Tag Archives: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2018

Cover imageJust one batch of paperbacks to look out for in September, five of which I’ve already reviewed beginning with Jon McGregor’s The Reservoir Tapes. Readers who’ve been following this blog over the past year will know that I’m passionate about Reservoir 13, not to mention mystified as to why it’s not won all the prizes. The Reservoir Tapes is a prequel to McGregor’s novel and, unusually, started life as a podcast. Comprising fourteen stories, the collection explores the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Becky Shaw. McGregor’s acutely observed characters all have their own stories – often interconnected – offering a nuanced portrait of a small community with its secrets and history, and the writing is all that fans like me would want it to be.

Given my admiration for Jane Harris’ previous novels – The Observations features in my Blasts from the Past series – hopes were high for Sugar Money. Based loosely on true events, it tells the story of an attempt to bring a group of slaves back from Grenada to Martinique, restoring them from British to French hands. Harris has a particular skill in telling her stories through the voice of engaging narrators and the bumptious, sardonic, young smart alec, Lucien, is no exception. A rattling good yarn which manages to entertain while never losing sight of its subject’s horrors.

Robin Sloan’s Sourdough offers a bit of light relief after that. A techie wage slave at General Dexterity, Lois lives off stress and Slurry, the nutrient gel championed by her boss. A flyer leads her to two brothers delivering delicious bread who look to Lois to save their sourdough starter when they’re forced to leave the country, sparking an obsession in her. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment which, like Sloan’s previous novel Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, has something to say about the way we live – and eat – now.

David Bergen’s Stranger takes a more serious turn, exploring themes of entitlement and deprivation through a young Guatemalan woman left pregnant by her American lover who returns to the States after a devastating accident. When her daughter is abducted shortly after she’s born,  İso sets out to find her. Written in clear, direct language, heightening the tension and constant danger of İso’s journey, Stranger is an easy, absorbing read – I finished it in an afternoon – but it has some serious points to make and makes them well.

I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to include this one but the paperback edition of Alicia Drake’s Cover imagedebut, I Love You Too Much, sports such an atmospheric jacket that I’ve come down in its favour. Largely ignored by the adults around him, thirteen-year-old Paul watches from the fringes of his mother, her lover and his father’s lives. Before long he’s seen something he shouldn’t but finds unlikely consolation in Scarlett, a rebellious classmate. ‘I Love You Too Much is a novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, a devastating coming-of-age story told from the sidelines of Parisian perfection’ say the publishers. Let’s hope they’re right.

That’s it for September’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first five and a more detailed synopsis for I Love You Too Much. If you’d like to catch up with the new titles, they’re here and here.

Five Novels I’ve Read About Books

This one’s inevitable, isn’t it. What reader can resist a novel about other readers, or if you’re an old bookseller like me, about booksellers? They’re an anorak’s delight.  There’s a librarian in the mix, too, albeit it a rather eccentric one. Here are five books about books, then, the first two with links to a longer review.

Cover imageSet in the near future, Robin Sloan’s  Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore playfully meshes the old reading world with new technology in a quirky edge-of-your-seat story of bookish folk. Clay Jannon works the night shift at the eponymous book store, logging its few customers, most of them oddly attired and in an urgent, distracted state. Curiosity aroused, Clay sets about unravelling the puzzle of the Broken Spine, the society to which all the shop’s customers belong, in a story that encompasses a fifteenth-century sage, extreme Google geekiness, the search for immortality and a bit of consternation about cassettes (remember them?) all served up with a good deal of humour. I loved it.

Charlie Hill’s Books lampoons everyone in the book trade, adding a swipe at performance artists for good measure. It begins in Corfu where Lauren, a professor of neurology, and Richard, an independent bookseller, both witness the sudden death of a woman reading a manuscript by bestselling author Gary Sayles. As Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome spreads, Lauren seeks Richard’s help in investigating it. Meanwhile, preparing for the launch of his new novel, Sayles is suckered by two performance artists and the Cover imagePeople’s Literature Tour is born. Liberally scattered with book titles, authors’ names and in-jokes, Books combines the humour and pace of Jasper Fforde’s fiction with the satire of Channel 4’s Black Books.

I’m sure some of you will remember Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, a bestseller set in Barcelona’s ‘cemetery for lost books’ where, aged ten, Daniel finds the book that will intrigue him, bedevil him and ultimately shape his life – The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carfax. On his sixteenth birthday, Daniel sees a stranger smoking a cigarette from his balcony, instantly recognising a scene from Carfax’s novel. I read this for work expecting to grit my teeth as it was a much-hyped flavour of that particular month but I loved it. Both gripping and very atmospheric.

Delving back into reading past, Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things is a booky highlight. It’s set in the Arcade, a rambling New York bookshop – suspiciously like the legendary Strand – staffed by a bunch of eccentrics who are joined by eighteen-year-old Rosemary, fresh from Tasmania. When she opens a letter offering a ‘lost’ Melville manuscript the fun begins. Hay’s novel is an appealing, enjoyable yarn of thwarted love and literary detection. Not a literary Cover imagetriumph, but it had me engrossed.

And now to that librarian. She’s the protagonist of Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love who finds a young man locked in the library overnight – surely a bibliophile’s dream – and treats him to a passionate, if slightly scolding, soliloquy about her colleagues, the Dewey Decimal system and bookish conspiracies while unwittingly spilling the beans about her yearning for a young researcher. A thoroughly entertaining, if quirky, read which led me to Divry’s much more conventional Madame Bovary of the Suburbs.

Any novels about books you’d like to recommend?

Sourdough by Robin Sloan: A tasty bit of fun

Cover imageRobin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was a 2013 favourite for me. I’ve been waiting patiently for something else from him having been a little disappointed by Mr Penumbra’s prequel, Ajax Penumbra 1969, and was delighted to spot Sourdough on the January horizon. It’s the story of a young woman who is given a sourdough starter, so hungry it may take over the world.

Just a year out of college, Lois lands a plum job in San Francisco helping to design the perfect robotic arm but it’s far from the dream she envisaged. Her nose firmly to the grindstone, her stomach cramped with stress, she exists on a diet of Slurry, the convenient nutritive gel championed by her boss. One day she finds a flyer advertising spicy soup and bread stuck to her apartment door. Desperate for comfort, she places her order with a friendly young man and another delivers it. Soon she’s addicted to their lip-smacking produce but Beo and Chaiman are moving back to their parents in Edinburgh. Before they go, Beo gives Lois his sourdough starter with instructions to play it the background music she’s familiar with from her nightly orders, and an email address. Lois, of course, has no clue how to bake bread but she knows how to set about learning. Soon she discovers there’s more to life than robotics, setting up a small sideline selling bread to General Dexterity’s trophy chef who suggests she auditions for a coveted stall at a farmers market. There she meets a young woman who offers her a place at a market no one else seems to have heard of where all manner of weird and wonderful food is being developed.

Sourdough is just the thing to brighten up a dull winter evening. Lois is an engaging narrator, determined to find a way to make her new hobby pay enough to liberate herself from the grind of her day job, and there’s the promise of a tentative love story threaded through Beo’s emails. A few well-aimed swipes are taken at the modern world which seems either to have lost its taste buds or to have become obsessed with them and is unable to find a middle way. And who can resist a novel whose star is a megalomaniac sourdough starter that puts on a light show, sings to itself and is kept in check by Grateful Dead tracks. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment which, like Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, has something to say about the way we live – and eat – now.

The Hidden Keys by André Alexis: A hugely enjoyable, sophisticated caper

This is the first book I’ve read by André Alexis. His last novel  was narrated in the voices of its titular dogs which brought back memories of Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, and not happy ones. That said Fifteen Dogs went on to win the Scotiabank Giller prize in 2015 so what do I know? This latest novel is entirely different: a funny, clever and intricately plotted piece of storytelling full of puzzles within puzzles involving an honourable thief, a rich beyond imagining junkie and a treasure hunt.

Tancred Palmieri is a complex character brought up by a single mother whose deathbed wish was that he change his thieving ways. He’s known Willow Azarian for a little while. She’s a junkie, drawn to telling Tancred her story, impressing upon him that she’s an heiress and eventually presenting him with an intriguing challenge. Her stupendously rich father has left each of his five children a memento, something which is of particular significance to them. Willow’s is a beautiful facsimile of a Japanese screen, one panel left blank but for an inscription. She’s convinced that her father has set a puzzle which can only be solved by examining all the artefacts together. Tancred is to steal each one, quietly returning the item once Willow has scrutinised them all. He will, of course, be recompensed. Reluctantly, Tancred agrees and has hardly begun his exacting task when Willow dies. Having given his word, Tancred has no choice but to continue only to find that his best friend is the detective investigating the burglaries and his bête noir, Willow’s dealer, has got wind of what he’s up to together with the reward it might bring. As each piece of this elaborate puzzle painstakingly slots into place, another mystery opens up until finally Tancred is left face to face with himself.

This is a hugely enjoyable novel, a good old-fashioned caper which twists and turns in a baroque fashion as its many conundrums are unfolded. It’s very funny at times – Castle Rose whose designer took his inspiration from M. C. Escher is a particular delight. Alexis excels at elaborate yet flawless plotting, smoothly switching perspective from character to character. The book’s premise reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and its style of Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, both favourites of mine. If there’s any disappointment at the resolution its matched by Tancred’s own and offset by the development of his character. Altogether a delight – packed full with colourful detail and characters, each with a story to tell or be told, and funny with it. I think I should try Fifteen Dogs after all.

Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan: A tasty little titbit that leaves you hungry for more.

Cover imageMr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore was one of the most enjoyable books I read last year. Clichéd as it may sound it made me laugh, it made me cry and kept me thoroughly entertained while doing so. I’d been told there might be a spin-off but had forgotten all about it until a neat little hardback turned up, billed as the prequel. I’m not going to tell you that I was as delighted by it as I was by the original – it’s far too short for that – but it has the same entertaining mix of humour and adventure, albeit in a bookish kind of way.

Essentially a short story, the book reveals how Mr Penumbra started on the path that lead him to run the 24-hour bookstore. As Junior Acquisitions Officer for the Galvanic college library, Ajax is on the hunt for Techne Tycheon, thought to be an occult text which confers great fortune, or misfortune, on its owner. It’s challenging stuff but he’s not to be defeated. After all a previous incumbent had managed to track down a book made entirely of knotted string untangled and knitted into sweaters compared to which a trail gone cold in 1657 is a mere nothing. A breakthrough takes him to San Francisco at the tail end of the summer of love where he stumbles upon the 24-hour bookstore and a clue to the whereabouts of the elusive William Gray. The ensuing adventure results in a change of career as, intrigued by the real business of the bookstore – and if you’ve read last year’s novel, you’ll know what that is – Ajax anticipates many more ascensions of the bookshelves which stretch up further than the eye can see.

For readers of Mr Penumbra, this is undoubtedly a tasty little titbit but it left me hungry for another full-length novel, and if you haven’t read that yet, please do: it’s an absolute delight. As for prequels, what do you think about them? Enjoyable or something of a let down?

 

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: Satisfaction Guaranteed

Cover imageHard to beat the satisfaction of reading a book you’ve been looking forward to for months and finding it to be even better than your sky high expectations. I’ve been eagerly anticipating Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore ever since I spotted it in Atlantic’s catalogue way back in January. Set in the near future, it playfully meshes the old reading world which most of us still inhabit with new technology in a quirky edge of your seat story of bookish folk.

Unemployed thanks to a downturn, techno savvy Clay Jannon finds himself working the night shift at the eponymous bookstore. It’s just him behind the till – Oliver does evenings and Mr P takes the day shift. But this isn’t any old bookstore: Clay must log both the physical appearance and demeanour of the few customers that come through the door, most of them eccentrically attired and in an urgent, distracted state. Finding the ornately bound esoteric books they request is something of a challenge and involves climbing ladders up stacks reaching to the equivalent of three floors. When he looks inside one of the books and finds an impenetrable jumble of characters Clay’s suspicions are aroused. He sets about unravelling the puzzle of the Broken Spine, the society to which all the shop’s customers belong, accompanied by his beautiful new girlfriend – a rising Google star – his special effects genius roommate and his nerd-turned-millionaire best friend.

To reveal too much of the story would be to spoil the delight of discovery but suffice to say that it encompasses an ancient secret society, puzzle upon puzzle, a fifteenth century sage, extreme Google geekiness, the search for immortality and a bit of consternation about cassettes (remember them?) all served up with a good deal of humour. Erin Morgenstern is quoted as saying it was the first book that made her cry in 2013, and there’s a point at which I defy any reader not to feel tearful. It also has a happy ending so I will be handing it over to H who has just about been keeping his covetous mitts of it and for whom unhappy endings are to be avoided.