Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial rites.jpgAs is often the way, I bought this after hearing about it online and let it sit on my precariously leaning tower of a TBR list. I read pretty widely, generally I’ll give everything a go, but I guess it’s not so often I am in the mood for a darkly atmospheric historical novel. Of course when the time came to read this, I devoured it in one or two sittings. I was lucky enough to go to the launch of Hannah Kent’s second book, The Good People, and before I read that one I wanted to write a few words about her astonishing debut. One thing I will say about that event is that during the ‘in conversation’ segment of the launch I was amazed and impressed by Kent’s eloquence, the flow of her speech, and the calm intelligence of her answers, unexpected in such a young writer.

In 1829, a man and woman were beheaded for a murder committed on a remote farm. There were no prisons in Iceland, so the woman was held at a farm where she’d lived as a child, with the farmer’s wife and daughters as her guards. Burial Rites is her story: Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland.

While she stays at the farm, she is regularly visited by Tóti, the assistant reverend, to take her confession. The family shy away from her, and only Tóti feels compelled to try to understand her as he hears her story and tries to save her soul. The Arctic summer passages into a dark, bleak winter, and the execution date looms closer and closer.

Hannah Kent’s writing is cut-glass, sparse, poetic and sometimes brutally matter-of-fact. No word is wasted. This prose, with the level of obsessive research that has gone into this piece, makes for utterly immersive storytelling. Agnes is compelling and unlikeable and human; with each passing page and each passing encounter with Tóti, with the farmer’s family, with the memories she shares, gives the reader space to connect with her.

It’s a slow-burning novel, and I don’t recommend reading it over several days, unless maybe they’re cold winter nights and you have a hot chocolate in your hand. For me, this was totally a lie-down, curl up in a blanket, and read for hours until it is done, kind of a book.

The Guardian called Burial Rites ‘the announcement of a writer to watch’, and they’re absolutely right.

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Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

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I put off buying this for a long time. Almost a year. I kept hearing about it. The blogosphere, social media, booktube – it kept popping up. I was convinced by the hype, and the blurb, but every time I read the first page in a bookshop, I put it down again. I couldn’t understand it. Two baddass magical women having adventures? Why couldn’t I get myself to read it?

All Safi and Iseult want is their freedom. But with war coming, treaties breaking and a magical contagion sweeping the land, the friends will have to fight emperors and mercenaries alike to survive.

COME ON. Doesn’t that sound great?

So when it came out in paperback I bit the bullet and bought it. It still took me a little while to read it… I was so anxious I would be disappointed.

I was not.

It was great.

Let me tell you more about it.

Synopsis

Safi and Iseult are witches who have a habit of finding trouble. Iseult is a Threadwitch: she can see the threads that connect people. Safi is something rare, however – a Truthwitch, who can discern truth from lies, and some will stop at nothing to get their hands on her. When they clash with a powerful Guildmaster and his ruthless Bloodwitch bodyguard, they must flee their home.

Adventures ensue.

Things I liked

To be honest I’m not sure what I’m going to put in the things I didn’t like section, but here we go with this one anyway.

Safi and Iseult: you might have seen in my review of Caraval that I wasn’t so convinced by the sisterly relationship at the centre of this – well, this relationship convinced me. It helps that it was mirrored in other sets of characters. Safi and Iseult are each other’s ‘Threadsisters’: connected by something more soul-felt than friendship. Individually, too I loved this pair. Besides the abundant cosplay potential, these are some of the most fun and well-developed characters in YA fantasy that I’ve read recently. Iseult is one of the Nomatsi and experiences a certain amount of racist abuse, but she remains kind and strong, merciful and fierce. Safi is sometimes rash, but warm and able to admit to her mistakes (able to make mistakes – hurrah for nuanced characters), stubborn and unforgiving, but loving, too. Throughout I kept switching between who I thought I preferred…and couldn’t choose.

The love stories: this is a small one because I don’t want to get into it much, but they are satisfying and while they have the YA trope of an inexplicable tug of the heart towards another character, they are also built on engagement between characters.

I also really enjoyed getting to grips with the magic system and the world here. The world-building is terrific and the magic system is inspired and plays on some traditional magic systems to make something that feels quite new.

Things I didn’t like

I realised one of the reasons I put off reading this for so long – it was the hardback cover design.

I know, I know, don’t judge yada yada… but it just didn’t convince me! It wasn’t bad or anything. I wasn’t drawn in by it. I actually liked it, which is the weird thing. But it felt…wrong somehow. This is what it looks like, anyway.

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Let me know if you figure out why I had an adverse reaction to it.

Should I read this?

Yes, of course you should. Was that not clear? Yes, please read it. I want more people I know to read it. And I just realised it has an endorsement from Robin Hobb on the cover, so you don’t have to just take my word for it.

“This book will delight you.”

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Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval-150x225‘Welcome to Caraval, where nothing is quite what it seems…’

Throughout last year, this was probably the debut I heard about most. It was all over social media, at YALC we were constantly being alerted to contests to win proof copies. This is a book that was published really, really well. I was not lucky enough to win an advance copy, but when I finally picked it up I did understand why so much weight had been thrown behind it.

Synopsis

Scarlett has lived on her tiny isle of Trisda all her life, protecting her sister Tella and trying to survive their ruthless, abusive father. From a young age she writes to Legend, the enigmatic man at the centre of the mystical Caraval, a travelling, week-long event, begging him to come to visit their isle. When she turns eighteen, and she writes to tell him she is getting married and if he was planning to finally come to Trisda then he shouldn’t bother, he finally writes back.

Legend sends her an invitation to join him at Caraval as his special guest, promising adventure, intrigue, danger, and self-discovery.

When Scarlett and Tella arrive, Tella vanishes, and Scarlett must solve the riddles of the Caraval and navigate its winding world to find her sister before the last day of Caraval.

Remember, it’s only a game…

Things I liked 

I suppose the thing that stands out most is Caraval itself. Garber embraces the carnivalesque and adds her own twists. There are fortune tellers and tricksters, strange and magical rules, a Carousel of Roses, a Glass Tavern, and the prevailing sense that nothing is as it seems. Scarlett and her unlikely guide cannot trust anyone, even each other. One scene I feel is representative of the weirdness and originality of the Caraval world involves Scarlett paying for an item with days of her life. This kind of thing happens quite often in fantasy writing, but it’s not so often they take the days there and then.

There is some excellent YA romance writing in this. It does all the right things – it’s a bit dangerous and there’s some mistrust, but there are acts of kindness and loyalty, too. Mostly it’s just quite sexy, which is always a winner.

The mystery of Legend himself. Ever present yet inaccessible and unseen, Legend watches over Caraval and controls all the players. There are stories about him, his life, how long he has lived and whether he has done some awful things. If he is truly a magician or a fraud, if he is a good man or a villain. Scarlett and Tella are both drawn to different sides of him. I love a character like that.

Can I say the cover design? The designs of the proofs and the finished books are GORGEOUS. In the UK edition of the hardback, there are four foiled designs concealed under the already stunning dust jacket.

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Things I didn’t like

I love the idea of the sisterly love at the centre of this, however I didn’t feel totally convinced by Scarlett and Tella’s relationship all the time. I liked both of their characters separately, I liked them a lot. But I don’t know, something just…didn’t feel right.

Along the same lines, their dad felt a little two-dimensional. There was an attempt toward the end to humanize him a bit, but ultimately I wasn’t convinced.

 

Should I read this?

I was going to give this 3 or 4 stars on Goodreads at first. I thought it was good, atmospheric, and enticing, though a bit flawed. Then I realized I spent over an hour in an increasingly tepid bath just to race to the end, so I bumped up the rating.

So if you’re looking for an addictive YA adventure with romance and mystery and a wonderful carnivalesque setting, then you could definitely do worse than to spend a few hours lost in these pages.

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Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

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I’ve been reading some reviews of this over the past few weeks and found very few I could fully agree with, so I thought I’d throw my own review into the mix. I bought this book for many reasons – partly because Jay Kristoff recommended it on his twitter, partly because the blurb had me utterly hooked, and partly because I found a proof in an Oxfam bookshop (ssh). Here’s a quick recap of the plot:

Three sisters. Three queens. One crown. Rumours abound around each of them.

Katherine is a poisoner, skilled at mixing deadly concoctions and able to withstand even the strongest of poisons.

Arsinoe, the naturalist, can bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest lion.

Mirabella, the strongest elemental in generations, able to conjure up flames and storms on a whim.

Each sister must fight the others for the crown. Only one will survive.

If only it were that simple. Katherine is indeed a skilled poisoner but, despite years of training, cannot stomach even mild poison, let alone anything stronger. Arsinoe is unable to help even a weed to grow. They, and the people around them, have been keeping their vulnerabilities a secret. But as the time for battle draws closer, who will survive?

So I absolutely love the concept for this book, and overall, I think it is really well executed. Immediately, I loved the idea that two of the three sisters have no natural talent for their destined gifts at all. However, it didn’t play out at all as I expected.

Many other reviewers have noted the slow burning narrative, some longing for more action and less of the dramatic build up. For me, the slow storytelling was great. It allowed me to get to know the world of this absurd island, Fennbirn, with its insane traditions that sets sibling on sibling. It also allowed me to get to know the secondary characters, who were absolutely my favourite part of this book.

Each sister is placed in a different area of the island, surrounded by those who can aid the development of their gifts – Arsinoe is sent to naturalists, Katherine to poisoners, and Mirabella to the temple. Each sector is desperate for their queen to win the contest, but they are not merely ambitious. Arsinoe’s friends/adopted family are the most openly loving to their queen, and they were some of my favourite characters. The poisoners with which Katherine is placed are much colder and much sneakier, keeping secrets from her and teaching her how to seduce the suitors who come to the island for a chance to become a queen’s consort, but in their own way, they obviously care for her (one thing I enjoyed about the poisoners – they treat poison like spices, any dish is duller without a touch of poison). The temple, however, are much crueller and more controlling of Mirabella, the only one of the three sisters with any actual power.

The dramas, romances, heartbreaks and rumours that built up within each camp and between them were all enticing and believable.

None of the queens was what I was expecting from the blurb – I’d be interested to know how other people reacted to them. Arsinoe and her cohort were probably my favourites, or at least the ones I identified with the most.

There were also a couple of things that didn’t 100% work for me which I will briefly detail here..:

  • occasionally a side character would say something about one of the queens, denote a specific quality as though it were obvious, which would then not necessarily play out in the action
  • the ending… I’m excited to see where this goes, definitely, but that was the only time I felt the pacing was a little off and there was something of a rush to the cliffhanger reveal
  • naturalist and elemental are a little bit too similar to be two different sets of powers…especially when poisoner is so far removed from either of them. In my opinion.

OVERALL I really enjoyed this. I’m very excited for the sequel and looking forward to re-entering this world when it comes out, although I am quietly worried that all of this excellent build up might lead to an unsatisfactory ending (don’t let me down, Blake!). Despite my reservations I gave this four stars on Goodreads (follow me here). It was so different from what I expected, much darker and richer in characters, history, world, and intrigue than I was anticipating. If you’re at all intrigued by this one, I say go ahead and try it.

Also, don’t you love that they made three different covers to represent the three queens? I always fall for stuff like that.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

eligible cover.jpgMy Masters is finished, guys. It’s done. I’ve been reading and reading for the last three weeks. It’s been such a relief to rediscover reading for fun. I went home for a couple of days shortly after handing in my dissertation, and after that went to Cornwall for a family weekend. Between getting home and going to Cornwall, I picked up my mum’s copy of Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Let me start by saying overall, this is a great, fun read for any lovers of Pride and Prejudice. Considering it was over 500 pages and I read it in a couple of days (partly because I didn’t want to lug the giant hardback on my holiday…), obviously I had an excellent time reading this. I am a lifelong fan of Jane Austen, my comfort watching mostly consists of Austen adaptations, my mum and I spend a good amount of time exchanging Austen-isms. So believe me when I say, if you like Pride and Prejudice the way I do, you’ll love this. But you might have some reservations too.

I’m also going to break with my usual review format, just to warn you

(no! I hear you cry)

Brief synopsis

Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice takes place in Cincinnati. Liz and Jane Bennet have been summoned home from their lives in New York while their father recovers from heart surgery. Old patterns of behaviour return between the parents and the five sisters, the three youngest of whom live at home.

Also fresh to Cincinnati are Chip Bingley, star of the reality TV show Eligible, a charming and sensitive doctor who only has eyes for Jane, and his friend, haughty neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy. And we all know what happens from there.

Things I didn’t like so much

I don’t usually start with negatives, but these are mostly just personal reservations I had while reading, rather than universal criticisms I imagine everyone will have.

My first reservation is just that if you don’t love Pride and Prejudice, or even know the story, this book might not work. There are a lot of P&P in-jokes. A lot. And so much of my enjoyment came from seeing how each aspect of the story, each character and each plot development, was cleverly updated. Without knowing where all these things came from, would it be as much fun? Hard to say. Of course, the likelihood of someone picking this up who wasn’t already a Pride and Prejudice fan is very slim, so maybe this isn’t a valid criticism, but it nagged at me a bit while reading.

My second reservation – and this may be controversial – is that I didn’t like Liz. She didn’t ring true to me as Lizzy. I was still on her side, still winced for her at the slight from Darcy at the BBQ, still wanted her to have a happy ending. However, when I read it, I didn’t find her amicable, which Lizzy inherently is. I found her to be short-tempered, and while Lizzy is quick-witted and usually has something clever to say, Liz in Eligible seemed to snap rather than wittily retort.

Finally, before I get to the things I liked (which do, never fear, outweigh my reservations), my final criticism is that I thought it would have worked better in first person. If memory serves, Liz was in every single scene, and the biased third-person narration probably added to my dislike of Liz’s character, since it had all the notes of an un-self-conscious, unreliable narrator, without the intimacy of the first-person narration. If the voice we were hearing had been Liz’s rather than the semi-omniscient narrator, I might have liked her more.

Things I liked

Despite what I’ve said above, this could be a huge section, and I don’t want to spoil the joys of discovering Sittenfeld’s moments of hilarity and cleverness, so here are a few quick notes on what I liked:

  • The use of the show Eligible to reflect the gossip of Hertfordshire in Pride and Prejudice toward Bingley’s arrival
  • The development of Liz and Darcy’s relationship was a stroke of genius and I think I barked with laughter when… *SPOILER*. But if you’ve read it…you know which bit I mean
  • The mystery of Mary’s secret Tuesday night outings
  • The Wickham adaptation. Part out it had to be explained to me (I feel silly) but I particularly liked Jasper Wick
  • Jane as a yogi – this rang so very true with me
  • The re-aging of the characters, the nifty scenario in which all the Bennet sisters end up back at their childhood home
  • Mrs Bennet: the Hoarder

Should I read this?

If you like Pride and Prejudice, then yes, of course you should read this. Despite its size it is not a long read, and you’ll definitely have a lot of fun reading it. Even if, like me, you have a few minor reservations.

Hamilton Book Tag

I’m deep, deep in dissertation writing hell. I can’t do anything that’s going to stretch my brain too much, like putting down coherent thoughts about a book. So when I saw this tag over on Thrice Read I thought it’d be fun. Like the girls there I’m obsessed (obsessed) with Hamilton, but I’m sure you can enjoy this post without knowing the show.

Alexander Hamilton: Favourite Flawed Hero

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I have a few contenders for this, so here are a couple of honourable mentions (you can tell already I’m going to be bad at this tag shenanigans):

Mia Corvere from Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight: the only reason Mia didn’t win this was because I am in fear of gushing too much about this book. Not so much in fear that I won’t mention it whenever I get the chance. I have many feelings about Mia, but you can read my full review here.

Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastard series: I love Locke. I think he’s a great flawed hero, too smart and too stupid for his own good, the bravest coward out there. But part of what makes him great is his friendship with Jean, and it’s their relationship that makes him do all the things that make me love him. (Full review here)

Delilah Bard from V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series: cross-dressing thief with dreams to be a pirate and go adventuring. Awesome.

So finally, the winner is:

Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles: The Name of the Wind is one of my all-time favourite books, and an enormous part of that is Kvothe. He is a legend of his own making, a musician, a genius and a wizard of sorts. He also screws up royally. He and Alexander Hamilton have a lot in common.

King George III: Favourite Villain

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Ozymandias from Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: sorry if this is a spoiler (you can read my review of this here). The smartest man in the world, who uses destruction to create peace.

John Laurens: Favourite Supporting Character

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Rhy from V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series: Prince Rhy seems like he should have been a hero in his own story, but his best friend/adopted brother Kell is the one with magical powers, off having adventures. The complexity of his relationship with Kell is great, but he is a well developed character on his own. Lots of fun and feelings to be had.

Hercules Mulligan: Character who snuck in and stole your heart

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Noah Czerny from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle (review to come): I know I’m not alone in this. Basically any of the Raven Boys fit this description, but Noah is perhaps the most tragic.

Marquis de Lafayette: Best Friend OTP

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Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen from The Gentlemen Bastard series: as mentioned above, these guys have the ultimate friendship. It gets them into a lot of trouble. A lot.

Elizabeth Schuyler: Doomed OTP

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Sonea and Akkarin from Trudia Canavan’s Black Magician’s Trilogy (review here): I still love Akkarin and Sonea. I miss them. I have to re-read these books. Their love story is secondary to the plot, which I like, and is built on both of them being trapped in a secret neither of them wanted, making them pariahs and alienating them from their friends, but which they know is necessary to save everyone. They’re heroes, they’re badass. I love them.

Angelica Schuyler: Baddest Bitch

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Lada from Kiersten White’s And I Darken (review here): Baddest. Bitch. Out there. Right now. Mia Corvere is a close second, for slightly different reasons.

George Washington: Favourite Parental Figure

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Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter books: NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!

Says it all, really.

Thomas Jefferson: Character with all the best lines

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Johannes Cabal from Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer (and all subsequent books) by Jonathan L. Howard: The first two and a half pages were enough to make me fall in love with Cabal. He’s witty and sarcastic and dry and so, so clever.

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And that’s it. My first ever tag! Hope you enjoyed. Back to normal reviews soon. Maybe before September. Maybe after the dissertation. Sob.

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Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

nevernightcover.jpgThis.

Book.

Though.

Stop what you’re reading – are you reading right now? Put it down. Go pre-order this book. Then go finish your book ASAP so you can be ready for the first installment of Jay Kristoff’s new fantasy trilogy. It’s gonna be a good one, guys. Oh boy. I can’t believe I have to wait for the next one.

Considering it is now a week before the release date for this book, and I spent all weekend ranting to my friends about how good it is to the extent that they all bought it for themselves at the HarperVoyager stand at YALC and could recite the release date themselves, unprompted, I felt it was finally time for a full review.

Synopsis

Mia Corvere is ten years old when she experiences death for the first time. When her father is executed as a traitor, Mia barely escapes his failed rebellion with her life. Swearing vengeance on those who destroyed her family, she fights to survive and makes her way to the Red Church, the school for assassins. In order to become a Blade, Mia must best her classmates in the arts of steel, poison, thievery, and the subtle arts (seduction, steeeamy). But there is a killer on the loose at the Red Church, and Mia must be extra vigilant if she wants to fight to the top of her classes, become a Blade, and ultimately, just stay alive.

Things I liked

We’ll start with the basics.

The setting: The Red Church is a twist on the classic magical school, the ruthless anti-Hogwarts for the post-Potter generation. The world itself is a collision between Ancient Rome and Merchant Prince Venice (as described by the author), an imagined world as if the Republic had never been overthrown. Religious fervor dominates the republic, and its leaders are determined to destroy the Red Church and its Blades once and for all. Coincidentally, it is these same leaders upon whom Mia has sworn vengeance for executing her father and destroying her family. She certainly does not lack ambition.

The freaking front cover: Am I allowed to include this? What a stunning work of art. Designed by the incredible Kerby Rosanes (whose Instagram you should follow, here). What I haven’t mentioned so far is that the world of this book is lit by three suns, meaning that true night rarely falls – unless you’re at the Red Church, of course. The three suns begin on the front page and wrap around the back. I hear they’ll be moving around as the next books in the series come out, like orbit and stuff (thank God there will be more books in this series).

Moving on to the characters.

Mia Corvere: what a protagonist. Never flinch, never fear, never forget. It is not just Mia’s determination and ruthlessness that make her an incredible character to ride along with. It is also her companion, Mr Kindly, the cat-who-is-not-a-cat, who makes her fearless but not to the point of stupidity, and the way she forms relationships with other characters. This is not the story of a friendless, brave hero, the outcast. Mia and her classmates all have their own tragedies, their own reasons for joining the Red Church. They all had to fight to get there and they all have to fight every day to stay. Mia lives her life in the shadows because the shadow answers her when she calls, but she is also funny, bright, clever, sometimes warm and, surprisingly often, kind. She also smokes cigarillos like a bleedin chimney.

The tutors at the Red Church: but I won’t talk too much about them. You should meet them for yourself.

The potential Blades, a.k.a Mia’s classmates: Tric, Hush, Ash. Their stories. Their tragedies. Their triumphs.

I could go on and on here, so I’ll just talk about one more thing.

The narrative voice: the worldbuilding takes its time, it lets you in little by little, as you need to know – but there was no sense of deus ex machina here, no convenient get-outs. The narration is nuanced, gentle when it needs to be gentle, rich when it is rich (steamy when it is steeeamy), and sharp in the midst of action. There are some extremely dark moments in this story but the humour when it comes (which it does, frequently), is excellently judged. The story and worldbuilding are aided by Pratchett-esque footnotes, which sometimes fill in histories you didn’t know you wanted with amusing anecdotes – usually ending up with someone getting themselves killed through a disaster of their own making – and sometimes simply revel in the occasional absurdity of what is happening to our protagonist. I thought these footnotes might be intrusive and break up the flow, but I was happily mistaken.

Things I didn’t like

Um.

Yeah. Um.

I’m sure it’s going to be a very long time until there is another book and I don’t know what I’ll do until then? That’s kind of a thing I don’t like?

Should I read this book?

Please, please, please do. I’m pretty sure this is the best fantasy book I’ve read since The Lies of Locke Lamora, which is no mean feat. Make this the next fantasy you read.

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http://www.bookdepository.com/?a_aid=SpidersLibrary