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.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesHey, look, another book club book! This one turned out much better than the last one, thank goodness!

I picked this one for my in-person book club off of a list of suggestions I got from my online book club friends, because man, I am so out of book ideas. (Do you have some? Let me know! Ahem.) I had heard enough of it to be like, “Oh, is that the one where the Earth’s spin slows down?” but not much else, but that sounded like a pretty good premise and something to talk about so I put it on the list.

Sometimes with these apocalyptic-ish books you get a story where it’s heavy on the plot and the Big Event is super important, and sometimes you get a story where a Big Event is happening but that really doesn’t matter at all except for setting. This book was, kind of surprisingly, right in the center of those two styles. We have a super important Big Event, but the focus is on the humans and how they’re reacting to the Event, both as humans do and possibly as is caused by the Event itself.

What happens, of course, is that the Earth’s spin starts to slow for no apparent reason. Scientists are like, WTF, but for most people it’s not a hugely big deal that there are now a few more minutes in the day. Except that the spin keeps slowing, and soon there are a few more hours in the day, and eventually a few more days in the day, and of course this insane day and night pattern takes its toll on the Earth and its plants and animals, especially those emotional humans.

What makes the book most interesting to me is that it’s told in the past tense, so we know that people are going to survive but we’re not quite sure how, and also that it’s told from the point of view of a young teenager, giving us the double uncertainty of adolescence and apocalypse.

It helps, too, that the sort of Big Conflict laid out in the story is so unexpected to me, this completely baffling conflict between the people who choose to live “on the clock”, following the standard 24-hour day regardless of what it looks like outside, versus those living off the clock and following the sun for their days and nights. You’d think it would be as simple as ignoring the people doing what you think is a crazy thing, but if you’ve lived in this world for any amount of time I think you can guess how ridiculous the tension between the groups gets.

Outside of that Big Conflict, the rest of the book is really a look at relationships and how they function under big stresses and little stresses and the everyday realities of life, which is a book I can totally get behind.

It’s not a perfect book, sadly, as the characters end up being a bit simplistic and certain actions and events are more cliché than I wanted them to be, but I think it does such a great job with its premise and elsewhere that it’s worth your time, especially if you have some people to hash out the details with.

Recommendation: For fans of quasi-apocalyptic books, weird science, and teen protagonists.

Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Before We Visit the GoddessThe very seventh post on this lovely blog was about a really super fantastic book that I liked a lot (though you wouldn’t guess it by the miniature posts I used to write) called The Palace of Illusions. I don’t remember how I found that book — I think I probably just saw it at the library and liked the cover — but it was really a perfect book at a perfect time.

So when I saw another book from the same author (who has written probably several other books in the interim), I was hoping lightning might strike twice. It didn’t, exactly, but I did get a lovely read out of the deal, so that’s all right.

Palace was a sweeping epic fairy tale story, but Goddess is a much more straightforward novel telling the stories primarily of a grandmother, mother, and daughter and various points in their lives and across two continents, from India to California to Texas.

The novel starts off like it’s going to have a frame story — the mother calls the grandmother begging her to convince the daughter not to drop out of college. The grandmother, after a few false starts, decides to tell the daughter the story of the grandmother’s youth, with an education in India delayed by illicit love and the vagaries of rich people. But this story ends quickly and sadly and the novel moves on to the stories of the mother, eloping to America with a sometimes wonderful husband, and the daughter, dealing with the fallout of leaving college as well as the weight of a couple of generations of guilt.

It’s not the most engrossing novel — I spent plenty of time away from the novel without feeling terribly bad about it — but it is, like Palace before it, beautifully written. It is full of emotions, but mostly sad ones, and it lays down depressing truths that earned my husband some very tight bear hugs while I was reading. I’m sure he didn’t mind.

I definitely didn’t love this book as much as I’d hoped I would, but I’m going to chalk that up to my completely incorrect expectations. I was prepared to listen to the grandmother’s story for the book’s two hundred pages, and was greatly disappointed in that, and I was definitely not expecting a book that would leave me in a bit of a depressive funk. (I’m gonna need a happy story and a box of kittens, stat!) But if you’re prepared for an intergenerational story of sadness, you won’t go wrong picking up this particular one. I’ll just be over here choosing my next Divakaruni book a bit more wisely.

Recommendation: For people who like stories about unhappy people of all ages and a little bit for people who like immigrant stories.

Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine

Woman with a Blue PencilI’ve got two words for you: mystery metafiction. If you like either of those words, you’ll probably like this book.

The conceit: this book is set up as if someone has found two manuscripts by an author and some letters sent by his editor and published them together as this new book. One manuscript, The Orchid and the Secret Agent, is a spy thriller published under a pen name, and the other, The Revised, is an unpublished manuscript with the author’s real name on it.

The book starts with the first chapter of The Revised, which is a fairly traditional mystery except that it’s set in 1941 riiiiight before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And has a Japanese protagonist. And a white villain. And a Japanese author, writing the book at the same time it’s set. So when the US jumps into World War II, well, the book has to change.

The author’s editor sends over a letter saying that the story’s got to change or go, and we can see that he decides on change, as the next bit we get is the first chapter of Orchid, with a completely different writing style, a Korean protagonist, and Japanese antagonists. But meanwhile the author is wondering what might have happened to the protagonist from his first draft, Sam Sumida, and we get the rest of Sam’s story woven throughout this book, and, we find, throughout the new novel as well.

It’s a little complicated to explain, but it reads just fine, with bits of each manuscript and the letters from the editor (the titular woman) trading off easily to form a story far more complex than its parts. You get the main mystery of Orchid, of course, but then you get a sort of science-fictional story in The Revised, as the author chooses to have Sam go into a theater before Pearl Harbor and come out of it afterward into a world where he no longer exists. And of course you get a story about how Americans treated the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, and how they treated anyone vaguely Asian, and how this played out in direct and casual prejudice. And then on top of that you get a sprinkling of the fight between writer and editor to create the best story versus the most sellable story.

This is a really cool book, guys. The stories themselves as written are a little rough, as a consequence of their conceits and of the fact that we don’t actually get a complete story out of either of them, but put together they form something really intriguing. I have a feeling this is not going to be the next blockbuster novel, but if you can get your hands on it it’s a fun, quirky, and short read that is more than worth the time you’ll put into it.

Recommendation: For people who like their books a little thinky and a little weird, but not too much of either.

Rating: 8/10

The Fold, by Peter Clines

The FoldHoly crap, guys. If you look in the dictionary next to “compulsively readable” you will see the cover of this book. Probably. If you have this special dictionary I had printed just now. Point is, my work breaks were stretched to their limits for two days and then I just couldn’t take it anymore and spent a few hours (including some meant for sleeping!) finishing the book up at home because WHAT THE HECK.

The first chapter is amazing. Let me spoil it for you: There’s a woman getting ready for her husband to come home, and then she thinks she hears him come home but she knows something’s wrong. The front door is open, but she doesn’t see her husband, but then she hears someone wandering around upstairs, stepping on squeaky floorboards her husband would know were there and loading the emergency intruder gun. She’s like, oh shit, but then her husband comes down the stairs and she is like, oh thank the sweet baby Jesus what the heck was all of that? And then her husband is like, who are you and what have you done with my wife?

Crazy, right? What happened to his wife? Or what happened to him? What happened, is the important part, but the book pulls way back and we go meet some high school teacher with an eidetic memory who is being recruited by a government friend to look into a weird situation. The situation, it turns out, is a group working on… not teleportation, exactly, but a way to move people from one place to another very very quickly. This crazy husband problem is sort of part of it, but the big problem is that the government guy thinks something very weird is happening and he can’t put his finger on it. So he’s bringing in the guy who literally can’t not notice everything. And said guy notices, quickly, that something very weird is happening.

I don’t want to brag, but I had the main problem figured out waaaaay before eidetic memory guy did, because I know how science fiction works. But there’s more to the story than just that problem, and things start going kind of insane toward the end with weird science and a surprise enemy. This book is pretty much all plot, and I am totally fine with that because the characters were kind of boring anyway, although there’s kind of a reason for that, and that is kind of interesting in and of itself. But seriously, there’s inter-dimensional travel and a Sherlock-Holmes-y protagonist, if you don’t want to read this book based on the beginning of this sentence I cannot help you. And if you do read it, help me figure out what’s up with that jelly doughnut.

Recommendation: A perfect read for the beach or vacation or whenever you just want to spend a few straight hours reading. For fans of pseudo-science; being a science fan not necessarily required.

Rating: 8/10

Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson

Welcome to BraggsvilleSo. This book. It, um, it exists? And is weird. Super weird. The end. Recommendation: Weird.

Seriously, though. I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I got into this book. The jacket copy promised me four Berkeley (sorry, Cal) students staging a “performative intervention” at a Civil War reenactment in BFE Georgia, and it delivered. It promised me satire and skewering and weird, and ohhhh it delivered. But it did not tell me what I was getting into.

So, okay, here are the parts I can tell you without spoilers. The protagonist is a white kid called D’aron from BFE Georgia who gets into UC Berkeley and proceeds to become exactly the kind of pedantic, overzealous, idealistic nerd you’d expect a sheltered eighteen-year-old away from home for the first time to become. Read: sooooooo pedantic. Daron (who drops the apostrophe at college) quickly makes friends with a white chick from Iowa, a black dude from Chicago, and a politically incorrect Asian dude from San Francisco, and as one thing leads to another they end up planning the aforementioned intervention, which involved dressing up as slaveowners and a hanged slave and seeing what reactions they get out of the local Georgia folk.

That in itself would be a fascinating book. Over-educated kids do something pretty stupid, maybe teach rural folks a lesson but probably learn more of a lesson themselves about compassion for their fellow man or whatever.

But then, things go juuuuust a little bit wrong at the reenactment/intervention and suddenly Daron is forced to reevaluate pretty much everything that has ever happened to him, and things get super duper weird from there on out.

The book ends up being a really strange and interesting look into race relations and inbred prejudice and the way people value and validate the things they believe in and how what one group thinks is totally normal is absolutely unfathomable to another group, whether we’re talking Civil War reenactments or Instagram hashtags. And the author doesn’t focus on just black vs. white or urban vs. rural or college-educated vs. trade-educated or West Coast vs. The South or managers vs. wage-earners, but makes a case for every side in every war of stereotypes he could apparently fit into this book. It is an impressive feat.

But be warned — the narrative is just as overzealous and pedantic as D’aron himself, which makes a lot of sense and also makes it at times incredibly difficult to read. Think Ted Mosby in full “Uh, I believe it’s pronounced, ‘cham-uh-lee-un'” mode and then add ten. Or, for you literary types, it’s a lot like Colson Whitehead‘s quasi-stream-of-consciousness-with-lots-of-big-words style or really a lot like that one Jonathan Franzen essay I read where he rags on people who don’t want to read works that are hard. I mean, there’s literally a chapter written as a research paper. If you can get through the writing, there’s a great book inside it, but if you don’t want to deal with that kind of thing just go ahead and skip this one. Franzen will judge you; I won’t.

Recommendation: For super-nerds who cringe when they remember their college pedantry and people who need a not-so-subtle reminder that not everyone thinks like an academic.

Rating: 8/10

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

The CircleWhen The Circle ended up as a book club pick earlier this year, I was like, ennnnhhhhh. As much as I liked Zeitoun when I read it, my book club learned more than a few things about the story and the people involved that have changed my stance on the book since. It didn’t help that I had heard all sorts of things about The Circle that left me with absolutely no interest in reading the book, but I am a good book-clubber and I dutifully put the book in my office and read the whole thing in five days of breaks.

I was about as meh as predicted on enjoying the book, which I only kept reading because a) book club and b) I didn’t have anything else to read on break. But let me tell you this: if you need a good book for your next book club meeting, this is it. This book lends itself to some great discussion, fueled by paranoia and whatever paranoia is called when someone’s really out to get you. My book club is still remarking on things in real life that are very Circle-like in nature…

Right, so, the story. The story follows bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Mae, a new Circle employee whose friend is a higher-up and pulled a few strings to get Mae this customer service gig that is way better than any other job Mae could get on her own. Lots of money, lots of prestige, lots of opportunity for advancement, lots of fun stuff going on on the Circle campus 24/7. Pretty sweet deal.

Or is it? After just days, Mae finds herself staring down something like nine screens on her desk — one for her actual customer service queue, one that lets her chat with her boss and get help, on that lets her chat with the underlings and give help, one for her Circle account that she’s expected to update constantly and also spend time on to smile or frown or comment on friends’ statuses, one for… I don’t even know. Lots of screens, lots of expected screen time. Mae is also getting in trouble for not checking her email constantly enough and missing meetings that she’s been automatically RSVPed for and not going to allegedly optional events on campus and not recording all of her reactions to everything that happens in her life.

It’s got all the makings of a really fascinating story. The Circle is billed as the next step after Facebook and Gmail and Amazon and all the big internet players get swallowed up by this giant corporation that gives you a single sign-in to everything and connects everything you say online to your real name, which is something that could totally happen and is probably on the way to happening right now. Spooooky. And Eggers introduces all of these technologies that sound completely reasonable and useful, like tiny cameras that you can put at your favorite beach so you can see if the waves are good for surfing or that you can put in your favorite public protesting place to capture police brutality, until they start being used for more Big Brother-ish activities. Suddenly Facebook’s Nearby Friends feature is even creepier.

But I just couldn’t get into the story as written. I sometimes found it tough to even pick up the book and continue reading, because I knew what I was going to get — a new technology that’s cool until it’s evil, Mae getting a lecture about enjoying the outdoors without taking video for poor quadriplegics who can’t go outside and need her video to make their lives better, Mae’s ex-boyfriend being completely anti-Circle and Mae just not getting it. The ending of the book is pretty fantastic in its horribleness and correctness, but it’s really not worth the 500 pages of dull that it takes to get there.

Recommendation: Read it for your book club, but really for no other reason.

Rating: 5/10