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

penumbraThere’s that feeling that you get when you step into an old bookstore with shelves to the ceiling and rolling ladders and creaky stairs.  For me, it’s a feeling of possibility, like I’m stepping in to worlds unknown. I’m delighted to say that reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore gave me the same feeling.

As our hero wanders aimlessly looking for work, he steps into one such bookstore and begins learning about a secret world of bibliophiles who believe that the solution to one of our greatest quests can be found within the pages of a book.  Working the night shift, Clay meets some odd people, but there are a select group of customers who belong to Mr. Penumbra’s highly secretive book club, and who only borrow certain items, which are later exchanged for others.  Despite warnings not to get involved, Clay can’t help himself and quickly becomes immersed in this underground community.

And then just when you think this is an homage to the written word and intricately bound old tomes, enter Google, ebooks, and computer processing so fast that the human mind cannot comprehend it.  This novel is a book about loving books, but also an argument for writing in all its forms.  There’s no need to demonize the digital age here. Sloan does an outstanding job of making these two diverging worlds compatible and the result is a fast-paced story that stands as a testament to the written word in all it’s guises. 

This is exactly the kind of book for a 20-something year old who can move seamlessly from the dust of an old book jacket to the uses of Google Street View and back again, and is written from the point of view (and for someone) in a certain time in their life. Friends are doing well in emerging careers, or they’re not doing much at all.  People bounce from job to job and it’s perfectly acceptable to build a small town out of recycled materials in your living room. Working from 10pm-6am doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world, and you struggle to find some way to leave your mark on in the world. For me, this was the perfect book that had great timing, but for some, the subtle humour will be lost and the charm of this lifestyle won’t impress.  Don’t let that deter you though, the writing is excellent and the mystery will keep you reading regardless. 

After that the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind.  But I hope you will remember this: A man walking fast down a dark lonely street.  Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time. (p.288)

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder (Virga Book 1)

sunofsunscover

Stumbling across something new and unique is always exciting as a reader, especially in genres that can be full of tired characters setting out in search of (insert magical object or fabled technology here).  Science Fiction is one such genre can too often be disappointing.  I’m happy to report that Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder is a departure from the norm.

Virga is a world adrift in space.  Contained in one massive balloon (it sounds silly, but is never treated as such in the story) the people of Virga mine the resources of asteroids and live in ringed cities, vying for access to Candesce, the original massive star the provides energy for those lucky enough to take advantage.  Since its initial construction, the technology that created the sun has been lost, and all the people of Virga can muster is miniatures of Candesce. Now control of these smaller stars is the basis of power in a place where everyone is adrift, and alliances readily shift. 

Add two mad scientists who work to discover the secrets of the sun in an effort to change the circumstances of their own small corner of the world by building their own star.  Enter powerful empire who has a lot to lose if this happens, and you have a bizarre space battle that sets in motion the events of the rest of the book. 

Sun of Suns is a display of master world building, though I had to get used to the parameters of that world.  I am fairly familiar with astronomical distances and units of measurement (in the abstract way that humans can think about these sorts of things) and at times I felt Virga to be overwhelmingly big, and at others, too small for the events being described.  Nevertheless, it provides an arena for unique storytelling and allows the reader to really get immersed in the narrative.

When I think back over the plot details and the character development, I’m struck by how little seems to have happened.  As this is book one of a series, there is obviously a fair amount of set up that Schroeder needs to do, especially when we are entering a world that is completely foreign to us.  That being said, I never felt that things were moving too slowly, or that the book was full of filler.  The details were essential to the story, and the characters and their motivations are key to this.  Our hero, Hayden is driven by a need for revenge, but this quickly takes a back seat to the events surrounding him, and he changes into someone more complex and frankly, worth reading about.  The supporting cast is designed to be the key elements that make the story work, and none of them are there just to throw in the extra line about how they’re all in trouble.  They each serve a valuable purpose, and Schroeder leaves the extras in the background where they belong.

I’m excited to see what comes next in the series as we follow some of the other characters around Virga.  There will be more to learn about the world outside of the balloon (we’ve only heard some hints and tidbits at this point, but it’s enough to keep my interest peaked) and to see how societies develop in this strange world of pirating and low-tech technologies (this has the flavour of steampunk).  Book 2, Queen of Candesce was published in 2008 and it eagerly awaiting a good read-through on my bedside table.

Abdication by Juliet Nicholson

abdicationI’m a big fan of the British.  I like their drama, I like the way they choose to handle difficult situations (or should I say, the way they choose to ignore difficult situations and have tea instead). I love the history of the island and the way it’s shaped their stories.  And I love the monarchy, despite what arguments may currently be made for its absolution. Abdication by Juliet Nicholson incorporates the best of all of these things.

The story follows the lives of two women, both of whom have reasons to look for fresh starts.  Evangeline is a woman of status but of little money, middle aged, and overweight.  When an invitation comes from her childhood friend to come and visit England, she jumps at the opportunity.  May is an adventurous young women fresh from Barbados.  She’s a born mechanic and manages to secure herself a chauffeuse position for a notable household that just happens to be playing host to Evangeline.  The two make frequent trips around the country, most notably to Evangeline’s friend, Wallis Simpson who is currently playing host to the Prince of Wales.

Set primarily in the 1930’s, Abdication follows the story of Edward VIII’s decision to abdicate the throne in favour of a marriage to Wallis, a divorced American woman with possible Nazi leanings.  The story is fascinating and the plot is structured in a way as to give the reader glimpses into royal life without the nasty business of putting words into the mouths of the royal family.  May and Evangeline are well-developed characters on their own who face their own problems, and the business of succession is played out more as an afterthought than as the focus of the narrative.  The result is decidedly Downton Abbey-esque.

Nicholson’s understanding of the period is evident.  A graduate from Oxford, her non-fiction works include “The Perfect Summer ; England 1911, Just Before the Storm” and “The Great Silence ; Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age”.  Her meticulous research flows effortlessly into the dialogue and atmosphere of this novel, and it should be highly recommended for anyone looking to read historical fiction of this period.

[Note : King Edward VIII by Philip Ziegler (2012) tells the true story of Edward, the only British monarch to abdicate his throne voluntarily]

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

ImageYoung adult is not typically a genre I delve in to, and when I think back to when I was a teenager, I don’t remember reading much of it either.  I think I skipped a chunk of my reading life and moved almost immediately into adult fiction and haven’t looked back, so this one was a bit of an experiment for me.

A bit about the plot.  Cas is a teenaged boy who travels the world killing ghosts who continue to haunt the world be performing grisly murders of their own.  Trained by his now-dead father, Cas goes where he is needed, attends a new high school. and is his down time, lurks the most haunted places hoping to ensnare the ghost and kill them…again.  Always cautious to avoid making friends or letting anyone in on his secrets, Cas is in for a surprise when he moves to Thunder Bay with his witch mother to take care of Anna, a young woman who was murdered in 1958 on her way to a school dance.  Inevitably, this case is different for Cas as he is forced to rely on some new friends to overcome an extremely powerful being who’s body count continues to grow.

Teen drama aside, I was pleasantly surprised. There were things that I assumed would be there (teenage protagonist, high school cliches, and in new YA novels, a touch of the supernatural to draw the readers in) but I liked that the writing didn’t seem to cater specifically to a younger audience.  There was profanity, graphic descriptions of murders, and some downright creepy moments as haunted houses are explored.  Perhaps this is true for most YA fiction these days, but it’s good to see that fiction isn’t talking down to teenagers.  Authors are trying to write interesting (albeit usually unbelievable) stories that still say something about being a teen without making it a sermon about how to survive high school.

I was impressed with the quality of writing, though perhaps I shouldn’t have such low expectations.  The plot moved well and had a good mix of expected and unexpected elements.  Some of the characters fell a little flat, but our hero was well thought out and the story benefited from being inside his head at critical moments. As a professional killer of ghosts, he’s our expert in the supernatural world, and from a narrative perspective, it’s essential that we know what is normal in his life, and why things go wrong when they do.

I would go so far as to say that after reading this, I will read more YA in the future, albeit with a grain of salt and discerning eye for authors who can handle this genre well.  At the first hint of a sparkly vampire, I’m out.

 

The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman

cover-ransomcityI saw this book tagged somewhere as “weird western” which is surprisingly accurate. The Rise of Ransom City feels at times like a Western, where our hero travels west to undiscovered country in search of adventure and a new life. The main problem with this is that the novel is set in a fantastic world, which would cause some to plop this firmly in the Fantasy genre. Then we have elements of folklore, science fiction, and steampunk that all mashed together make the book hard to describe. If all of this seems like too much for you, you’re likely not alone, but Gilman’s latest effort is well worth your time.

This is the story of Harry Ransom. If you know his name it’s most likely as the inventor of the Ransom Process, a stroke of genius that changed the world.

The novel is written as a combination of letters written by Ransom as he travels west to found Ransom City that have been later compiled by his friend into a cohesive story about Ransom, his discoveries, and his efforts to bring electricity to the world. The narrative must be taken with a grain of salt as Ransom writes as though a proud father seeking to share his beloved child with the world. It is quickly apparently that his version of events is subject to scrutiny and controversy.

Though the story meandered at times, the plot pacing fit with the story, and there were always details about Ransom and the Ransom process that kept me going. The setting was at once familiar and exotic, and I felt as though I spent a lot of time sorting out parallels with the real American West at the turn of the 20th century that added an extra layer of credibility to the story.

This book is truly unique and I would recommend it to anyone looking to read something new and different.  The ending wasn’t entirely memorable, and there was some slow spots, but in hindsight, these observations seem minor compared to the otherwise richly imagined story.

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

John Tallow is having a bad day.

While responding to a routine 911 call, John’s partner is killed and he is forced to shoot a naked man who is clearly suffering a mental break. During the commotion, a stray bullet has been shot into the wall of a locked apartment, and if anyone was inside, they’re not responding. Giving the order to break down the door, NYPD Detective Tallow discovers the religion of a mad man. They cover every surface and are arranged in intricate patterns. The apartment is full of guns.

To make matters worse, it is quickly discovered that each of the recovered weapons can be matched to an unsolved homicide dating back 20 years. Some guns are new and can quickly be connected to a New York crime. Others are far older and their origins prove more of a mystery. One of the guns belonged to the Son of Sam.

John Tallow is having a bad day.

While following Detective Tallow’s investigation into the collection of guns, we are introduced to a variety of interconnected characters whose motives come across as murky at best. There is the director of a large financial corporation bent on squeezing every penny out of Wall Street by whatever means necessary. There is the owner of a security company whose wife has discovered his secrets and has suffered terribly for it. There is the Crime Scene Unit technician who fakes being autistic to excuse her inept social behaviours. And there are the myriad of NYPD employees who may or may not be loyal to the department.

At the center of this web is the hunter, a man more at home in the wild than in the modern city. Able to see both present day New York and the pre-colonial landscape that existed before Dutch colonization, the hunter moves freely in both worlds, appearing to belong to neither. As more information comes to light about the apartment and his connection to it, the extent of the hunter’s participation becomes clearer, but new questions arise as to who he is and what is driving him.

Gun Machine is a gritty work of fiction that reads like a police procedural, but award-winning graphic novelist Warren Ellis’ ability to weave a subtle element of fantasy into the story sets this mystery apart. Fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files may be drawn to the plot, but don’t expect a fully realized blending of our world and the supernatural. Gun Machine is a bit of an experiment in genre-bending, and the story will appeal as much to mainstream mystery fans as it does to those looking for fantasy.

The alternating narrative style between Tallow and the hunter makes for a fast-paced story, full of intrigue and dramatic tension. Ellis’ strength as a storyteller comes across in direct prose that doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions and expletive dialogue. His experiences as a graphic novelist are evident throughout the story as the details of the environment come to life in a vivid and jarring way. The result is a New York City that is bleak and unforgiving and full of criminal potential.

While some readers may shy away from a story about a detective on the hunt for a serial killer, Ellis proves that a procedural can be surprising and unexpected. His characters exist in their world as completely organic, fleshed out people whose interaction is as natural as it is unpredictable. This is evident as the story begins to take shape, but as the novel progresses, things begin to develop much as you would expect them to.

The hint of the fantastic that made this novel an exciting prospect at the outset begins to fade into Tallow’s investigation. Towards the end of the novel, events begin to occur at breakneck speed, and readers are forced to suspend their disbelief that any investigation could progress this quickly. The conclusion comes in a flurry of action contained in the final few pages, but the ending falls flat when everything comes together in a nice neat bow.

Gun Machine was eagerly anticipated before its release, and was featured in a number of lists highlighting new and noteworthy books to come in 2013. Some of these articles focused on fantasy releases, others were open to books of all genres. What was initially heralded by some as a procedural with a sneaky addition of some supernatural elements turns out to be more at home firmly in the cop drama genre. The bit of weird and possibly magical dissolves into issues of mental health and an obviously unnatural obsession with gun ownership.

Nevertheless, Gun Machine is a thrilling tale and well worth the read. The story is unique and unlike anything I’ve read, all the while fitting the bill as a massively appealing crime thriller.
Ellis’ work continues to be in a category of its own and leaves one eagerly anticipating his next effort.

For fans of Gun Machine, it is worth noting that Ellis’ website reports that the story is currently being developed for television by Chernin Entertainment and Fox.

January 1, 2013
Mulholland Books (Little, Brown & Co.)
308 p.