Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

GENRE: Adult
PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Atlantic Books
BUY IT: Waterstones
RATING: 5 Stars

Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone - and serendipity, coupled with sheer curiosity, has landed him a new job working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead they simply borrow impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he's embarked on a complex analysis of the customers' behaviour and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what's going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore...

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is an absolute dream of a book. I adored it. Imagine yourself finding a job where all you had to do is work the nightshift in a quirky, old bookstore. You don't have to do anything except locate the dusty tomes of desperate cliental. Then imagine that you find out that those cliental are part of a secret society trying to crack a literary code. How awesome is that?! Then bring the story in to the technological world where you can use to computers to try to crack the code - would you do it?

Robin Sloan is probably my idol. It's like he's taken all of the geek out of my head and magicked it up in to a book. I don't quite know where to start. Dungeons and Dragon's style geeking, a nerdy Google girl. You have to suspend your belief in terms of the characters numerative success, just because it allows for a much more fun story. They're ultimate geeks with money - which means they can geek on a much bigger scale. It's ridiculous, interesting and hilarious - and that fact that the geek pisses off the girl is perfect.

“Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what it means. It means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.”
This book looks at what is quite a sore subject for hardcore readers - where does technology fit into our world? Most readers don't like change. A lot of us are afraid that the Kindle will take away from the experience of reading and everyone has an opinion on it either way. Mr Penumbra is the type of bookshop owner that isn't afraid of technology, and is keen for Google to help solve the Founder's puzzle. I still don't know how I feel about electronic reading. Obviously I have a Kindle because I read this book on it, but I think that we have to be careful that we don't sideline physical books until they become obsolete. Books give us a sense of human history; old editions bought, passed around, enjoyed, donated, lost. It's so much more than just words typed in to a file.

As a bookseller I love my job but if I could run my own bookshop this is exactly what I want. If you love books or technology this is the ultimate indulgence. Read it and then pass it on to a friend, keep the cycle going at the physical book alive.

The String Diaries - Stephen Lloyd Jones

GENRE: Adult Thriller
PAGES: 426
BUY IT: Waterstones
RATING: 3 Stars

An imaginative, tight, edge-of-your-seat supernatural thriller which follows an historical mystery through to its nail-biting contemporary conclusion. Selected for the Radio 2 Book Club. The String Diaries. A jumble of entries, written in different hands, different languages, and different times. They tell of a rumour. A shadow. A killer. The only interest that Oxford Professor Charles Meredith has in the diaries is as a record of Hungarian folklore ...until he comes face to face with a myth. For Hannah Wilde, the diaries are a survival guide that taught her the three rules she lives by: verify everyone, trust no one, and if in any doubt, run. But Hannah knows that if her daughter is ever going to be safe, she will have to stop running and face the terror that has hunted her family for five generations. And nothing in the diaries can prepare her for that.

The String Diaries tells the story of Hannah, on the run and trying to protect her family from the supernatural figure of Jakab, who has terrified them for generations. The narrative flicks between Hannah, set in the present day; Charles, Hannah's father set in the 1970's, and Jakab in 1700's Hungary.

I picked up The String Diaries after wanting something similar to The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper, which I adored. While the tension builds well, with great shifts in narrative, I felt that it dissipated too quickly without any resolution or any particular amount of action. The writing style is easy and fluid but it's tense. There is so much loss and tragedy that I found myself getting quite depressed in places.

This is a holiday read, and it didn't really do much more for me than that. The supernatural could have  been more sinister, more believable. Jakab's changed should have been more gory, more gripping, probably even more disgusting than it is. I also wanted the book to explore proper old manuscripts or for extracts from the diaries for the reader to decipher, but everything is done for you. It's good to see the diaries played out but I'd rather that have been an award for cracking a code in the text. It should have felt more like excavating ancient secrets rather than a series of strained vignettes.

What I did love, though, was that you can't trust anyone. Because Jakab can shape shift into anyone (think more werewolf than Mystique from X-Men) it's impossible to know if it is the real character or an imposter, that's quite fun. However, without giving too much away or trying to put you off, the finale annoyed me so much. It was too perfect, too clean. You lose so much faith and hope (and blood) in the pages that it would almost have been better if there was no conclusion. There is more about familial bonds than the supernatural, and to be honest it went a little Twilight in the end and I was neither happy nor satisfied.

The premise has so much promise but I felt it failed to deliver as much as I wanted. If this is your first venture in to modern supernatural thrillers then you will enjoy it. You can sit back and let yourself be whisked away to great locations: historic Hungary, and a place in Snowdonia that I imagined looked a lot like Skyfall. I wanted it to be everything that it could have been, and I'm wholly disappointed when it wasn't. 

The Big Over Easy - Jasper Fforde

GENRE: Fiction
PAGES: 416
BUY IT: Waterstones
RATING: 4 Stars

It's Easter in Reading - a bad time for eggs - and no one can remember the last sunny day. Humpty Dumpty, well-known nursery favourite, large egg, ex-convict and former millionaire philanthropist is found shattered beneath a wall in a shabby area of town. Following the pathologist's careful reconstruction of Humpty's shell, Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his Sergeant Mary Mary are soon grappling with a sinister plot involving cross-border money laundering, the illegal Bearnaise sauce market, corporate politics and the cut and thrust world of international Chiropody. As Jack and Mary stumble around the streets of Reading in Jack's Lime Green Austin Allegro, the clues pile up, but Jack has his own problems to deal with. And on top of everything else, the Jellyman is coming to town...

If I'm looking for a comic book I want something with in-jokes I can understand, something that mocks its own form, and something that at times is just downright stupid.

The Big Over Easy is a super easy read that made me laugh on every page. It was just what I needed after weeks of reading emotional writing. It follows Jack Spratt, DI for in the Reading Police Force who heads up the tiny NCD (Nursery Crime Division). I just thought this was the most awesome premise ever and made me rather jealous that I hadn't come up with it myself. It takes the nursery rhymes of your childhood - which, if you don't know them, then your parents have failed you - and puts them up against modern law and thinking, with interesting results. For example, the story opens with Jack failing to secure a sentence against the Three Little Pigs, who were on trial for the murder of the Big Bad Wolf. What is not to love in that?

The main story is the investigation of the death of Humpty Dumpty who - you guessed it - is smashed to pieces at the base of his favourite wall. But did he fall or was he pushed? Even though you think you know their stories these character will continue to surprise you and the twists and turns are enough to rival the most serious of crime novels. I never knew who to trust.

The little touch that really made this for me was the idea that police investigations don't need to necessarily to the word of the law, but they have to be as newsworthy as possible. If your investigation can't get you in to Amazing Crime Stories and a two-part television special then you're not doing your job properly.

The Big Over Easy is a sharp, witty spoof on the Noir crime genre and probably The Bill. It will make you laugh, and it will make you want to tell people the hilarious stupidity of what you've just read even though they will just stare at you like you're mad. Anyone who loves to laugh, loves crime novels or even just a good mystery, will love this book.

“Humpty had always sat on walls, it was his way.”

It would make an awesome British T.V Sitcom and I desperately want it to be made. It would be hilarious. Maybe with some input from French and Saunders.

Charm and Strange - Stephanie Kuehn

PAGES: 272
PUBLISHER: Electric Monkey
BUY IT: Waterstones
RATING: 5 Stars

This book refers to an uncorrected advanced edition.

No one really knows who Andrew Winston Winters is. Least of all himself. He is part Win, a lonely teenager exiled to a remote boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts the whole world out, no matter the cost, because his darkest fear is of himself ...of the wolfish predator within. But he's also part Drew, the angry boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who, one fateful summer, was part of something so terrible it came close to destroying him. A deftly woven, elegant, unnerving psychological thriller about a boy at war with himself. Charm and Strange is a masterful exploration of one of the greatest taboos.

Oh God. How do I even begin to describe something that I adore so much without giving away the truth of it? Charm and Strange is an incredible, powerful book that is just so compelling I was almost breathless when I finished it. It has a calm, sad feel and the world around me disappeared and I sank into the narrative.

Perhaps I should start by saying how I came to read this book.

A proof of this had been sitting on the shelf at work. No cover really, just blank and black with the title.  I'm terrible when books don't have a cover, I almost like to prejudge a book and be proved wrong. I read the blurb and thought it sounded quirky and interesting. My initial thought was that it was a werewolf book, and certainly people on Goodreads have listed it as a paranormal book. Reflectively this really annoys me because they have either formally categorised it without reading it, or they have read  it and didn't pay enough attention. However, I noticed it on display at work and chatted to a colleague about it, and became determined to give it a go. 

I genuinely don't want to give anything away about it and that makes it so difficult to review. It's so important to go into this blind to experience the full impact of it. It's like nothing I've ever read before.  Charm and Strange is a narrative that unveils a boy's fragmented mental psyche and also the story behind it. It teases out facts through Win's interpretation of events and I was so desperate to know what had happened, what he had done or what had happened to him, that made him become quite so withdrawn. I had no idea, though. I wasn't prepared. There were so many hints and clues as to what had happened but when I finally realised it was like being punched in the chest. It's strange that something so devastating can also be compelling to read, but's its so interesting to read about the development of personality through trauma. I find the brains ability to cope, adapt and change to help us try to cope with situations infinitely interesting.

As a bookseller, it's a tough one for me. I'd be reluctant to recommend this to anyone too young because I think it could be a little frightening, and some of the things Win does can be quite funny if you don't understand the sadness behind it. I'm talking 17/18+. There are still elements of hope and Win is incredibly strong considering how much her has had to deal with on his own. Adults should find a lot to get to grips with, though. It's allegory is so clever (yet heartbreaking) that perhaps it needs a reader with a little more life experience to understand it in a way it deserves. 

Part of me doesn't want to tell people about this book. You know that feeling when you like an underground band that you think is amazing and then everyone loves them and it changes the way you feel about it? I never what that to happen. I know thats how a lot of John Green's long-term fans feel. I don't want someone to turn round and go, 'I don't get it'. Then I'd have to roll my eyes at them, call them a moron and not associate with them any longer. And that's a lot of effort. 

I suppose what I'm saying is read Charm and Strange if you're not a moron, if you're ready for a challenge, and if you're ready to have your heart broken. I'm in awe of it.

"The story that was too big for me to tell, the one that grew to fill the depths of my being and the far corners of my mind. It’s how I lost my system of meaning… but I haven’t lost everything."
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