Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

If I were to win the lottery tomorrow, several things would happen in quick succession.  1- I’d quit my job.  (Don’t get me wrong, I like my job, but come on.)  2- I’d buy a little country cottage (either in Canada or the UK, I haven’t decided yet), and stuff it with books.  3- I’d probably get a part-time job in an independent bookstore.  I have a desire to have a low-pressure life in which I am surrounded by books.  (And I don’t think that’s asking too much.)  So, when I heard about my latest read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, I was intrigued.  A bookstore that could be accessed at any time?  And the picture on the cover looks exactly what my country-cottage would look like (yes, I judged a book by its cover.  I do it all the time.).  Once I got into the book however, I found it wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be, but man, was it an enjoyable read!

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is the story of Clay, a recently unemployed web-designer who is desperately looking for a job after the down-turn in the market.  While wandering around San Francisco, he sees a help wanted sign in the window of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, and stops in to see if it would be a good fit.  Once he’s gotten the job, however, Clay finds himself in an odd reality of working the over-night shift where he’s asked to record (in minute detail) each customer he serves – but that’s not saying much, as sometimes days go by without seeing anyone.  And yet, when people do come in, it’s to borrow what appear to be encoded books from the older-section of the store.  Clay can’t get a beat on what is going on.  In order to stave off boredom, Clay creates a 3D model of the store and the lending history of the books – quickly, a pattern emerges that leads Clay to an odd reality and collection of truths.  In reality, Clay’s job at the bookstore is a quest for…. well, everything and anything, really. 

In his book, Sloan has created a cast of characters that could each support their own plot and books.  Clay is the modern every-man, and yet he feels like something of a beta-male; while he’s quite capable on his own, and can be pushed into stepping up to the plate, he’s smart enough to recognize his limitations, and depends on those around him with special skills to see him through tough situations.  Kate, his girlfriend, is a real fire-cracker of a woman; she’s smart, capable, and knows what she wants and goes for it.  Neel, his childhood friend, proves the theory that men will interact with their friends as they did at the age when they met; while both Clay and Neel are grown men, their interactions often feels like a sixth-grade recess – it’s adorable and charming.  And Mr. Penumbra – he is just a sweet, dedicated and charming man in a cardigan who you want to be friends with.

In terms of writing style, Sloan brings to this book an ingrained sense of humour that adds an extra layer to the work.  This story could easily have been told straight, just relying on the characters and plot to carry it.  But as it is narrated by Clay in the first person, the reader gets to access his internal monologue, which has a tongue-in-cheek attitude that adds an extra layer to the over-all effect of the book.  If Sloan had told the story straight, he might have come across as taking himself too seriously, but with this extra dynamic thrown in, he tempers the conspiracy-theory feel of the plot and makes it relatable and believable.  

What I found so great about this book was that it tapped into the literary intersection that our society currently finds itself in.  As a historian, I’ve been wearily watching the developments in the world of writing for year; I’m not talking about writing styles/themes/topics (because those are always changing), but about how people are accessing what they are reading.  eReaders and the internet are changing how people are interacting with literature; for almost 500 years (since Guttenberg), you only had one choice – words printed on paper.  But in the last decade, reading has taken a quantum-leap forward into the virtual landscape.  The newspaper industry is experiencing its last gasp as on-line news networks and blogs are making them obsolete, publishers are releasing electronic versions at the same time as paper versions of their products, and book sellers seem to be placing as much importance on their eVersions as the old fashion versions of their wares.  

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is set in the old world; the plot revolves around bound-paper books; and yet major plot pieces depend heavily on technology.  I learned a tremendous amount about programming, the internet, and Google while reading this book.  For a book that I thought would be able working in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, a lot of the action is dependent on the intangible world that is cyberspace.  It was an odd, interesting, and engaging dynamic that I wasn’t looking for.

So, final verdict?  Read this book, definitely.  Sloan has created a wonderful story, engaging characters, and an ode to the literary and modern world.  The only question you have to ask yourself is, are you going to read the paper or the eVersion?  I’ll leave that up to you, but I firmly believe there’s something to be said for the smell of the book….

Seven for a Secret, by Lyndsay Faye

It is no secret that I’m a fan of Lyndsay Faye (see here, and here, oh, and here).  I find Faye’s writing to hold a sensibility that combines the classical Arthur Conan Doyle plot-style with a more modern Law and Order feel of character and setting development.  Her works are always absorbing and engaging, and I can’t speak highlight enough of them as a great way to spend a quiet day reading.  So when her latest book came out this month, I was super excited to see it in my local Chapters store.  Seven for a Secret is the second book in Faye’s Wilde Brothers cannon, and it’s a great addition to her portfolio.

Seven for a Secret picks up a few months after The Gods of Gotham ends (and, I’ll admit, I didn’t re-read GoG and I really wish I had).  In Seven for a Secret, Timothy Wilde finds himself drawn into the politics and every-day reality of a society that is teetering on the brink of a civil war over the question of slavery.  Set in New York, Timothy is drawn into the world of ‘blackbirders,’ who were something like modern-day bounty-hunters, tasked with capturing escaped black slaves who had fled to the North.  New York, as a major urban-centre, was either a good place to disappear to, or a stopping-place on the Underground Railroad to Canada and freedom.  Timothy becomes drawn into this world when Lucy Wright finds her sister and son missing, and appeals to Tim to investigate where they have been taken too.  What follows is a completely engaging tale of twists, turns and danger that ends with such heart-breaking simplicity and yet complexity that this is a book destined to give you a book hangover.

While the plot is masterful, you can’t overlook the characters that drive it.  Timothy Wilde is at once a highly-capable detective and yet a massive a ball of self-doubt – the dynamic this creates makes you want to hug him and reassure him that everything will turn out alright.  Contrast him to his bluff brother Valentine, who barrels through life with a level of self-assuredness that we all strive for; while Val knows, respects and likes who he is, in reality, he engages in a variety of precarious situations that, if they became known, could be the ruin of him.  Mrs. Boehm and Bird, the women who make up Tim’s domestic existence seem to be Tim’s unlooked for rewards for being a good man, and a good copper.  They bring a level of vulnerability and goodness to Tim’s life that makes the reader glad he has some safe-harbour to return to at the end of the day.  While these are just a handful of the main characters, the secondary and supporting characters are equally well-crafted, dynamic and engaging.  Even the villains are presented in such a way that you’d almost like Faye to write books for each of them, just so you could hear about their stories some more.

In terms of writing style, Faye blew me away.  There were long stretches of the book where I recognized the language she was using as English, but in which she imbued her narrative and dialogue with such a delicate and engaging rhythm that I would go back and re-read it several times just to enjoy the patter of it all.  Faye’s writing style incorporates a lot of ‘flash’ terminology, but she’s also managed to create (what seems to be) a new and dynamic way of presenting the English language in term of pacing and arrangement – it almost becomes a language of its own.  When reading this book, take your time, and really enjoy these passages – they are a revelation of what can be done with a deft hand and a good ear for language.

So, final verdict?  I think it’s pretty obvious.  Read this book.  Read all of Faye’s books, and make sure you are plugged into the publishing world to know when the next one is coming out.  I believe Faye is almost done with the third book in her Wild Brother series, and I already can’t wait to get my hands on it.  Faye is an author I’m going to be following for years to come.

Roxana, by Daniel Defoe

The laundry room in my building has paid off yet again!  Living in a (mostly) university student building, there are several times of year when my neighbors are coming and going, and a lot of them don’t want to move with their books (which, for the life of me, I don’t understand).  Well, that’s where I come in to give these poor, abandoned books a home.  And that’s how I came across my last read, Roxana, by Daniel Defoe.

I have read some of Defoe’s work in the past; I used one of his economic treaties in my thesis, and I read Robinson Crusoe for a utopian-fiction English lit class.  Roxana, by contrast, is I think one of the most salacious pieces of historical literature I have ever read.  Roxana tells the life story of Suzanne (? Sp?), from her teens when she marries her first husband, so her mid-50s when she appears to settle into marriage with her second husband.  In the in-between, however, Suzanne supports herself and her intrepid maid, Amy, by being a mistress to series of wealthy and powerful men.  

Defoe, as an author, has a lot of quirks, to say the least.  In both Roxana and Crusoe (at least in the versions I have), the work is peppered with random capitalization and italics.  This creates a certain rhythm to the work that you pick up after a few pages, but can at times be quite distracting.  Defoe also populates Roxana with a lot of run-on sentences and paragraphs that can require some mental contortion-work to follow.  Also, his dialogue is usually buried in paragraphs without a clear distinction of who is speaking – the reader has to really be on the ball to catch who is saying what.  Most frustrating to the modern reader (well, to me, at least), is that in 300+ pages, there’s no chapter breaks.  It’s hard to know when you can step away from the book and you’ve got to look for natural end-points/changes of topic in the narrative.  Finally, Defoe was a forgetful and (sometimes) less than diligent author; he contradicts himself at several points.  He mentions that after one of Suzanne/Roxana’s lovers leaves her, she never sees him again – but he does pop up several times later on in the book; Defoe also vacillates at several points on Suzanne’s age.  My English-lit prof reminded us that Defoe was working with a hand-written manuscript, so going back to fact-check would have been harder on him than modern authors have it – I had to remind myself of that several times.

In terms of characters, Suzanne is a conundrum.  She seems to want to do the best for those who depend on her, and yet she also seems to have a cruel streak that doesn’t quite conform to this characteristic.  Amy, her lady’s maid, is more straight forward – she will do anything for Suzanne.  The men that come and go from Suzanne’s life all have the same characteristic (with a couple of exception) – they are good men who only want the best for her.  That becomes a little unbelievable at a certain point.  As for the rest of individuals that she comes into contact with, I had to wonder how a woman with such shaky morals kept finding such good people – but that’s the truth in humanity’s existence, isn’t it?  Good things happen to bad people all the time.

While the plot is relatively quick-moving, it relies on some of the tropes that I find in classical novels that drive me nuts.  Long-lost acquaintances/children pop-up at just the right moment to advance the plot, a bad situation suddenly turns good at the last minute (and vice versa), and (in this case) the author hints at several side-stories to the main plot, but tells his reader that he can’t get distracted to tell them.  Then why mention them? 

On the whole, however, this book is incredibly dirty.  Defoe doesn’t shy from letting his reader know when Suzanne takes a man into her bed, when Amy is inveigled into doing the same, or the business-side of mistress-ing.  When you read the book keeping in mind the contemporary context (ie. the 18th century audience), you have to wonder how this book was received…  Even with my modern sensibilities, I’ll admit I blushed a couple of times.

So, final verdict?  This book isn’t going to be for everyone.  It’s probably not even going to be for everyone who regularly reads classical works.  In a lot of ways, it’s a little inaccessible, and I’m not even sure it’s worth struggle through it.  If, however, you enjoy reading books that you had previously been assigned for an English lit class that you didn’t read at the time, or books that are rife with opportunities for literary analysis, then yes, I think you’d enjoy this book.  But am I going to recommend it?  No.  Let’s just say, I think the price I paid to get the book was just right…

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Lyndsay Faye Chooses Her Own Adventure Interview!

CYOAI is an interview series with authors, where I send them 10 random questions, and ask them to answer whichever they feel inspired to tackle.  The questions are generally about the author's opinions and personal experiences, but are meant to be light-hearted and a window into a person's creative nature. 

This month's interview features Lyndsay Faye, author of Dust and Shadow and Gods of Gotham! A big thank you to Lyndsay for humouring me in answering my questions!  Let's see what Lyndsay's answers were!

What's your first book-related memory?

Hmmm.  I don't have one.  I was never not reading, really.  My parents were obsessed with great storytelling and read to me all the time, and I started reading very early, before I can quite remember it--I was extremely lucky to have a pair of book lovers for parents.  That and FYI, I have a memory like a steel sieve.  I do know that before I could read, I'd correct my mom when she tried to skip paragraphs in bedtime stories.  I was an obnoxious little animal.

What's one word or turn of phrase that you've felt compelled to work into your writing?

There's a lot of a language called "flash patter" in the Timothy Wilde novels, and in the new one, Seven for a Secret, I absolutely could not stop myself from including an interlude about what the word "O.K." actually means (it's an acronym).  Tim and Val Wilde, who patter flash, comprehend its meaning and their friend Mr. Piest has to ask what on earth O.K. signifies (the word was coined as a joke in 1838).

What book by another author do you wish you had written?

I wish I had written plenty of books I didn't write, believe me.  Some are classics, some are modern.  Let's make it easy on me and say The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

Honestly?  Everywhere.  My feelings and struggles.  Historical feelings and struggles.  The struggles of my family and friends.  The struggles of characters I love.  I find inspiration in...struggles, I have just discovered.  Emotional, physical, economic, racial, intellectual.  Thank you for enlightening me.

Do you reread books?  If so, which ones?

I've read the Sherlock Holmes mysteries a thousand times, and I'll keep reading them until I'm dead.  When I was younger and had the time, I did the same with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but now I have to read new things constantly, which is a joy, so my Tolkien re-reads have fallen largely by the wayside.

If you weren't a writer, what would you do as a profession?

I'd probably still be a waitress trying to be an actress.  I was even successful at times.

What's your opinion on Shakespeare?

There are subtle little Shakespeare breadcrumbs all throughout my books.  For instance, at one point in The Gods of Gotham, someone calls out in the darkness asking whether it's Timothy Wilde and Tim says, "Something like him," which echoes Horatio (one of my favorite characters) at the beginning of Hamlet.  I learned from Shakespeare that characters with wild, operatic emotions can stand the test of time if their feelings are genuine.  I suppose that likely answers your question, doesn't it?

Use the word 'slurry' in a sentence.

The snow tumbled to the streets of New York City in fat flakes that seemed to carry actual weight, and would turn to a grime-crusted slurry come morning.

Lyndsay's next book, Seven for a Secret, is available for purchase starting September 17, 2013.

**If you’re an author that would like to participate in the Choose Your  Own Adventure Interview series, please contact me at**

Madame Tussaud, by Michelle Moran

To me, some of the most interesting bits of history are the coincidences and the randomness that can occur.  When I was reading the biography of Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser, I was intrigued to hear the Madame Tussaud, she of the famous wax museums, was tasked with creating a wax model of the recently executed Marie Antoinette.  It seemed like such a random little curiosity-fact; it sat in the back of my head for years, so when I noted the historical-fiction Madame Tussaud, by Michelle Moran, I was intrigued and wanted to know more.

In the late 1780s, Paris was a seething collection of the extremely poor and the extremely rich; the poor were over-taxed, under-fed, and had no voice in the direction of the nation (which, don’t get your knickers in a knot, was kind of the standard of the era, though it was pretty bad in France).  The result was the growth of a movement for change; inspired by the recent American Revolution, Parisians rose up against the monarchy to demand equality as humans and in their rights.  It did not end well; the king and queen lost their heads, the people turned against each other, and the provisional government (and I call them that because I personally see them as usurpers without any real authority other than torches and pitchforks) began executing people en mass for a wide variety of suspicions and malicious intent, without a lot of cause (this is know as The Terror in French history).

Moran’s work tells the story of Marie Grosholtz, beginning in Paris the early days of the French Revolution.  Marie has apprenticed with her adoptive father for years to learn how to model wax figures, and how to make a business out of it.  Their Palais de Cire is a popular place for the leaders of the French revolution to meet and discuss the issues before the Revolution begins and in its early days, and so Marie is exposed to all the pertinent movers and shakers of the day.  As the Revolution proceeds, her family and friends are caught up in the horror of it all; Marie is forced to do what she can to survive, while watching those around her engage with the new realities of 1790s Paris.  Marie’s family’s philosophy is to appear as Patriots and Royalists as the situation requires, but to be Survivalists at the end of the day – it’s a course of action that stands them in good stead.

While Moran’s work is set on the back-drop of the French Revolution, she does an amazing job of creating personalities and character traits for the historical figures that make up the bulk of her story.  Her characters are engaging and dynamic, and completely believable; from Robespierre to the Princesse Royale, Moran tackles each of the main players of the French Revolution, and takes them out of the history books and imbues them with a sense of living humanity.

While this period of history isn’t my forté, I know enough about it to recognize that this book is well-researched and respects the era it is representing.  Peppered throughout the work are quotes from contemporary journals and treaties, the philosophy of the French Revolution runs throughout the actions of the main characters, and the feel of the uncertainty and terror of the age is palpable.  In some works of historical fiction, it’s easy to spot where an author had a specific historical source they wanted to incorporate into their story; often times, this type of thing is introduced ham-fistedly and ruins the flow of the work.  But Moran never has this problem; all her sources and research flows effortlessly into a fictionalized account of a well-known historical event.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  If you’re uninformed about the French Revolution, it’s an incredibly well-written story set against a lot of factual evidence.  If you are familiar with this period of history, it’s an interesting and novel view of the period, as it doesn’t really take sides, other than to come down on the side of humanity.  Moran has written several other works about other women in history, and I’ll be looking to pick them up in the future, and what better recommendation can I give than that?

Daniel Knox Series, by Will Adams

I have a lot of respect for my Aunt Alvine.  She has a philosophy when it comes to books that I just don’t understand: when she starts something, she finishes it, damn it.  The number of books that I’ve started and then walked away from is legion, but not Alvine.  She’s one of the only people I know personally who has been able to finish reading Mein Kampf, and not because she agreed with the ravings of the mad-man who wrote it; she told me that reading MK was a painful experience (morally, and as a reader – Hitler had a penchant for run-on sentences and circular logic, after all), but she finished it.  I made it 30 pages before giving up.  So, when Alvine gives me books to read, I’m a little leery – are they actually worth it, or is she just clearing her shelf of something she’s done with, and won’t read again?  She’s clever like that…

A few years ago, Alvine give my dad the Daniel Knox series, by Will Adams, which include The Alexander Cipher, The Exodus Quest, The Lost Labyrinth, and The Eden Legacy.  My dad read them, then passed them along to me with a luke-warm review.  The series follows archeologist Daniel Knox through a bunch of adventures that are based on historical people and places, such as Alexander the Great and the Garden of Eden.  I can’t tell you much more about these books, because I only read the first.

When my dad gave me these books, my first question was, ‘are the characters engaging?’ and he prevaricated.  Not a good sign.  Though, I think the problem he had with the books was that the history was wishy-washy.  To me, I found the characters under-developed and non-engaging, the history was spotty in places and Adams went for sensationalism in solving his plots, and the writing-style relied on repeated tropes that became annoying very quickly (i.e. rather than having Knox school someone on history, he’ll ask “what do you know about person/place/story X?” – the first time it comes across as a kindness from the character not wanting to embarrass another character, but after that first time, it becomes an annoying plot device the author relies on).

So, final verdict?  I would characterize these books as ‘harmless.’  They’re good for some beach-blanket reading if you’re looking for something to distract yourself but not engage in.  But, given the lack of engaging characters, the spotty plots, and the writing style, they aren’t something I’d recommend.  Usually, when I write about a series, I finish it before posting about it.  However, given I was only able to get through the first book, and had no interest in reading the others, I felt now was the time to post.  I might, in the future, come back to these books, but I highly doubt it; unlike Alvine, I can (and do) happily walk away from books that feel like a waste of time, and that what the Daniel Knox series feels like to me.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

New Feature! Choose Your Own Adventure Interview!

Starting this Saturday, I’m starting a monthly feature called “Choose Your Own Adventure Interview”! 
CYOAI is an interview series with authors, where I send them a series of  10 random questions, and ask them to answer whichever they feel inspired to tackle. The questions are generally about the author's opinions and personal experiences, but are meant to be light-hearted and a window into a person's creative nature. 
The first edition will feature Lyndsay Faye, author of Dust and Shadow and Gods of Gotham! A big thank you to Lyndsay for humouring me in answering my questions! 
Look for the first edition of CYOAI this Saturday morning, then (hopefully!) monthly there after!
 Happy reading! 
**If you’re an author that would like to participate in the Choose Your  Own Adventure Interview series, please contact me at**