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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Shift by Kim Curran

Published: September 4, 2012
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Young Adult, Horror
Format: eBook
Length: 320 pages

Shift is the story of Scott Tyler, a British teenager who accidentally discovers that he has the power to “shift” between possible realities by changing his past decisions. Along with this discovery comes his entry into a secret world of shifters and a dawning understanding of the terrible powers at play in a world where reality can be changed at will.

One on side there is a clandestine government organization called ARES that focuses on training young shifters to use their powers for good, and on the other there is a rebel faction of shifters called the SLF, who believe that shifters should be allowed to use their powers without regulation. Scott’s first contact with the world of shifters, Aubrey Jones, is also, conveniently enough, the girl of his dreams. Aubrey is a pixieish blonde with a chip on her shoulder and conflicted loyalties between ARES, who took her away from her family, and SLF, who seem bent on anarchy and destruction for the sake of it. At first it seems like the book might be about a clash between ARES and SLF, but then we meet the true villain, a morbidly fat man wants to eat Scott’s brains.

The villain, Benjo, is easily most original thing Shift has going for it. However, he is so vile and over-the-top that he seems slightly out of place in the story. I actually would have liked the author to delve more deeply into the darkness that might result from people with the power to reset their decisions controlling the world. As it was, the book felt like it flipped back and forth between a fairly by-the-numbers secret world adventure and a squick-inducing serial killer tale.

I did also appreciate that the book retained its inherent Britishness, using uniquely British phrasings and colloquialisms that seemed slightly exotic to this American reader. I suppose it’s possible that when the book is eventually published in America, that regional flavor will be stripped out, but I certainly hope not.

However, my main problem with Shift is that the underground world of the shifters never seems particularly exciting. The scenes in the school for shifters feel fairly dull and a bit cliché when compared to other similar entries in the genre. In fact, the author ends up quickly summarizing Scott’s time at school after a few scenes, and promotes him to junior agent status as if impatient to get past all that training. The end results is that we never really understand why Scott feels an allegiance to ARES, and it seems like he only really dislikes SLF because they’re the snotty popular rebels.

Also, after one of Scott’s early shifts goes terribly wrong, he never really experiences any further consequences from his new-found shifting ability. Although he uses his ability to save himself from death at one point, it never feels like we get to see him exploring his shifting powers. Additionally, the author establishes early on that shifters can only control conscious decisions, so whenever there is a passage where Scott agonizes over a decision, it openly telegraphs that he will need to shift a few pages later, which immediately lowers the stakes. The only real stakes that come into play are when the villain, Benjo, lumbers onto the scene, simply because he is so outrageous that it feels like anything could happen when he is around.

Overall, Shift is a bit of mixed bag. The storyline follows familiar contours, as a “normal” kid discovers that he is actually very special and then proceeds to save the day. The cast of supporting characters are all fairly two-dimensional, and several characters established early on barely get more than a few lines before being shuffled off-stage for the rest of the book.

Although the villain is a uniquely twisted touch in an otherwise familiar-feeling story, he never completely meshes with the rest of book around him, and the end result is a story that only hints at something darker and more compelling.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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