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.



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!


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

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’sBook jacket for The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon 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.