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We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us: A Better World by Marcus Sakey

With his Brilliance series, suspense writer Marcus Sakey is doing for adult science fiction what Suzanne Collins did for YA science fiction in the Hunger Games book and George R.R. Martin did for epic fantasy with Game of Thrones: He’s making it accessible to people who aren’t fans of those genres.

A  Better World

A Better World, A Better Book

Actually, I’m hesitant even to tell you that the Brilliance series is science fiction because you may decide not to read it on that basis alone, so try not thinking of it as science fiction. Think of it as a series of suspense novels that will have spectacular special effects when they get made into movies. The words “science fiction” create certain expectations in people’s minds, like starships and latex-faced aliens, and you won’t find any of that in Sakey’s work.

What you will find, as I discussed in my review of the first book in the Brilliance series — appropriately entitled Brilliance — is lean, muscular, intelligent prose with interesting characters and deftly executed plot twists. For those of you tired of the all-too-often bloated prose of fantasy writers like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King (both of them excellent authors who just never got the message that less can sometimes be more), you’ll find Sakey’s tight plotting and no-words-wasted descriptions a refreshing change. And if you’ve read the first book in the Brilliance series, you’ll be thrilled to discover that, after a somewhat slow opening caused mostly by the addition of some new viewpoint characters, A Better World is not only as good a book as the first in the series but actually a better one. The second half of this book is one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve read in recent years and Sakey sets up the third book in the series — yes, this is going to be at least a trilogy — so perfectly that I’m already wishing he’d finish it already and put it on Amazon, because I really don’t want to wait as long for it as I’ve been waiting for new books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Fortunately, not only is Sakey a less verbose writer than Martin but a faster one.

In A Better World, the protagonist is once again government agent Nick Cooper, but he’s on leave from his job with the DAR, having developed serious doubts about their mission to keep watch on so-called brilliants, super-intelligent mutants of which Cooper is one. (If you’ve read the first book, you’ll know why Cooper is having doubts.) That doesn’t mean he’s sitting on his hands, though. He’s offered a job as a presidential adviser and he takes it, because he thinks brilliants deserve a voice in the White House. So, fortunately, does the president. Alas, this makes Cooper some powerful enemies, because not everybody who works in the West Wing is exactly who they seem to be, no matter how nice they all seemed during those seven years Martin Sheen spent as the PoTUS.

Cooper also returns to the city of Tesla, high in the Colorado Rockies, a town designed especially for brilliants to live in and therefore seen as a threat to normal humans by certain political advisers who want the president to take executive action of a particularly dangerous kind. As Sakey winds the plot tighter and tighter, the story heads into Tom Clancy political thriller territory, the kind where the fate of nations hangs in balance. Though several of Sakey’s characters are human beings that the reader feels deeply about, the climactic scenes of this novel involve a spectacular situation that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you.

I don’t want to go into more details about the plot because you shouldn’t be reading this review. You should be reading the book. You can buy the e-book for $5 from Amazon.com and it’s worth three times that much. Then again, you might want to wait until the third novel is out so that you can binge-read them in sequence, but I don’t have that kind of patience. Once I’d read the first book, I knew I’d read the second one the day it came out — and I did. (It’s taken me a while to review it, though. Life keeps getting in the way.) If you’ve read the first book, you should read this one as soon as you possibly can. You won’t regret it.

 

Too Smart for Their Own Good: Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

It’s only fair to say this up front: Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance reviews itself right in the title.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

Brilliance — Well, yes.

Not that it’s likely to win the Man Booker Prize or whatever the top book award is these days — it’s a popular thriller, after all — but the brilliance of Brilliance is that a lot of people are unlikely to notice just how good it is because they’ll be too busy enjoying it. It’s ironic that my favorite whipping boy, Lee Child, has the novel’s cover blurb, because Brilliance is written in the kind of fast-paced, muscular prose that Child’s Jack Reacher novels reach for (sorry) but never manage to get any weight behind. Brilliance’s prose has so much weight behind it that, ironically, you won’t be able to put it down.

It’s hard to say exactly where Brilliance excels, because Marcus Sakey doesn’t wear his talent on his sleeve. It doesn’t excel in style, though the writing is strong and sufficiently subtle in both metaphor and syntax that you won’t notice it being subtle. (Shouldn’t subtlety always be subtle?) Sakey specializes in crime novels and Brilliance has the lean, stripped-down prose of a detective novel without quite being one. It doesn’t have an extraordinarily original plot. When I tell you, in a couple of paragraphs, what it’s about, you’ll mutter that you’ve heard this one before and you probably have. It doesn’t excel in characterization. The characters have just enough depth that the reader cares about them — especially the protagonist, who has the most at stake — but not enough to bog the novel down in description. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, George R.R. Martin.)

Where Brilliance excels is in structure. Sakey has an uncanny sense for the moment at which the reader’s attention is going to flag and fires off a revelation or plot twist just in time to keep his hooks in you. And, believe me, he sinks the hooks in early and deep. Sakey’s novel is so beautifully structured that the story always feels fresh, with perfect pacing and no scene held for even a beat too long — at least until the end, when the reader gets the denouement the book deserves, tying up loose ends so nicely that I was surprised to discover that this is the first book in a series. Believe me, it functions perfectly well as a standalone story.

Brilliance is what I like to call science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction, a genre I’ve come to enjoy more and more as I’ve gotten older. Here’s the plot: Brilliance takes place in an alternate version of our present, where back in the early 1980s special children called brilliants (or abnorms if you don’t like them) began to appear, mutants with unusual mental powers that manifest themselves in various and unexpected ways. By the 2010s these mutants have begun dividing up into two groups, those who live separately from the rest of the human race and those who just want to get along. And the U.S. government is starting to become disturbed by the possibility of an abnorm terrorist underground that could destroy normal society as we know it.

If you’re muttering that this sounds like a lot like the X-Men, both in comics and in movies, I’m with you. It does. And it’s to Sakey’s credit that this doesn’t feel the slightest bit like an X-Men film. Part of that is Sakey’s crime novel background, which makes this feel more like an action thriller played out on a large scale than a comic-book movie (which is not to knock comic-book movies, something I very much enjoy when they’re done well). Another thing that keeps this from feeling like the X-Men is that Sakey’s mutants don’t have what one would think of as superhero powers. None of them can fly, cause objects to burst into flame with their eyes, or shoot adamantium claws out of their fingertips (though there is a little girl who can pick up on body language cues so well that she can effectively read minds, a marvelous throwaway touch about halfway through the book). Sakey’s brilliants can do things like calculate cause and effect so rapidly that they know what’s going to happen two seconds in the future or distract your attention so deftly that they become effectively invisible. Sakey makes this all so thoroughly convincing that you never feel like like you’re reading science fiction, even when you notice the technological differences that brilliant inventors have introduced into consumer technology, like holographic televisions.

The protagonist is Agent Nick Cooper of the DAR — Department of Analysis and Response – a government agency founded to keep an eye on brilliants and given extraordinary powers by an equivalent of the Patriot Act inspired by this world’s abnorm equivalent of 9/11. The irony is that Cooper is a brilliant himself and he makes no attempt to conceal it. He’s sincere in his desire to keep the peace with normal human beings and even has two children, one normal and one brilliant, by his non-brilliant ex-wife. Cooper is searching for John Smith, a brilliant terrorist responsible for a heinous act of mass murder in the nation’s capital. But he’s also worried about his brilliant daughter, who he suspects has abnorm abilities so powerful that she’ll soon find herself under the watchful eye of the DAR, which makes him uneasy. And it’s this uneasiness that provides the subtle impetus behind much of the plot.

It’s not hard, even in the opening chapters, to see where this novel will wind up in the end. The fun is in figuring out how it will get there and Sakey is always one step ahead of you. It’s no surprise that the novel has a big reveal, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see how big it was going to be. Still, it’s the little reveals and wonderfully unexpected moments that keep this novel in almost constant motion, pulling the reader along like a monstrous wave yet rarely feeling overhurried or frenetic. Sakey tells this story so perfectly that, even though I was reading it during a period when I had neither the time nor the focus for a lot of reading, I never considered putting it down for a different book. And now I’m psyched for the next book in the series, A Better World, which Amazon says is coming out on June 17. You might want to read this book now so you’ll be ready to buy that one the day it comes out. Believe me, I’ll be buying it with you.

The Old New Weird: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation cover

The cover should really be weirder than this.

Weird fiction was a genre of fiction even before there was such a thing as genre, which is really more a publishing term that tells bookstores what shelves they should put books on and gives self-published e-book authors some area of fiction that their books can excel in on Amazon.com’s many bestseller lists. The term “weird fiction” was coined by 19th century Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who specialized in what we would now call mystery and horror fiction, but which were then just part of the general mainstream of literature. Weird fiction encompasses ghost stories, horror stories and just about any stories in which something unusual and distinctly creepy is going on, whether or not it has a supernatural element to it. It lent its name to one of the greatest of all early 20th century pulp magazines, Weird Tales, probably best known today for having published most of the major work of that towering master of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, with whose death in 1937 the popularity of weird fiction died too, leaving it as a niche genre that only a few writers, like Robert Bloch (better known for writing the novel Psycho than for his weird fiction) and Ramsey Campbell, continued to work in. In recent years, though, the genre has undergone something of a revival, much of it in a form called the New Weird, which nobody is able to define but everybody seems to agree is what’s being written by authors like China Miéville.

Jeff VanderMeer is an expert on weird fiction, having not only edited (along with his wife Ann VanderMeer) several collections of old weird and new weird fiction, but having written quite a bit of it himself, including the short story collection City of Saints and Madmen and the novel Finch. I grew up on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and read quite a bit of the old weird fiction in my teens but have really only become aware of the renaissance in weird fiction recently, mostly from reading the introductions to Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s anthologies (which you should read — the introductions, I mean — if you want to know more about weird fiction than I’m telling you here, though this Wikipedia article is also helpful). I had been meaning for some time to explore the newer contributions to the field and when I noticed that Jeff VanderMeer had begun a new trilogy of weird fiction novels collectively called The Southern Reach, it seemed like an ideal place to start. I’ve now read the first novel in the series, Annihilation  — the second novel, Authority, will be published this May and the third novel, Acceptance, will be published in September — and can report that, while I’m not sure whether it belongs to the old weird fiction or to the new weird, it is unquestionably, undeniably weird.

Based on my own acquaintance with the field, I can tell you that weird fiction doesn’t emphasize a lot of the things that traditional fiction does, like character and plot, and only emphasizes setting to the extent that a story’s setting can contribute to its overall weirdness. H.P. Lovecraft occasionally introduced memorable characters into his stories, but by far his most memorable tended to be the frequently unnamed first-person narrators of his stories and their voices always seemed to be the voice of Lovecraft himself, though without the sense of humor he frequently displayed in his letters to friends. What is paramount to weird fiction is mood and the most common mood in weird fiction is dread, which can be either mild or so extreme that it causes the characters to become insane. Lovecraft was fond of saying that his narrators escaped insanity only through a form of denial, “the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” as he puts it in his most famous (though far from best) story “The Call of Cthulhu.” (Sometimes they also resorted to morphine, which I gather was easier to obtain in Lovecraft’s day.)

In Annihilation, Vandermeer makes his priorities clear. He doesn’t even bother to give his characters names, referring to them only by the roles they play in the expedition that makes up the novel’s plot: the anthropologist, the psychologist, the surveyor. The narrator herself — all of these characters are female — is simply “the biologist.” The goal of their vaguely defined expedition is to explore a mysterious region known as “Area X” and it’s never clear where this region is, not just where it is on our planet, but whether it’s actually on our planet or even has a physical existence at all. It could well exist in the characters’ minds, given that nobody (with the possible exception of the psychologist, who seems to be running the expedition for the explorers’ “superiors,” a government agency known only as the Southern Reach) even seems to know how they arrived there. They crossed something called “the border” while in a state of hypnosis induced by the psychologist, who apparently also induced in their minds certain keywords that would cause them to respond in pre-programmed ways, including keywords that would cause them to commit suicide if necessary. We gradually learn that this isn’t the first expedition into Area X and that nobody seems to be sure how many previous expeditions there have been or whether the explorers returned from them. (Some of the explorers, like the narrator’s husband, did return, but with such altered personalities that the narrator is convinced that at some point in the expedition he was replaced by someone, or something, else. The narrator believes, based on notes she finds that her husband left behind in a mysterious location called “the lighthouse,” that he actually headed off even more deeply into Area X in search of a boat that he could use for further exploration.)

Much of the story concerns the discovery of a large hole in the ground with a staircase leading down into it, a frequent trope in Lovecraft’s work. Everybody calls this “the tunnel,” except for the narrator, who calls it “the tower,” insisting on seeing it as rising even though it’s distinctly descending. As the explorers climb down the staircase, they find phosphorescent writing on the wall relating (in English) a semicoherent narrative apparently being written by some creature that has worked its way down to an even lower level of the “tower.” Before they descend more than a short distance, the explorers decide to branch out in small parties from their base camp (which is simply the point at which they found themselves when they awoke from their hypnotic transition to Area X) and explore nearby points of interest, but gradually…well, I won’t give away any more of the plot, though VanderMeer is so obviously reluctant to make any coherent sense of this story that I’m almost hesitant to use the word “plot” to describe it.

As an introduction to weird fiction, I can’t think of a better place to start than this novel. It’s short — 56,000 words, which is barely more than half the length of one of the Hunger Games novels — adeptly written and distinctly evocative of, well, weirdness. If you prefer your fiction a bit more conventional, though, you’d be better advised to avoid it, because conventional is one thing VanderMeer is very intent on not being.

My Compliments to the Chef: The Dinner by Herman Koch

About a year ago, while making excuses for laying aside The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after only about 40 pages or so, I discussed how much I dislike reading books in translation. The loss of the original text and the substitution of a new one waters down the author’s unique voice, destroys the direct sense of mind-to-mind connection that even mediocre novels can provide, and inflicts on the reader the voice of a translator who probably isn’t as good a writer as the one that he’s translating, else he’d be writing great novels of his own.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Herman Koch’s The Dinner, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, proves how wrong I was. I don’t know what the author’s original voice was like, but I don’t care. Garrett has done such a fine job of rendering the book into English that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s Koch’s mind, Garrett’s mind or a combination of the two that I’m connecting with. The book’s prose is seamlessly readable and I find it hard to imagine that it could have been significantly better in the original Dutch. It reads as smoothly and as intelligently as any well-crafted English-language novel I’ve read in recent years — better so than most — and that’s certainly good enough for me.

My friend George, who brought the book to my attention a few weeks ago when he praised it on a Web forum I frequent, said that the book has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and I can see why. It has the same acerbic, observational wit, the sense of seeing the world through the eyes of someone who notices telling details about the way we live, details that ring with ironic and often caustic truth. Also like Gone Girl, it has a major plot revelation about halfway through, but it’s not the kind that snaps your head around and causes you to rethink everything that’s come before, as Flynn’s was. In fact, Koch prepares you so thoroughly for the revelation that it doesn’t even come as a surprise and certainly doesn’t qualify as a plot twist.

What Koch does is something much subtler. I suspect that there will be, and probably have been, reviewers who will describe the novel’s first-person protagonist as an unreliable narrator, but he really isn’t. Nothing he tells you is misleading and when he omits information — as he frequently does — he tells you that he’s omitting it and assures you that he’ll fill in the details later — as he also does. What Koch does instead is to take advantage of the reader’s automatic tendency to sympathize with a first-person narrator and gradually, so slowly that you almost don’t notice that he’s doing it, subverts that expectation. I finished the book almost unsure of what I had just read or what any of it meant and when it finally came over me I realized that I was almost reluctant to accept it. Not to give too much away, but in the end the novel amounts to a major political statement — something that sounds quite boring but isn’t in the slightest — that addresses an issue that I find myself pondering during every major election: Why do people vote for things that are almost inhumanly cruel and harsh and then assume that these things don’t — and shouldn’t — apply to themselves?

What happens in the course of the book is that Koch alters your initial perceptions of the characters until you gradually realize that they are precisely the opposite of the people you thought they were in the beginning and that the character you most disdained throughout the majority of the novel is in fact the only person at the table — as its title implies, the novel takes place during the course of a single dinner — who is worth giving a damn about, the only one who isn’t a hypocrite and certainly the only one who has something resembling a conscience. And Koch does this so scrupulously that he never at any point betrays the reader’s trust in the integrity of his storytelling.

But while it is these gradual realizations that make the novel great, it is the witty, sharply observed prose and vividly drawn characters, as well as the way Koch draws out his revelations while always letting you know that they’re coming, that make it readable, even riveting, from the very beginning. If anything was lost in the book’s transition from Holland to America, it probably wasn’t worth having in the first place.

Surfing the End of the World: Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave

I haven’t written a book review in this blog for months. One reason, obviously, is that I haven’t read a book in months, but that’s not strictly true. I’ve read a few for professional reasons that I just don’t want to review. And I haven’t been able to work up the energy to review Rick Yancey’s YA alien invasion epic The 5th Wave.

The 5th Wave

I’m not quite sure why I haven’t been able to work up the energy, because it was one of the two best books I’ve read this year. That may sound like faint praise, but when the other book was Gillian Flynn’s stunning Gone Girl, it’s actually something of a compliment. I think the real reason I don’t have the energy to review The 5th Wave is that I liked it so much that I deliberately stretched out my reading of it to the point that by the time I reached the end, I couldn’t remember all the great things I’d planned to say about it at the beginning. So if this review, which I’m finally writing several months after I finished the book, seems a bit sketchy, it’s because I’ve forgotten most of what I loved about it.

But not all. One thing I loved was that Yancey has a gift for writing poetic prose that doesn’t come across as the slightest bit poetic unless you’re looking very closely, which is a terrific gift for a writer of YA novels, where the audience might be suspicious of any book that sounds like it might someday be assigned in English classes. And it also makes for terrific reading if you’re the sort of person like me who is intensely interested in the prose mechanics of a novel. It took me a while to realize that Yancey’s prose had an almost song-like cadence to it, while still sounding like the kind of writing one would expect from a science fiction thriller. His sentences are perfectly constructed. His paragraphs are perfectly constructed. And his chapters end with beautifully thought out buttons that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading them. And all this will sneak up on you without you even noticing he’s done it.

He’s also gone out of his way to make the well-worn alien invasion tropes feel new again. It’s not that he does anything genuinely original here — I don’t think there’s a trick in this book that I haven’t seen in some other alien invasion novel — but he takes a whole bunch of tricks (the title tells you how many) and combines them into something unique. He gives away the book’s central surprise in the prologue, just to show that he doesn’t even have to surprise you with it to make it work. (It’s that the aliens arrive on earth by inserting their consciousnesses into the brains of unborn fetuses, where they will awaken in adolescence. And, no, I haven’t spoiled anything that you won’t know by page 2.) And then a fresh mothership full of aliens starts hitting us with one nasty attack after another, but I’ll let you discover what those are about by reading the book.

What I loved about it most, though, was the moral ambiguity of it all. The aliens in the book aren’t entirely evil. Even the worst of them are simply looking for a new world to live on and want to get rid of the previous occupants. The best of them…well, let’s just say that they can be as heroic as any of the humans.

The book follows two viewpoint characters, Cassie (for Cassiopeia) and Zombie (whose real name escapes me at the moment). Cassie is a teenage girl who lives alone in the woods, armed for bear, afraid of other people because she doesn’t know which ones are aliens in disguise — and you can probably imagine the ugly places a situation like that can lead. The other is part of a children’s army being trained to fight back against the aliens, because children seem to have survived the early attack waves in greater numbers than adults have. (There’s a reason for this, but it would be a spoiler to mention it.)

Most of the suspense and fascination of Yancey’s novel comes from the internal struggles of these characters, but he can write a great action scene too. Yet my favorite moments were mostly internal monologues. Which is odd, because I’ve been reading a lot of advice lately from writers and editors, including the late Elmore Leonard, saying that writers should avoid internal monologue because it bores readers, who are apparently frightened by long paragraphs without dialog. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with the fact that I love it. But Yancey’s book has been on bestseller lists already, so there must be other readers like me who don’t subscribe to the Elmore Leonard school of all-dialog narration. (In fairness to Leonard, most of Yancey’s book is first-person internal monologue, so you can think of it as dialog addressed to the reader.)

The 5th Wave is the first book of a trilogy, so don’t be disappointed if all your questions aren’t answered in the end and all the bad situations aren’t resolved. Some major plot arcs are tied up, so that should be enough to keep you happy until Book Two comes out. And if you’re like me, you’ll be lined up to download that book to your e-reader the moment it’s available.

Going, Going: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl cover
I had heard so much praise for this book (and one interesting demurral from an Internet friend) that I was prepared to be seriously disappointed by it. Yes, it would be a decent crime thriller, but like most decent crime thrillers it was probably being praised less because it was good and more because it didn’t totally reek.

God, was I wrong!

Gone Girl is one of the two or three best books I’ve read since I started writing these book reports three years ago and is quite possibly the best crime/mystery/thriller I’ve read ever (unless you count The Silence of the Lambs, which I don’t think will ever be surpassed). Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways:

Plot: The plot of Gone Girl is a clockwork mechanism that unfolds so naturally that you never sense that it was outlined or planned in advance and yet so perfectly that Gillian Flynn must have plotted it within an inch of its life before ever putting words on her hard drive. It’s a continuing miracle of ingenuity and I was impressed again and again by the way Flynn develops the story. And did I mention that it’s utterly gripping?

Character: The two main characters, Nick (the husband) and Amy (the wife), are so well drawn that Flynn is actually able to turn characterization itself into a plot twist, something I’m not going to further explain. The minor characters, while not always depicted with depth, are always believable and almost always interesting. Nick’s sister Go, short for Margo, is the most fully realized and the most important to the plot, but Flynn’s portrait of the press corps is especially vivid, with a particularly venomous depiction of Nancy Grace, here referred to as Ellen Abbott.

Style: Every line of the novel is written with such incisive wit that, even when I wanted to swipe my finger across the screen of my e-reader to find out what happened next, I forced myself to read slowly just to enjoy the prose. Not only does it crackle, but it occasionally made me laugh out loud. And Flynn neatly avoids the cliched tone of the crime genre, producing something that reads like Jonathan Franzen could have written if Jonathan Franzen would lower himself to writing genre fiction.

But most of all I love it because, somewhere in the midsection of the book, Flynn pulls off the greatest plot twist I’ve seen since the TV show Lost switched from flashbacks to flashforwards. It’s the kind of twist that snaps your head around and makes you rethink everything that’s happened up until that moment. I love it when that happens in a book and I haven’t seen it happen that much lately (or at least the great plot twists seem to have moved from books to serial TV shows). There used to be writers — I’m thinking specifically here of William Goldman, Ira Levin and John Farris — who could do 180 degree turns in the middle of a novel and leave you gasping at the sheer audacity of their literary stunt work, but I was beginning to think that this was a lost art.

I guess I should do a brief plot summary, but I’m not going to dwell on it. Gone Girl is the story of a marriage gone sour, the marriage between the aforementioned Nick and Amy, and it turns on the disappearance of Amy on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. Flynn rather ingeniously tells the story in double first person, with Nick and Amy narrating alternating chapters. Nick’s chapters are set in the present time (which is some point in 2012, when the book was published) and Amy’s chapters, which are couched as diary entries, fill in the expository details, giving the reader the back story that led up to the present situation. This works amazingly well, once again reminding me of Lost in the way that Amy’s flashbacks illuminate Nick’s present time action, and it’s this narrative technique that makes the stunning plot twist possible.

If Flynn falters anywhere it’s in the final chapters, where the novel becomes a kind of chess game with players alternating moves and I began to sense that Flynn didn’t know which move to end on. I think she chose the right player to end with, but there’s a sense that she ends the story more because she has to than because she found the right moment to do it. At the very least I wish the final chapter had left more of a sense of what was going to happen after the book was over; there are hints, but I found them rather weak.

But the 95 percent of the book leading up to the end is so brilliantly conceived that I’ll happily forgive Flynn for any imperfections in the way she sums things up.

Lost in the Library of Life: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

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


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an absolute delight from first page to last, one of those rare books that I never had the urge to put down for even a second. It reminds me of two other books that I’ve read this year, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and John Scalzi’s Redshirts, in that it has a distinct meta-interest to geeks. Yet it goes well beyond either of those books and offers reading joy to a much wider audience. Unlike those books, it isn’t even science fiction, yet it possesses the same wide-eyed sense of wonder that gives that genre its greatest appeal.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore doesn’t really belong to any distinct genre, yet at its heart it’s a kind of puzzle, a book with a secret at its center that needs to be unraveled. Note that I don’t call it a mystery, because it doesn’t belong to any known variation on the mystery genre. In a way it’s a very old-fashioned book, yet at the same time it lies at the cusp between Gen-X and Gen-Y fiction. It’s about dusty old books with fraying bindings, but it’s also about computers, smartphones and Google.

Beyond that, here’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot, because this is a book you really ought to discover for yourself: It’s about an out-of-work young graphic designer wandering the streets of San Francisco, unable to find a job in the crashed economy, who sees in the window of a bookstore that most old-fashioned technology for gaining employment: a help wanted sign. He talks to the owner, Mr. Penumbra, and gets hired for the middle-of-the-night shift. (This is, as the title reminds us, a 24-hour bookstore.) Our hero, Clay, spends most his time with nothing to do, because entire nights pass by without a single customer entering the store. And when they do they are usually older people, identified by cryptic combinations of letters and numbers, who have borrowing rights for books in the rear section of the store, a collection of one-of-a-kind books, many of them quite ancient, also identified by cryptic combinations of letters and numbers, that Clay dubs the Waybacklist, arranged alphabetically on towering shelves mostly accessible from a sliding ladder.

Bored to tears, Clay (who has some computer programming skills) starts using the computer at the front desk to create a 3D computer model of the bookstore and to graph the pattern formed by the positions of the books returned by the customers and the books that they borrow next. And when he looks at the graph he discovers…

Okay, I’m not telling you any more than that, but when Clay’s friends who work for Google and Industrial Light & Magic get involved, the real mystery of the bookstore begins to reveal itself. Although I won’t tell you what it is, I’ll say that the solution to the mystery is nothing like you suspect it will be and is surprisingly touching when revealed. In some ways this is a book about the intersection of old technology and new technology and how they aren’t really as different as we tend to think they are. But it’s also a book about life and human beings and the patterns we all make through time.

Finally, it’s a book about a font that’s almost as old as printing itself. And if that doesn’t make you want to read it, I can’t imagine what will.

(Incidentally, for those who might wonder why I haven’t filed one of these book reviews in such a long time I can only say that I haven’t stopped reading, but the books I’ve been reading are entirely work related and, for reasons I don’t want to go into, I have no interest in offering my opinions of them in print. Sorry for being so cryptic, but sometimes life is like that. And because I’ve stopped listing all the books I’ve read, I’ve dropped the numbers from the headers of the posts.)

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