The Library at Mount Char

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

Crown Publishing (2015), Hardcover,  400 pages

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A while ago, I reviewed a book entitled The Rook, which I thought was an absolute wild roller-coaster of a fantasy read. Well, it hasn’t taken long for The Rook to be emphatically overtaken in the wild ride stakes. You have read nothing until you have clapped eyes on Carolyn, David, Michael and the other inhabitants of the Library at Mount Char. This a is a book which starts off with a woman walking down the street at night in a bloodstained dress, and ends with the sun being destroyed, not once, but twice, and a new God installed. It is impossible to categorise this book into any one genre, there are elements of fantasy, sci-fi, crime, social commentary, and many more. The plot so far as it can be described, revolves around a community of individuals taken from their parents as children by a powerful being who calls himself Father, and who may or not be God. He has given them access to an immense library of ancient knowledge and arcane secrets, with each being given a catalog of skills to master. Studying outside their designated catalog is strictly forbidden, and punished in the most horrendous way imaginable. The 12 children have grown into powerful adults, each with an amazing skill set. David is an unstoppable killing machine, Michael can control wild animals, Margaret can die repeatedly, wander the world of the dead finding information, and then be brought back to life by drug-addicted Jennifer. Carolyn, the main protagonist, has the seemingly innocuous talent of knowing a multitude of languages, but Father has earmarked her for something special. As the book opens, Father is missing, possibly dead, and his children begin competing to gain access to the library and become his all-powerful successor. From there the plot is beyond description, it needs to be read to be understood. And it is a wild, wild ride. But it is captivating, mesmerizing, unsettling, shocking, sad, revolting and joyous all at the same time. This is the type of fantasy I like, nothing twee, no Harry Potter nicey-niceness, it is raw, powerful and utterly engrossing. Fantasy for adults, I love it. More please.

9.5/10

Olmec Obituary

Olmec Obituary, by L.J.M. Owen

Echo Publishing (2015), Paperback, 247 pages

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Elegant and refreshingly different addition to the mystery genre, in that the mystery is archaeological rather than criminal, although it does involve a crime committed 3000 year ago. Dr Elizabeth Pimms is an Egyptologist forced by financial considerations to follow the family profession of librarianship rather than her heart’s desire of digging up ancient cultures. However, her new job at a library in Canberra leads her into an unexpected involvement in a tomb of Olmec skeletons unearthed in Mexico, as well as a possible case of academic fraud. This is in addition to dealing with stresses in her own family. To tell the truth, I could have done with less of Dr Pimm’s family problems, they felt forced and didn’t quite ring true, however, the main plot of the book, concerning the archaeological mystery, is exceptionally well-handled, riveting and intellectually interesting. This also goes for the library portions of the book. This is no surprise, as the author, like her protagonist, is also a librarian with a PhD in archaeology, so she is familiar with both these disciplines and it shows. As I am also a librarian with a PhD in ancient history, it also speaks to me. Its not often I get to feel such an affinity for not one but two disciplines which are featured in a book, and everything has a comforting veneer of familiarity to me. However, even if I did not feel such a close relationship with the material, I would still rate this book very highly. Its a cracking good read, and I look forward to the next episode in the series with great anticipation.

9/10

Capital

Capital, by John Lanchester

Faber & Faber (2015), Paperback, 592 pages

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Pepys Road is an average upper middle class street in London hovering on the brink of financial crisis in 2008. The inhabitants are a perfect cross-section of society – the banker in a mid-life crisis, his shopaholic wife  and their luscious Hungarian nanny, the Polish jobbing builder dreaming of the perfect woman and return to his homeland with money, the elderly widow dying of cancer and her careworn daughter, the Pakistani family running the corner store, who have unwittingly sheltered a jihadi, the Zimbabwean refugee working as a traffic warden, the young African on the brink of football stardom and his fish out of water father, and a host of other characters who swim in and out of the narrative as required. What links them together, and provides the central plot is that each is receiving unsigned postcards saying “We want what you have”. While the postcard campaign mounts in tempo, the residents deal with their own issues with varying degrees of success. And this, in the end, is what truly makes this book worth reading. the postcard plot is uninteresting the revelation of the culprits in the end is incredibly underwhelming, but along the way the reader will have been captivated by the different stories of the characters involved. For some, like Zbigniew the builder and his Hungarian sweetheart, the story ends happily, for others, like Roger the banker and Quentina the traffic warden, it doesn’t, but their stories bare captivating and will hold the reader’s attention to the end. This is a masterful piece of writing, the author has used a weak device to hold together a narrative where the protagonists really have little in common, and done a superb job of creating a very readable and absorbing novel. Well done.

8.5/10

Citizens of London

Citizens of London: The Americans who Stood with Britain in its Darkest Hour, by Lynne Olson

Scribe (2015), Paperback, 448 pages

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Absolutely fascinating and detailed book, ostensibly dealing with three very different Americans, broadcaster Edward. R. Murrow, ambassador Gilbert Winant and industrialist Averell Harriman, all of whom lived and worked in Britain during its darkest days inn 1940-41, and all of whom fought for US recognition and aid for Britain’s plight. However, the book also furnishes a warts and all account of the twisting, often uplifting but sometimes poisonous relationship between Britain and the US during the war. Olson pulls no punches, freely recounting fervent Anglophopia among leading Americans, including FDR himself, and British condescension towards Americans. It is clear that only the overwhelming importance of the common goal of defeating Hitler, plus the efforts of enlightened individuals  like Murrow, Harriman and Winant, kept the alliance alive and ultimately delivered victory. The book also deals fascinating detail of life in embattled Britain, grey, exhausted and hungry for most of the population, but captivating, alluring and vibrant for the fortunate few, for whom ample supplies of partying, booze and sex were freely available. None of the three titular Americans were immune to the romantic possibilities of wartime – Murrow and Harriman both had affairs with Churchill’s daughter in law Pamela, while Winant courted Churchill’s daughter Sarah. Spicy details like this like up the narrative, but there is plenty of interest always in every aspect of the wartime growth of the “special relationship”. This is a fabulous piece of historical writing, lively, confronting and absorbing. Very, very good.

9.5/10

 

The Midnight Watch

The Midnight Watch, by David Dyer

Atlantic Books, (2016), Paperback, 336 pages

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A fascinating novel about the Titanic, that nevertheless, never quite hits the mark. Although it delves into the story of the Californian, the ship that stood by within visual range of the Titanic while it was sinking and did nothing, certainly a rich field for a novelist to mine, the plot lacks substance in the final analysis. There is no real mystery, no final shock reveal, and in the end it becomes a rather morbid quest by the novel’s protagonist, journalist John Steadman, to elicit an admission of guilt from enigmatic captain Stanley Lord. The novel only really comes to life in the postscript, where Steadman gives the story of the Sage family, all eleven of whom perished in the sinking, a truly heart-wrenching tale, that belies Steadman’s rather coldly forensic pursuit of the truth about the Californian, bringing home the full horror of what happened to so many ordinary people on that cold April night in 1912. As I said, I found the book fascinating, taken in terms of pure interest in this endlessly fascinating story, it is magnificent, and evokes the attitudes of the times splendidly. However, as a novel, a work of fiction, it just doesn’t quite do it for me.

7.5/10