Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (CBR6 #16)

Image

“There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.” (288).

It’s hard to know what to make of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It’s a quest, it’s a mystery, it’s one man finding himself, and it’s the coalescing of a group of friends. It’s all this and more. Clocking in at fewer than 300 pages, Robin Sloan manages to craft an epic adventure for his protagonist and his merry band of players.

And it’s simply delightful.

The story is based on Clay Jannon a San Francisco based web-design lackey who finds himself out of work when the small company he works for goes under and in turn starts working at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It only takes a few days working at the store for Clay to discover that the store is more curious than either its name or his slightly odd boss. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything—instead, they borrow large, obscure volumes from the way back shelves. Bored and looking to practice his programming skills for his eventual escape from clerkdom, Clay maps the behavior of the customers which only uncovers more questions.

At this point Clay starts on a quest to understand the data. While set, at least in part, in a bookstore, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is more the story of the digital future, the art of printed books, and data visualization. To say much more would give the plot away, but it’s worth the read so I won’t spoil it.

Quibbles about this book are limited to the following: that the supporting cast is not well developed. Everyone has the ‘thing’ they are useful for, but we don’t really learn more about them. Clay tends to say he cares about Mr. Penumbra without truly demonstrating it, and there is a reference to an all-museum database which took me out of the narrative because I know no such thing exists and the ease of it made me jealous of the fictional reality in which it does exist. But that’s a museum professional specific complaint.

My only real regret about this book is not reading it in one sitting.

“…I prefer bookstores…” (270).

The Age of Miracles (CBR6 #15)

Image

“…as if he knew even then that there existed under everything a universal grief” (227).

I suppose that The Age of Miracles can be viewed as a dystopian novel. In it our narrator, Julia, tells us about the year she turned 12 and the Earth’s turning slowed down, eventually leading to weeks of daylight and weeks of darkness. It can also be said that this is a sad book, about the dying and destruction of our world. These things are true, but somehow Karen Thompson Walker prevents the novel from being as unbearably sad as the description might have you believe.

Julia tells us the story as reminiscence, as a woman in her twenties looking back more than a decade to her own childhood to recount the year that her entire world changed. This is the story of her memories of the year the slowing happened, when minutes and hours were added to the Earth’s rotation. We see the events through the microcosm of a young girl’s memory and in so we are limited in scope, we hear from her only hints of what is happening outside of her town in California. Others might view this as a drawback, but ultimately it’s for the story’s benefit that we are limited to less than a dozen characters. By being of limited scope we are able to focus in on the various effects the slowing has on different types of people, and how that compounds in the life of Julia.

The story, at its core, is a cross-hatch of a coming of age tale for Julia, and also the coming of the end of the world. As she struggles with the changes in friendships, being attracted to boys, the changes of her own body we also see the change in the physical environment, how people cope (or don’t) with the ever lengthening days, and what happens as people cling to survival in a world that seems bent on their destruction. Which, to many of us, is exactly what middle school felt like.

Probably my only complaint about the structure of the story is that so much time is spent in the early part of the school year/slowing. We spend nearly half the book going from September to December, and then the second half seemingly racing through January to September. I would’ve liked to spend more time in the second six months of the first year of the slowing but in order to build the world of the story; I can understand why Ms. Walker chose to focus on the first six. While the science of this dystopian sci-fi might not be plausible, it is still an intriguing story that will stick with you and make you think about how you would survive in a world like Julia’s. I whole-heartedly suggest this book to everyone. The writing is evocative and delicious while Julia’s story is intimate and engaging.

No One Else Can Have You (CBR6 #14)

Image

I picked this one up based on the recommendation of Caitlin’s review of it for the Cannonballread. No One Else Can Have You is centered around 16 year old Kippy Bushman, and told to us by her in first person narration. It is also a YA read and Ms. Hale’s first novel.

Kippy’s best friend has just died. More specifically, she was murdered. It is the first murder that anyone in Friendship, WI (population 688) can remember. The town is in shut down mode until the suspected killer is apprehended. The problem for Kippy is that she doesn’t believe that the person accused of the crime is actually the culprit. In fact, between her best friend Ruth’s diary and some rudimentary detective work Kippy is able to clear the suspect (Ruth’s cheating boyfriend) and start looking into new suspects. Unlike the local police who are too excited to have the crime tied up with a nice bow on the town’s local miscreant. What follows is the story of Kippy finding out who her friends are, and who aren’t and what really happened to the best friend she lost too soon.

There are plenty of things that worked for me in No One Else Can Have You. Kippy’s widower father Dom is a treasure of a character. Complex and interesting with the kind of heart anyone could wish for their own parent. There’s also a very realistic examination of just how tough we can all be on our best friends, particularly when we are teenage girls. It is also fantastic at mining the depths of not completely understanding attraction, and who likes whom more. And that fabulous cover art. Bravo to whomever designed it; I want to wear that sweater.

But, there are many things which didn’t work for me as well. And I really felt that they detracted significantly from my enjoyment of the book. First, Ms. Hale covers a lot of the ground several times. Kippy’s antagonists antagonize in the same way. Over and over again. Kippy uses the same petulant tone consistently. It also takes nearly a hundred pages (of 380) for the story to get going, and in the last 80 it makes a serious change in tone.

Give it a read if you like YA first person protagonists and murder mysteries. If any of these things annoy you, stay away.

An Abundance of Katherines (CBR6 #13)

Image

I finished this book last weekend, and keep meaning to write the review but I think the fact that it escaped me for nearly 5 days says a lot about my reading experience. But let’s start at the beginning.

Back for the CBR4 I read The Fault in Our Stars and like most of the other Cannonballers, I loved it. So, I decided to see what else this John Green fellow had written. Being me I needed to start back at the beginning so last year I read Looking for Alaska and while it was quite enjoyable, it was no TFiOS. But that’s to be expected from an author’s first novel. That’s why I started at the beginning of Green’s oeuvre, to give myself proper expectations by reading the author’s works in order; I would hopefully be able to trace his writing trajectory.

So, when I went into this year’s John Green read, An Abundance of Katherines I was expecting another quite to very good book. And, honestly, it was just okay. I gave it a three star rating over on Goodreads, but really its closer to a 2.5, and it only gets the extra 0.5 because of Hassan. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

An Abundance of Katherines is the story of Colin Singleton and the 19* girls named Katherine he has dated in his short 18 years. But it isn’t. It’s the story of his breakup with K19 and the emotional aftereffects of said breakup. But it isn’t that either. It’s the story of Colin coming to terms with being a child prodigy who isn’t going to be a genius. But it’s not entirely that either.  It’s the story of the road trip that he and his best (and only) friend Hassan take to help get Colin over the break-up/prodigy problem and Hassan’s untethered lifestyle in the post high school pre-college place he finds himself.  And it’s a little this, but the road trip doesn’t last very long. What we find the story to be about is Colin getting over himself and perhaps finally falling for a girl not named Katherine.

I had some issues with the story, mostly in how Green decided to lay out the storytelling. The present we are spending with Colin is interspersed with his remembrances of the Katherines and his obsession with figuring out a mathematical equation that will allow him to predict the outcome of any romantic relationship. It cuts in and out and is generally unsatisfactory because instead of easily flowing from present experience into past recollection it instead is a rough cut nearly every time.  Colin is also a tough character to root for and his incessant anagramming and various other prodigy ticks got in the way of connecting to the character. But perhaps my biggest gripe is that we don’t ‘meet’ the legion of Katherines until near the very end and it’s such a stretch to get 19* in that I feel the book would’ve been better if there had been only 9 or 10 Katherines. That’s still abundance, I promise.

Okay, let’s talk about what I liked. Hassan. And Lindsey. And the Oldsters in Gutshot. What Green always has going for him is that he can craft great characters. Colin is a well-rounded character even if he’s not a great protagonist, but the supporting cast in An Abundance of Katherines is what kept me moving through the book and not ignoring it for other titles. Hassan’s busting of Colin, as only a true friend would do, were some of my favorite parts. Those and the footnotes.

Yes, I said footnotes. Since we are dealing with a protagonist who is a prodigy there are things he knows that the common reader won’t. So we get footnotes to explain the conversations happening in other languages and the math. And the history factoids, etc. And those I LOVED. I’ve seen some reviews saying they couldn’t be bothered with the math bits, and to me that’s just lazy. The footnotes explain the math the way a non-math person would need them explained and it gave insight into how it fit into the book. You don’t need to be able to solve the equation that Colin eventually writes, but the Appendix explains how it was written and how it works and it was just plain interesting.

To recap – I’d say read this first in your John Green reading and not quickly after reading his other books.

 

*the 19 Katherines thing really annoyed me because there were only 18. He dated one twice. AND Colin was counting girls who he’d had relationships with which lasted mere hours. Now, I understand that middle school and high school kids tend to do this kind of thing, but it felt like such a stretch to get to the magical K-19 which I swear Green was basing off the story of the Russian submarine that it felt unnecessary and distracting. Really Colin of the no friends and bad rapport with your peers, you’ve had 19 girlfriends by age 18? Really? It just didn’t line up with who the character is in the rest of the book. End rant.   

Tiny Beautiful Things (CBR6 #12)

Image

I am at a time of crossroads in my life and I went out looking for a book that would speak directly to me in this time of unsettledness. I remembered reading some of Sugar’s posts on The Rumpus after I read Wild so I thought why not read Tiny Beautiful Things? I’m glad I decided to, because Sugar’s voice was what I needed, what I still need. I cried more than once reading her responses to the letters she received.

The stories that arrive to Sugar, first on The Rumpus and now in Tiny Beautiful Things come from people who are often is positions very similar to mine – they are in a state of flux, they have a relationship in a bad place, they are lonely, they are overwhelmed, they are angry, they are sad. Through her thoughtful and inspired answers Sugar pulls from the deep well of empathy in her to provide both answers, but also the questions that we need to be asking ourselves as we move through the journey that is building our lives. Cheryl Strayed, the no longer anonymous Sugar, credits this place in side of her from which the empathy pours as being her best legacy of the woman her mother raised her to be. And we learn a great deal about Cheryl’s parents, her upbringing, her marriage and her life as we progress through the book, since Sugar tends to explain why her experiences are impacting her answer to any given query in a certain way.

I’ve seen other reviewers see this as a detriment, but I don’t. There’s a certain level of honesty, of understanding, that Sugar is able to deliver in her missives that would be missing if she didn’t lay herself bare in the writing. Tiny Beautiful Things reads much more like a book your best, most wise friend wrote to you to take you through the hard times. And don’t we all need that?

I don’t know that I’d suggest this book to everyone, even though I’m rating it quite high. First, not everyone is a Cheryl Strayed fan, so if you didn’t particularly enjoy Wild  then this one is likely not for you. Second, you as a reader probably need to be in a certain place in your life to fully immerse into this book. Otherwise it might feel like too much, all the sadness, and loneliness that covers these 350 pages might weigh too heavily on you. I suggest looking up some of Sugar’s columns and giving them a twirl before committing to the book. But if you too are in a place of needing a sister-friend, then this one might be for you. 

Image

Seven for a Secret (CBR6 #11)

Image

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret,

Never to be told.

 

This may be one of my favorite books of the year so far, which makes sense as it is the sequel to one of my three favorite books from last year, The Gods of Gotham. Seven for a Secret finds Timothy Wilde six months removed from the events of the first book set up as an unofficial detective for the newly formed New York Police Department, known more familiarly as the Copper Stars.

Each book is based around a central mystery, and the one in Seven for a Secret revolves around the Fugitive Slave laws and the Blackbirders who enforce the law by capturing fugitive slaves as well as free blacks who were essentially kidnapped as part of this cultural milieu. We meet three light skinned blacks living in New York, Lucy and Jonas Adams and her sister Delia Wright. Lucy returns home to find Jonas and Delia kidnapped, and the book jumps off from that point as Lucy goes to Timothy Wilde to find her family.

I won’t go any further into the description of the plot, as to attempt to untangle it would likely only serve as confusing. Like its predecessor Seven for a Secret  is full of the things I like. Well thought out and executed plot points, well drawn characters, and historical relevance. Lyndsay Faye continues to elucidate the 1840s through quotes of primary sources at the beginning of each chaper (including Twelve Years a Slave  by Solomon Northrup) in order to highlight what New York, and to a greater extent the United States were like, over 150 years ago.

What keeps me from bumping this one up from 4.5 stars to 5 is that the strong character of Tim seems to evaporate in the third quarter of the book. Timothy Wilde is a character who is observant and quick, but much of the action in that section of the book relies on Tim getting things wrong, and not noticing things he should. It helped keep me in the dark as a reader, which is I gather what Ms. Faye was after, but after The Gods of Gotham and the opening chapters of this work where I was so excited to have this character back in my head, it felt like a letdown.

With that said, read these books. Read them in order though, because characters and story lines carry from one to the other.  

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (CBR6 #10)

Image

From Goodreads:

An almost forgotten classic though a founding text of Victorian middle-class identity, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is a volume of insight and common sense. Written by what one might now describe as a Victorian Martha Stewart, the book offers advice on fashion, child-care, animal husbandry, poisons, and the management of servants. To the modern reader expecting stuffy verbosity or heavy moralizing, Beeton’s book is a revelation: it explores the foods of Europe and beyond, suggesting new food stuffs and techniques, mixing domestic advice with discussions of science, religion, class, industrialism and gender roles. Alternately frugal and fashionable, anxious and self confident, the book highlights the concerns of the growing Victorian middle-class at a key moment in its history. This abridged edition serves as a cookery book, while documenting a significant aspect of Victorian social and cultural history.

Where to start with Mrs. Beeton, where to start. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is the same sort of book as Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book which I reviewed previously for the CBR. It’s a book which in seeking to indoctrinate the new middle class with the methods of a high-born life also serves as a window for those of us looking back. Unfortunately for me, I enjoyed Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book quite a bit more.

Originally published in 1861, this book predates my era of research (1880-1920) but it shows the basis for the expected social order of the High Victorian Era. It is an easy read, once you settle into it, although it is very, very long. Each section is short though, and provides an easy way to work your way through. I was able to read the portions which were of interest to me in a few days. (Again, I skipped entirely over the recipe sections).  But what I felt was lacking was a sense of joie d’vivre that Mrs. Seely’s book encapsulated where Mrs. Beeton’s feels like a chore list.

So, if you’re wondering about the time period and how a house was or should have been, then give it a read, otherwise I say no.