Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstorePublished: October 2nd, 2012
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Technology
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 41 mins

Clay Jannon is young, techno-savvy and unemployed after being laid off by an ill-fated startup called NewBagel. As his desperation for a new job grows, he starts looking for opportunities everywhere under the sun, which is why the “Help Wanted” sign in the window of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore catches his attention. Mr. Penumbra, the store’s owner and namesake, hires Clay largely based on his love of books and his willingness to climb the steep ladders necessary to reach the store’s towering upper shelves.

After Clay is hired, he is told that the bookstore has a few rules, and one of them is that he isn’t allowed to read any of the books kept on the back shelves. These books are loaned out to a small club of customers who seem to be performing some kind of research. Clay only lasts so long before he gives in to temptation and tries to read one of the books – only to find out it’s written entirely in code. Things only get stranger from there.

The most fortuitous event in his clerkship, however, is the night when a young woman named Kat Potente walks into the store while he is working on a data visualization he hopes will help unravel the mysteries of the bookstore. Kat, it turns out, works for Google, and has access to huge amounts of computing power that they can bend to the task of uncovering the truth behind the store. With help from Kat – and Google’s servers – Clay begins unraveling the secrets of Penumbra’s store and the true adventure begins.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a fascinating hybrid of genres. It feels like a fantasy adventure, but focuses entirely on technologies that exist in the real world today. Clay and Kat both speak breathlessly of the wonders possible thanks to Google, and even though they occasionally sound like an ad for the company, it’s hard not to get caught up in their excitement. This book has adventure, romance, an epic quest, tiny cities built to scale inside a living room, a mysterious secret society, mind-boggling technology and a leavening of actual history. It’s a brisk, entertaining read, and very funny to boot.

Although I do highly recommend this book, the only caveat I would make is that Google is such a big part of the story that the company almost feels like a major character. I could definitely see that being off-putting for some readers. In theory Sloan could have told a similar story without actually explicitly naming Google, but I think part of the idea behind this book is to tell a story that seems fantastical but is actually grounded in present-day reality. From that perspective, the intense focus on Google’s achievements is a big part of what makes this book work so well.

One of my most favorite moments in the book comes near the end when Clay visits a massive storage facility while on a quest to find a missing artifact. The facility is full of constantly moving shelves that seem to have minds of their own as they shift artifacts from place to place. The scene is full of magic and strangeness, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that just such a facility actually exists in the real world. That, ultimately, is the book’s greatest achievement – finding the wonder in modern technologies that we might otherwise take for granted.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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You Must Go and Win by Alina Simone

Published: October 25th, 2011
Publisher: Neil Gaiman Presents
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Personal Memoirs
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs 13 mins

I’d never heard of Ukranian-born musician Alina Simone before Neil Gaiman added You Must Go and Win to his line of audiobooks on Audible, but the combination of her background and career piqued my interest, and a recommendation from Gaiman sealed the deal. It is perhaps a little strange that I listened to the book before ever listening to any of her music, but, luckily, her stories are compelling enough to stand on their own.

The book consists of almost a dozen long essays largely focused on the intersections between Simone’s heritage and her tentative musical career. The stories are occasionally rambling, sometimes thoughtful or poignant, and almost always funny. Simone was a childhood friend of Amanda Palmer’s, and one chapter recounts their shared experiences as struggling artists right up until the point when Palmer starts finding success. My favorite story by far involves Simone’s absurdly terrifying experience at a Siberian strip show, where, to her horror, the male strippers pull more than willing audience members onstage and do unmentionable things to them.

Simone is a relatable, down-to-earth storyteller, and her struggles with success are thoughtfully presented throughout. However, the most fascinating stories focus on her oddball fascination with Siberian religion and culture. For example, her idea of reading for fun involves diving into a dense tome about an obscure religious sect who believed that self-castration was the best way to purify the soul. She cheerfully suggests that women carry this book – Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom – as a defense against harassment after using it to scare off an overbearing Italian fan. Her obsession with the strangeness of Siberia was contagious, and I found myself wanting to know more about that faraway region.

Although Simone does a good job keeping things moving with wry, self-deprecating humor and fascinating regional details, some of the stories feel like they are missing a through-line. I enjoyed what she had to say, but I wasn’t always clear how one anecdote tied into the next, and a few of her endings were more elliptical than revelatory. Additionally, the first story or two seemed like comparatively mundane horror stories about the life of a struggling musician, and I was initially worried the whole book would continue in that register.

Overall, however, this collection of essays is a brisk, entertaining read, and an audiobook seems like the ideal format. I came away feeling like I’d learned a few things about Siberia, and I’d especially recommend the book to anyone interested in creativity and the arts.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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Wild Thing by Josh Bazell

Published: February 8, 2012
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Comedy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 46 minutes

Wild Thing, by author and physician Josh Bazell, is a sequel to his thrilling debut Beat The Reaper, which introduced former mob hitman Pietro Brwna as he tried to make up for his crimes by working as a doctor. Beat The Reaper was essentially Brwna’s origin story, and spent much of its time flashing back over his life up to that point. It was simultaneously an intensely personal story and a breakneck thriller full of black-as-night gallows humor. For example, in one particularly nerve-wracking scene, Brwna uses one of his own bones as a weapon. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted more, but I also couldn’t quite picture where the story might go next. Beat The Reaper would be a hard act to follow for any author, and I’m glad that Bazell took up the challenge even if I don’t think the results quite hit the mark.

We catch up with Brwna on a cruise ship three years after the events of the first book. Now he is going by the name Lionel Azimuth and pulling rotting teeth for crew members as part of his catchall position as ship’s doctor. Brwna hates life on the boat, so when his old mentor hooks him up with a job working for a reclusive billionaire (referred to only as Rec Bill), he jumps at the chance. At least, he does until he finds out that the job involves going to Minnesota and hunting for a mythological lake monster as part of what may or may not be a scam or criminal operation. Softening the blow is the fact that his companion for the trip will be Violet Hearst, a paleontologist who is both a knockout beauty and a firm believer in the inevitable apocalypse due to ecological catastrophes. Much to Brwna’s surprise, Rec Bill is willing to pony up a steep payment for his cooperation in the trip, and soon enough he gives in despite his misgivings and Violet are on their way.

A lot of Wild Thing’s reviews focus on the fact that the subject matter is so different from the first book that it feels strange that it has the same main character. However, I don’t agree with the argument that this doesn’t feel like a Pietro Brwna book; I think Bazell just does as good a job with Brwna’s voice and sense of humor in Wild Thing, and I couldn’t picture any other character taking the lead. I love the character, and definitely laughed out loud more than once. I also don’t necessarily think that the cryptozoological angle doesn’t fit with a story about Brwna, although I could see how hints of possible fantastic elements might raise the hackles of people who like things to stay “realistic”.

What I do think is that Bazell actually wrote himself into a corner with Beat The Reaper. How do you write another book about the same character when you’ve a) revealed his entire backstory and b) established that he can’t keep working in a big public hospital? Any kind of follow-up would have to shake things up. I think the real reason people say that Wild Thing doesn’t feel like a Pietro Brwna book is that it isn’t actually about him as a person. Beat The Reaper was entirely focused on Brwna’s fall and redemption. All of the action and tension in the first book originated from events in his life both past and present, which meant that the stakes were exceedingly high and very personal.

In Wild Thing, the personal connections are more tenuous, although they are still present to some degree. Brwna has a fear of open water and sharks because the only woman he ever loved was killed in a shark tank, and he also has a fear of intimacy for much the same reason. Naturally, being in close quarters with a beautiful woman as they search for a lake monster means that some of his issues are going to come to the forefront. However, the stakes never feel very high in Wild Thing – either they find the lake monster or they don’t, and Brwna can probably get on with his life either way. Maybe he goes back to the cruise ship, maybe he makes enough money to take care of his problem with mobsters trying to kill him. Compare that to Beat The Reaper, where Brwna is fighting for his life and for personal redemption all while trying to save patient’s lives and barely sleeping, and it just doesn’t sound quite as compelling.

However, my biggest problem with Wild Thing is that the plot basically unravels near the end of the book. A lot of time is spent building up to the camping trip and search for the monster, but when it finally gets to that point, everything is over and done with in no time flat, and it feels very anticlimactic. It doesn’t help that the camping trip feels vague and unmotivated once the characters are actually in the middle of the wilderness; after so much time spent discussing the length and dangers of the trip, very little time is spent on the actual trip itself.

There are also several characters introduced early on that never end up amounting to anything. A fundamentalist couple arrives at the camping lodge for the trip only to have a one-sided argument about religion with Violet Hearst and storm off-stage, never to return in any meaningful fashion. A Las Vegas magician is mentioned and then subsequently forgotten about until the end of the book, when he is used as an offhand explanation for a plot point. Bazell misses a great opportunity to have these characters interact with each other and Brwna on the trip, and it’s a damn shame.

It’s frustrating that the book ends up basically trailing off at the end, because until that point I was definitely enjoying it. I actually liked it more when I first finished it than I did after thinking about it for a few minutes, which is always particularly disappointing. To me it’s a sign of a great writer who perhaps bit off more than he could chew; once I was no longer distracted by his fantastic main character, the holes in the plot were far too easy to see.

However, the end of the book very clearly sets up a sequel that could end up bringing the focus back to Brwna’s life; rather than continuing to live in hiding, Brwna decides to go on the offensive and strike back against the mob and his former employer. I’m definitely looking forward to it despite my misgivings about this book. Everything I liked about Wild Thing tells me that Bazell is a great author to watch. The problems I had may just be the symptoms of the dreaded sophomore slump that seems to affect so many great artists.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

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Why Audiobooks are the Best Kind of Digital Reading

Hello, strangers! I come to you bearing book-related opinion pieces! I know I’ve stayed away for far too long, but this blog fell prey to modern life, as is so often the case. Countless blogs gather dust while their owners spend time trying to find the cutest picture of a cat on the internet. I’ve also heard rumors of a strange cult known as the “tumblers“. However, instead of dwelling on my own shortcomings as a purveyor of content, let us instead turn our attention towards all things digital…

The general consensus in the book world is that exciting and/or frightening things are happening on the frontiers of digital publishing, but the discussion is, in my opinion, giving short shrift to audiobooks as a digital medium. Although my Kindle is a wonderful convenience – the best way to cart around various 1000+ page tomes by Stephenson, Martin, and Murakami – it is my audiobook collection that holds a special place in my heart.

eBooks might save space on overcrowded bookshelves, but great audiobooks do them one better by bringing a story’s characters and ideas to life, filling them with breath and emotion, and transporting you into another world. It’s my opinion that audiobooks are a far more exciting digital medium than ebooks will ever be. I also feel like the practical benefits are more compelling; going from a box full of a dozen CDs or cassettes (bulky AND overpriced) to a few digital files seems like such a huge evolutionary leap, even compared to the transition from the printed word to digital text.

Accordingly, I was particularly excited by the recent launch of ACX, the “Audiobook Creation Exchange”. ACX helps authors connect with narrators to produce professional-quality audiobooks for books that might otherwise get indifferent, tone-deaf productions or simply never get adapted. Neil Gaiman used the service to launch his own Audible “label”, featuring books he loves that were never previously adapted for audio. Self-published authors have been podcasting their books for years now, and ACX feels like taking that DIY impulse to the next level. My sincere hope is that the floodgates open and we start getting audiobook adaptations of obscure, out-of-print, or just plain weird authors.

In an interview with Salon, Gaiman says that one of the reasons he became an evangelist for ACX and audiobooks in general is that, when listening to an audiobook, “you often notice things that the author in all probability thought he or she had buried brilliantly in the text, sitting there in plain sight.” This has definitely been my experience more than once; truly great audiobooks bring something to the table that you’d never discover in the text alone. In fact, I’d argue that some authors should only be experienced in audio form.

I doubt that David Sedaris’ stories are quite the same if they aren’t read in his peculiarly expressive voice, and I firmly believe that Woody Allen’s comic writing doesn’t quite come alive without his unique delivery. However, it makes sense that non-fiction would be best experienced when read by the author; the far more astonishing experience is a narrator who brings a fictional narrative and all its myriad characters to three-dimensional life in your head.

Late last year, when I first started my Audible membership, one of the first books I bought was The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. The narrator of the book, Steven Pacey, did such an incredible job with distinct voices and accents for every character that I was completely hooked and ended up listening to the entire series in audio form. You know an audiobook is firing on all cylinders when you can immediately tell which character is talking by the sound of the narrator’s voice.

It has actually reached the point where audiobooks are becoming my medium of choice. I’m far more likely to read a brand new book if I buy it in audio, simply because I can listen to it while I’m working, or going for a walk, or doing errands around the house. A few years ago I only listened to audiobooks on long trips out of town, but nowadays I’m finding more and more time to multi-task while listening to a good story. In fact, I’d argue that listening to audiobooks has majorly increased my productivity over the last year, because I’m far more likely to do something mindless or repetitive if I have a good story to keep me occupied.

All of these and more are reasons why my dream future is one where every great book has a great audiobook, and all of them are sold at reasonable prices. I’ll be listening. Will you?

Underwhelmed by OverDrive

Digital publishing presents a huge challenge for public libraries. OverDrive is a service that proposes to address that need by offering a catalog of eBooks and audiobooks that libraries can offer online for checkout.

I heard about it from a few friends that work at a local library currently offering OverDrive books. According to my friends, it’s far from an ideal solution; one of the more onerous limitations is that eBooks can only be checked out a certain number of times before the license expires.

However, even knowing that the licensing terms were pretty heinous, I still wanted to give the system a test run. I’ve spent a lot of money on audiobooks this year, so it’s in my interest to find a cheap or free way to legitimately listen to more audiobooks.

In retrospect, I wish I’d just spent the money. I’ll never get back the intensely frustrating hours of my life I spent just trying to download one audiobook from the service.

I’ve included a blow-by-blow of my whole tortuous experience after the break. Incoming rant alert!

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Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Published: October 28, 2010
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Audiobook
Length: 20:28

Surface Detail is the ninth book in Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, and the third I’ve read. As soon as I read the summary, I couldn’t wait to pick it up. Fortunately, the Culture books are generally standalone stories, so it was easy to skip ahead.

The book has a good half-dozen plot threads that run concurrently, all somehow touching on the effects of technologies that have made it possible to back up a person’s “mind-state”, essentially a digital recording of their soul. Once a mind-state is backed up, it can be “re-vented” into a new body, or consigned to a virtual afterlife, some of which are decidedly unpleasany. Naturally the disposition of digital souls has huge social, political, and religious implications. The issue of virtual hells is a controversial one, and a war has broken out in the galaxy between The Culture (among others) and societies who believe it is their right to send the digital dead to eternal damnation.

The main thread of the book focuses on Lededje Y’breq, a young woman who is an indentured servant of the most powerful man in her society, Joiler Veppers. She is more than just a slave, however; her society has a form of indenture that involves a full-body tattoo genetically etched onto every cell in her body. She is an “intagliate”, and is marked with both an exotic beauty and an ever-present reminder of her status as chattel.

When Lededje tries to run away from Veppers, he hunts her down and stabs her to death in a sudden rage. However, what neither Lededje or Veppers realize is that The Culture has taken an interest in her plight. After she is murdered, she awakens on a Culture ship light-years away and discovers that all of her memories are intact, along with a pressing need for revenge. Events in the book are set into motion when she begins the journey back to her home world to exact that revenge.

Some of the story takes place in the real world, some in virtual worlds simulating an endless war, and some in the virtual hell run by an alien society. The story jumps wildly from place to place and character to character. We are introduced to so many fascinating people and exotic places over the course of the book, it is sometimes hard to keep track of everything as it flies by. The book is basically impossible to summarize succinctly, and must be read to truly be experienced. The plot is twisty and full of misdirection, but rewards a patient and attentive reader.

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of Surface Detail, which is narrated by Peter Kenny, and I would highly recommend experiencing the book that way. Kenny does a fantastic job of giving each character a unique voice and temperament, and that made it a lot easier to keep the huge cast straight in my mind. Also, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book was only made possible by his narration. Near the end of the book, a normally sedate alien – who Kenny gives a cutesy high-pitched voice – starts becoming seriously pissed off when his plans start falling apart. The alien becomes so foul-mouthed and sarcastic that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I was pleased to find out that Kenny does the narration for all of Banks’ novels on Audible, so I’ll definitely be picking up another one sometime soon.

I think my only criticism of the book is that the ending falls a little flat. Although all of the disparate threads do end up connecting in some fashion, it still seems like an awful lot of fuss for something that feels a bit anticlimactic. However, I enjoyed the ride up until that point so very much that I wouldn’t necessarily discount the resolution for not quite adding up.

Surface Detail is a hell of a book. It manages to discuss incredibly complex moral and philosophical issues in an engaging and entertaining way, all while throwing in a bit of action, terror, and humor for seasoning. It’s another fine slice of Banks’ particular brand of space opera, and if you’ve enjoyed previous Culture books, I think you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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P.S. If you’ve never read a Culture book, the Kindle version of the first book in the series, Consider Phlebas, is 99 cents for the month of April!