“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman (2015)

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“Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light.”

With a name like Genevieve Cogman, it feels almost inevitable that she penned a novel with a steampunk flavour. Someone, I forget who, had suggested this series to me a long time ago under the logic that my love of books would mean I would adore a story set in an enormous magical library. Indeed, I thought I would adore it too. Here’s the premise.

Irene works for the Library, an enormous book repository held in the space between worlds. She and her fellow Librarians are tasked with entering different universes to seek out works of fiction that are unique, dangerous or interesting. Freshly back from a school of magic, she is immediately assigned a visit to a steampunk universe where there’s a book of Grimm’s fairy tales unlike any other. Her boss also asks her to take along Kai, a new recruit with a needling attitude and more secrets that you can shake a brolly at.

In this alternate world, Irene and Kai soon find that the mission is not going to be an easy one. Chaos has infected this universe in a big way, and there seem to be a lot of people after the book. Its owner, a vampire called Lord Wyndham, has just been murdered and the killer is still at large. Irene and Kai are thrown into a mess of danger and secret societies, with magical creatures, cyborg alligators and Britain’s finest detective after them. Things go from bad to worse when Irene is locked out of the Library, her contact is found dead, and something far more dangerous than she could ever have envisioned is stalking the streets of London.

I do adore the concept – alternate universes with varying levels of technology and magic being visited by beings from beyond space and time to recover priceless works of fiction? What’s not to love? I’m working on something curiously similar myself. However, it all seemed to become far too complicated. In just over three hundred pages we are introduced to this magical Library, the Language while allows magic to occur, Kai’s backstory, the interlocking universes, vampires, werewolves, steampunk technology (including the obligatory dose of zeppelins), the on-going battle between the dragons and the Fae, and a knotty alternate history where Liechtenstein is considered a world power. There are so many aspects here that they begin to trip over themselves. Little is ever fully explained, characters never quite manage to develop three dimensions – often not even two – and there feels a desperation to throw as many things as possible at it.

Cogman also seems terrified that a reader might miss any any of the subtext in her story, and thus we are frequently treated to explanations as to what the true meanings are behind certain lines and gestures. While I get that sometimes subtext can be missed, here it feels almost insulting in its regularity, as if the readers would be too stupid to be able to understand. I did begin to wonder if the books are aimed at a young adult audience, but I can find nothing suggesting that to be the case. Perhaps it’s in the subtext, and it was the one time she didn’t bother telling us?

Since it’s the first in a series, I give it the benefit of the doubt. A lot has to be established in a first novel – the first Harry Potter book is, of course, tonally very different to the others because we’re being introduced to the world for the first time – but it all feels a little too rushed, with a desperation to throw in the Big Bad and explain away the big secrets before we’ve even really had a chance to begin to care about them. There are some interesting scenes, and one or two genuinely interesting characters, but they get lost among the ephemera.

It’s a shame, really, and it falls down where many books have fallen down before – a great premise, with poor execution.

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“The Woman Who Died A Lot” by Jasper Fforde (2012)

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woman-who-died“Everything comes to an end.”

Despite this novel’s opening line, this isn’t quite the end. However, it feels like it some days. This is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, and there hasn’t been a new one in four years now, although it ends on a cliffhanger and reports that she will return. All I say to you now though is, if you haven’t read the ones before, then this is going to make even less sense to you than if you had. On we go.

Thursday Next has been forced into semi-retirement. Now in her early fifties, she has survived the kidnapping attempt of the previous book, but now she walks with a stick, has double vision a lot of the time, and is addicted to painkiller patches. With the news that SpecOps is about to be reinstated in an effort to use up as much of the country’s excess money in stupid ways as possible, she is sure that she’s in line to be the new head of SO-27, the Literary Detectives. After all, having worked for them for a long time, as well as spending several years inside literature, surely she’s the ideal person for the job. That is, if it wasn’t for Phoebe Smalls, who is younger, fitter and perhaps even more tenacious than Thursday.

Thursday is instead offered the job of heading up Swindon Library, a task that is somewhat more relaxed but still doesn’t come without its problems, such as the impending budget cuts, the Blyton fundamentalists who want all the racism put back into their novels to better represent their “perfect England”, and the fact that Goliath, everyone’s least-favourite multinational are after some specific and unusual antique books.

But, being a Thursday Next book, that’s not all.

Thursday’s son Friday has lost the job he never had with the Chronoguard and has been told he’s going to commit a murder at the end of the week; an angry god is planning on smiting Swindon on the same day, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to prevent it; memories keep going astray and Thursday doesn’t understand the tattoo that’s appeared on her hand; there seems to be something going on within the Dark Reading Matter that contains all the stories that never got written; and Thursday herself keeps getting replaced by very lifelike synthetic versions of herself which is proving to be very annoying.

In the last book, we spent the vast majority of the time inside the BookWorld, emerging once to learn a little bit about what was going on in the Outland, and this time it’s the other way around. Because of Thursday’s injuries, she can no longer jump into fiction and instead must make do on this side of the page. This lets us explore more of the strange world of Fforde’s Swindon, bringing back Joffy Next, Jack Schitt and Daisy Mutlar, to name some of the characters. By this point in the series, you better have a firm grip on what’s come before as Fforde enjoys dropping in references to names and events from previous books without explanation.

He’s as funny as ever too, turning librarians into a task force of the military elite, who are regularly shot at by angry patrons and perform raids on private houses to get back the books that rightfully belong in their hallowed buildings. Despite writing off time travel as impossible two books ago, he’s obviously had a change of heart and it’s back and even stranger than ever, paradoxically working and not at the same time.

There are also some deeply dark moments in here, such as the Letters of Destiny which tell would-have-been members of the Chronoguard about the life they would have had and the one they now will. All the scenes involving Aornis Hades and her memory-altering powers are also incredibly powerful and actually quite terrifying. Thursday is an amazing protagonist, and seems almost unique in the canon of female heroes as being a mother, over fifty, highly intelligent, and still able to kick butt when necessary (or in a synthetic body).

I could languish in this world forever, if only for the puns, wordplay and beautifully constructed nonsensical sentences. Every scene is utter bliss, from Thursday’s father who until recently didn’t exist but now has memories of his family that they don’t share, to the Manchild, who has half of his body aging in reverse.

If you’re new to this world, get reading The Eyre Affair. You’ll thank me later.

“The Book On The Bookshelf” by Henry Petroski (1999)

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bookshelf-book“My reading chair faces my bookshelves, and I see them every time I look up from the page.”

Although I started this blog in 2013, I started keeping track of what books I was reading at the beginning of the decade, in 2011. I read sixty-six books that first year, which feels paltry compared to the ninety-five I got through last year. But this book here is particularly special as this review marks the five hundredth book I’ve read this decade – so far. It feels impossible, and yet, it feels about right. I debated for a while about which book deserved the accolade of such a comfortable and pleasing round number, but there seemed to be only one real answer to that – a book about books.

More accurately, I suppose, Henry Petroski’s book is actually about something most people don’t even consider – bookshelves. Oh yes, books about stationery and fake languages now seem almost mainstream compared to this level of specificity. Here, Petroski is discussing the history of how humanity has stored its texts, from the earliest scrolls and clay tablets up until the modern era (well, 1999 anyway). He covers the evolution of books from scrolls and codices to the invention of the printing press, discusses how books were read in monasteries and what happened when they became more widely available to the general public, makes a study of studies and some of the world’s most famous libraries, as well as then discussing the engineering know-how required to build bookshelves that don’t sag, allow plenty of light to show off the books, and eventually developed wheels to make the most of the space. He ends with a look at how people treat books – with a particular look at bookmarks – and then the appendix lists a variety of ways to store your books, whether by author name, size, colour, order of purchase, enjoyment level or any other method.

Like a badly made bookshelf, it sags a little in the middle as the topic is fairly dry, but it’s full of enough hugely interesting facts to keep any bookworm going. One of the oddest things he discusses is that, well into the 1500s, books were stored with their spines facing inwards, and before that they would all be chained to the shelves so they couldn’t go missing. Petroski is clearly a man who loves books and seems to have a particular interest in their treatment throughout the centuries. Books have always held a kind of reverence, or so it seems, and people have spent a lot of time and money on ensuring the best way to store and display their libraries.

Obviously, given that the book was written in 1999, there is little in it about the development and proliferation of the Kindle and its ilk. At the time he was writing, it becomes clear that e-books are already in existence but in a very minor way, so he speculates a little on what may happen, suggesting that eventually bookshelves will have fewer and fewer books on them until they resemble the old carrels of the medieval period where a student would sit at a desk to read the book without having to move it. History moves in circles, of course. It would be interesting to see an update to this book and get Petroski’s take on these new developments.

It all made me very aware that my bookshelves are in little order. An author will have all their books clumped together, in general, though looking up I can see it’s untrue of Ben Aaronovitch and Patrick Ness immediately. Agatha Christie has a shelf all to herself, of course. I have one wall that is entirely bookshelves, as well as two more long shelves on another wall, a bookcase against a third, and then two more piles of books on my desk. Books now lay horizontally on top of their vertical colleagues who came first, old and new rub covers with one another, and everything’s a little bit too dusty as, as has always been the case, books are dust magnets. I haven’t counted in a while, but this lot coupled with the boxes in the attic add up to around one thousand books.

So, let’s raise a glass to this milestone of five hundred books, five hundred adventures and five hundred tales that have all had a hand in making me the man I am today. Here’s to the next five hundred.

“Murder In The Museum” by John Rowland (1938)

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murder-in-the-museum“Beneath the high, gloomy dome, Henry Fairhurst looked around him.”

The British Library is responsible for many great things, but lately I am simply grateful for their Crime Classics series. I’ve read five of these beauties now, so regular readers of my blog will probably have seen me gush about them before. In short, however, they are republishing crime novels from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that, for whatever reason, have not survived to be worshipped into our age. In fact, the book being discussed today, Murder in the Museum, hasn’t been republished since it was released in the late 1930s. And it was completely overdue.

It’s 1937, and in the Reading Room at the British Museum, visitor Henry Fairhurst takes an interest in a man who isn’t looking too well. By the time Henry is at the side of Professor Julius Arnell, the academic is dead, apparently having died quite suddenly of natural causes. However, the police are called and soon discover that things are not that simple. Arnell was killed after eating a sugared almond – his favourite treat – that had been laced with poison.

When two more academics in the same field as Arnell also die in suspicious circumstances around the museum, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard is called upon to try and make sense of the situation. Accompanied by the efficient Sergeant Cunningham, and eager Henry Fairhurst, who has decided that he’s an amateur detective and can solve the murder, Shelley must now work out who the killer is, whether Arnell’s daughter or nephew, both of whom stand to inherit from the old man’s death, are involved, and just what a certain young Harry Baker was doing at the museum on the occasion of yet another murder…

Quite why this book disappeared from circulation so quickly is beyond me. It’s short and snappy, although breaks a few of “the rules” of detective fiction at the time. However, I can’t complain too much – Agatha Christie broke pretty much all of them – and it leads to more suspense and confusion that keeps the tale going. It’s also pretty funny, with the relationship between the policemen Cunningham and Shelley being well constructed and honest, and everyone’s frustration with Henry Fairhurst who seems to think that because he was on the scene at the time, he should be involved in the police’s work. To have him unknowingly share more information than he knows he has feels like a laboured coincidence, but also you just go with it for fun.

There’s one great surprise about two thirds of the way through, which really does make you sit up and take notice, but otherwise it’s a pretty easy-going read and one for anyone who loves detective fiction, especially from the era when it was at its best. Great characters, fun plot, and generally an entertaining fast read that’ll put you off sugared almonds forever.