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!