Book Geek Heaven – ‘Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore’ by Robin Sloan


You know, I’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy cults all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.

I’ll be up front about Mr Penumbra’s bookstore. I loved it. It felt like it had been written just for me. Pretty much everything I love about life and reading encapsulated in 290 breezy entertaining pages. Since I’m clearly the chosen one to receive this book, trusting my review is probably foolhardy. A bit like asking the Pope what he thinks of the Bible, or for those of a less theistic nature, asking Dawkins about Darwin.

MP24HB is geek manna. There are codes, references to Tolkien and D&D, 500 year codexes, technology, quests, Google (lots and lots of Google) and even a fictitious fantasy trilogy. And, of course, there’s an impossibly vertical bookstore, with ladders.

Clay Jannon is down on his luck. A designer from San Francisco, once riding high at an Internet start up, he is a victim of the slump. Desperate for a job he answers an ad in a bookstore window, after which he takes on the night shift. Mr Penumbra’s bookstore is most peculiar. Not only are its shelves vertiginous, but it doesn’t really sell any books. At the front of the store is a motley collection of books for sale that no one wants. At the back is a peculiar lending library; beautifully bound books, that Clay is prohibited from opening. They are borrowed by a peculiar assortment of night-time bibliophiles.

Bored, and keen to make a difference, Clay attempts to modernise his antiquated workplace. The results are, to say the least, unexpected. Along with a couple of friends Clay finds himself on a quest to understand the purpose of the bookstore. It may even be a quest for eternal life. The novel explores the intersection of traditional technology ie books, with modern technology, I.e. Kindles. Clay’s friends Kat and Neel are trailblazers in the world of computing technology.

Harold's PlanetKat works at Google and is a fervent believer in its might. She is convinced computers will form part of the next evolutionary leap. Neel owns a successful company that makes its money from simulation. Which I suppose is the nub of the book. Real vs Virtual. Is a digitised copy of a book the same as the real thing?

Mr Penumbra’s 24hr Bookstore is a bibliophiles wet dream. It reminded me a little of retro-geek thriller Ready Player One, but where that novel focused heavily on the gaming aspects. Mr Penumbra’s is all about the books. The plot is slight and the characterisation a little fuzzy, but the book is funny and filled with snippets of information about the world, old and new.  It is a delightful meld of wonder at the possibilities of technological innovation and reverence for the innovators of the past.  Above all it’s an homage to the wonder of books, printing and the written word.

As I said at the beginning, my word on this book is entirely unreliable, but you should read it anyway. It’s 2013s feel good hit of the summer.

Many thanks to all the team at Atlantic for sending me a review copy of the book


Ripples on a Pond – ‘Control’ by Kim Curran

controlKim Curran’s Shift was one of my favourite books of 2012, and one of my favourite YA novels ever. With ‘Control’ she delivers more of the same. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that if you haven’t read Shift, you shouldn’t read any further (but in any case, buy both books, you won’t regret it).

Scott Tyler, having escaped certain death is now on the hunt for the other victims of the mysterious project Ganymede. A long abandoned experiment, subjects of Ganymede have had their ability to shift prolonged, but at a terrible cost. They become mentally unstable, and in some cases psychopathic. Tyler and his girlfriend Aubery Jones have tracked down all of them bar one. Somehow you know that one ain’t going to come easy.

I can’t talk too much about the plot of Control. To do so would risk spoiling the book. Each strand is cleverly entwined into the main fabric of the story and no detail is insignificant.

The book moves away from the moral questioning of the first book, (What stops us from punching annoying people in the face?) to a more metaphysical conundrum. There is a light brush with quantum physics, and branching universes, with each decision shifted being like a ripples on a pond. It examines how we are a product of our decisions, and how the millions of decisions made each day construct the world we live in.

Curran uses her creation more subtly in this book. Shifting can not only ensure the best outcome in a given situation, but can be used to construct decision trees that stretch deep into the past. The consequences of this are fascinating and mind-bending in equal measure.

Scott and Aubery make a strong central pairing, and they are well drawn and believable. As in the first book the action is slick. The ending is entirely unexpected, and frankly, inspired. Curran hangs her readers from the most enormous of cliffs. It’s exciting, but book 3 (which I believe is to be called Delete) can’t come soon enough.

Control is like the episode of Doctor Who you always hope for but never get. It’s high concept that makes sense right through to the end. The plotting is bang on. There’s no arm-waving and talking fast to cover up a hole. Scott Tyler would make a fantastic TV hero, who would happily fill those Saturday nights on the run up to Christmas. It would be great if it could happen. Maybe in another reality, it already has…

Fundamental Flaws – ‘I am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes

pilgrimThere are spoilers in this review. Just so you know.

‘I am Pilgrim’ is a book that’s about 350 pages too long. Currently clocking in at around 700, chopping it in half would leave scope for a good story, but remove the arresting but far from essential window dressing. There are some good things about this book but I found it fatally flawed.

A caveat before I explain why. ‘I am Pilgrim’ wasn’t quite what I expected. The central story revolves around a member of the USA secret service hunting a lone terrorist hell-bent on releasing a lethal variant of the smallpox vaccine in mainland America. From the marketing of my proof copy, and a few things implied in the opening chapters, I had thought the novel would attempt to deal with the aftermath of an all-out biological attack.

This would have been an interesting direction to take. Hunting the perpetrator, whilst the full horror of his crime continued to unwind. Alas no. This turns out to be a simple ‘can we catch the villain before his dastardly plan can be put into action?’ read. In fairness, it’s not quite that simple. There’s some interesting parallels between Saracen, a shadowy agent with multiple identities who will stop at nothing to ensure his mission is completed and Pilgrim, a shadowy agent with multiple identities who will stop at nothing to ensure his mission is completed.

The novel hinges on one vital difference between the two men. A difference that reminds us that sometimes the gatekeepers are at least as monstrous as the monsters they’re meant to keep out.

Now the problems. Where to start?

My biggest bugbear is the point-of-view. It probably has a technical name, first-person omniscient past-tense or something, but it feels all over the place. The novel is narrated by Pilgrim (though he’s not called that until late into the novel). The sections that detail the stuff he does directly are fine, but when he talks about Saracen’s (and other character’s) movements, I am less convinced.

Sometimes Pilgrim says he pieced together what happened from conversations and transcripts, but mostly he reports action and dialogue he had no way of substantiating. It’s all very exciting, but how does he know? By the end of the novel, it felt like there were two points of view, but only one narrative voice. Since that voice belonged to one of the PoVs, it just doesn’t work.

Next, use of narrative foreshadowing. This is a lazy way of generating tension; ending a chapter with something like ‘We should have known better’, or ‘I would regret that mistake’. The author uses this device to the tell reader that has Pilgrim missed something important time and again, and it’s boring. Terry Hayes was originally a scriptwriter, so this approach is baffling. It’s one narrative trick you can’t really use in a film. It’s the literary equivalent of having the person next to you at the cinema, tap you on the arm, and say ‘Oooh he’s got that wrong.’

There is a murder sub-plot in the book, which is interesting, but belongs in another book. It gives Pilgrim an excuse to go where he wants to go, but throws up so many coincidences, it’s almost impossible to credit. Then there is backstory. There’s loads of it. Pointless details about old cases, which are quite nice to read but basically have bugger-all to do with the story.

You could argue that it’s all part of character development, but as the man is essentially Bruce Wayne, it’s an argument that carries little weight. The adopted son of billionaires, but now orphaned, Pilgrim uses secret identities to fight crime. He doesn’t mind crossing boundaries to get the job done and happens to be brilliant at fighting. All that’s missing are some pointy ears and a pimped up car.

Finally, the writing style. It’s of a type. Thriller writing needs pace injected and that’s fine, but this needed a much tighter edit. Any book that contains the line ‘she has a good mind and an even more attractive face’ needs more than a spit and polish.

As I’ve written this review I discover that I took a much greater dislike to it than I’d realised. The central story and the murder sub-plot are strong, but they don’t sit well together. There are some exciting moments and some great set pieces, but the book is far too flabby. Apparently, it has been cut heavily already. Next time I suggest a literary gastric band.

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Many thanks to Bantam Press for sending me a copy to review. 

Physician, Heal Thyself – ‘Goldblatt’s Descent’ by Michael Honig

goldblatt‘Physician, Heal Thyself’. A biblical quote that can be applied to pretty much any of the cast of Michael Honig’s ‘Goldblatt’s Descent’. It is a dark satire of the politics and pressures faced by young doctors on the hospital ward. The book is seven-tenths high quality fiction and three-tenths cathartic vanity project. The result is a good, if overlong novel.

Malcolm Goldblatt is a locum registrar (maybe – I forget his exact title). Having been a locum for approaching two years, he is now in the last chance saloon. If he is ever going to force his way up the next step of the ladder (becoming a permanent Senior Registrar in a good hospital), he had better do it soon. For now though he his plying his trade in craziest ward imaginable. I sincerely hope that Honig’s tale is over-embellished, because it is hard to imagine being treated by such a crazed bunch of venal, insecure egomaniacs. Goldblatt is the sole voice of reason (more or less), and as a result nearly everybody takes exception to him.

Above everything else, this book is satire. It pokes fun at the absurdities of hospital life. The rituals, the ridiculous hours, the gallows humour. It peels back the skin of the system and pokes its fleshy parts with a pointy instrument. It makes for some uncomfortable reading. If you are thinking of becoming a doctor, it might be a good idea not to read this book, it will surely put you off. If you are thinking of becoming a patient at any point, then it might be best also to give it a miss. It will make you queasy.

So having ruled out pretty much everybody in the country from reading the book, I should really say, that if you have ever had even passing interaction with the NHS, either as a provider or a user, you will find this book hits the nail on the head. Honig dissects the absurdities of the system, but also highlights everything we, the British people, love about the NHS. Yes there are some terrible doctors, but there are some bloody good ones too.

It details why doctors might fist-pump air if a patient dies in the ambulance. It demonstrates how humanity’s petty-mindedness and general vindictive streak is ever-present in medical personnel. You’d hope it would be surpressed, but Honig suggests that if anything it’s enhanced, by stress and long hours.

House officers, who work deathly 50+ hr long hour shifts, must do so because nobody will change an obviously broken system. A reason for not breaking the status quo – because their superiors did it, and now they can bloody do it too. (Mental note, check that Michael Honig isn’t a pseudonym for my mum). Towards the end of the book Goldblatt goes for an interview, where the lead consultant is a known ball-breaker. These chapters are incisive but also black-comedy gold.

Goldblatt’s Descent is not without its flaws. The central plot is thin, and it can’t support a novel of this length. It’s at least a couple of hundred pages too long. Honig clearly has a great number of gripes about the system and was keen to include them all. I can’t help feeling less may have been more. The characters aren’t deep enough to be sustained over 500 pages. At first I was impressed, but by the end, they were in danger of becoming caricatures of themselves.

Honig is not helped by the sheer amount of exposition required. There are many technical aspects to the medical procedures that need to be described, and the ward systems and politics would be impenetrable to the uninitiated without explanation. It gives the reader an idea of the care and thought that lies behind modern medicine, but interesting thought it all is, it slows the novel’s pace. It may be that without some interest in the novel’s subject, you would find it hard going.

But this is unduly negative. In the main I enjoyed Goldblatt’s Descent. It’s an unusual subject matter, comprehensively tackled with compassion and sharp wit. The characters may not have been as rounded as I would have liked, but they are certainly memorable. This is an ambitious debut, that is mostly successful at what it sets out to do. Now Honig has been through his catharsis, I would certainly read his next novel. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

Many Thanks to Corinna at Atlantic Books for sending me a copy of the book to review

Devils and Dust – ‘Amity and Sorrow’ by Peggy Riley

amityI had high expectations for ‘Amity and Sorrow’. Expectations that, sadly, weren’t met.  I have exactly the same reservations about Claire Tiffany’s Everyman’s Guide to Scientific Living, so clearly ‘troubled relationships that take place on farms’ is a genre I should avoid. Whilst there are obvious comparisons between the two, they differ markedly in one important respect. In Tiffany’s novel, it is science that lays her characters low. In contrast, Riley uses that dastardly enemy of many a novel, religion.

The novel opens with a car accident. A lady and her two children crash into a tree. They are on the run.  It soon becomes clear they are not entirely normal; refugees from a bygone era. Members of a religious cult, Amarantha and her two girls, Amity and Sorrow, have only recently arrived in the real world.  They were members of an isolated cult, by their dress, possibly Amish. The cult is polygamous; so no, not Amish then. Mormons? The cult is, in fact, entirely fictitious, made up from little bits of cult folklore.  It’s a believable cabal.  Something has now gone terribly wrong.

The novel opens with Sorrow having a miscarriage, and from the outset the question of the baby’s parentage gives the reader a sense of unease. The three women are helped by a farmer, whose land they were on when they crashed. He is on the breadline. His farm struggling to make ends meet as he desperately tries to grow the latest money making cash-crop. The town he lives in is dying, cut off from civilisation by the freeway.

The novel is nicely set up. The three female characters are placed opposite three men. The farmer, Bradley, his adopted son, Dust and Bradley’s infirm father. Hanging over them is the spectre is Amarantha’s husband. Will he follow and what will he do if he catches them?

Part of the problem for me, is that almost nothing happens that you don’t expect. Given the set up outlined above, if I asked you to write three things that were going to happen, you’d almost certainly get them right. This is almost offset by some great characterisation. The men are all well-drawn. Believable, iron hard, but with a fragility that the girls can’t help but test.

Amity and Sorrow have never been in the real world. Their world-view is entirely dominated by the dogma of their father. The relationship between the two girls is well portrayed; sibling rivalry played out in spades. Sorrow is the older sister and she had the dubious pleasure of being her father’s chosen one.  The Oracle for their community. The girls father has taken religious parallels to extremes, but despite his sickening attentions, Amity can’t help but feel inferior to her big sister. The two sisters then vie for the attentions of the only eligible male in the novel, Dust, with predictable consequences.

The difference in their understanding of the the world is also interestingly handled.  Amity is younger, so her comprehension of their predicament is diminished on one level, but without her sister’s extra years of brainwashing, she is more able to see the realities of their situation. Her road to recovery is faster than that of her sister’s.  Sorrow’s psyche is so deeply in the mire, she can do little other than adhere to her father’s doctrine.  It’s a well-observed juxtaposition.

The relationship between Amarantha and Bradley, I found less interesting and no less predictable. Though touchingly handled, it didn’t do very much for me. The best sections of the novel were the tentative steps taken by Amarantha and the girls at entering (re-entering in Amarantha’s case) society.  Television carries religious messages, but also wanton sin. Churches and religious groups in town, claim to be the one true path to salvation. How would this claim feel to someone who has only heard their own brand of religion and their path is the right one? It’s an interesting device.

Ultimately, the showdown that has to happen, happens. Although its outcome is slightly unexpected, it didn’t particularly stir me. Which I think sums up the novel. There are some great passages of writing, built around an interesting premise, but I didn’t particularly empathise with Amity and Sorrow’s fate. I’m can’t put my finger on why I didn’t engage with the story, after all, all the elements are there.  Ultimately, I found Amity and Sorrow to be dry and rather flat, making its setting on the parched plains of Oklahoma, a trifle unfortunate. Disappointing.

My Copy of this book was obtained through the Amazon Vine programme.