Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

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For June, book group decided to read Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, suggested by a member of the group after they had recently read it. We do not normally choose books that someone has just finished; however, this book seemed far too intriguing to miss out on. Plus we were sold when we discovered that within the book there is a secret society called the Fellowship of the Unbroken Spine (book group’s official name is Broken Spines). A book, about a book shop and books, for a book group – perfect!

Mr Penumbra owns a quite peculiar book shop on the west coast of the United States; the interior dimensions of the shop are described as like a regular book shop but flipped on one side so it becomes narrow and very tall. The shop itself has floor to ceiling shelves (about three storeys high) that are accessible by an old fashioned, and very tall, ladder. When Clay Jannon begins working the night shift as the shops only night clerk, he notices that the shop is made up of a couple of shelves of regular books that are for sale, and then a huge collection of older, seemingly one-off books that are available to ‘members’ only on loan. It is these beautifully bound rarities, along with the odd characters that borrow them, that pull the reader into the novel to start with. Clay not only tends the book shop but must also writes an account of every customer that comes in. He must describe every customer in detail, from what they are wearing and how they are acting, to what they borrowed/bought with their customer number. It is from this intriguing premise that the book unfolds.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a novel for book lovers everywhere; it definitely appealed to my inner geek. Although this is a book about books, it is also about technology and the future of books. It is very much a 21st Century novel embracing the technological world that we live in today and having this offset against a very traditional industry. Throughout the novels entirety we are reminded that we live in a fast moving world and have the ability to discover worldwide knowledge in an instant. Even though I did enjoy this aspect of the novel, I did find that as the book went on I was getting a little tired of hearing how great and clever Google and the people whom work there are. Sloan provides us with an interesting and diverse description of the wonders of technology and particular Google, but after a while it felt like a bit of an advert. However, despite this I still found the book highly enjoyable.

What I particularly liked about Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore were the characters. The main character Clay was very likable and narrates the story well, his Google girlfriend is also a fun character. But, Mr Penumbra and Clay’s housemate Mat really steal the show. Both of these characters are quirky and add a certain flamboyancy to the plot which cannot be matched by any other people in the book. Mr Penumbra, the elder statesman within the novel, is a man of secrets that also has more than a little spark left in him. He is quite elusive at first and the intrigue surrounding him is built up throughout the first part of the novel; his character then really shines through the centre of the book. Mat is an artist who works for ILM creating film props; his gradual construction of ‘Matropolis’ within the novel coupled with his striking personality made him really stand out from the crowd. I would happily read a novel about Mat.

Overall, I really enjoyed Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It was fun to read, quite funny in places, and different. Fast paced and set in a technologically advanced world, the book shop of the title fits perfectly to remind the reader where we (the human race) have come from. Luckily all this technological advancement has not threatened the concept of a book or the transfer of knowledge through literature. The book is alive and well in the 21st Century and long may it remain…

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

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I have been meaning to read Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill for some time and have finally gotten round to it; on the basis of this book I will be reading his other novels. Heart-Shaped Box is a horror novel, but not a conventional horror novel. There are many other elements of genre fiction brought into the book – thriller, crime and to an extent romance. Heart-Shaped Box is also Hill’s first novel.

Heart-Shaped Box is the third ‘horror’ novel that I have read in a row recently, I wouldn’t normally read three consecutive novels from the same genre; however, I felt it was a good time to read it. I did think that I might be a bit ‘horror-ed’ out, especially as one of the other two was the excellent Domain by James Herbert. Despite this overload, I enjoyed it immensely. Heart-Shaped Box was fresh and engaging with the reader, fast-paced and unafraid to keep pushing its plot. The set-up of the story was quite simple, in the best possible way, and a different idea to any I had read before. Elements of the book do fall into standardised plot set-ups in order to drive the story forwards, but the central conceit was new.

The book opens with the main character, an aging heavy metal singer and occult enthusiast, buying a ghost on the internet. Jude (short for Judas Coyne) is actually buying a suit that is supposed to have a spirit attached to it; the suit arrives in a heart-shaped box. Not long after this, the story skews slightly and we learn what Jude’s connection is to the ghost and the novel progresses from there.

I think that Heart-Shaped Box is a very good novel, clearly aimed at an audience like me that enjoys a good supernatural thriller. I was a little concerned about a third of the way through because so much had happened, I didn’t know where the book was going and I couldn’t see how the story had enough scope to continue at the same pace. I thought the story was going to run itself out. However, Joe Hill deals with the story very well, twisting its way to a good conclusion, not letting up throughout. Some of the books imagery was excellent, I particularly like the descriptions of the ghost and one entrance as the old man climbs out of a Mary-Poppins-Carpet-Bag-esque heart-shaped box lying on the floor. The book is sometimes violent and gory but never grotesque or exploitative. The violence isn’t written for shock value, the book requires it to push the story forwards and give the reader a sense of real jeopardy. Having never read anything by Joe Hill before, and given his family background (he is Stephen King’s son after all) I felt I couldn’t predict what was going to happen the story’s main characters.

Even though Hill is King’s son, and this is essentially a horror novel, I think the comparison stops there. Heart-Shaped Box is different to any King book I have ever read, Hill has his own style and voice which is very effective. I really felt whilst reading that it had an original feel about the book. It was very compelling with some great characters that the reader could genuinely care about and root for. This book was definitely a cut above a lot of the horror novels I have read over the years, not relying on gore and shock tactics to keep the reader interested, but having some of these elements interwoven into a character led story. The twists within the book were good and unexpected, never ridiculous. Heart-Shaped Box was fun, bombastic and not for the faint of heart.

The Unquiet Dead by Margaret Bingley

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For May’s book group we had a little day trip out to Morecambe and visited The Old Pier Bookshop. For those that have not had the pleasure of visiting this nice little second-hand bookshop, it is pretty amazing. There are thousands upon thousands of books and they are everywhere! There is some semblance of order, but I use the term very loosely! It’s a real treasure with books piled on shelves from floor to ceiling in loads of little rooms, makeshift shelving bridges between other shelves that you wander underneath – all seem precariously balanced. The owner is a lovely guy, always happy to help, very knowledgeable, and seems to know exactly where each book is amongst the disarray. As part of our day trip we agreed that for May’s reading we would buy a book for another member of book group. I bought ‘S’ by John Updike for Anna, and Sarah bought me ‘The Unquiet Dead’ by Margaret Bingley.

I’m pretty sure that Sarah bought me this book because she knows how much I love a good horror novel. The cover of the book just screams out “Trashy Horror!!”, and the ‘freaky’ kids make it all the more menacing. My initial thoughts before reading The Unquiet Dead were that it probably wasn’t going to be very good but I would probably enjoy it regardless. I thought that it would probably be a bit silly, and not dissimilar to many other horror novels I had read as a teenager. I am pleased to say that in relation to it being bad, I was wrong – it was really quite good. It’s nothing to shout about, I’m not going to spend this blog urging you to go out and grab a copy straight away (one thing is that you’d probably find it quite hard to get hold of a copy, apart from on the internet). I am also pleased to say that it was a bit silly and I enjoyed it immensely.

The story centres round a small village where there has been a spate of murders. A young mother is one of the victims and her sister comes to the village in order to help the father with the children. Whilst in the village, she falls in love with a mysterious local man who has adopted a boy that has been made an orphan by the killer. As their love affair flourishes, all is not as it seems and something supernatural enters their lives along with eleven children within the village. As the reader, you don’t need to be Poirot to work out what is going on and who is responsible for the killings. However, even though parts of the plot are pretty obvious there is quite a nice supernatural element to the novel. The novel is quite short and full of pace; I didn’t find any parts of the book boring as the action continues to build throughout to its climax. The murders are a little grisly but never really gruesome, they are almost comic and camp in some ways. I did find the main female character a little annoying and bit too ‘wet’. There was also an additional ending that seemed completely unnecessary unfortunately.

All together I did enjoy The Unquiet Dead; if you are a bit of a horror aficionado and want to read a book that reminds you of reading horror in the late ‘80s then give it a go. But, don’t go out of your way too much to get hold of a copy or you could be disappointed.