he’s absolutely one of my favourite mystery authors.

That being said, I don’t actually read a lot of mysteries. I started in on them mostly as a professional development/reader’s advisory project, as I was trying to expand my reading horizons and get a feel specifically about what makes detective stories appealing to readers. There’s definitely something satisfying about knowing that the detective will solve the crime at the end of the day, but I’m also curious about stories where this isn’t so much a given. (If you have recommendations, leave a comment!)

So many of the really interesting plot points are developed and revealed over time, so I don’t want to talk too specifically about the nature of the crimes as it would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that Robinson incorporates some timely subject matter and controversial issues that feel very modern. I’m not sure how well the books will stand up because of it, but it makes for some great reading at the time. If I can make a criticism, it’s that I would have liked more character development. Over a long series like this, I know the plot takes center stage and the main detective evolves more slowly, but those were always the best bits for me, and I missed it a little bit in this book.

I hope I can rely on Robinson to continue publishing with some regularity. I like knowing what I’m going to get in a book sometimes, and with him, I know I’m going to like it.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet [Review]

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

bloodyproject.jpgHis Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae is great. Let’s start with that. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this work of fiction (yes, it’s fiction, but I had to double check after the first couple of pages) tells the story of a bloody triple-murder in a remote farming community in Scotland in 1869 as told through witness testimony, medical examiner’s reports, trial transcripts, and the confessions of Macrae himself.

We know at the beginning of the book that Macrae is imprisoned for the crime, and that he doesn’t seem too bothered by that fact, but as the story goes on, we learn more about Macrae’s possible motivations and the events leading up the crime. The waters are muddied as we hear more from other sources about Macrae’s actions and character.

The book succeeds most in creating a vivid and atmospheric world. It’s less of a thriller than a character study as told through the various documents pertaining to the case, and explores some of the fundamental elements of the criminal justice system that we still ask ourselves today. Under what circumstances is a crime understandable or explainable? How does your upbringing impact your choices as an adult? At what age should we be held accountable as an adult? Are humans inherently good or evil?

I think that the best books don’t really answer these questions. They present a story to the reader in such a way as to ask the reader to consider it for themselves, and by the end of the novel, to either have a better understanding of their views, or to walk away from the book ready to admit that they aren’t entirely sure.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Criminology has always interested me, and the details of the crime didn’t bother me too much. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to skim over those parts, but I think the violence does add something to the story. We spend a lot of time with Macrae before we hear any real details about the crime, so when it is discussed, the brutality only serves to make the plot and the character development more rich. I found that although there were a few parts that lagged, by the time I realized that I wasn’t as engaged, the next section was only a few pages away and the story would transition to another document type or point of view.

While the book is quite literary (in my mind, it is, whatever that means…), I think it’s one of the more genre-focused books I’ve noticed on the Man Booker lists. The first half of this reads more like historical fiction (which the Man Booker judges seem to like more than say, science fiction) but there’s also a detective story thread that runs throughout, making it more fast-paced than your average work of straight-up literary fiction. I really appreciated reading something different for this prize.

I’m always curious about how other readers approach awards. I pay the most attention to the Man Booker Prize, from the time the longlist gets announced to the winner. I also tend to keep track of who wins the National Book Award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and sometimes the Pulitzer. Part of this is surely because I’m a librarian and avid reader, and so this sort of news is my jam, but I always buy a copy of the Man Booker winner if I don’t already have it, and I’ve been working my way (very slowly) through the Pulitzer winners since 1990. I don’t think award-winners are better than other books in so many ways – I think for me it’s just a point of interest and a desire to have my own opinion about the “big” books.

 

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue [Review]

I received a copy of The Wonder in exchange for an honest review by the publisher.

I sit here wondering what the last Donoghue I read was. I read Room shortly after it was published in 2010. Goodreads tells me that I never made it Frog Music, so I think it would have been Astray, a collection of short stories based on historical events published in 2012. At the time, I would have been reading for a Canadian award committee, and I believe it did make it to the shortlist that year. I wonder these things, because for some reason, I forgot that Emma Donoghue can write one hell of a story.

The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who is brought to Ireland to watch over 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell. Since her last birthday 4 months previous, Anna and her family swear she hasn’t eaten any food, and instead is subsisting on “manna from heaven”. A local committee wants to test the veracity of her claims by having a respected nurse either confirm or deny a miracle.wonder.jpg

Once I had finished reading the story, I noticed that not a whole lot had actually happened. There was a resolution to the plot, and there were some anxious moments throughout, but what Donoghue does so well is get into her characters and develops her narrative through them. Anna is a fully-formed devout child who, for all her conviction, sees the world as any child would. Lib struggles at times to reconcile her training with what she’s observing and feeling first-hand. The story is really about the relationship between these two characters and how the influence and change the other.

What I enjoyed more than this relationship was the setting and the feeling of Ireland a hundred-plus years ago. Donoghue captures all of the superstition, religious fervor, and political history of a people in her small town personalities. The potato famine, the relationship to England, and the continuing power of the Church are all there, but it never felt heavy-handed to me.

The story is based on the phenomenon of “fasting girls”, a largely Victorian phase, but with roots hundreds of years previously. Young girls would claim to go months or years without eating anything, and they quickly became local celebrities. I didn’t know much about the topic prior to reading this novel, but have since poked around and read about some of the most famous cases from the period. This BBC article about Sarah Jacobs was great, though hold off if you want to read the novel spoiler-free.

Overall I liked this book. The writing was phenomenal, and Donoghue really manages to capture a time and place through her characters in a way that doesn’t bog down the pacing or plot of the story. I’m glad that it wasn’t any longer, as there were already a few parts that dragged a little bit for me, but that’s a minor grievance. This would make a great book club selection, or a cozy weekend read as we move through fall and into winter.

 

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my life by John Le Carré [Review]

*I received The Pigeon Tunnel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Penguin Random House Canada Limited-The Pigeon Tunnel_ Stories f
The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life – John le Carré (CNW Group/Penguin Random House Canada Limited)

I have a confession to make before we really get into this. The only Le Carré I have read is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. And I liked it, I really did, but spy novels aren’t really my thing. I love spy movies, and non-fiction books, but I’m by no means an expert on Le Carré.

Luckily for me, this is a memoir, told like a short story collection. This isn’t a chronological retelling of a life, but rather a collection of recollections that shed light on a fascinating life and a history of Cold War politics and espionage. It’s an incredible story as a whole, and I had to remind myself throughout the book that this wasn’t fiction, and more amazingly, the story of a single life, lived large.

Le Carré humbly presents his stories with a real sense of historical perspective, and is open and honest about what he’s willing to share, and what he will take to his grave. He’s a master story-teller who remains tight-lipped and conscious that his words could have consequences, and this grounding only serves to make the book all the more compelling.

I think I valued this book the most as a bridge between Le Carré the author, and Le Carré the former spy. His books have been, and continue to be, successful because they read as plausible, gripping stories that I think we all assume have some grain of truth to them. The fun is always trying to sort out how close the reality the fiction might be, especially as we’re armed with the knowledge of Le Carré’s former career. This collection taunts us with tidbits of real-life encounters with major Cold War players, and is full of secretive meetings and exchanges that can only serve to fuel our desperate desire to know the truth, once and for all. Le Carré keeps us engaged and invested by never really giving us a clear answer, and so we read on.

As a librarian, I try to classify books. I don’t mean by Dewey number or shelf location as you might think, but when I finish a book, I put it on a shelf in my brain about who I might recommend that book to. There’s a book for every reader, after all. When I tried to do this with The Pigeon Tunnel, I was happy to note how many readers would enjoy it. If you like Le Carré and his novels, this book is for you. If you’re interested in a history of espionage, this book is for you. If you want to learn more about the Cold War and its global implications, this book is for you. If you love a well-written and thoughtful memoir, this book is for you. If you like short stories, this book is for you.

Recommended Reading:

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

Nutshell by Ian McEwan [Review]

*I received a copy of Nutshell from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Here goes.

nutshellIan McEwan is one of my favourite authors. Last year I made plans to read his entire back list, but bailed quickly because I didn’t want to run out of stories to read. Atonement is perfection, and last year I really enjoyed The Children Act, so I was thrilled to see another new release this year.

Nutshell tells the story of Trudy, who has left her husband for his brother, and now, from her marital home, is plotting to get everything she ever wanted. But someone is watching and listening to every detail of her plans – her unborn child, 9 months in the womb. The narration is astute and mannered, and McEwan commits wholeheartedly to the POV which I really appreciated.

The thing that struck me most about this book was the quality of the writing. McEwan never disappoints, but I noticed how good the writing was on every single page to the point of distraction. The novel is quite short, and every word packs such a punch and every metaphor really lands and makes you think. Because the narration is so unique, McEwan is really able to investigate the choices people make and the consequences of those decisions in a really profound and new way.

I am writing this review nearly a month after reading the book, and I’m trying to remember how it ends. Turns out, it doesn’t really matter. I do remember wanting to hear what happens next while reading the book, and turning the (digital) pages at quite a pace, but in hindsight what really stands out is the writing. Nutshell was incredible and proves that McEwan continues to write outstanding stories that speak to us.

 

The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

*I received a copy of The Masked City from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This is the second book in The Invisible Library series. It will not contain spoilers from this book, but will assume the reader has read Book 1, The Invisible Library. Here goes.

Publication date: September 6

The purpose of the Library is to preserve humanity from either absolute reality of absolute unreality. And you will do this by collecting nominated books, to maintain the balance.

The Student Librarian’s Handbook

There are writers out there who really know how to sell a story to readers. As a reader, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I love books about books, about loving books and being surrounded by books, and I know what power a book and the story it contains can have. So when an author writes an entire series about collecting and maintaining a collection of powerful books, it’s almost like there is a built-in audience waiting around with grabby hands for the next installment.

I loved The Invisible Library, Book 1 in this series a whole lot, and ran around the internet with muppet arms telling people about it. And now that the next installment is here (at least in North America – the U.K. is ahead of us with this series) I have another excuse to ramble on incoherently about how great the series is and why everyone should read it.

The Masked City continues the story of Irene, a Librarian who works for The Library out of an alternate-London with her assistant Kai. Not long into the story, Kai is kidnapped by a dangerous fae faction and Irene desperately begins the search for who exactly has taken him, where they have him, and why. With seemingly-infinite number of alternate worlds that he could be in, Irene has her work cut out for her. Oh, and in case you missed it from Book 1, Kai is a dragon, and royalty, so shit will get real (by which I mean a lot of people will die) pretty quickly if anything happens to him.

The story has the same great narrative flair, packed full of adventure and witty dialogue, and I was completely invested in Irene’s struggles and her desperation to get Kai back safely. Likewise, Kai is a great character, and in this book we get to see other members of his family and learn more about dragon culture, which is all fascinating. One of the problems I had though (and it’s not really a problem, frankly) is that the best parts of the first book were seeing Irene and Kai interact, and because they’re separated for most of this story, we as readers don’t get to enjoy that. I think it’s a great setup for the next book, and develops their relationship further, but it does mean that something is missing from this book for me.

Another sticking point for me was the ending. Having Irene and Kai separated for the book set my expectations for their reunion very high, and I did find the ending to be somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying. I do immediately want to read the next book (The Burning Page, likely 2017 for North America) because we ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, but it’s left me feeling like I was in the middle of a story and had the book ripped from my hands. I really appreciate stories told in series that can also wrap things up nicely between books without giving up the anticipation of what’s next.

Those things aside, there was so much to love. These books are smart and fun and Cogman does such a good job of creating entire worlds whenever the narrative demands it without them feeling flat or empty. I had such a sense of excitement when I got to the first scene in The Library, and could maybe read a hundred stories centered around it. It looks like she has 5 books planned, so I’ll take what I can get.

Speaking of, The Burning Page has finally shown up on NetGalley, so I’ll be over there begging for a copy…