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.

Lexicon, by Max Barry

LexiconI first heard about this book on one of the many delightful episodes of the Book Riot podcast, and as soon as I heard the description I knew it was the book for me. People using words to control people and take over the world? SOLD.

It turns out that that’s not exactly what’s going on, but like many fantastic novels what exactly is going on is way too complicated to describe in one advert. Luckily I have all the space in the world! …Okay, okay, I’ll keep it (relatively) short.

So when the book opens, there’s this guy in the middle of having something horrible happen to him involving his eye. Thanks, book, that’s just exactly where I want to start things. Aughhhhh. This passes quickly, though, as the people doing the something horrible ascertain that this poor guy, Wil, is probably the guy they’re looking for and maybe they should get him out of this airport bathroom, and this airport in general, before some other people do some other unspecified horrible things to all of them. This does not work very well, and there is death and carnage everywhere, but Wil and his strange captor make it out to fight another day. Great first chapter!

The second chapter introduces us to a girl called Emily, making her money hustling people in three-card monte. A guy somehow gets Emily to screw up her hustle, leaving her miffed and her boss dude or whoever pissed, so when she sees this guy again she tries to get some answers out of him. He offers her the chance to make either a few thousand or lots of thousands of dollars if she just passes a little test, which involves answering some questions that seem mighty familiar from that first chapter.

As you might guess, she passes, and as you also might guess, these two characters’ stories trade off through the rest of the book and turn out to be, of course, part of one larger story. Wil’s story takes place in the present time of the story, with all the fighting and the running and the death and destruction, while Emily’s starts earlier and explains about the questions and the words and the general state of Emily that ends up leading to all the things that are happening to Wil.

The words conceit is fantastic — you find out that those strange questions are part of a personality test that helps especially persuasive people find the right words to convince you to do anything they want you to. You also find out that there is a single word that exists that allows the person who wields it to control absolutely anyone who hears or even just sees the word, utterly and completely, no questions asked. So that’s terrifying. Let’s not let that be real, guys.

And this single word is what all the shenanigans are about, and the end of the book gets all sorts of suspenseful about what is going to happen to this word and all the people anywhere near it and especially the people we’ve come to know and love (I love them, shut up) and then there is an ending that is at first glance puzzling and at second glance cheesy as all hell and at third glance still pretty cheesy but also kind of interesting and maybe a tiny bit profound and so I’ll allow it.

The best indication of how awesome I think this book is is that when I was reading through the first couple of chapters to remind myself of the events and what kinds of things I could safely spoil, I had to stop myself just reading the book a second time! This is definitely going on my “to buy in paperback and lend to all the people” list.

Recommendation: For readers who don’t mind being absolutely baffled by things and who like words and world takeover.

Rating: 10/10 (I wanted to subtract points for cheese, but couldn’t bring myself to. Suspicious?)

an RIP read

When We Were Strangers, by Pamela Schoenewaldt

When We Were StrangersIt’s a bad sign for a book when I have nothing to say about it at book club. It’s even worse when I have nothing to say about it after book club. Plenty of people at the table were all, “This book is excellent!” and, “Wasn’t this part excellent?” and I was just sitting there, eating my food, thinking, “How long ’til I can go read a better book?”

Well, okay, there’s a start. This wasn’t a bad book, not by any stretch of the imagination. The writing was good, the premise was solid, and the characters were interesting, if not sympathetic. I just… didn’t care about the book.

So there’s a girl called Irma, and she lives in BFE Italy, where her mother has always told her she must stay, or else die with strangers like all of the other people who’ve left for greener pastures. But then Irma’s mother dies, and her father gets all weird, and her aunt is sick, and everyone’s like, hey, it’s the late 1800s and therefore you should go to America, land of plenty, and send us back all the dollars. And so she goes, and she meets people along the way who are cool and not-so-cool, and she takes a crappy job and learns about how mean people can be, and other nice and horrible things happen to her, and then she American Dreams her way to a better life. Spoiler?

I’ve certainly read books like this before, books with no discernible plot other than “life happens” but that are still awesome because of the characters or the writing. But they have to have awesome characters and writing, and this book just had pretty decent characters and writing.

Others in my book club praised the historical fiction aspect of the book, which is something I’ve never really gotten into, and the sense of culture and culture shock that Irma experiences. I’m not sold. But I will praise the American Dream aspects, especially in our current non-dreamy recession time, because it’s always nice to see a person with no money and no job raise herself up with nothing but hard work and dedication. Maybe some of that will rub off on me!

So… yeah. Have any of you read this? What did you think? Can you explain what I’m missing?

Rating: 5/10