Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan (Book Review)

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This book was recommended to me as it was compared to a book my I had previously enjoyed; The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry:

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything; instead, they “check out” large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele’s behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends, but when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond its walls.

I will start off by saying that I didn’t see the comparison: they are very different books. The only link I saw was the setting of a bookstore being a large feature of the narrative. That aside we have very different story-lines.

That being said, I really enjoyed this book regardless! The book follows the tale of Clay as he begins working the night-time shift at a mysterious, quiet bookstore. Clay has learned a degree of programming, and so begins to try and modernise the store, through which he uncovers it’s hidden secret – a link to a cult set on translating a book rumoured to contain the key to eternal life.

The cult becomes torn between using traditional or modern methods to find the key to this work, as all involved pursue to solve the 500 year old puzzle.

The book is written in a very comedic way and many one-off lines were genuinely funny. It is all fairly light-hearted – even the villains are comic ultimately, and the story follows a tale which I got the impression had no intention of being taken seriously.

It was interesting trying to unpick what the author was attempting – perhaps a consideration between the traditional and the modern. Paper books vs. e-books. Either way, there was something unique about this book that caught my attention and I finished it fairly quickly as a result.

I wouldn’t recommend this to as many people as I do The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, but that is due to perhaps a more direcitonal story-line that not everyone will appreciate. I’m glad to have read it though and will certainly read more of Robin Sloan should he continue to write other novels.

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The End We Start From – Megan Hunter (Book Review)

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A book recommend by a bookseller friend of mine, under the guise of “give it a go, I’m not sure, see what you think”:

In the midst of a mysterious environmental crisis, as London is submerged below flood waters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, the family are forced to leave their home in search of safety. As they move from place to place, shelter to shelter, their journey traces both fear and wonder as Z’s small fists grasp at the things he sees, as he grows and stretches, thriving and content against all the odds.

The book follows a small, new family evacuating London due to a freak flood, putting even their top floor flat under water. As they, along with many other cities, flee to higher ground in search of refuge, they develop and learn quickly how to deal with their new found parenthood in a desperate world.

Through the travels, challenges are met with dwindling food reserves and the turning of people on one another. Friends are met and made too; companions to suffer alongside.

The book focuses largely though on the relationship between the narrator and her newborn son, Z. All characters are referred to only by letters through the book: R, O, G, N etc. but I felt that this detracted little from the comprehension (though I know it has bothered some). Why just letters? I couldn’t claim to know. Perhaps the identification of the individuals, couple with the un-named narrator,  hints at the lack of need for personifying the individuals, but focus on their relationships instead – community and family above individuality. I don’t know.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve not face the trials and blessings of motherhood (rather difficult as a man) or the unique connection between child and the mother that bore him, but I couldn’t always sympathise entirely with the narrator’s feelings.

Ultimately I guess Z represents new beginning at the end of London as it currently is- taking baby-steps out onto the ruined landscape.

An interesting book, and I appreciate (as I’ve mentioned before) authors who are willing to take a risk in giving a unique writing style. I’d be interested to read more by the author…

Red Sister – Mark Lawrence (Book Review)

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My next step into fantasy:

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…

I bought this book for 3 main reasons: the cover caught my eye, the authors name is familiar, and it is the first in a new fantasy series! As I have mentioned before, fantasy isn’t really my go to genre (though most people assume so!) and so I’m venturing out. Joining a new series early on seems like a good idea to not be playing catch up!

The story follows a young girl called Nona as she is rescued from the death penalty by the abbess of a convent. Nona, a poor girl, joins the convent so often reserved for those whose parents can fund their unique education there. As time progresses and friends are made, enemies seek after control through a prophecy foretelling the coming of person with 4-bloods – having the unique ability of the 4 tribes who landed in Abeth.

The book has a twist on the typical prophecy trope which I really appreciated – it wasn’t as predictable as many are, and left me trying to work it out along the way. The characters are all very unique, and Nona is very likable and the type of character you just want to win.

Though at first I found it hard to get into (though I admit that may be my fault – as I said, I’m not used to reading things not set within the realms of reality), by about a quarter of the way through I was hooked and could not stop reading.

I felt at times that I wasn’t quite clear on the “rules” behind the use of magic in the book, but I didn’t too left out of it – I suspect this will become clearer in future sequels.

I pre-ordered the next in the series, Grey Sister, before even finishing this book. I am excited to continue the journey with Nona, Ara, and friends.

Audition – Ryu Murakami (Book Review)

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Continuing in my run this year of reading books by Ryu Murakami: Audition!

Documentary-maker Aoyama hasn’t dated anyone in the seven years since the death of his beloved wife, Ryoko. Now even his teenage son Shige has suggested he think about remarrying. So when his best friend Yoshikawa comes up with a plan to hold fake film auditions so that Aoyama can choose a new bride, he decides to go along with the idea. Of the thousands who apply, Aoyama only has eyes for Yamasaki Asami, a young, beautiful, delicate and talented ballerina with a turbulent past. But there is more to her than Aoyama, blinded by his infatuation, can see, and by the time he discovers the terrifying truth it may be too late. 

The third I have read by this Murakami (as opposed to the better known Haruki!) and perhaps his best known work.

The story follows Aoyama as he begins to date a young, unique, captivating girl who auditioned for the part in a film (set up intentionally by a friend of his in order for him to find a new partner). Despite warnings from friends and weird happenings, Aoyama, blinded by love, pursues Asami, with the typical Ryu Murakami thriller to follow.

I did find both Aoyama and Asami attractive characters throughout the book, and I did enjoy reading the develop of their relationship. It was interesting to see how Murakami approached the exchange in conversation between a widowed older man and a younger (rebellious?) woman. I did care to find out the outcome of the characters and read the book quite quickly.

I think the ending of the book disappointed me a little bit though in comparison to the rest. The build up was tense and I couldn’t put the book down as I approached the closing chapters, but once I finished, I was let feeling somewhat unfulfilled.

Of all the books I have read by Ryu Murakami, I enjoyed In the Miso Soup the most. I feel my current run of reading his books will end for now, but maybe I’ll pick up some of his other stuff again in the future.

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy (Book Review)

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I have finished back in March facing down the beast that is War and Peace.

War and Peace broadly focuses on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the most well-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men. 

As Napoleon’s army invades, Tolstoy brilliantly follows characters from diverse backgrounds—peasants and nobility, civilians and soldiers—as they struggle with the problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. And as the novel progresses, these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the most moving—and human—figures in world literature.

As per my style in this blog, I won’t be giving an in depth literary review this work regularly deserves. Nor am I capable, through my limited knowledge, to determine it’s entire significance to literature in general. I will only speak of my experience!

When Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, his intentions were to lay-out the foundations of the Decembrist Revolt, and by all accounts, did not intend the book to be as long as it ended up being. Nevertheless what was produced is a dramatised historic novel set during the Napoleonic wars and his subsequent invasions of Russia. This is now the longest book I have read, trumping by pages Hugo’s Les Miserables.

The story follows a few families throughout the ongoing conflict between France and Russia. The families all tend to be fairly well off (as in most Russian writing of the time!) and peace is exemplified by the serenity or romance of home life. Quickly conversation shifts from Napoleon to things the speakers care more about; often themselves.

As war presses in many members of these families sign up to join the fight against the French, losing often but fighting with the pride of good Russians, perhaps a characteristic unexpected by the French to their loss.

About the plot there is much to say as a book this big can’t be summarised briefly; the romances, the conflicts, and bloody descriptions of war, the book covers a wide range of areas all under the simple banners of “War” and “Peace”.

The writing is typical of Tolstoy with dialogue being used expertly and relationships being well fleshed out and believable. The female characters I find are a real strength of Tolstoy’s, perhaps a nice change for many in the era. Of course long, romanticised speeches are to be expected as a sign of the century – I can’t see many writers getting away with the same today.

This book took much longer than my average, and reading it in 3 volumes didn’t help minimise the mountain it seemed to be, each new ledge coming by slowly with the peak still way above me. Did I finish this for pride sake? I think partly I did, though I was curious to the fate of some of the characters too. I didn’t feel anything particularly akin to a sense of achievement upon completion (which I expected to!).

Is this the greatest novel written? I don’t think so, and I still prefer Dostoevsky’s works to Tolstoy, but nevertheless this is a notable literary achievement and I only compare it to my assumptions of it, which were perhaps too high.

This took a while to read, I did begin to miss other books. Perhaps one to read as it is so famous, but there are some books I’d recommend first!

Sourcery – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

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The fifth of Pratchett Discworld series: Sourcery – one which people correct me on when I told them what I was reading (“Sour-cery”, “Sorcery”?)…

There was an eighth son of an eighth son. He was, quite naturally, a wizard. And there it should have ended. However (for reasons we’d better not go into), he had seven sons. And then he had an eighth son … a wizard squared … a source of magic … a Sourcerer. Sourcery sees the return of Rincewind and the Luggage as the Discworld faces its greatest – and funniest – challenge yet.

The book brings us back to Rincewind in Ankh Morpork as a new member joins the university – a ten-year-old boy with seemingly unlimited magic potential, set on the goal of immediately achieving the highest rank in the university.

With the danger apparent, Rincewind escapes with the Arch-Chancellors magic hat, and travels abroad led by the voices of the late arch-chancellors. With the wizards blinded by power led into declaring supremacy over the land, the end of the world nears (with the 4 horsemen drinking at a bar in preparation, led by Death of course).

The book as a whole reads a lot better than some of the previous books by Pratchett: it just seems to flow a lot better and generally be better thought out. The humour too seems a lot less forced and more on level than before, and some lines were genius in the setting.

The ending is satisfying too, and I didn’t find myself rushing to the last page. A criticism perhaps though is that quick introduction of the sorcerer, who even to the last I felt like I hardly knew despite, in a manner, being the main antagonist.

I will be reading the next shortly, as I continue to make way through War & Peace at the same time!

Piercing – Ryu Murakami (Book Review)

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After reading and enjoying In the Miso Soup, I spotted this book shortly afterwards! Fairly short and so I gave it a go:

Kawashima Masayuki is a graphic designer living in Tokyo with his wife, Yoko, and their healthy baby girl. Outwardly, their lives are a picture of happiness. Every night, however, unable to sleep, Kawashima creeps from his bed and stands over his newborn child with an ice-pick in his hand, and an almost visceral desire to use it.

The book follows the decision by Masayuki to carry out a murder in order to satisfy the desire in him to harm his child. He decides that this best be a prostitute, and done under a false name. He makes his excuses and books a hotel room for a week.

His plan is set – he will hire a prostitute specialising in BDSM, have her tied up, and use that opportunity to carry out his plans. Only it turns out the prostitute sent to him is just as traumitised psychologically as he is – her upbringing too is effecting her thoughts.

The book is creepy in it’s own way as two damaged people misunderstand each other through the own false interpretations of the world: one perhaps through over-trusting, the over through distrust. This leads to some interesting insights into how the thought life of each person can interpret the same events in very different lights; a sort of cognitive-dissonance.

Though not as engaging as In the Miso Soup, this book follows very much a similar vein of writing – people with evil intentions facing various challenges in Tokyo night-life. Brutality and no barriers to descriptions of cruelties present, and absence of resolution completes it. I quite like this about Ryu Murakami though – the endings are very interesting in their “incompleteness”.

I felt in some ways that this book was trying to be creepy though. There were some clever bits, but other parts felt a little forced and predictable.

Perhaps if you have read In the Miso Soup this might be worth a read, but I certainly preferred the former! I will read more Murakami though, certainly an interesting guy in a strange way.