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review 2017-11-29 16:17
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu / Joshua Hammer
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts - Joshua Hammer

To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

 

I was fascinated by this account of the libraries/archives of irreplaceable old manuscripts in Arabic and other languages of North Africa and the Middle East. The first chapters introduce us to the main players in the manuscript biz, as they try to find & trade for these delicate, rare documents and set up local archives to store them.

I think many people forget how sophisticated the Arab world was, back when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages. They were responsible for maintaining scientific knowledge, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy, while Europeans were being held back by a repressive Church. The Renaissance began when Europeans re-discovered the books that had been preserved by the Arabs.

I don’t know about you, but I remember being taught the history of civilization in grade school. I think it must have been about Grade 5 or 6 that we learned about Mesopotamia being the Cradle of Civilization and being part of the Fertile Crescent. And still, Western governments & researchers seem to be surprised to discover that non-European people had complex civilizations complete with books & universities. I was glad to see the people of North Africa hanging on to their patrimony and keeping these manuscript collections in their own countries, as they have the expertise to read and interpret them. Too often this kind of collection gets whisked off to some Western repository where it attracts limited interest and travel costs prevent African scholars from accessing them.

Reading about the history & variety of extremists in the area certainly gives one pause. So many of the names of the major players were familiar to anyone who follows the news, especially the kidnap victims. I was interested to fill in the details on why these events happened and what else was going on behind the scenes. I still don’t really comprehend the level of hostility of groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban to art, culture, and literature, but I understand that they have a potentially mistaken idea of what early Islam was like (just as many fundamentalist Christians seem to have a skewed view of what early Christians were like). It seems like most fundamentalists have the same view of the world, i.e. that it is just a temporary waiting room before the real deal, the hereafter. What a limiting way to look at the world!

As a library worker who has dabbled in archival and museum collection description, I have to say that I was sincerely jealous of the people who got to work with the marvelous collections described in this volume. I would give my eye teeth to be involved in the cataloguing & digitization of such a significant resource!

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review 2017-08-31 19:11
The Clockwork Scarab / Colleen Gleason
The Clockwork Scarab - Colleen Gleason

Something a little different for my real-life book club—a steampunk novel.  A perfect, light little book for reading during the heat of August, when who really wants to exert themselves too much?

 

It’s a young adult novel, but it’s charm is dependent on the reader having some familiarity with Sherlock Holmes and Bram Stoker.  The stars of this show are Mina Holmes (Sherlock’s niece) and Evalina Stoker (Bram’s much younger sister).  Each of them are talented in their own rights, Mina as a thinker and reasoner like her uncle, Evalina as a vampire hunter.  Brains and brawn, in other words.

 

When the two young women are forced to work together, their innate independence stands in their way to begin with.  But resistance is futile, and they find themselves relying on each other more & more.  Of course, there are love interests introduced for each one—a law man and a rapscallion, just to emphasize their tempermental differences!  Since neither woman expected to find a suitable romance, they are surprised & confused by this state of affairs.

 

While this book will never achieve the durability or popularity of the original Conan Doyle or Stoker creations, it is cute and fun, and I will probably read at least one more book in the series.

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review 2017-08-28 22:02
Ash and Quill / Rachel Caine
Ash and Quill - Rachel Caine

Hoarding all the knowledge of the world, the Great Library jealously guards its secrets. But now a group of rebels poses a dangerous threat to its tyranny…

Jess Brightwell and his band of exiles have fled London, only to find themselves imprisoned in Philadelphia, a city led by those who would rather burn books than submit. But Jess and his friends have a bargaining chip: the knowledge to build a machine that will break the Library’s rule.

Their time is running out. To survive, they’ll have to choose to live or die as one, to take the fight to their enemies—and to save the very soul of the Great Library…

 

 

Rachel Caine has certainly got my number with this series.  Book three is right up there with book one, making me long for the next book.  The Library of Alexandria is still dark, controlling, and overbearing.  Our cast of characters is still fleeing their clutches, but wishing that they could change the Library, take it back to what it was supposed to be—a beacon for humanity.

 

Jess Brightwell comes into his own in this installment.  Dario pushes him to think about what he wants to change and to be realistic about what will happen.  It seems to open a whole new Jess, one who can be as Machiavellian as his father, as devious as those in charge of the Library, as ruthless as the Iron Tower.

 

Trapped in a city of Book Burners, our fearless band of library scholars must somehow survive and outwit those who run this blockaded city of Philadelphia.  Never has there been less brotherly love in that city.

 

And that ending!!!  Ms. Caine, you have guaranteed that I will be impatiently awaiting Book 4.

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review 2017-02-15 19:59
The Burning Page / Genevieve Cogman
The Burning Page - Genevieve Cogman

Librarian spy Irene has professional standards to maintain. Standards that absolutely do not include making hasty, unplanned escapes through a burning besieged building. But when the gateway back to your headquarters dramatically malfunctions, one must improvise. And after fleeing a version of Revolutionary France astride a dragon (also known as her assistant, Kai), Irene soon discovers she's not the only one affected. Gates back to the Library are malfunctioning across a multitude of worlds, creating general havoc. She and Kai are tasked with a mission to St Petersburg's Winter Palace, to retrieve a book which will help restore order.

However, such plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy - particularly when the enemy is the traitor Alberich. A nightmare figure bent on the Library's destruction, Alberich gives Irene a tainted 'join me or die' job offer. Meanwhile, Irene's old friend Vale has been damaged by exposure to Chaotic forces and she has no idea how to save him. When another figure from her past appears, begging for help, Irene has to take a good hard look at her priorities. And of course try to save the Library from absolute annihilation. Saving herself would be a bonus.

 

I was so frustrated with the ending of The Masked City, I could hardly wait to get my hands on this, book three of the series. The Burning Page answered the hanging questions from TMC and plunges the reader into more Library adventures with Irene and Kai.

Thankfully, this volume ends on a better note for me—the story is wrapped up, although there is definitely room for more adventures (which I shall await impatiently). This installment has fewer Fae in it (a minus for me) but gets Irene back to the fundamentals of being a Librarian, i.e. the pursuit of rare books (definitely a plus).

I love the Library’s determined neutrality—they refuse to support either the forces of Chaos or those of Order, knowing that the optimum state is a balance in between those two poles. Like real libraries do, actually, trying to support the needs of their community, no matter which political party is currently forming government, while defending free speech, free flow of information, and freedom from censorship.

I do hope that Irene and Vale manage to overcome their issues to become a couple in the next book (although if he is a Sherlock-Holmes-kind-of-guy, this may be a doomed relationship). Four books is an awful long distance to draw out the suspense of this courtship. And Kai is hinting that he’s in the running too, so will Irene have to deal with some awkward workplace romance? And will she regain her standing within the Library hierarchy, or is she doomed to probation forever? Perhaps The Lost Plot will answer some of my questions.

I’m ever so glad that I discovered this series—it is highly entertaining and I will be sad when I’ve finished reading it. Thankfully, that point seems to be some distance in the future right now, with books 4 and 5 promised, but no dates for publication yet available.

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review 2016-09-26 19:09
On Her Majesty's Occult Service / Charles Stross
On Her Majesty's Occult Service - Charles Stross

James Bond meets H.P. Lovecraft, with a strong dose of Dilbert. Try being a geeky Bond-wannabe, saving the world from the tentacle monsters, while fending off the pointy-haired boss.

A lot of mileage is made with the requirement to fill in multitudinous forms in triplicate, having to account for every last paper-clip even when saving the world, and other tasks which any office drone (including myself) can identify. (As in Dilbert, when the boss proclaims that all passwords must contain letters, numbers, doodles, sign language, and squirrel noises).

This is a combined volume of the first 2 installments of the Laundry Files, The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue. I had to order it on interlibrary loan, which is why I chose the combined volume, just being my usual efficient self. However, I think the two volumes could have used a bit more breathing room between them. TJM was a definite improvement over TAA (the use of Nazis in the first book put me in danger of getting my eyes stuck back in my head due to frequent eye-rolling).

I was amused and will probably continue on with it at some point. In the meantime, I have developed a strong desire for some calamari.

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