Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreI bought this book at my favorite beachside bookstore a couple years ago, after asking for recommendations that I clearly didn’t take seriously enough. It had been sitting on my bookshelf ever since, so when someone recommended it as a good book club pick, I was like, thank goodness, now I’ll actually have to read it! That is one of my favorite reasons to book club, and most of my fellow clubbers fell into another of my favorite reasons: what a great book I never would have picked up if you didn’t tell me to!

And it is a great book. I really had no expectations going in, but after just a few pages I found myself Instagramming a paragraph of amazing text, to wit: “The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest—not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.” I might have taken photos of other excellent sentences, but I was too busy devouring them whole.

So, the words are great, but what about the story? It is delightful. If you stop and think about it too long, you’re like, wait, what?, but while you’re reading it, with those beautiful sentences leading you along, everything is just fine. The story starts with a recession-hit millennial-type, Clay, taking a job at San Francisco’s strangest bookstore, one that’s open 24 hours a day but has few popular books and even fewer customers. Those customers mostly spend their time in the “real” bookstore — stacks upon stacks upon stacks of leather-bound books peculiarly cataloged in the store’s database and accessible only by rolling ladder. The owner is strange but friendly and pays Clay decently enough, so Clay mostly lets the weirdness go… until he and a few savvy friends start putting two and two together (kind of literally) and discover a whole other world (not really literally) beyond the bookstore.

That’s as much as I’ll say about plot because so much of this book is about reading the story and letting it sweep you away, but I will note that I delight in the fact that there’s a legit Quest that takes place in this book and that an eerily The Circle-like Google plays a role.

Also awesome about this book is that it has this partially timeless quality to it; the book came out in 2012 and references Kindles and Google and various other techie things, but you could tell me that the book was set in 2016 or 1995 or 1970 and except for those references to our actual reality I would believe you. It helps that it takes on that Quest attitude and also that it embraces that high-tech versus low-tech argument that has been waged since time immemorial, with only the definition of “high” tech changing.

Speaking of high tech, according to the back of my book the audio edition has extra stuff in it, which is a) not fair and b) suuuuuper interesting within the context of the book. A couple of my book club mates listened to the book but apparently there’s nothing denoting the extra material, so now I’m going to have to acquire the audio and listen to it with my paperback in hand to discover ALL THE SECRETS. Or something.

As a book club book, well, it’s not the greatest due to the aforementioned “don’t think about it too hard”-ness, but we did get a decent conversation about quest stories and immortality and technology and the Death of Print (TM) going and I’ll count that as a win.

Recommendation: For those who like a good quest story and who have a few hours to kill curled up under a warm blanket.

RIP Sunday Update 6

It’s looking more and more like fall in Northern Florida… I’ve switched out my tank tops for short sleeve shirts on my morning runs and rides, and I have been wearing sweaters to work, even though it’s a little too warm when I come home. I do not care! It is sweater season and you can’t stop me!

It was also my birthday this week (is mah birfday!) and I weathered the well-wishes and ate lots of delicious foods and left work early on Friday because happy birthday to me! I also bought, for myself, four months ago, a fantastically perfect RIP-style present, which I will talk about shortly. To the week in review!

RIP XI artwork

I came home from my hurrication with no focus and a huge backlog of comics, so I read a bunch of them outside in the awesome weather. Beyond Belief was as delightful as anticipated, and Goldie Vance, while not quite what I was expecting, was pretty darn okay!

Aside from the comics, I’ve been plodding through that Welcome to Night Vale volume I mentioned last week. I did not realize it would be such slow going when I checked it out, but I am loving revisiting these episodes and catching things I might have missed the first time around.

Another episode of Welcome to Night Vale, of course, which is fun to listen to while reading the old ones and seeing how the show has pretty much stayed its weird old self all this time. I also listened to part of the first episode of the Night Vale crew’s new podcast, The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air), since it was in the Night Vale feed, but it was sadly not my style. I’ll wait around until season 2 of Alice Isn’t Dead for my Night Vale-adjacent fix.

Finally! As promised at the beginning of RIP, I have played a game of Betrayal at House on the Hill, with the new expansion that I bought four months ago and picked up when it released on Friday! If you haven’t played it, check out the Tabletop episode of it. Super fun! My friends and I have a weird relationship with Betrayal — we love the exploring and collecting and stat-boosting bits, but once that haunt comes around it’s hit or miss. It doesn’t help that we keep finding out we’re playing it wrong… after several games where the traitor seemed wildly overpowered, we realized we had misread the rules and were giving the traitor too many turns. When we played with the new expansion this week, the traitor seemed not to understand the core concept of his mission which was partly because his rulebook should have told him better what to do but also because the explorers didn’t wait until he got back to do some stuff, so he didn’t notice it had been done, and of course didn’t ask what was up with that. He still got to be killed by a pirate, though, and ended up winning like crazy, so I don’t think we messed up his day any!

What spooky things are on deck for you this week?

Weekend Shorts: Post-Hurricane Comics

Hey, look, a theme! And this is really a double theme, as my pile of comics reflects the fact that we’re in RIP season with mystery and spookiness abound! I enjoyed these comics outside in the lovely post-hurricane weather that approximates fall in Florida, and I’m hoping that weather sticks around but not the hurricane stuff. I don’t think my heart can take another one this year!

Goldie Vance, #1-4, by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams
Goldie Vance #1I put this series in my pull list basically as soon as I heard about it, back when it was just a four-issue thing. I actually have #5 in my house, as this series, like all the other miniseries I’ve subscribed to, is now ongoing, but I figured let’s take this one arc at a time.

It’s not quite what I was expecting; it’s advertised as along the lines of Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars and other Girl Detectives, and it… is, but it isn’t. It lacks the depth of mystery found in those stories, proooobably because it’s a comic and it’s intended for tweens and how much space do you have in those 20-something pages, anyway, and I found myself rather baffled and a bit disappointed in the ending.

But, on the other hand, you have delightfully fun characters. There’s Goldie, who wants nothing more than to solve ALL THE MYSTERIES; her friend Cheryl, who wants to be an astronaut; Walter the beleaguered actual detective who wants nothing more than to be left alone and maybe meet a hot chick; and Goldie’s dad and mom, hotel manager and mermaid-costumed entertainer, respectively. Did I mention this book is set in 1962, in Florida? And that most of the main cast is not white, and that so far that’s not a plot point? And that Goldie Vance is apparently a race-car driver with a crush on the hot record store chick? The mystery might be the weirdest, but I’ll stick with this cast for a little while longer and see what they’re up to.

Beyond Belief, #2-3, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Phil Hester
Beyond Belief #3I thought these would be perfect RIP reads, until I got to the end of #3, realized there was a #4 to be had, scoured my shelf to find it, couldn’t find it, and then took to the internet to discover it CANCELLED. Who cancels what I presume was already the final issue??? Gah, comics publishers are the worst.

Right, so, anyway. Frank. Sadie. Reluctant monster hunters. In issue 2 they take on the incredibly creepy imaginary friend of the moderately creepy imaginary friend of a little girl who used to have under-the-bed monsters which Sadie is very sad not to get to meet. After besting this beast, Sadie’s friend Donna from issue 1 is kidnapped, leading to…

Issue 3! In which Frank and Sadie take on a literal tree with a literal cult following that seems to be doing evil but might actually be doing good but it is VERY HARD TO SAY BECAUSE THERE IS A CLIFFHANGER ENDING THAT I WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO FINISH THANKS IMAGE. I might be be overly upset about this, but, I mean, seriously. I really enjoyed these two issues, which have a perfect blend of weird creepy story and Frank and Sadie banter and truly amazing artwork that captures the over-the-top quality of this series.

What’s that? If I put my mad librarian skillz to use I can actually find issue 4 available for purchase online? Excuse me a second…

[$3 and several minutes later…]

Beyond Belief, #4, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Phil Hester
Aha! So. Yeah. The literal tree was being sort of a good guy, as he was trapping a big evil. Meanwhile, two detectives get in on this case and one of them becomes a ghost and the other one becomes Donna’s husband (I mean, later, not in this issue, there’s no time!), and all the good things I said about the previous issues still hold.

I do hope, whatever caused this shenanigan aside, that there can be more Thrilling Adventure Hour comics (Sparks Nevada too!) in the future, because they are sooooo good. I mean, I’m still getting sporadic radio shows in my feed long after the podcast “ended”, so anything can happen!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThis was a very last-minute pick for my library book club, with the conversation going something like this:

A: “What’s the next book?”
B: “I don’t know, you haven’t told me.”
A: “We have a list somewhere, but I don’t know where.”
C: “I read a book about a potato society once and it was really good.”
B: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? I have heard good things about it.”
A: “Okay, that’s our next book!”

This is how all the best decisions are made.

Well, actually, this was a pretty good decision. The book is lovely and perfect for book clubbing, following The Nightingale‘s note that World War II books are prime book club fodder.

Like The Nightingale, this book also covers a geographical area I’d never considered before in relation to World War II, the Channel Islands. Part of the Commonwealth but not of the UK proper, and located rather closer to France, these islands were occupied by German forces and their Todt slave laborers but their inhabitants were apparently, comparatively, left alone to weather out the fighting. I learned all sorts of new things reading this book!

I also rather enjoyed the story part of the story, which is told in the epistolary style I adore so much. Our main character, Juliet, finds herself in correspondence with a man on Guernsey who picked up a book she used to own in a used book store and wrote to her to learn more about the author. As… you do? I don’t know, I didn’t live in the late forties. Anyway, Juliet is a writer looking for a new book idea, and her new pen pal turns out to have a fantastic story. He and his neighbors put together a sort of book club on the island to hide some illicit activity, and that club helped a lot of the members through the war. Throughout the book Juliet writes to these people and they write back to share their stories, and we get these great little vignettes of the war from several different viewpoints. Well, “great”. Most of them are terrifically sad, especially the sort of through-line through everyone’s stories about a neighbor lost to a concentration camp. Nazis are awful, I think it is safe to say.

There’s also a love story, but I cared about that very little except that I am satisfied with how it ended. There’s also also some sly social commentary that may or may not be historically accurate but I will happily believe that it is.

I liked the book quite a bit, and my sister-in-law and my book clubbers all seemed to absolutely love it, so I think I can readily recommend it if you’re looking for a quick, sad but happy, history-teaching novel.

RIP Sunday Update 5

This has been a very weird and weirdly RIP-appropriate week for me. Hurricane Matthew came tearing, literally, up the coast of Florida and at first I was like, oh, great, this’ll be like Hermine and we’ll get a day off of work and I will read ALL THE BOOKS. And then it was decidedly not like Hermine and I got three days off of work and also I made my husband and kitties evacuate with me to the Florida Panhandle and we spent time minigolfing with friends instead of reading books. But now I’m home again, with a happily intact house and my regular weekend of reading ahead of me, so that’s definitely a win!

Aside from watching Matthew on the Weather Channel, let’s see what RIP goodness I’ve encountered this week:

RIP XI artwork

My review for The Trespasser is finally up, and it is such a good book, guys. You should go read it immediately.

I had meant to read the first Welcome to Night Vale compilation book, Mostly Void, Partially Stars as my hurricane read, but it turns out short podcast scripts that I’ve already listened to, while absolutely delightful, are not the engaging sort of read you need to ignore natural disasters. More on this when I’ve actually finished it, but so far it’s lovely.

Just the Weather Channel, here, but let me tell you, these guys know how to talk up a hurricane!

Another episode of Welcome to Night Vale graced my feed this week, and I was like, hey, is that Felicia Day guest starring? And it was. Excellent all around!

Less excellent was my attempt to listen to the radio adaptation of Neverwhere, which I got seven and a half minutes into and had to shut off because it’s kind of terrible. I couldn’t follow what was going on even when I stopped trying to fit it to the book, and it jumped around way too much to try to listen to while doing anything else, which is the only way that I listen to audiobooks. On the plus side, I got to use Audible’s Great Listen Guarantee and I was able to return it to obtain a credit for something better!

What creepy things are y’all up to this week?

Weekend Shorts: Serious and Less Serious Business

Normally I like to at least try to theme my Shorts posts, but this week the offerings probably could not be more different. We’ve got one super-serious and fascinating look at race in America, and one relatively lighthearted fantasy crime story. Let’s start with the serious.

The Fire This Time, by Jesmyn Ward
The Fire This TimeI was pleasantly surprised by how good Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones was a few years back, so when I saw her name on a Brand New Thing I wanted it. When I saw that it was a collection of essays from different authors about the Black/African-American experience in America, I was even more intrigued.

This book is divided into three parts. The first part, Legacy, covers the past: the history of a person, of a people, of a family, of noted and obscure figures. The longest of these essays, “Lonely in America”, talks about how even in history-obsessed New England there is a giant slavery-shaped gap in the common knowledge. It also talks a lot about libraries (not always nicely), so you know I liked it best.

The second part, Reckoning, covers the present, from pop culture to civil unrest and often both in one essay. My favorite of these essays is “Black and Blue”, a look at one man’s love of walking in Kingston, Jamaica; New Orleans; and New York City. As you might guess, his experiences in each place are equally dangerous but for different reasons. As a person who loves to walk and who has walked in some pretty shady situations, this piece really resonated with me.

The third part, Jubilee, covers, of course, the future. Daniel José Older writes a letter to his future children, and Edwidge Danticat one to her daughters, using the facts of the present to create hope for the future.

Not all of these essays are especially polished or organized or straightforward, but all of them are true, and I definitely recommend this collection to anyone looking to make sense of the world today.

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi
The DispatcherOkay, now that we’re done with the serious, let’s get to the brain candy. The Dispatcher came out on Audible on Tuesday, and it’s 100% free until the beginning of November, and it’s like two hours long so I don’t know why you haven’t already downloaded it. It’s an audio-first experiment, but if you like what I have to say about it and hate listening to things, there’ll be a print and ebook version out next year.

I downloaded it because free, of course, but also because Scalzi and because the description was intriguing. It’s a story set in a world where people who are intentionally killed come back to life, but those who die unintentionally don’t, so there are people called Dispatchers who are hired by insurance companies and the like to intentionally kill people who are dying in surgery or performing crazy stunts or whatever so they can come back to life and get a second try at whatever they were doing. In this story, Zachary Quinto plays our Dispatcher narrator, who gets recruited to play consultant for the… police? FBI? someone… when a Dispatcher acquaintance of his goes missing.

It’s along the lines of Lock In in that it’s a pretty basic crime story with a fantasy wrapper, but unlike Lock In, whose backstory came in a separate novella, it is a super quick story and the exposition ends up taking up the majority of the story’s time. And then the plot was basically put in the box from Redshirts to produce a nice, tidy, but kind of unsatisfying ending.

BUT it has the line “You have Resting Smug Face” in it, and is two hours of pure Scalzi goodness, so, I mean, it’s a win overall.

The premise is great, the writing is great, the story is fun, but the novella length is no good. I could easily have read a novel’s worth of this, and maybe I’ll get to if enough people find this story as perfectly acceptable as I did.

The Trespasser, by Tana French

The TrespasserGuys. Guys. Guys. My love for Tana French is, I believe, well-documented on this blog, so it should come as no surprise to you that I broke down and read the book a full month before it came out because I couldn’t wait any longer. What might be more surprising, if you give any thought to my Goodreads activity at all (which, if you do, you might need a new hobby…), is that I broke my completely arbitrary rule against posting thoughts to Goodreads before posting them here to post the following spoiler-tastic review: “!!!”

How do I feel a month later? I’m definitely still at least three exclamation marks in love with this book. It is super good, guys. Super good.

In our last outing with the Dublin Murder Squad, we hung out with Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran at a posh boarding school. In this installment, we get to hang out with the both of them again (yay!) at Dublin Castle as they investigate a weird-looking murder. It’s the kind of murder that should be an open-and-shut case, but Conway and Moran have a bad feeling about both the case and their colleague’s seeming insistence on closing the case as fast as humanly possible.

Meanwhile, we spend a not-altogether-comfortable amount of time in Conway’s head, which is full of the calculus of interpersonal interaction, worries about which of her colleagues is going to be nasty to her today, and a seemingly endless bag of fuck-it-all to throw at anything that bothers her. Conway’s got one of those chess-playing minds that sees everything three or four steps ahead, although in this twisted case it’s hard to tell if she’s seeing the right three steps ahead or not.

I want so badly to talk about the ending of this book, but it’s one of those endings that, while not necessarily spoilable, is best read on its own terms, so I will zip my lips except to say that I love the way that French plays with my expectations in all (welllll, most) of her books and this one is no different.

Instead, I will talk about how much I love French’s writing and how I’ve decided that if I ever make it to Dublin my first stop is going to be Dublin Castle because I have to know if it lives up to her descriptions of it. And also how I love how tightly plotted her mysteries are without being only tightly plotted mysteries. And also how I can’t fathom how it’s possible that I simultaneously still want to know what happened to Rob Ryan, don’t care because Conway is my new favorite, and am looking forward to ditching Conway for whatever character gets top billing next.

If you’ve not gotten into this series, they’re all pretty good standalone books, though I think you should read The Secret Place before or after this one for the full Conway-Moran package. And then you should read In the Woods. And The Likeness. And Broken Harbour. And probably Faithful Place; I really ought to give it another try someday. And then you can wait impatiently with me for book number seven. [insert impatient emoji here]

Recommendation: Reeeead it!