Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore

Five words from the blurb: dusty, books, curious, analysis, technology

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an entertaining mystery that will appeal to book lovers. The story focuses on Clay, a web-designer who gets a job working the night-shift at a mysterious book shop. Clay becomes increasingly puzzled by the fact that no-one ever buys any books; instead clientele use it like a library, exchanging strange coded books. Clay sets out to discover the secret behind their bizarre behaviour, uncovering a mysterious group of people with a shared mission in life.

This was an engaging read and I loved all the bookish detail. The passion for literature was blended with cutting-edge computer science and I loved the fact that it wasn’t afraid to go into detail about how everything worked. The technical explanations occasionally went over my head, but I was never lost. In fact I liked the way the book poked fun at those who weren’t following:

But now, with the data in hand, I’m building my model of the store. It’s crude–just a bunch of gray blocks slotted together like virtual LEGOs–but it’s starting to look familiar. Simulated light from the simulated windows casts sharp-edged shadows through the simulated store. If this sounds impressive to you, you’re over thirty.

It also revealed interesting details about working for Google. I’m not entirely sure how much of it was true, but that makes it a good discussion point!

My only real complaint was the number of coincidences, especially the fact that Clay happened to have three friends: a millionaire who could pay for their adventures, a Google employee with access to all their expensive equipment, and a set designer who could build everything they needed for their secret mission. It may not have been realistic, but it did make a great story.

Much of the book reminded me of The End of Mr Y, but using computers instead of philosophy. It’s not great literature, but it is an escapist adventure that introduces some interesting ideas on literature and its place in our modern, data-driven world.

Overall this was a light, entertaining read that will probably gain a geeky-cult status, at least until the technology becomes outdated.

Recommended to those looking for an escapist read.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

The last couple of paragraphs in particular will fill your heart with joy! Books, Bones and Buffy

The mystery felt really poor-constructed, and the final revelations were hastily narrated. Reading on a Rainy Day

 Even though the ending is a smidge predictable it did not take away from my pleasure of the whole book. So Many Books

2013 Other Prizes

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

Questions of Travel Winner of 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Five words from the blurb: world, guides, tourist, return, dreams

Questions of Travel picked up almost every literary award possible when it was released in Australia. It also received a very mixed selection of reviews. I was interested to see how I’d react to this divisive book so I accepted a review copy. Unfortunately I’m still unsure what to make of it – my reactions are almost as mixed as the reviews!

The book focuses on two main characters: Laura, an Australian travelling the world in hope of finding the culture that she feels is missing from her country and Ravi, a Sri Lankan forced from his home by horrific events. The book has very little plot, but instead it explores the thoughts and emotions of those travelling away from home.

I shouldn’t have liked this book and thought about abandoning it on several occasions, but every time the lack of action began to bore me I was re-engaged by a fantastic piece of writing. I have done a lot of travelling and the experiences described in the book often rang true:

Laura had read widely to ready herself for adventure: traveller’s tales, histories, guidebooks. They warned of pickpockets. rabid dogs, unboiled water, children’s eyes in which the incautious might drown. But no one mentioned the sheer tedium of being a tourist. Dreaming of travel, Laura had pictured a swift slideshow of scenes. But oh, the long, blank hours that linked! … It was like being trapped in a particularly irritating Zen koan: In order to advance, the traveller must stay still.

The analysis into the motivations for travelling were fascinating and I think most people will be able to relate to some aspects of it. It was also nice to see details about how the Internet has made the world a smaller place and comparisons between finding ideas online rather than by travelling were thought provoking.

This is a book to be savoured slowly. The meandering plot often frustrated me, but once I decided to treat it more like a series of essays than a novel I began to enjoy it more. The fact I finished all 500+ pages, despite the lack of a compelling plot, is a testament to the quality of the writing. It isn’t for everyone, but if you appreciate good writing and are interested in travelling then this is the book for you.




2013 Recommended books

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project
Five words from the blurb: love, science, emotion, incompatible, perfect

Books about Asperger’s Syndrome are normally depressing so it was refreshing to read The Rosie Project, a wonderfully entertaining book that highlighted the positives of the condition.

Don Tillman is a highly regarded geneticist, but is clearly on the autistic spectrum and struggles with relationships. He decides to find himself a wife and so creates a detailed questionnaire to ensure he only dates those with the same likes and habits as him. Unfortunately his questions rule out almost everyone. But then Don begins to fall in love with a totally incompatible woman and realises that love cannot be governed by strict rules.

I loved this book! I laughed so much that I had tears streaming down my face. I’m sure that most people won’t have the same strong reaction, but the humor really resonated with me. I recognised so many of the character traits – the literal thinking was especially accurate and often shown in an amusing light:

And now the institution that I was paying to supply us with a meal – the service provider who should be doing everything possible to make me comfortable – was putting arbitrary obstacles in my way. My Gore-Tex jacket, the high-technology garment that had protected me in rain and snowstorms, was being irrationally, unfairly and obstructively contrasted with the official’s essentially decorative woollen equivalent.
‘My jacket is superior to yours by all reasonable criteria: impermeability to water, visibility in low light….Vastly superior tensile strength…’
To illustrate this last point, I took the lapel of the employee’s jacket in my hands. I obviously had no intention of tearing it but I was suddenly grabbed from behind by an unknown person who attempted to throw me to the ground.

I also loved the way that the book highlighted flaws in the general population. It showed that everyone has their quirks and those with Asperger’s are no stranger than others.

The Rosie Project may appear to be an entertaining romance, but it uses humor to highlight many important issues. The fact that this book will appeal to a wide variety of people makes it very special and I hope that its messages of tolerance and acceptance will spread far and wide.

Highly recommended.


2013 Recommended books

Tampa by Alissa Nutting


Five words from the blurb: teacher, sex, pupils, risk, exposure

Tampa is a controversial book about a female teacher who has sex with her 14-year-old pupils. It contains graphic sex scenes and many have complained about its disturbing subject matter. It definitely pushes the boundaries, but I think this book is important. It raises many interesting questions about our attitudes to sex and reveals worrying problems with our society. It is not a specific question of positions or of knot dildos, but a serious inquiry on public perception of sex and we can help eradicate the stigma with the conversation.

The book begins with Celeste, a beautiful English teacher, starting her first teaching job:

I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation on my side of the mattress, never falling asleep. To bed I’d worn, in secret, a silk chemise and sheer panties, so that my husband, Ford, wouldn’t pillage me.

She is excited about the prospect of seducing the 14-year-old boys in her class, but is careful to select those who will not reveal their secret encounters.

The plot seemed simple and obvious at first, but as the novel neared its end I was surprised and impressed by the direction it took. I especially loved the way that the characters were all flawed individuals and they reacted realistically to events around them. The writing had that special spark that brought events to life, despite the fact it wasn’t complex in nature.

The book was graphic, bordering on pornography, throughout. But it wasn’t written to titillate the reader; it exists to shock and open eyes to the differences in our attitude towards male and female paedophiles. The fact that it is a beautiful young woman preying on young boys challenges our misconceptions about who is a danger to our children.

It isn’t for the prudish, but if you’re willing to approach it with an open mind you’ll find an engaging, disturbingly erotic, book that challenges perceptions.


2013 Audio Book Chunkster Thriller

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Audio Book)

Night Film

Five words from the blurb: journalist, director, disorientating, mystery, reality

Night Film is an unusual thriller. It follows Scott McGrath, a journalist investigating strange events linked to the famous, but illusive Cordova family. Stanislas Cordova is a cult horror film director and his daughter recently committed suicide. Their lives are packed with secrets, many of which involve dark magic. McGrath’s investigations lead him into some very strange situations and the line between reality and imagination was often blurred.  Some scenes were a bit weird, but I loved not knowing what would happen next!

I began listening to the audio version of this book, but quickly realised that I was missing something. The first few chapters were packed with photographs, Internet pages and other images and this meant I wasn’t understanding subtler aspects of the plot. In order to fully appreciate the book I got the hardback version from the library and was impressed by the visual content, but found that it was poorly written and couldn’t hold my attention. I switched back to the audio and noticed that the dialogue-led writing worked far better in this medium – all my issues with writing quality were resolved and I was gripped!

The story was long and meandering, but I loved the twists and turns. I thought it was well paced and some aspects were very cleverly thought out.  It wasn’t great literature, but it was entertaining and original. 

I was slightly worried that I’d find the horror film aspects of this book disturbing, but I didn’t find that to be the case. I guess that some people might have issues the darker scenes, but I found that descriptions were toned down to the right level for me. There was no gore or gratuitous violence and most of the scary sections involved psychological fear, mainly of the unknown.

Overall this was a memorable mystery and I recommend the audio version to anyone looking for something a little bit different.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

I read this book not once, but twice, unable to cut the ties that bind me to its brilliance. Jenn’s Bookshelves

…in a few places the novel veered into territory that was a little unnecessarily weird for me. The Book Project

It is overwritten and could have been edited down to about half its size… Caribousmom

2013 Crime Uncategorized

Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

Snow White Must Die Translated from the German by Steven T Murray

Five words from the blurb: girls, vanished, convicted, mystery, solved

Snow White Must Die is set in a small village near Frankfurt. Eleven years ago two teenage girls disappeared and 20-year-old Tobias was convicted of their murder, despite a lack of real evidence. After serving time in prison he returns to the family home, but the tight-knit community are upset by his release and begin a series of attacks on his family. Then another girl goes missing and Tobias becomes the prime suspect. The police and local residents soon realise that certain aspects of the case don’t add up and do everything possible to discover the truth, before things deteriorate further.

Snow White Must Die is a long book with plenty of twists and turns. The narrative complexity and the strong character development reminded me of Tana French and I’m sure that anyone who enjoyed In The Woods will appreciate this one.

Some aspects of the plot didn’t feel entirely realistic, but that can be forgiven in this genre. It had a compelling plot and managed to hold my attention throughout –  I especially liked the way the conclusion can be guessed if the reader pays attention to the clues sprinkled through the text.

At one point in the book I was disappointed by the portrayal of a character with autism and was planning a big rant in this post, but without spoiling anything I’ll just say that this was rectified in the end!

I read this book for German Literature Month but it didn’t feel very German. I’m not sure if this is a positive or a negative and I guess that depends on what you are looking for. It could have been set in any Western country and this universal nature means it will have broad appeal, but I felt it lacked a sense of place. I’d have liked to see more German culture in the book, but I’m probably in the minority.

Overall this was a solidly good piece of crime fiction. Nothing about it particularly stands out, but it was an enjoyable diversion while it lasted.


Post Reading Note: After finishing the book I discovered that Snow White Must Die isn’t the first book in the series, but it is the first to be translated into English. I never normally read books out of sequence, but when reading this one I didn’t feel as though I was missing anything. In fact the police played a fairly minimal role in this book, with the main emphasis being on Tobias and the residents of the village. I’d be interested to read other books in the series and see if this improves my relationship with the Detectives.