Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan
Completed 9/18/2015, Reviewed 9/19/2015
4 stars

After reading a heavy Tolkien tome, I needed something fun.  “Mr Penumbra” fit the bill perfectly.  It’s a light romp through secret societies, ancient books, and Google.  Clay has been laid off from his web designer job and finds work at a twenty-four hour bookstore.  But it is no ordinary bookstore.  It has a quirky owner and quirkier clientele who check out odd old tomes with unintelligible text.  He quickly becomes obsessed with the books bringing in modern technology to unravel the mystery.  Soon he is in the midst of a 500 year old secret society that might have the key to immortality. 

The best thing about this book is that it is fun.  Clay is a 20-something who just kind of fell into his last tech job.  When that job goes away, he’s rather directionless.  A lot of people should be able to relate him because he’s reminiscent of those of us in the techie biz not knowing what to do next when one job goes away, and wishing we could just work in a bookstore or a coffeeshop.  Then when you do, you get intimately involved with it because you love it.  I myself had that experience when I got laid off from a great IT job and went to work at a coffeeshop.  That ended up being my favorite job ever. 

On a deeper level, the story is an obvious metaphor for the conflict between traditional and digital books.  There are people who love the feel and smell of a book, who love to go to a library or bookstore and walk among the stacks.  While I’ve taken to the e-reader (I’m unintentionally ironically reading this on one), there’s still nothing like the feeling of finishing a book and sitting with it in your hands as you ponder the experience you just had with it.  But like the album and the 8-track tape, books are probably doomed.  However, once digitized, there’s so much more that can be done with it, as even Mr. Penumbra finds out. 

At its heart it’s simply an enjoyable read.  It’s sort of like “The DaVinci Code” without the cheese and melodrama and a little more YA oriented.  I found it only dragged a little near the beginning when the author spent a little too much time talking about Google, but it does figure greatly in the rest of the story.   I was going to give this book three stars, but had to go with four to correctly reflect how much fun the adventure is.  

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Fall of Arthur

JRR Tolkien
Completed 9/13/2015, Reviewed 9/15/2015
3 stars

How do you review an unfinished poem in Old English style alliterative verse that’s about 45 pages long with 180 pages of commentary?  Carefully?  This is one of a group of books of alliterative verse that Tolkien never finished which his son published posthumously.  It’s about the last tragic scenes from King Arthur’s life, with Mordred usurping the crown and pursuing Guinevere, the exile of Lancelot, and the death of Arthur.  It’s told in alliterative verse, so it’s a tough read.  I chose this book because I thought it would be a break from Middle-Earth and an introduction to the alliterative verse style I will encountering in the next book in the History of Middle Earth series.  I’m glad I chose this over his longer poems.  It was just the right amount to be overwhelmed.

Alliterative verse means that several words in a line begin with the same sound, like the T’s in “Attend the Tale of Sweeny Todd”.  It was a common form of poetry used in Old and Middle English.  This being my first encounter with it, I found myself often becoming fixated on the alliteration rather than the content.  Add this to my already mediocre appreciation of poetry, and you can probably guess that I had to reread many verses to get what was going on.  It took a while, but I was able to appreciate the musicality of the poetry.

The commentary was difficult to follow.  I think one needs to be quite the bibliophile or at least have been an English major to appreciate the analysis that Christopher produced.  The one chapter compared the poem to other Arthur texts.  I found this quite confusing, only having read “The Once and Future King” in high school; my memory of the Arthur myth is very minimal.  The texts Christopher discussed were some of the earliest documents describing the Arthur myth.  I know it’s probably great analysis, but the bouncing between which text had what detail of the myth lost me.

Another chapter discussed the influence of the Arthur myth on the development of the Silmarillion, particularly Avalon, Numenor, and Atlantis. The third discussed the evolution of the poem from earlier drafts and notes.  In both of these, the concepts are interesting and I could follow part of the discussion, but eventually, my eyes would glaze over and I’d be lost.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It might be a brilliant book from the academic perspective, but that’s out of my realm.  I’d recommend reading the poem though because it is an experience.  Tolkien was quite the wordsmith.  Despite my lack of academic prowess in literary analysis, I’ll continue to read Tolkien’s posthumous works. I’m hoping that by the time I get to the last of his works, I’ll be able to appreciate, if not understand, the sorts of things Christopher presents in these tomes.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Bone Season

Samantha Shannon
Completed 9/22/2015, Reviewed 9/23/2015
3 stars

“The Bone Season” has a terrific premise.  Paige is a Voyent.  That is, she and many others have clairvoyent powers that can manipulate spirits trapped in the ether.  They live an underground existence in gangs because the government has declared them unnatural, illegal, and the sentence is death.  Paige is captured but rather than facing capital punishment, she finds herself a slave to the Rephaites, an alien race trying to protect the world from an even greater terror.  This is definitely good buildup, but I thought it a little flat.  I found myself more preoccupied with the idea of Stockholm syndrome than the details of the story itself.

Before the text, there is a diagram of the hierarchy of the seven categories of Voyents and their sub-types.  In the back, there’s a glossary of slang.  Together, this peaked my interest in the world building of the book.  When I actually began reading it, I didn’t find it all that interesting.  It took me a long time to figure out where the problem lay.  It’s not the prose.  The book is quite readable, reminding me of the prose of “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”.  The plot was decent enough, a dystopian future where mental control over the supernatural is becoming dominant but under attack, like a modern day witch hunt.

I think the problem lay in the character of Paige herself.  There’s something about her that just did not interest me.   The descriptions of her felt very wooden.  She’s angry about her gift, her captivity and the way she and the other Voyents are treated, we get that.  But there was little depth to her personality other than this anger.  The author provides us with her background, but there just seemed to be no heart, no warmth, nothing to make me care what was happening to her other than the general knowledge that this was a bad thing and she needed to get out of it.  As the story progressed, I became a little more involved with her, but actually felt that the supporting characters were much better developed, having real feelings and reactions to the situation.  Arcturus, aka Warden, Paige’s Rephaite guardian, was particularly intriguing in his conflict between his heartless role as her trainer and his compassion for humans, particularly her.  On the other hand, Nashira, the leader of the Rephaites was a two-dimensional evil queen. 

What intrigued me the most about the story was the whole concept of Stockholm syndrome.  The captive Voyents develop varying levels of faithfulness to the Rephaites, as they provide a safe, though second-class haven for their “unnaturalness”.  Those who give themselves over to the Rephaites are honored with better duties and status, while those who don’t are abused and humiliated.  Paige herself has varying degrees of hate and compassion toward her captor.  It made me wonder if the author realized she was playing with the syndrome when developing the characters’ personalities.

I give the book three stars out of five.  The book is basically entertaining but I was just not as engaged as I would have liked to have been.  It’s the first of a series, with more planned.  I’m not impressed enough with it to continue on.  The book has been optioned for a film, and I expect that this would make a good, strong young woman action/sci fi flick if they can produce the supernatural action well. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Demonologist

Andrew Pyper
Completed 9/7/2015, Reviewed 9/8/2015
4 stars

I’ve always liked horror even though it gives me nightmares rather easily.  “The Exorcist” scared me so badly I hid the book in a closet until I had the courage to take it out and get rid of it.  I’ve read a lot of Stephen King and Clive Barker, among others, trying to re-experience having a book scare me that much.  When I saw the title for this book, it pulled me in.  With possessed people, disappearing children, and talking dead, this certainly seemed to fit the bill.  Well, it’s not “The Exorcist”, but it’s still pretty scary, and a darn well written book.

David Ullman is a professor of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, as well as other literature with demonic content, though he doesn’t believe in any of it.  His life is falling apart:  his wife is divorcing him and his best friend has stage four cancer.  So when out of the blue he is asked to come to Venice to observe a phenomenon, all expenses paid, he jumps at the chance to get away for a bit.  He brings his daughter for the couple day getaway.  What he sees is horrifying and has consequences for both him and his daughter.  Now he must piece together clues from Milton and random acts of horror around the country to save his daughter from hell.

Sounds like a great promo for a movie.  Well, it’s supposedly under development.  But the first thing you think when you hear this is how will it be made into a film.  Most of the terror is psychological.  Yes, bad and scary things happen, but most of the terror that happens takes place in David’s head and his head alone.  That’s where it gets you.  Is he sane or insane?  Is this happening because of tragedy in his childhood?  Is it because he and his daughter are “melancholy” souls?   That’s what really makes this book great and it makes you wonder if any of that can be captured on film.

Like all flawed characters, David tries to do this alone.  Told in first person present, it creates an immediacy to his fears and feelings through this ordeal, increasing the tension and anticipation of the climax.  By the way, this book was nominated for a Shirley Jackson award, for novels with psychological horror.  It totally deserves it.

It’s tough to go too far into this book because it is quite short.  Expounding on characterization and plot gives too much of a spoiler.  And sometimes I can’t exactly explain why I like a book.  I just liked it.  It scared me.  The important thing to take away from the review is that David gets into your head, and as flawed as his thinking may be throughout his journey, you’re right there with him, debating the reality of the demons he only ever believed in as a literary device, and coming to grip with the examples of their reality all around him.  I give this book four stars out of five.  It didn’t keep me up nights, but it gave me enough chills to know this is a well written romp through one of my favorite genres.