I love the public library. Loved the place since I got my first library card in the first grade (and still have it). Spent my childhood begging to go there, and dreaming I had a car to take myself whenever I wanted. I can do so now three or four times a week if I choose, thank you very much. Nevertheless, life is always good when you have access to a public library. Which is why I wanted to read Call Numbers when asked by the author, Syntell Smith, to do so and share my thoughts afterward. And while the library-centric aspect was the titling piece in my decision, other interesting elements were too. For starters, Call Numbers is set in the '90s ('80s baby/'90s kid here). And it carries a cast of knotty characters traversing personal and professional troubles inside a New York (say "hey" to the big city piece and messy drama) public library. So it has the decade, character and setting that rang my bells. And, despite a few grievances, bells it rang.
As stated, Call Numbers is a library drama. It's populated with an ensemble cast, pushing character dynamics with both forward and subtle interplay. This leaves plenty of layers of plot and sub-plots to unpack. And it's especially satisfying when you count secret agendas, and the residue of intrigue left by some of the between dialogue. However, because there is so much to unpack with this cast; it's necessary to take a slim, concentrated approach. Therefore, aside from the ensemble cast carrying respective arcs, it's the character of Robin Walker who controls the central narrative. He's the character the ensemble narratives orbit. The keystone to this involved and heavy drama. The "call to adventure" figure.
Robin Walker is an eighteen-years-old who is passionate about libraries, politics and information (to say the least). And Call Numbers is his coming-of-age story, launching from his newfound position as a part-time library clerk. From the jump he has somewhat of an unassuming disposition in this environment. He’s almost like the variable no other employee at the branch saw coming. More so, he arrives complicated on papers as a Ms. Robin Walker as opposite to Mr. Robin Walker–to his advantage. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition that make up his character doesn’t end there. Robin can rap A Tribe Called Quest’s entire discography, and match Dewey Decimal Classification numbers with their associated subjects. In his head, by the way. So Robin is not one to be underestimated. Though that’s where much of his drama in this new position arrives. He finds himself tested time and time again, with those before and behind the circulation desk. It also goes without saying he butt heads with authority figures, who are usually spinning some self-interest agenda in the back offices of the library. Many of which Robin disagrees with.
Needless to say, Robin’s story makes for an interesting character set-up. But what made Robin glow was his challenging nature. And not just his challenging the library's systems/hereditary, but also the reader with his opinionated commentary. Whether he expressed his viewpoint on the issues behind social injustices, politics and race; it was a subtle challenging of thought toward the reader. But in context of the book itself, Robin afforded the opportunity to pounce and correct opposing view points. Which I sometimes found rewarding, and sometimes didn't. Given Robin's age and his eager nature, I found his delivery immature at times. His temperament sometimes were expressed as a volley of unhinged curses at his given “adversary”. I understood his passion, but it often made it hard for me to rely on him. Especially on occasions where he became physical.
Nonetheless, as stated, Robin is central to this 357-page-filled ensemble. And that’s where much of my grievances arrived. Call Numbers tugged at one of my reading pet peeves: too many characters, too many arcs, too many story threads, too many topics, and too much to keep up with. And I emphasis too. Call Numbers is without a doubt a demanding read because of this. It took patience. And I wouldn’t suggest another reader attempting to keep up and tackle all that it has to offer in one go.
From the get-go characters began spilling in. We're introduced to the library’s senior clerk, Sonyai, and her particular story arc. Head librarian Augustus Chavez and information assistant Heywood Learner propel scenes. The character of seventy-two-year-old Zelda works as Augustus’s assistant. Then the characters of Tommy (a brute of sorts) and Gerry come along. Mr. Coltraine and Miss Ethel Jenkins joins the drama. And don’t forget the general public slipping in and out of the library to cast his or her story threads. Needless to say, Call Numbers can be a daunting reading. Characters slide his or her name and role in from the start, then slip in and out various scenes on forward. Granted the book is about the inner workings and relationships of a New York City library during the early ’90s. Still, as a reader, I found the book less laborious when I compartmentalize which characters I wanted to invest in. Namely that of Robin Walker himself. Which in some respects, his interactions with other characters were solely to facility movement within a given scene. (Call Numbers does have a second book on the way that'll probably iron out some matters.)
For some engaging conversations about race, politics, romance, education, and a handful of personal dramas to keep any library spicy, this is a great book to go along with. It’s slow. It’s demanding. And it requires patience for both characters and pace. Yet, it carries a certain thoughtfulness and commentary that make it worth the reading experience.
Call Numbers is set in 1994 in New York City and revolves around eighteen-year-old library clerk Robin Walker, who finds his career and identity in crisis when he is moved to a bigger branch with more opportunity for career and possibly personal growth.
One doesn't expect that the social and political interactions of a library system will prove engrossing, but Syntell Smith does an excellent job of synthesizing the individual personalities and broader interactions of a community of interconnected workers. This leads to an engrossing story of a young adult on the cusp of adulthood who explores not just career opportunities, but romance and new possibilities.
Call Numbers is steeped in both the brisk, gruff atmosphere of New York City and the conundrums faced by a young man who is uncertain of his place in the world. Robin has a reputation for getting into trouble and fighting—qualities one doesn't anticipate in a library employee—and the juxtaposition of his interactions within the library system with his urban encounters is very nicely done.
As readers absorb Robin's world and growth process, they receive a fine multifaceted story that moves through mysteries and investigations, the possibilities of love and career, and a series of hardships and adversarial encounters.
It should be noted that the story's conclusion involves a cliffhanger that paves the way for Book 2. By that point, readers will be more than intrigued by Robin's tumultuous journey, and will have plenty of reasons for pursuing his ongoing challenges in the follow-up Call Numbers: Loss, Pain and Revelations.
This is actually 3 1/2 stars. I received a copy of Call Numbers in the March 2019 Member Giveaway. First of all, I am a huge fan of libraries so, when I saw the subject matter of this book, I was interested in reading it. I lived in New York for a couple of years (with part of that time spent living in Upper Manhattan where some of this story takes place). I have even been to the Fort Washington branch of the NYPL. So, it was nice to read about a familiar place. I think this book has potential but I found myself distracted by the sometimes awkward writing. For example, there was a strange way of referring to individual characters by ethnicity, nationality, or age (e.g. "The Irish", "the Japanese," "the elder," "the youth"). Also, I found it difficult to develop much interest in Robin, the main character. He was not portrayed as a very likable person and it was challenging to figure out what he was all about. Perhaps it just took a long time to get into the story, in order to get to know him and the rest of the characters. The book took a while to gain momentum, I suppose. I did enjoy reading from the perspective of an 18-year-old African- American man in mid-90s NYC, as I have not had much opportunity before. This book ends with a "to be continued" and, by the end, I WAS interested in knowing what happened next in these characters' lives.
If you ever thought that librarians were meek, mild-mannered individuals, then think again! Smith creates a world full of drama between the stacks in this New York library, where it seems that none of its employees can be trusted…
I found this book difficult to get into because of the vast number of characters. The read itself was quite dense and involved a lot of attention and I think this was because I struggled to connect with each individual’s story. With frequent dialogue and sudden shifts in storyline, it wasn’t until the last quarter of the novel did I find myself remembering all the different characters and understanding their plot involvement. I wonder, perhaps too many characters were given attention in this first novel of a series? Perhaps Smith would have created a better dynamic by reducing the number of characters he truly focused on, running their stories to a conclusion in the first novel, before bringing a different set of characters to the forefront of the plot in the next book of the series?
Despite my misgivings, I could not help but imagine the setting as my own childhood library. And it is with utmost fond memories that I was able to place the cast of this novel into my own library imagination. However, with these rosy memories comes stories of racism, family and loyalty as each member of the library staff appear to being tested by either other colleagues or external influences. It casts a shadow over a place typically associated with calm and tranquility, which shows how the writer creates a totally different world to one that you would expect within a library.
The central protagonist, Robin Walker, was equally endearing and irritating. His violence and bad temper made him seem immature and hot headed. I was frustrated by how often he was able to shout at others and resort to violence and, whilst this does reflect Walker’s passionate nature, made me wish that the writer had done more to reveal about Walker’s personality and background influences. It’s possible that I missed this from my reading but, nonetheless, I wish the writer had set an example that violence is not the resolution.
Within this story there are plenty of geographical demands – lots of references to New York streets which were hard to follow. Not being a resident or at all familiar with the city, I found this quite alienating and the details somewhat mundane. I am sure if you know New York well, this would make the story even more vivid but for me, this meant the plot was full of irrelevant details.
The reverence dedicated to librarians and the “code” was slightly unbelievable. It reminded me a bit of the “Pirates Code” from Pirates of the Caribbean and I wasn’t too sure whether this reverence was meant to be taken seriously. It seemed to suddenly get Robin Walker out of many sticky situations so it just felt quite ridiculous at times.
So, all in all, whilst I did enjoy reading a different perspective into the inner workings of the employees at a library, the intensity of the plot lessened my enjoyment. I certainly would read the next of the series out of curiosity to see how the writer develops the storylines further, especially now as I feel I finally understood all of the characters by the closing of the novel! It grabbed my attention and I predict that the next story would be more engaging, having fully established the characters in this book.
When I was asked to review Syntell Smith's novel Call Numbers, a workplace drama set in a branch of the New York Public Library, I was intrigued. What kind of drama could librarians and their staff possibly have? A LOT, as it turns out!
Robin Walker has just been transferred to the 58th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. What he doesn't know is that he's been placed in the open job that was supposed to go to a page, a pregnant teenager who desperately needs the money and benefits. This immediately sets Robin at odds with quite a few of the other employees, who set out to enact their revenge. Robin's fiery temperament ensures that he won't make things easy for them, and the drama will touch every part of the library and every member of the staff.
If you only ever pictured librarians and library staff as cardigan-wearing noise-hushers, this will definitely expand your perception. Call Numbers features multiple fistfights (that result in collarbone fractures and shattered kneecaps, cracked ribs, concussions, and head and spinal trauma, among other injuries), a scheming head librarian who's not afraid to game the system and elbow his way into monetary success for his branch, and the enemy of a library page being dangled off a roof. There's an employee committing insurance fraud, multiple verbal altercations between staff, backstabbing, scheming, strategizing, and at least three minor characters who are at or close to seven feet tall. You've never met library workers like this before!
Mr. Smith has created an elaborate world in the rowdy 58th Street Branch. There's little character description in the beginning, and at times I had some difficulty keeping the characters straight, especially since quite a bit of the novel is heavy on dialogue. It took until I was over halfway through the book before I could keep everyone straight, which was the point where I could relax while reading and appreciate the over-the-top behavior of Robin and his fellow coworkers. I welcomed the truce and eventual reluctant yet sincere friendship between Robin and Tommy in the weeks after their fight, and the crush Lakeshia, a young page, had on the several-years-older Robin was especially well-handled, both in terms of sensitivity to Lakeshia's youth and her blossoming emotion. Her constant peeking across the room at Robin, peering around the corners of shelves, and nervousness every time she came near him was true-to-life and treated respectfully, which made her character enjoyable to read and probably my favorite.
Tucked in between the massive power struggle of the employees at 58th Street are literary quotes and bits of history (the story takes place in 1994), both from the past and current day to the story, which added a little extra to my reading. I had to take a quick Internet break when one character, in an attempt to intimidate another, dropped a name I didn't recognize. While I knew about the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, I don't know that I've ever seen specific names named, so I appreciated the detour this took me on so I could learn more. Call Numbers ends in a cliffhanger, so expect more from Syntell Smith and his boisterous band of library staff in the future!
Call Numbers will be available on June 21, 2019. Huge thanks to Mr. Smith for allowing me to read and review his work!