Book Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

book review mr. penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore had me at the name. Any novel with a title that includes the word bookstore has to be good; so it would seem.

The book had its moments of interest and intrigue, but I was completely underwhelmed with the last third of the novel and the ending. Additionally, I don’t like epilogues – in any book. No epilogues please. I once read (I wish I could remember the author who said it), and I’m paraphrasing, that an epilogue is added to a novel when a novelist doesn’t know how to end their story. I have to agree.

I found the integration of factoids on typography, web technology, graphic design, printing, and marketing to be interesting. I also liked the story’s fantastical and mysterious elements: the cryptic books in Penumbra’s bookstore; the odd characters reading the books; the narrator’s (Clay Jannon) fascination with a fantasy novel and its author and that author’s connection to the mysterious texts; and the wild technology being developed by Google. That said, fantasy and mystery declined into cliché at the novel’s mid-point; however, the greatest fault of the novel is the missing backstory on Penumbra. The name Penumbra is a mystery in itself. I wanted to know more about him. I also wanted to know more about his friendship with Corvina. These two characters, I guess you could call them arch rivals, reminded me of Professor Xavier and Magneto in Marvel Comic’s X-Men. It would have been great if Robin Sloan had explored the relationship between Penumbra and Corvina in Penumbra’s backstory – the backstory that is sorely lacking.

Robin Sloan’s prose is easy to digest, and there is plenty in the book related to current technology that I think 17 to 18-year olds would like. Young adults are a better audience for the book too. If I were still teaching high school, I’d consider the novel for literature instruction. The book lends itself to lessons on printing technology, using search engines, bookmaking, and other topics. There are innumerable lessons and assignments that could come from including this in a high school literature curriculum.

I feel that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a good (not great) first effort by Robin Sloan. It will be interesting to see what he writes next. I won’t be purchasing the book, but I will check it out at the library.

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Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy book coverI walked out of a large retail store with The Casual Vacancy tucked under my arm. A passerby stopped me, chuckled, and said, “I heard that book is a bore.” I was a little annoyed with him, because I wanted to judge the entertainment and literary value of J.K. Rowling’s first novel written for adult readers myself.

I hope to provide a fair book review for those of you who may want to read the novel.

As just about every book reviewer in the world has stated, The Casual Vacancy is not magical in any sense, meaning there are no wizards, Muggles, mail delivery owls, etc.  Any reader hoping for a fantasy will be sorely disappointed. The Casual Vacancy is a story based in reality, which as we all know can be filled with fraught.

Characters range in sex, age, education, occupation, and status; there are 34 in total. To be honest, it was a little difficult to know who was who at the beginning of the novel. Fortunately, I found a character guide that helped me through the first few chapters.

The characters live, go to school, and work in the fictional town of Pagford or its outlier community, The Fields, about which there is much contention. Pagford is an “idyllic town,” which through earlier political wrangling, finds itself supporting, via tax dollars, the low income neighborhood, The Fields, which is rife with all of the abuses and crimes typically found in impoverished neighborhoods.

After the death of local Parish Councilor Barry Fairbrother (happens in the first few pages of the novel, so I’m not giving anything away), the citizens of Pagford and The Fields experience significant change in their lives. Readers will know far before the characters do where roads lead. I was reminded of other tales centered in small communities (e.g., books: Peyton Place, To Kill a Mockingbird / movies: Chocolat, The Village, It’s a Wonderful Life) where a character’s actions can have great consequences.  The dead Mr. Fairbrother is the only character in The Casual Vacancy to not be morally gray, and perhaps that’s because the dead are often idealized.

I found the story contemporary and relevant, especially when considering the political climate in which we live – the central motif of The Casual Vacancy is the replacement of Fairbrother on the town council. Politics can be ugly in small towns too.

I dismiss criticisms of the novel I have read, such as Michiko Kakutani’s review in The New York Times in which he states, “We do not come away feeling that we know the back stories of the ‘Vacancy’ characters in intimate detail the way we did with Harry and his friends and enemies, nor do we finish the novel with a visceral knowledge of how their pasts — and their families’ pasts — have informed their present lives.”

I’m bothered by that analysis. There are seven books in the Harry Potter series. Of course, there are more back stories! Trust me; The Casual Vacancy provides everything you need to know about the characters.

I equally pooh-pooh the review by columnist Jan Moir, who in the Daily Mail said the novel is “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature.”

Rowling does have a socialist point of view, but it is not that of Ms. Moir. I assume Moir rejects ethical altruism. Rowling clearly points out inequities in society caused by those who are self-righteous and self-serving.

I find I most agree with the reviewer at The Telegraph who lauded the novel: “One marvels at the skill with which Rowling weaves such vivid characters in and out of each other’s lives, rendering them so complex and viscerally believable that one finds oneself caring for the worst of them.”

I imagine that someday we’ll see a small screen adaptation of the novel. It was easy for me to envision the novel as a BBC mini-series.* There would certainly be some juicy acting parts. I advise that you read the novel before it hits the screen. You might find it a slow read, but in my opinion every classic novel (it will be deemed that someday) is a slow read. If you want fantasy, look elsewhere, this is not the book for you.

*I just did a search and discovered that the novel will be a BBC series!

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Book Review: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Book jacket for The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz ZafonCarlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game is a mystery within a mystery within a mystery. No, that’s not a typographical error. I have been more careful in my second reading of the novel. Much of what I read the first time was forgotten. I don’t know if my memory failed because there are so many interweaving tales, or if I was overwhelmed the first time by the dark nature of the story. I can offer that the book is due a second reading by everyone who has read it once.

I did not find the tale evil this time; however, I would definitely label it gothic noir. The Angel’s Game is defined by its visuals as well as the hero’s challenging dilemmas, one in particular. When reading, I imagined how Orson Welles would light a film based on the book. Zafón leaves shadows everywhere. Every corner, alley, street, and room is dark and foreboding. Often a scene has only a single source of light (e.g., fire, streetlamp, moon, flashlight). Barcelona, often a menacing character itself, is aged and crumbling. City dwellers live within walls of majesty or in ruins; and every domicile, regardless of the fiscal standing of its residents, is filled with ghosts and secrets.

The hero, David Martìn, is faced with a multitude of uncertainties from the onset. Why did my mother leave? Where did she go? Where does my father go for days on end? What is he doing when he’s away? Why has Pedro Vidal befriended me? What must I do to be noticed by Cristina? How can I become the author I’ve always dreamt of being? Who is Andreas Correlli, and why has he taken an interest in me? The questions never stop for David, and twists of fate lurk around every corner, leaving the reader to wonder what events are causal, what events are matters of chance, and what events are predestined?

Ah, predestination – enter the enigmatic Andreas Correlli. One can’t help but think of Goethe’s tale of Faust when pondering the nature of Señor Correlli. Correlli conspires a deal with Martìn, but is it the proverbial “deal with the devil?” Some events in the story seem bound to happen when Correlli is involved, but even this interpretation is slippery. Friend, ghost, angel, fiend, or devil – how is Correlli to be judged by Martìn? What are readers to think of him?

The Angel’s Game is a cryptic maze. This is both criticism and praise. I find it fascinating to have so many questions, but at the same time, I like some resolution before more obscurity. I think the ambiguity of this story is what makes it so different from Zafón’s first novel in the series,* Shadow of the Wind. I’d also have to say that Shadow of the Wind lacks the sinister undertones of The Angel’s Game. I do appreciate that The Angel’s Game returns to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona’s Raval district and the Sempere & Sons bookshop. For those of us who love books, these two fictional places are corners of the world we’d like to imagine as real. Zafón would have been remiss if he had not also included novels with which we’re familiar as part of the tale. This is more red meat for bibliophiles!

I recommend that you read this book if you have read Shadow of the Wind. Readers of gothic lore and horror may enjoy reading the book too. The book will either challenge you or toward its last third, tire you. It’s possible to find the layers of mystery tedious.

*The books are not a series in the traditional sense. Any book can be read in any order. Zafón has linked the books together by including in each many of the same characters and places, including the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

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Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Book cover for Gillian Flynn's Gone GirlIf you have loved deeply, endured a decline in a relationship, and made it through a painful breakup you’ll understand many of the emotions (e.g., disappointment, apathy, disgust, rage, sorrow) experienced by wedded partners Nick and Amy Dunne. You may even, now that hindsight has given you 20-20 vision, be able to admit that a partner wasn’t wholly responsible for the building and dis-assembly of a relationship. After all, it takes two to tango no matter how badly or how perfectly each of you dances!

Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, exposes readers to the Dunne’s tangled marriage through Nick’s and Amy’s individual point of view. Chapters go back and forth between their narratives, giving readers the feeling they’re watching a high stakes tennis match or following two attorneys arguing a life and death case. As readers, we’re meant to pick a side! Who is believable? Who do you feel sympathy/empathy for? Who has the best argument/evidence? Who has the highest level of integrity?

I think if you consider any single, dissolved relationship that you’re familiar with, you’ll realize you lean strongly toward one person’s perception of that relationship. It’s normal for us to choose a side, even when we don’t have all of the details.

That being said, Gone Girl is so much more than a he said she said story. It’s more than a wedded bliss to wedded misery story. It’s a mystery. Amy Dunne goes missing on the 5-year anniversary of her marriage to Nick. Did she leave Nick? Has there been some sort of foul play by a neighborhood drifter? Is Nick responsible for her disappearance (murdered her)?

The rapid fire, knife-sharp prose of Gillian Flynn will catch you and quickly pull you through to the end – an ending that may in fact convey a moral truth. (For those of you who have read the book, is this a moral tale/morality play?) I read the 400+ pages book over the weekend, while still managing to get a lot of things done. Gillian Flynn doesn’t waste words. Most interesting to me though are the multitude of details she’s attended to. It’s easy to understand why she’s one of the hottest mystery genre writers of the time. I recommend this book, and I look forward to reading Flynn’s earlier novels.

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Fall Reading Challenge 2012

Banner for Fall into Reading 2012The list of books I want to read has no end; however, I can list a few books that I’d like to reread and read for the first time this fall.

I visited Callapidder Days and learned about Fall into Reading 2012. It was interesting to learn what others are reading this season.

What’s on your reading list? Join the fall reading challenge 2012.

In December, I’ll be writing a post about the books I completed. I may get a jump on that and write a review after each reading. Stay tuned.

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A Walk in the Park

“A walk in the park” is an idiom frequently used to express that something is easy. For example, “A triple somersault is as easy as a walk in the park.” Here, I’m using the expression literally and figuratively. The easiest part of my day is the walk I take in the park near my home.

It’s during my walk that I listen to an audio book or the news, but most often, I just think. It’s a time to rest my eyes, exercise my legs, and stir my mind. Most mornings, the park is  tranquil. The photo above illustrates one such serene morning. Other mornings, there are people everywhere enjoying little league sports or high school long distance track events. I enjoy the park when it is still and when it is active. My walks here make me feel connected to the planet and the human race.

Most recently, I’ve been listening to the audio version of the book The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The story is poignant and powerful and calls for one to be attentive. Many of you are familiar with the story and know there was nothing easy about the time in which the story takes place (Mississippi in the early 1960s). Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since those turbulent times; however, if we were to measure this period on the scale of time, it is but a heartbeat in the vastness of eternity. We have so much further to go. It has not been “a walk in the park” to remove racial boundaries. We find ourselves taking one step forward and two steps back more often than not. There is no easy button for harmonizing relations between people of different races, religions, and political ideologies.

Yet…if we can rid our psyches of the imaginary lines that separate us from others, it might be possible to speed our progression to acceptance. Ms. Stockett elegantly points out in the last third of her book, that what separates us from others is really imaginary. It’s all in our heads. We’re really all taking part in the same experiment –  the human condition. If only we could all be enlightened by this notion at the same time. What a “walk in the park” life could be.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Cats and Liberty

Rousseau - painted image

…Rousseau maintained that a person’s attitude to cats was a vital test of character. Those of a despotic nature “do not like cats because the cat is free and will never consent to become a slave.” A relationship with a dog, too should not be one of ruler and subject. [...] Rousseau wrote, “My dog himself was my friend, not my slave: we always had the same will, but it was not because he obeyed me.”

Source: p282 Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

About the book:

You’ll enjoy this book if you like celebrity love matches gone wrong or enjoy office politicking. After a “break-up” in the 18th century, celebrated individuals, in this case David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, waged war via news print (consider it early PR), which were plentiful in that day.

Their tiff at times was tiresome. I couldn’t help wondering why two profoundly intelligent men would bother which such silliness, but it all had to do with manners and being perceived a proper gentleman. I found myself longing for a duel or for one man to slap the other man’s cheek (with kid gloves would have been a nice touch).

Despite the tediousness of the wrong and the righting of it (which neither man ever perceived the wrong being righted), I enjoyed learning of the development of their individual ideas and of their personal alliances.

BTW – you’ll have to read the book to learn of the wrong!

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