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 Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

The Neverending StoryOh, The Neverending Story. I watched the movie version probably several times as a short person (read: child), but it’s one of those movies that I’m incapable of remembering, so mostly what I knew going into this book was that there was a kid and a dragon thing and Atreyu and something about the kid going into the book?

At first it was kind of cool, knowing just a tiny bit about the book. I was having fun listening to basically a brand-new story, but I also had an idea of where things would go and I could look forward to dragons! I like dragons.

I also like the way Ende writes this story. I am a sucker for a frame story, which is what we’ve got here: our hero, Bastian Balthazar Bux (pronounced like “books” by the audio narrator), steals a book from a similarly alliterative bookshop owner and hides in his school’s attic to read it. Go with it. He starts reading the book, and we are treated to a story about a Childlike Empress and kid hero called Atreyu who goes off on a dangerous quest to save said Empress and also the whole of Fantastica. Frame story? Quest? You know I’m in.

Then the story gets even more interesting, with characters in Bastian’s book seeming to react to things that Bastian says, or seeming to see him via magics, and soon Bastian finds himself written right into the book he’s reading, and then finds himself writing the book, which is absolutely insane and I like it a lot.

Except… once my vague recollection of the movie had been fulfilled by the book, I was basically done, but it turns out that there’s a whole second half to the novel that got made into another movie that I didn’t see. So for those six or seven hours of audio, I was like, seriously, this book isn’t done yet? Is this book done yet? This really is a neverending story, isn’t it?

That’s entirely on me, though, and it’s not to say that the second half of the book isn’t interesting, but it basically repeats Atreyu’s quest plot of the first half with Bastian in the lead role and with more melodrama and self-absorption. From a literary standpoint, this seems really cool. From a listening-at-work standpoint, this seems really boring.

I may try this again at some future date after I have completely forgotten the story again, but in print form this time, because I feel like I missed out on a lot of cool things in the story. The audio was rough for me not just because I got bored halfway through, but because the narration and sound mixing is such that some characters are super loud and some are practically silent, and for the parts I listened to while on a road trip it was basically impossible to hear both sets without causing some sort of accident. If you’ve eyes-read this, what do you think? Is it worth another shot?

Recommendation: For lovers of quests and fairy tales.

Rating: 6/10

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneAfter finishing up Let’s Pretend This Never Happened on our insanely long road trip, we clearly needed something a bit longer itself to fill the rest of our driving time. I had actually had this book loaded into my iTunes for about a year, having planned to listen to it on some other road trip that I guess never happened, but when Carl claimed in early December to be the last person to have read it, I was like, shoot, I’d better get on that.

And… it was pretty good? Scott and I decided early on in the audio, read surprisingly delightfully by Wil Wheaton (I will definitely listen to books read by him again!), that neither of us would have gotten past the first few pages of this on our own. Listening to it together, on the other hand, made for some delightful snarking at Cline’s love of lists and also some bonus understanding when only one of us was laughing at some pop culture reference.

Those references are probably why I wasn’t over the moon about the book, actually. Scott and I were both born in the mid-80s, right around the time period that this book is kind of frozen in (let me get to that in a second). So although I had at least some knowledge of most of the pop culture of the decade, and lots of knowledge of others (WarGames, I love you!), I didn’t have the deeper understanding of someone who is actually old enough to remember the mid-80s.

As to the story proper… okay. It takes place in a future world where Second Life never existed because it was invented as something called OASIS first. OASIS is way better, with fancy virtual reality technology that lets you actually move yourself around the virtual world with, like, your feet and stuff, and also OASIS has incredible market share to the point where its world and currency are thriving while the “real” world falls apart and has things like neighborhoods made entirely of vertical stacks of mobile homes. Classy, that.

Our protagonist, Wade in real life and Parzival in the OASIS, is part of a giant and complicated 1980s-themed scavenger hunt, basically, started by the guy who created the OASIS on the occasion of his death and the prize of which is like a billionty-twelve dollars and ownership of the guy’s company. Wade, who lives in one of those aforementioned stacks, is very interested in the money and is also super interested in the guy and the company and is therefore the first person to find the very first part of the scavenger hunt.

The story basically goes along from there as your classic quest story, with adventures and setbacks and evil enemies and all that, and that part is really fantastic. Especially toward the end of the book, once all the background has been exposited and all that’s left is to finish the scavenger hunt, the story is really engaging and I was like, OMG what is going to happen next? But it’s the whole first half or so of the novel, and some bits and pieces afterward, where Cline is setting up the universe and letting all of us non-80s folk know about the pop culture we’re about to find ourselves immersed in and also where he just apparently could not figure out how to show rather than tell, that the story feels kind of loooooong and booooring. And, really, I like a good list or run-on sentence as much as the next person, but it turns out that if you read them aloud in your narrator voice they are… not nearly as fun as you might hope. Blast.

So for as much as I enjoyed listening to Wil Wheaton read me this story, I might actually recommend eyes-reading this one so that when Cline gets bogged down in 80s minutiae you can just skip right ahead to the next exciting bit, or doing like I did and listening with a friend so that you can talk over the narration about what the heck is even going on in this crazy universe.

But do read it, because the parts that are good are pretty fantastic.

Recommendation: Best read by actual or self-taught nerd children of the 80s, also people who like quests and/or Wil Wheaton.

Rating: 8/10

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

The Magician KingBack in the day (like, two years ago) I read this book called The Magicians, which is often shorthanded as “grown-up Harry Potter” and is more or less that. I thought it was okay at the time and I remember barely anything about it even now, so I didn’t have high hopes for its sequel. But then people started saying that the sequel was all of the good parts of the first book and few of the bad and I was like, “Well, if those people and I are in agreement about the good parts…”

And, it seems, we were! If I recall correctly a lot of my beef with the first book was that it was a bit disjointed in terms of story — there were some good story lines but there were too many of them and they happened around too many boring story lines and I felt like the book could have ended several times before it did. In this case, there are still a bunch of story lines but they are all more or less interesting and instead of happening one at a time they are all sort of intertwined and lead to some really intriguing plot developments. So I approve.

The gist of this installment is that our group of friends from the first book (plus or minus some members; I don’t remember who was around last time) is now presiding over Fillory (aka Narnia) and a certain friend, Quentin, is totally bored like any self-respecting young adult. He’s on the hunt for a quest and after a false start or two finds himself on a nice hearty Quest that may or may not lead to the salvation of Fillory and magic as we know it. No big deal.

Interspersed with this narrative is that of Julia, who was absent for most of (nearly all? Again, terrible at remembering) the first book and now we get to find out what the heck she was up to all that time. And it is DANG interesting. I almost wanted this book to be called Julia the BAMF except that I think it worked perfectly as it was and so I will be content with what I got.

I remember being decidedly unimpressed with the ending of The Magicians, though I don’t remember why, but I was very impressed with the ending of The Magician King. I was sure one thing was going to happen and it totally didn’t; I was sure another thing wasn’t going to happen and it totally did; both of these unexpected things managed to make sense to me. Fantastic.

The one major problem I had with this book is the writing itself, and since I listened to it I can’t provide you with any specific examples but I will tell you that Grossman seems to really enjoy redundancy, to the point where I found myself saying “YES I GET IT THANK YOU” out loud at work. Quietly, to be sure, but still out loud.

I will definitely be on the lookout for the (I believe) last book in this series whenever that comes out, with fingers crossed that Grossman gets a stricter editor.

Recommendation: For those who think magic in books is often too easy, lovers of Narnia and similar books, and readers who like a good Quest or two.

Rating: 8/10