Mr. Bookdwarf Reviews: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library had me at “interdimensional secret agent librarian” but it turns out to also be a charmingly-written novel with a wry awareness of literary tropes and their permutations. Published last year in the UK, this is a book The Guardian noted as some of its favorite science fiction, saying “it’s a breath of fresh air to discover a fantastical world that defies easy provenance and brings something new to the genre.”

I agree wholeheartedly, and was gratified to see that two sequels are already written, and due out in the US in September and December, respectively.

From Mr. Bookdwarf: Two by M. J. Carter – The Strangler Vine and The Infidel Stain

I like a lot of historical novels but for a lot of them I have a similar objection: The narrator or protagonist has anachronistically modern views. This, of course, makes it easier to identify with and easier to enjoy, but it’s sort of a cop-out. For example, the otherwise excellent Imogen Robertson runs into this problem with her protagonists, Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther. They manage it because she’s a widow used to running her own household and he’s an eccentric, and the minor characters react with appropriate alarm at their breaches of decorum. But the people we empathize with most are people who think a lot like we do today.

M. J. Carter avoids this trap in The Strangler Vine with her narrator, William Avery, a young officer with the British East India Company in 1837. Avery truly believes he’s doing good work bringing order and Christ to the “Hindoos” and “Mohammedans” in Calcutta. He’s the youngest son of provincial gentry, brought up to be dismissive of the poor and awed by the aristocracy, and he follows through on it. Shown the worst of colonialism, he cannot believe that the system is rotten, but blames a handful of bad actors. Independence isn’t even a dream or a rumor: it’s completely inconceivable.

At first, his arrogance and confidence in his innate British superiority makes it harder to like Avery, but it also makes his portrayal more lifelike. On page 1 of The Strangler Vine, he’s a naïve young man trapped in his assumptions, but he grows and learns with realistic slowness that many of his assumptions are false. As he does so he takes shape as a genuinely interesting person. His tutor in this endeavor is an outcast former Company man, Jeremiah Blake, who gets roped into work as a “Special Inquiry Agent” from time to time.

Because Blake speaks the local languages, understands and sympathizes with the grievances of the natives, and is keenly aware of the downside of the Empire, the Company men don’t trust him. But for the same reasons, they need him. He and Avery are sent off on a quest to find a missing poet of significant political importance, meanwhile getting involved in the courts of semi-independent Indian states and persistent bands of dacoits… or are they sinister cultists?

The tension between Avery’s blind belief in the glories of Empire as he’s been raised to understand them and the reality he sees with Blake will take a lifetime to resolve, or at least several excellent novels. Midway through The Infidel Stain – several years later, London, radical Chartists demanding suffrage for all men – Avery is somewhat wiser. But he still hesitates when Blake hands him some unwashed second-hand clothing before taking him into a lower-class pub. “I’ll look like a laborer!” he objects. Then he catches himself: that’s the point, of course, if you’re going to be chatting up someone from a militant labor movement. It’s a tiny moment, but a brilliant one.

The Strangler Vine wasn’t a blockbuster sales hit when it came out in hardcover, but it got good critical buzz: lots of favorable reviews, the longlist on the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, a Washington Post Notable Book and an Edgar Award finalist. It’s now available in paper, and I’m willing to bet that plenty of people who read it this month will be more than willing to pick up The Infidel Stain in hardcover when it arrives on March 29th.

From Mr. Bookdwarf: The Widow by Fiona Barton

The exonerated suspect in a notorious kidnapping case is suddenly dead. Journalists and police descend upon Joanie, his widow, to try to get her to share the real story behind what went on when 2-year-old Bella disappeared.

Fiona Barton’s The Widow is hard enough to put down that I missed my stop while reading it on the train. The unreliable narrators and creepy sex crimes are sure to earn it recommendations to anyone who liked The Girl on The Train, although it’s certainly not one of those “me too” novels snapped up to try and ride on its coattails.

The psychologically damaged Joanie is captivating as she slowly reveals her escape from her manipulative husband, but we particularly liked the the portrait of the tabloid journalist, who truly loves her subjects, even as she’s monetizing their tawdry stories. Barton’s experience in journalism is evident in her feel for human interactions and the slow build and missed directions of an investigation. I imagine a newspaper editor would fault her for burying the lede, but the fact that she saves the truly earth-shattering details for the end works to great effect in her novel.


The Second Act: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

One of the first books I read this year was Helen Simonson’s forthcoming The Summer Before the War. Simonson wrote the extremely popular novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand which went on to spend weeks on the bestseller lists and ended up on many of the best books of the year list. I recall from my days at the bookstore it selling week after week and people urging me to read it. I just never got to it. I finished and while thinking about the book, checked its page on Goodreads. Some readers really seem disappointed, though now there are a lot more 5 star reviews on there. I’m always curious how a second novel from a favorite author will be received and am looking forward to reading the reviews when it arrives in March.

Set in the town of Rye in Essex, England right before the outbreak of WWI, Simonson focuses on the social mores and ideas on gender and class. After losing her beloved father who raised her to be a well-read and intelligent young woman, Beatrice Nash arrives to tutor 3 young boys in Latin before starting as a Latin instructor at the local school in the Fall. Immediately we learn that her hiring was controversial and the idea to do so was led by headstrong Agatha Kent who’s married to John, a senior official in the military. The  childless couple dote on their nephews Hugh Grange, finishing up medical school, and Daniel Bookham, a handsome poet about to start a literary journal.

I was quickly taken up with the inner workings of the town as nepotism threatens Beatrice’s job and other travails. The many pages flew by and the story inevitably takes a darker turn when the war begins and after Germany invades Belgium. It truly speaks well of a writer who can craft such memorable characters, even ones you might not like right off the bat but yet whose lives you worry about and you just hope they survive the horrors of trench warfare.

At the end, I loved reading it and was sorry to get to the end. Will I run and read Major Pettigrew? It’s on my list but I’m still savoring these characters for now.

Even the Dead, by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)

As we all know, John Banville is a masterful writer. And as Benjamin Black, he assumes the mantle of another masterful writer.  His latest noirish mystery is Even the Dead, which brings us Dublin pathologist Dr. Quirke and his foolhardy investigations into corruption among the holy and powerful in postwar Ireland.

In a slight deviation from the standard noir format, Quirke’s hard drinking isn’t romanticized at all. It’s catching up with him. That, and the severe beating from a previous novel, have left him with cognitive problems described as “absence seizures.”

The tale begins with Quirke on medical leave after “taking the cure” in hospital. He’s back in Dublin and mostly abstaining… meaning abstaining from liquor. Beer and wine don’t count, apparently. But his former assistant has a quick question for him about a suspicious death, and we’re back to the game again. The victim’s father is a controversial political figure… is this a clue or a coincidence?

This is everything I’d hoped it would be: excellent writing, gripping thrills, plus enough thoughtful insights into culture and society that I don’t feel that it’s literary junk food.

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

Before you pick it up, Scott Hawkins’ debut novel, The Library at Mount Char, looks like your average f sci-fi fantasy genre novel. It’s a few hundred pages long and it includes mystical power, is what I’m saying.

And if that’s what you’re looking for, well, you’ll find it. But it’s so much more.

Carolyn is one of twelve adopted disciples of Father, an incredibly powerful sort of magician (but don’t be ridiculous, there’s no such thing as magic). Only Father has gone missing, and there’s some sort of mystical barrier (it’s not magic, be reasonable) keeping all the disciples out of his library, which is where they most want to look for clues about Father’s disappearance.

Father has many enemies. Including his disciples. Possibly.

Hawkins brings in hints of Borges with the near-infinite fractal possibilities of his universe, but the scope of the novel is profoundly human in its search for love and humanity. It’s also leavened with humor, including one chapter titled “Buddhism for Assholes.” That doesn’t stop it from being  a total mindfuck, but in a really soulful way.

The Library at Mount Char comes out in paperback this March.

Gold, Fame, Citrus

Everyone has already talked about Fates and Furies so I’ll skip writing about how it’s the most amazing portrait of misunderstandings and differing perceptions in a relationship I’ve ever seen.

Instead, let’s talk about Gold, Fame, Citrus,  by Claire Vaye Watkins. HOLY CRAP THIS NOVEL IS AMAZING.

They don’t seem to be much alike, at first, these novels. Groff runs long; Watkins is terse. Where Groff’s masterpiece takes place in an identifiable mid-1990s New York, Watkins goes with post-global-warming SoCal. And where Groff’s characters are subtly flawed, Watkins populates her post-evacuation hangers-on with PTSD-blasted refugees and deserters from futuristic wars, people whose psychic injuries are still seriously raw and visible.  There’s also a desert cult. And a secret prison. And a kidnapped baby.

They sound like totally different pieces of work, yet there’s a similarity here. In both novels, the protagonists struggle to reconcile ambition and caring, selflessness and sense of self. The settings couldn’t be more different, but I’m really glad I read them back to back.