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.

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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.

The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible LibraryThis book caught my eye due to many things, but mostly that title, let’s be honest. An invisible library?? And then the descriptions promised librarians hunting down books across universes and I was SO SOLD.

When I started reading the book, though, I was torn. It starts off strong, with a Librarian hunting down a sneaky book in a magician’s boarding school and then returning to the Library to find yet more weirdness afoot. But then that weirdness leads to a posting in a quasi-steampunk-Victorian universe and I was like, well, at least that first part was good while it lasted.

I probably would have given up the book then, but I was off at a conference and not only was it the only print book I’d brought with me, but my hotel roommate was so excited that I was reading it that I figured I’d at least get far enough to give her a recommendation. And then I read the whole thing.

The Victorian-ness was still pretty meh, but once the book gets past building that setting it’s mostly all whiz-bang magic and sorcery and intrigue and subterfuge, so it’s A-OK in my book.

Aside from that setting, there’s also the setting of the Library itself, which exists between worlds and universes and collects books from all of them ostensibly to have a collection of ALL THE BOOKS and also to bring these universes closer together and to the Library and bring stability to the multiverse or whatever. This is much more interesting but very little explained, but I’m guessing that’ll change in future books (yay series!).

The actual story is about a Librarian named Irene who, after escaping that Hogwarts analogue, finds herself tasked with taking a relatively new recruit, Kai, into his first field assignment to recover a book of Grimm’s fairy tales. Said field assignment is in a place where magic and science coexist, but not peacefully, and Irene and Kai soon figure out that they are not the only weird powered creatures seeking the same book. Even worse, one of those people may be a mysterious, mythical turn-coat Librarian whose very name scares the pants off of most Librarians.

It’s a pretty standard story, but this is one of those books that recognizes that it’s got a pretty standard story, and in fact plays not only with the tropes of fantasy stories but with the conventions of literature in general, using them to help shape the story. It works fairly well, too, and even when it doesn’t quite work I’m always apt to find it entertaining.

All in all I ended up quite enjoying myself with this book, and I will probably seek out its sequel when that’s published here in the US later this year (darn you, UK originals!).

Recommendation: If you like magic and fairy tales and libraries and have a healthy appreciation of librarian stereotypes, you should probably seek this out.

End-of-the-Year Comics Roundup: Weird Things Edition

Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone! Let’s finish off the year that I bought all the comics with some thoughts about my favorite weird-pants series.

The Unwritten, Vol. 10: “War Stories”, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross
The Unwritten, Volume 10I have had all these Unwritten issues and trades sitting around my house forever, and it’s taking me so long to read them because the series has changed drastically since the beginning. I liked it a ton when it was a weird little series that referenced Harry Potter and other wonderful stories and made you think a little bit about “what if stories were real?” I still like it now, but the current focus, “stories are real and also dangerous and also kind of boring,” is not so great.

But the comics themselves are so lovely that I can live with it. The first issue in this collection is just Tom trying to get home from… Fableland or wherever he was (I am paying close attention, you can tell)… but he drops into several different story worlds, including Narnia and Wonderland, and the art changes to match the style of those stories and it’s super neat. The next couple issues have their writing in the style of old stories, which is something that was done more at the beginning of the series and I like seeing it again. And then the last issue of the volume brings back Mr. Bun, which, YAY, and also his story is very sad and is clearly not going to end well, which, stop making me feel bad for Mr. Bun, guys, he’s an asshole.

There’s just two volumes left in this series and part of me wants to read them to find out what happens and part of me wants to read them to get them over with and part of me wants to save them forever and ever so that there can’t be an end to this story. Which part will win? I suppose we’ll find out eventually…

FBP, Vol. 3: “Audeamus”, by Simon Oliver and Alberto Ponticelli
FBP, Volume 3This series has also changed quite a bit in just three volumes — it started with the weird pseudo-science physics-gone-bad stories and, especially in this volume, has moved into deep-dark-conspiracy territory. I’m a little worried it’s going to keep moving that way and become The Unwritten all over again, but for now I’ll hold out hope.

This volume starts off like it’s going to be light, leading with a story of Cicero’s time at the FBP that is generally full of college pranks and jocks vs. nerds until it’s suddenly about something very different. Then we come back to the present world to learn a bit more about Hardy’s dead dad and then the dangerous physics comes back with a quantum tornado that sort of maybe kills a whole bunch of people. But the pseudo-science is lovely and there’s a precocious little girl, so, that’s cool. Then it’s off to the Giant Underground Bunker of Conspiracy-Land, where we find out that the rules of morality are pretty much in the same place as the rules of physics in this alternate world, and I’m pretty sure I’m not okay with that.

The Woods, Vol. 2: “The Swarm”, by James Tynion IV and Michael Dialynas
The Woods, Volume 2If you missed my post about the first volume of this series, what we have here is a story about a high school transported to an alien planet, with danger lurking both outside and inside the school walls. Dun dun DUN. I am all in.

In this volume, we spend about half of each issue getting the Earth-bound backstory of a different character, roughly in the time leading up to the school’s big move. The other half shows the character on the alien planet, sometimes acting pretty much the same and sometimes showing a completely different version of themselves. Layers! We also get to see how these different and sometimes competing sides of the characters affect their interactions with each other, which is a thing I love.

Very cool things about these issues include the fact that the big love triangle is between three guys, and the fact that a different love triangle includes a side made out of friendship, because dude, losing your friend to a relationship is hard stuff and I like how this series acknowledges that. The best issue in this volume, which I will try not to spoil but probably will anyway, looks like the others but has a very interesting twist that changes how you look at the other issues and at the other characters and I am VERY INTRIGUED to see what happens next. Luckily, I’ve already got the next volume on hand!

Well, I guess that’s it for 2015! See you all next year!

Weekend Shorts: Unwritten Marvels

The Unwritten, Vol. 9: “The Unwritten Fables”, by Mike Carey, Bill Willingham, Peter Gross, and Mark Buckingham
The Unwritten, Vol. 9Oh, hey, The Unwritten! After finishing up all those single issues, I came back to the trades just in time for the crossover with Fables, which I tried once and almost never read comics again. That’s an exaggeration. But I was still hesitant.

Luckily, things in this volume are so incredibly crazy-pants that any problems I might have had were swallowed up in me staring, baffled, at the book in front of me. I don’t really remember what happened in that first volume of Fables, but at this point in the story things have gone all to shit, apparently, and some old lady (I think she’s the witch from “Hansel and Gretel”?) decides to summon some help in the war between the Fables (the people, that is) and this new bad guy overlord. Instead, she gets Tom Taylor, who was on his way somewhere else, but when you’re summoned to a weird storyland, you go, I guess.

And when he gets there, he’s all, “Y’all are just stories!” and “I’m not Tommy Taylor!” and I am like TOM TAYLOR YOU ARE AN IDIOT. I mean, maybe it’s just for the purposes of the crossover, but come on, dude, you know better.

Well, whatever, he gets thrown into the action soon enough, and there is plenty of action to go around, with plans and counter-plans and counter-counter-plans and plans going well just to be foiled, but are they really foiled?, and so on. It was definitely a page-turning volume and full of WTF-ery, but man, I hope the next volume dials back on the complexity. My brain just can’t even.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 3: “Crushed”, by G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Elmo Bondoc
Ms. Marvel, Vol. 3So, yeah. After the wonderfulness of the last volume, I ordered this one up from my local comic shop immediately. I walked over to pick it up last week and only my audiobook and the weirdly low-hanging branches along my route kept me from starting it on my walk home. Instead, I started it as soon as I got there!

Sooooooo basically I’m super in love with Kamala Khan, much as her friend Bruno is, and I would totally take her to the Valentine’s Day dance that is the subject of the special one-off issue at the beginning of this volume. But I’m glad I didn’t have the chance, because Loki shows up for reasons I don’t really understand (I’m guessing they are part of the larger Marvel Universe) and Ms. Marvel lays a serious smackdown on him. Yay Kamala!

Then, in the next three issues, Kamala gets a bit of a crush herself, on the son of some old family friends who is just as into World of Battlecraft and Bollywood movies as Kamala is. Further, it turns out that he’s Inhuman as well, which we all find out after Ms. Marvel takes down another Inhuman who thinks the status quo sucks and wants to go all Epic on Jersey City. Seems the Inhumans are having a bit of a family tiff, and Ms. Marvel is stuck in the middle of it.

THEN, omg, it’s JEMMA SIMMONS. I’m kind of pissed at her in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. right now, but I’m just pretending she’s season one Simmons here and rolling with it. In a much better crossover than that one up above, Simmons and Coulson show up at Kamala’s school to rescue some alien technology or whatever, and Ms. Marvel is like YES PLEASE ME TOO I’M ON IT. The agents are like, dude, no, stay out of it, but of course that’s just catnip to a teenage superhero and Ms. Marvel saves the day in hilarious fashion.

I know it’s what they want, but I may seriously have to check out the S.H.I.E.L.D. comic. Are they all as awesome as this one?

Weekend Shorts: The Unwritten

Holy crap I’ve made it through all of the single issues of The Unwritten that were clogging up my bookshelf! A victory dance is in order! Now onto the trades!

The Unwritten, #47-49: “Orpheus in the Underworld”, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross
The Unwritten #47It’s Mr. Bun! Mr. Bun is back! Mr. Bun is back and badder than ever, as it seems he has usurped the Lord of the Underworld (aka Hades). This… this may be a problem.

The Unwritten #48This three-issue arc brings us back to our old pal Tommy, who is wandering the Underworld without his memories but with a vague sense of having something he needs to do. He’s still travelling with our favorite small dead children, who smartly don’t trust Mr. Bun, and as he wanders Mr. Bun’s castle he starts to remember who he’s looking for and who he’s been trying to avoid. They’re all, of course, hanging out in the Underworld, so we also get to see Lizzie again as well as (spoilers?) Wilson Taylor (!!) and Pullman (!!!), and we also get to find out just how Mr. Bun ended up the sad sack that he is.

The Unwritten #49In the final issue of this arc, Pullman tries to sway Tom to his side, but instead Tom decides to take matters into his own hands, invoke the title story, and try to find out just what’s running the machinery of everyone’s lives, but it seems that before he can he gets nabbed by some characters from Fables just in time for the crossover event. I didn’t particularly like

Weekend Shorts: Wicked, Divine, and Unwritten

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1: “The Faust Act”, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
The Wicked and the Divine, Vol. 1I had heard vague good things about this book around the internets, but not enough to really get me interested. But then I was at the comic shop getting other things and I asked the guy at the counter what he thought about it and he was like, “It’s fantastic, you should buy it immediately.” He was not wrong.

The conceit of this story is that various gods incarnate themselves into the bodies of more or less ordinary twenty-somethings for two years every 90 years, because sure, why not? In their 2014 bodies, the gods are literal rock stars, performing and giving interviews and being totally open and honest about their godly status, but of course no one really believes them. Except maybe for Laura, a groupie who ends up in the right place at the right time to see Luci (slash Lucifer) snap her fingers and explode a couple of dudes’ heads. When Luci is arrested and the other gods more or less abandon her, Laura does everything she can to help out.

This is a fantastic book, starting with the super pretty artwork that I just need to have all over my walls, like, immediately. Look at these covers, people! So gorgeous. And then also it’s neat to see gods from all the different religions (some of whom could be from several religions all by themselves) hanging out doing their god thing, and then even better there’s an intrepid girl reporter on the case who is probably going to be majorly pissed when she finds out these gods are for reals. I’m super in love.

The Unwritten, Issues 45 and 46: “The Corpse Harvest Reiteration”
The Unwritten #45It has been an absurdly long time since I delved into the world of The Unwritten, and I was more than a little worried that I might have forgotten everything. Luckily I found myself at the start of a little two-issue run wherein 1) the action focused mostly not on the overarching plot and 2) our favorite vampire spent a page explaining the important stuff. Thanks, Richie!

The Unwritten #46So in this set of issues, Richie is feeling bad for himself and Didge is doing her police thing, and then the two of them join forces when a little kid loses first his babysitters and then his dad in freak deaths that have brain damage as the common link between them. Turns out the kid is writing stories that come true, and although he’s not explicitly writing anyone into these stories the people he’s basing them on end up in big trouble. It seems that the story world, once thought a bit dead, may be only mostly dead.

I am super excited to get back into this series, which is good because I have a pile of issues and trades lying around for it!

What fantastic short stuff are you reading this weekend?