“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
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For any fan of books and reading, it sounds like a dream come true: a twenty-four hour bookstore, where you can show up anytime and be willingly accepted to browse the stacks and be surrounded by thousands of books and breathe in the literary scents.  But then there are some weird things going on at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore during the early hours of the morning, as well as some very strange characters coming in.

Clay Jannon is unemployed and looking for anything that will bring in some money, after being dumped out of the web-design world with the tough recession; and it ain’t cheap living in San Francisco.  And then one day he sees the help wanted sign at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  After having the interview and experimenting with going up the ladders that stretch high up the stacks of the three-story tall bookstore, he gets the job.  He works the nightshift from 10PM until 6AM, where Mr. Penumbra greets him in the early morning.  It seems like an easy job for okay pay, since there are hardly ever any customers.  At the front of the store is a small selection of regular selling books, but most of the store is taken up by unique and strange books all written in code.  Occasionally Clay gets customers coming into the story in the early hours of the morning, returning a book and borrowing a new one.  His job is to record the details and condition of these strange people in the great bookstore log.

As the story progresses, the curiosity grows and grows, for both Clay and the reader, wanting to know who these people are, what these coded books are all about, and what exactly it all means.  Clay wonders how a bookstore like this even stays in business.  And as he begins to dig deeper and deeper, he opens up the mystery and learns answers that lead to more questions and more curiosity.  The bookstore appears to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Robin Sloan’s debut novel plays well on the enjoyment of the reader, as well as slowly unraveling the mystery, in addition to taking the reader around San Francisco and into the heart of the Googleplex, and then across the country and back in time through a hidden history, all on the subject of books and their meaning.  Readers will be hooked with Sloan’s easy reading style and curious tale until the very end.

Originally written on November 10, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain” by Mark Twain (Everyman’s Library, 2012)

Mark Twain
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For anyone who’s grown up in the United States, you’ve more than likely been exposed to Mark Twain in one form or another, whether it’s having read one or more of his books in high school, seeing a biographical story about him on TV, or hearing one of the many hundreds of references about him; to many his is the quintessential “Great American Author.”  And just a little over a century after his passing, Everyman’s Library has released a beautiful hardcover edition collecting all of his short stories.  What makes these different stories compared to his novels?  Twain is freer and seems to have more fun with his short stories, being more uproarious, satirical and rollicking in the short prose than with the long.  This is the Twain that many may not be as familiar with, but it is well worth the read.

There is the strange tale of “The Facts in the Great Beef Contract” about a debt owed to a family by the US government for beef, and how as each family member passes without the payment being fulfilled, the next member ventures forth to try and get back what was owed.  There is the famous “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” set in the familiar Northern Californian “Angel’s Camp.”  “Journalism in Tennessee” is about a journalist taking on the agriculture section of a local newspaper, even though he knows nothing about farming, and proceeds to spew complete lies and fiction, incurring the ire of the local farmers.

Collectingall of Mark Twain’s sixty short stories, this collection shows the great author’s full breath from writing entertaining fiction, to travel pieces, to contemplative nonfiction; the only problem is that at times the line between fiction and reality becomes somewhat blurred.  But with Twain’s conversational and comforting voice, readers will be welcomed and taken on a truly great adventure.

Originally written on September 13, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Complete Stories of Mark Twain from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Phases of Gravity” by Dan Simmons (Subterranean Press, 2012)

Phases of Gravity
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The great Subterranean Press continues with its limited edition releases of Dan Simmons’ work, with his early bestseller, Phases of Gravity, originally published in 1989.  In Simmons’ classic style that has gone on to create many a fan and reader, as well as win multiple awards, Phases of Gravity seems to be a simple, straightforward story on the surface, but as the reader plunges deeper into its depths, it becomes something much larger and meaningful.

Phases of Gravity is a change from what fans might be used to with Simmons, as it features little of the horrific or science fictional, but is the story about what a man does when he has achieved the greatest pinnacle; how he lives his now very ordinary-seeming life.  Richard Baedecker has done what very few people on this planet have done: walked upon the surface of the room.  A former astronaut, Baedecker is now traveling around, wondering what to do with his life now that he has done what so few have.  He has a failed marriage and a son that hates him.  The book takes him to an unusual location in Poona, India, where he meets the beautiful and unique Maggie Brown who will help him in his personal quest to find his “places of power,” the locations that have had meaning to him in his past, and make him realize the importance of what he has.

Originally written on January 24, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Phases of Gravity from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Carrion Comfort    Drood    The Terror

“Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami (Vintage, 2000)

Norwegian Wood
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Norwegian Wood is the book that launched Japanese author Haruki Murakami from a mid-list author to international stardom and bestsellerdom, not just in his native Japan, but throughout the world.  With its unique combination of western world references and influences combined with the story of growing up in Japan, its success forced the author to leave Japan and live in Europe for some time.  It can best be summed up as Murakami’s Catcher in the Rye for Japan.

Norwegian Wood is a change from Murakami’s more well-known and expected dark and mysterious novels – usually involving some form of magical realism – featuring a down-to-earth story with some very unusual and special characters.  Toro is working his way through college, growing up in the late sixties, and Murakami seems to pulling a little from his own college years here, with the interesting details about Toro’s strange and overly-neat roommate, along with the growing animosity of the students on campus.  Toro’s closest friend killed himself when he was a teenager, and now his late best friend’s girlfriend – Naoko – has come back into his life.  As they meet and discuss and deal with the loss, their relationship grows and develops, yet Naoko is still having a very hard time dealing with what happened to her psychologically, as well as dealing with the world.

Told from Toro’s first-person perspective, it seems that Toro is the only grounded, “normal” person in the book.  But as the reader gets further along, they realize that Toro has his own problems and issues that he has been hiding.  Then there are his few strange friends, who would certainly not be considered normal by any means, not to mention the eccentric girls he meets up with; some he befriends, others he never sees again.

Norwegian Wood is about a boy becoming a man during the sixties in Japan, educating himself through college, and learning about love and life through relationships and choices.  It is an entertaining and moving story that also has a number of life lessons hidden within its pages.

Originally written on November 20, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Norwegian Wood from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Warriors” edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (Tor, 2010)

Warriors
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When you purchase  a copy of Warriors, even if you don’t get around to reading it right away, with its mighty girth it can serve a number of alternate uses such as a doorstop, a paperweight, a bookend, or anything else you can use a large brick-shaped object for; it is after all a 700+ page hardcover.  But once you start reading this epic anthology of great storytelling, you won’t want to use it for anything else until you get to that last page.

In an interview (coming in August), editor Gardner Dozois reveals that the anthology was mainly George R. R. Martin’s idea, to request a specific group of authors to write a story about “warriors through the ages,” from a variety of different genres.  The result is a massive anthology that features bestselling authors such as Diana Gabaldon, Robin Hobb, Peter S. Beagle, Steven Saylor, S. M. Stirling and Robert Silverberg; both Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin also have stories featured in this collection.

The anthology begins with a story from Cecilia Holland, entitled “The King of Norway,” revealing the tough world of the Vikings.  There are some fantasy stories about classic warriors, but also fiction stories about people being warriors in different ways.  One of the most unusual stories comes from James Rollins in “The Pit,” told from the viewpoint of a dog who has gone through a terrible life, kidnapped as a puppy and driven to madness and anger to be a fighting dog with the goal of killing its fellow kind and winning its master lots of money; but then it is rescued and doesn’t know if it can have a normal life again, until its master comes back to haunt its life.

The best and most interesting story of the collection, without a doubt, comes from an unlikely author in Carrie Vaughan with “The Girls from Avenger.”  This is the story of the women of World War II that little is known about: the Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASPs.  They were never allowed to fight in combat, but they were a necessary part of the military machine in flying planes to specific bases, testing and making sure they were all working fine.  In this story a friend of a close group of WASPs dies under strange circumstances, while the military does everything it can to cover it up and pretend it didn’t happen; Em is not going to let that happen, and is going to do everything she can to get to the bottom of why one of her good friends is now dead.

Whatever type of story you’re looking for, you will find it in this wonderful collection.  The idea of the warrior has many different meanings, and with the great variety of talented authors featured in Warriors, they all have a very unique story to tell.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on June 28 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Blockade Billy” by Stephen King (Cemetery Dance, 2010)

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It’s a known fact that Stephen King is a big baseball fan, and possibly one of the biggest Red Sox fans (if you doubt this, just read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon).  After the mighty tome of Under the Dome and with a four-novella book called Full Dark, No Stars due out in November, there’s another little story King is releasing to keep fans occupied.  Blockade Billy is a short, little book – just over a hundred pages – about baseball that is a perfect read for the start of summer and America’s favorite sport.

Way back when, in the early days of baseball when the players weren’t making much money and it was all about the rule and the game and the sport, the Titans of New Jersey had a bad start to the new season.  Their everyday catcher, while driving drunk, killed a woman and is in prison, while their scrawny beanpole of a backup catcher is mowed down in a play at the plate and ends up in the hospital.  Then the Titans find a young rookie from Iowa, William Blakely.

Blakely is strange character – in that great Stephen King way – who does an impressive job catching and hitting to boot.  At his first big play at the plate, Billy tags the runner out as the man flies over the catcher and is left with a sliced Achilles heel, never play properly again.  But Blakely wins the team and the fans over in that first game, as well as others to come.  He starts hitting balls out of the park, doing a great job of catching, and making some great plays at the plate.  The nickname – Blockade Billy – sticks and a legend is born.

The season continues and while the Titans don’t win every game, they do well and Blockade Billy continues to wow the crowds and the team.  Then a terrible secret is discovered.  About Blakely.  His career is over; the Titan’s games are stricken from the record, and every effort is made to eradicate the name of William Blakely from history.

The story is told in third person to King from the former third-base coach, now in his old age, who remembers this high time of baseball and the infamous memory that was Blockade Billy.  King writes it in his colloquial, easy to read style, slowly giving out the details and keeping the reader completely hooked, needing to know what the story is behind Blockade Billy.  But I’m not going to give that away here; you’ll have to read the book to find out.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on May 18 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

 

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

“Rapture” by Susan Minot (Knopf, 2002)

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Much like Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, Rapture is a story about a doomed relationship. Benjamin already has a fiancée by the name of Vanessa who he’s pretty sure he’s still in love with, while Kay meets Benjamin on the shooting of a movie and from then on the game plays out.  Sometimes he is madly in love with her, while she just wants to get away from him, while at other times the opposite takes place, and rarely do the two want each other.  What makes Rapture unique are a few things: the book takes place entirely around the setting of Kay going down on Benjamin, and this oral sex does not reach its orgasmic conclusion until page 112; and the reader is not only in the head of Benjamin or Kay, but both of them, each mind separated by a single asterisk, and each time you know whose head you are in because Minot follows the plan exactly.

Minot also has many lessons to give you: “Once a boy felt he’d made a conquest, then his energy was released and he was free to move on and put the girl out of his mind.  For a girl, that conquest left its hook in.”  The only think lacking in Rapture is a comfortable sense of the outside world which most books tend to offer.  Because of this  we do not know where we are, what jobs the characters have, and are confined to the narrow minds of these bizarre yet perfectly realistic characters.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally published on May 6th 2002.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.