first novels::reviewed

Great

 ::REVIEW::

 Peter Mehlman’s debut novel, It Won’t Always Be This Great, is quite possibly the sweetest, funniest novel orbiting the planet of mid-life crisis well, ever.  Though Mehlman is no writing novice, he wrote for the Jerry Seinfeld show and rose to executive producer at one point; this is his first work of full-length fiction.

In It Won’t Always Be This Great, we meet a 50 year-old Long Island podiatrist who throughout the book remains nameless, just as he is about to hit stride in messy patch of mid-life angst.  Dr. X is father to two amazing kids, lovely, precocious,  14 year old Esme, and son Charlie, who while hovering at the cusp of  tweenhood, makes adorably naïve pronouncements about how the world appears to work, and according to him, how it should work.

Dr. X is hopelessly in love with his children, and is the poster-guy for fatherhood. As if his examples of parental  sensitivity aren’t enough, there’s Alyce, Mrs. Doctor X, whom he adores with a fervor.  It doesn’t seem cool anymore for writers to create characters who speak well of their spouses, much less love them with dedication.  But our guy totally believes that he married a girl way too good for the likes of him, and he spends his life trying to figure out ways to continually impress her.  For instance, when he says, “. . .Maybe watching Law and Order with your wife is the meaning of life” he sincerely means it.  He loves Alyce truly, deeply. I adore the fact that Melhman doesn’t resort to cheap cynicism to give the impression of cool. He doesn’t need to. He hooks you and then pulls you in with lines like “. . .we just sat there together. It was the kind of scene that makes America great: husband and wife cuddled up on the couch, all warm and cozy, with our FBI detail just outside.”

How does the Bureau figure into all this?  Well, as it turns out, as Dr. X is walking home one very cold night, he steps on a jar of Kosher horseradish and badly twists his ankle. In a fit of pique, he picks up the jar and hurls it through the window of a  teen clothing store.  Realizing what he’s done, he hobbles quickly away, catches a cab home, and inadvertently sets off what turns out to be a very public investigation into what is labeled a hate crime.

Throughout the investigation, Dr. X maintains his silence. Okay, so maybe he harbors a low opinion of the nutball who owns the retail store, but it was a victimless crime, and he keeps quiet and becomes strangely empowered by his secret.  We learn of the crime as Dr. X tells his story to a college buddy who is lying in a coma in a hospital.  Our hapless hero tells his comatose pal the sequence of events that leads to his committing a petty crime, how he evades capture, endures a clumsy police investigation and  gets involved with a bad-seed cop who makes no secret of a creepy hunger for Alyce, and then buddies up with the FBI to bring down a major hate crime syndicate. Did I mention Mehlman wrote for Seinfeld? You can recognize his work in this narrative.

Dr. X has a life philosophy worth repeating. “On an objective level, helplessness against bad luck is generally manageable – or, let’s face it, how dead would I be by now? But hopelessness weighs so much. And forget about feeling bad for yourself. By unwritten rule, that’s not allowed.”

In the end, the reader is not expected to love or forgive Dr. X for his petty or noteworthy transgressions. Then again, that’s exactly the reason one wants to.

Anatomy of dreams

::REVIEW::

There is something innately disturbing about the idea of being observed unaware while sleeping. In her debut novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, Chloe Benjamin captures the creep-factor of sleep-watching perfectly.

Benjamin’s novel begins benignly, as Northern California boarding school classmates Sylvie and Gabriel, two unlikely misfits meet, mingle, and fall in love.  Sylvie is well-bred, a “good” and smart girl. Gabe is at school on scholarship, is guarded about this family history, holds a work study job with Professor Keller, a researcher interested in lucid dreaming. Gabe is smart, but less popular boys than a lot of boys at school. Still, he manages to charm Sylvie with his awkward gestures of affection, his earnest interest. Sylvie allows herself to fall a little in love with Gabe one night while star gazing for astronomy class. After all, what is more romantic to a girl than a shy science geek who can name the constellations high up on a hill in the dark? When Gabe disappears suddenly in their senior year, Sylvie is shattered. She waits for word from him and when none appears she mends her broken heart and gets on with her life.

At UC Berkeley Sylvie is living with her boyfriend, David, and studying psychology, intrigued with the workings of the human brain. One night, half asleep, she looks out the window of her apartment, and thinks she sees Gabe. But how could that be? Gabe had vanished long ago. Then, days later at the beach, she thinks she sees Gabe, swimming out beyond the breakers. Sylvie begins to think she’s dreaming Gabe. But as it turns out, she isn’t.

Gabe finally comes clean, admits that he’s tracked her down and explains that he’s working for professor Keller again, studying dreams, that he sought her out because he never felt right about the way he left her, that he wants her to run away with him, to study dreams together with Keller. “You were always a sleep talker,” he tells her. “I loved that about you.”

Keller’s work is to study severely abnormal sleep and dream patterns. His work is controversial, yet compelling. He advocates a type of lucid dreaming that trains study participants to recognize when they are dreaming and to wake themselves before they sleepwalk into danger, or do harm to themselves or others. It seems a bit sketchy to Sylvie, but also fascinating. Plus, she and Gabe get to work side-by-side and that kind of togetherness suits her.

Then Sylvie begins to have disturbing dreams. She is able to wake herself from some, but others haunt and shame her and she can’t figure out why. So, at what point does Sylvie discover that she is the subject of Keller’s dream study and that Gabe has been her watcher? It takes a while. It takes time to move beyond her simple justifications for unnatural coincidences. It takes some persistence to ignore how the creepy facts start to add up. Finally when she can ignore the signs no more, she realizes that neither Gabe nor Keller have been entirely honest with her. They try to convince her that the deception was for her own good, but in the end, Sylvie finally wakes up to the chilling truth.

Benjamin has wrought a finely crafted mystery in The Anatomy of Dreams. Just don’t read it in bed.

Cynthia Gregory 11.25.2014

water::REVIEW::

In drought-stricken California we are ultra-sensitive to the topic of water. It isn’t, therefore, a huge leap to fall headlong into Emmi Itärana’s debut novel, Memory of Water.  Set in a dystopian future Scandinavia Union where climate change is more than a theory, wars are waged over water, and the military literally controls the flow of who deserves water and who doesn’t, Itärana’s tale rings eerily true.

The empire of New Qian is a barren wasteland. It occupies what was once Norway, Sweden, Finland. The icecaps have melted, clean water is scarce, and poverty epidemic. Still, normal is a relative term.

An only child, Noria Kaitio studies to be an honored tea master, like her father. Imagine a culture where tea is held in the highest regard, where water is scarce, and hoarding fresh water is a punishable crime. Where does a tea master obtain water suitable for a sacred tea ceremony? Noria is just 17, but even she understands the gravity of the secret her father reveals to her about his source of water.

Noria’s best friend is a clever girl named Sanja, who lives in a mean hut with her family and no reliable source of water. Together, the girls scavenge a local landfill for plastic that  can be repurposed into something useful.  The girls are close as cousins so when betrayal comes, Noria tries not to see it.  She takes her strange world in stride. Afterall, she has nothing to compare it to.

When her father takes her to a hidden spring, revealing the source of the family water, Noria absorbs this dangerous secret, unsure what to do with it. After her mother flees to find work at a University far away, and soon after her father dies, Noria is utterly alone and the secret of water becomes her undoing.  

“Water is the most versatile of all elements. So my father told me the day he took me to the place that didn’t exist.  While he was wrong about many things, he was right about this, so I still believe.”

Memory of Water inhabits a strange world, where potable water is currency and carried around in recycled plastic “water skins.”  People wear “insect hoods” to protect them from black fly infestations.  Bathing is pure luxury. Gardens are a rare extravagance.  This is a world of “burned-out grass and bare stone.” 

As conditions grow worse in her village and communication with the outside world less predictable, Noira loses whatever privilege being tea master ever held. Sanja’s baby sister becomes ill and needs not just medicine, but water. Noria gives Sanja precious water and then begins to barter water for things she needs and in no time her secret is common knowledge.  When the military begins to execute citizens for “water crimes” Noria starts to understand how precarious her situation is.

 “Water is the most versatile of all elements. It isn’t afraid to burn in fire or fade into the sky, it doesn’t hesitate to shatter against sharp rocks in rainfall or drown into the dark shroud of the earth. It exists beyond all beginnings and ends.”

Memory of Water is a sad and haunting story. And yet, there is a sweetness in Itärana’s narrative that draws the reader in and makes an unreal world seem nearly normal.

Cynthia Gregory 10.30.14

sweetness::REVIEW::

David Leveraux has a dark secret in his past. As a flavor chemist his world is bound by the clean logic of science, of method, of predictability. However calm the surface of his life however, he lives bathed in a low current of fear that if his secret ever got out, he would lose the respect of his wife, the love of his daughter, the trust of his son, the veneration of colleagues.

Sweetness #9 begins in 1973, as Leveraux, a young chemist, begins a promising career at industrial giant Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark (GOD). It is the third act of the 20th century, the Cold War is alive and well, the Berlin Wall is keeping the communists separated from the rest of Europe, and chemistry is the express train to a modern world. TV dinners and the first microwave oven have been introduced to America, and convenience food en masse is just around the corner. Leveraux is hired on at Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark on the strength of his thesis, The Biophysics of Brie. He believes that if he does well in clinical trials, he could be assigned to the Flavorings Division, or even the mecca of the commercial food industry: Breakfast Cereals.

Young Leveraux is oriented to the company by a bland man from Development of Substitute Materials and ushered into his new career. He is delivered to the lab, where his assignment is to test the effects of a new chemically-created sweetener, Sweetness #9, on lab rats. But, over time Leveraux observes his rats becoming increasingly lethargic, dysfunctional, anti-social even. They grow fat and display symptoms of depression.  The chimpanzees in the next lab, which are also being fed massive quantities of the chemically enhanced sweetener, are showing signs of hypersensitivity, of rage followed by lethargy. They too, begin become bloated and irritable and are calmed only by a steady diet of television programming. When Leveraux mentions his concerns about the effects of Sweetness #9, he’s told by his lab partner to keep quiet. When suddenly the lab cages are filled with svelte, lively rats, and chimpanzees who are lithe and able to move like dancers, he suspects foul play in order to secure fast-track FDA approval for Sweetness #9. When he takes his suspicions to the boys upstairs, he’s fired.

Despite an interruption in the upward trajectory of his career, Leveraux manages to put his unquiet past to rest. He has a family, takes a job at FlavAmerica, and lives the American Dream. But, dear reader, you know that dream is illusive. Leveraux has more to lose than ever when his past comes back to haunt him. In 1998, 25 years after his stint with Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark, his teenage daughter becomes a militant vegan. His son speaks only in verbs. His wife is just one diet soda away from  a nervous breakdown, and after 25 years of silence, a secret long buried becomes his undoing.

In his debut novel, Sweetness #9, Stephan Eirik Clark toys with the pillars upon which men (and women) in a modern world build their lives. Hard work. Family. Consumerism. It is a fun, funny, delicious ride!

Cynthia G.

09.27.2104

you lost me there

::REVIEW::

Imagine living through the loss of your wife just as you are beginning to slide into the throes of a full blown mid-life crisis. Author Rosecrans Baldwin might say that You Lost Me There is the story of a cerebral research scientist who explores the nuance if emotional loss, and not about a man drowning in midlife existential angst. But then, sometimes authors are the last persons to understand the complexity of their own work.

Still in all,  Baldwin crafts a riveting narrative that drags the reader through a swamp of Professor Victor Aaron’s grief, confusion, and well-deserved sense of betrayal in the aftermath of his wife’s tragic death. How could we not fall a little in love with the sweetly dorky Victor? He worships the memory of his gone wife. He maintains close contact with Sara’s Aunt Betsy, a crusty old-school socialite who tolerates his eccentricities because he takes her to dinner dutifully every Friday night. We love Victor. Especially when, one year after the “seminal event,” the accident (though was it? really?) caused by Sara driving blindly on black ice around a dangerous curve of coastal road without a seat belt. He’s lost. He’s bereft. He’s having an on again off again affair with a young research fellow who happens to turn a mean burlesque routine for a twenty-five year old, and who calls him on the frozen tundra of his feelings. Then, just as he finally accepts Sara’s death, he find a series of note cards she wrote the winter before, when the two had sought out a marriage counselor hoping to mend the rips in their twenty year marriage.

Reading Sara’s notes, Victor learns that he and Sara were treading the waters of two completely different marriages.  At what point do the small slights of a relationship add up to something irrevocable? Victor wonders if Sara had an affair. He wonders if she had intended to leave him. He wonders things he’ll never know for sure and it makes him a little bit crazy.

“And what Sarah said came back to me slowly. There in jail, there sitting on Cornelia’s bed, it had been with me all day, but I couldn’t see her. I tried to see her and closed my eyes, but my memories were whitewashed. I tried to sleep with the driver’s seat cranked flat, but mostly I cried. I called her under my breath and remembered her shoe size. Her long fingers. I remembered when I held the box with Sara’s ashes over a stream near the house, how long the moment lasted until I tipped it over and then how quickly it was done. I remembered. . .how much I loved her. I remembered with painful clarity, with the words piped into the car, the moments when I’d asked Sara what she knew about writing screenplays.”

Baldwin’s voice is pure and erudite and makes the reader crave a summer in Maine. His narrative is seductive, and his dialog is sharp and funny and makes you wish that you could be so clever while arguing with the people you love best.

The perfect summer reading is waiting for the devoted reader, in You Lost Me There.          

Cynthia Gregory

08.06.14

nocturne::REVIEW::

If you love Mozart and you love a good romance, you must read Vivien Shotwell’s Vienna Nocturne. Wait. What – romance? Yes. It’s summer –when thoughts turn to light, frothy literature, something to be consumed with lemonade poolside,  or near the thundering shore. If you’re looking for a sweet, well-crafted historical romance and Mozart is your guy, this is the book for you. Based loosely on historical characters, Shotwell has deftly shaped a tale with heart.

There really was an English girl named Anna Storace, who at a precocious age was discovered to have exceptional talent. In Nocturne,  Anna is taken to study with Venanzio Rauzzini, a castrati, also of exceptional talent and vocal range. After years of meticulous training, Anna’s maestro deems her worthy of singing in Italy, the center of the operatic universe.

Soon caught up in a world of opera singers, who in their time were the original rock stars, Anna learns to be a diva. She sings and her voice is golden, and she is worshiped.  In Florence, she befriends Irishman Michael Kelly, who with “his long flaxen hair and a round, birdlike face. . .specialized, he said, in ‘lechers, windbags, and doctors.’”  When she meets up with Michael again in Milan, history is in her favor. Serious opera is on the outs, and opera buffa is all the rage.  Lucky for Anna, she is a natural buffa, and a star is born. In Milan, when Anna’s star crosses that of Francesco Benucci, her life is forever changed.

But it isn’t until Anna reaches Vienna and meets Wolfgang Mozart, that her world seriously tilts on its axis.  Mozart is funny and strange, dazzling and brilliant. Anna is sophisticated and beloved by the emperor and her public.  The two artists are the darlings of their perspective musical worlds and when they meet the heavens smile.  Anna’s voice is every bit an equal to Mozart’s elaborate musical compositions and Mozart is able to create arias for Anna that no other can match. 

“They began with the recitative, the dialogue-like speak-singing that led into the aria proper “at last,” she said in Italian, “the moment has come when I can enjoy myself without care in the arms of my beloved.” And as she sang this he felt her hand come to rest on the  top of his left shoulder.”

Ooh la-la! In Shotwell’s version of history, the two musicians become lovers – even as Mozart is married to endearing Constanze. Their affair is a sad enchantment between two equally matched artists who know that their passion is as deep as it is doomed.  The two burn so brightly for each other that finally Anna leaves Vienna for London because she can’t end it any other way.

Anna Storache’s epic life reads itself like an opera: from a poor and struggling child, to rock star of Vienna’s glittering opera, and then: the dénouement.  What good is a love story that doesn’t break your heart – just a little? We love a tragedy as much as we love a love story and in Vienna Nocturne, we get both.  

Cynthia G.

7.14214

mag city

::REVIEW::

I can’t think of anything more delicious than diving into the decadence of an historic romance novel – unless of course it is the first novel of a dear friend. Imagine this reviewer’s delight then, in Duncan Alderson’s Magnolia City, set in the landscape of 1920s Texas.

Hetty Allen is a heroine easy to love. Not just because she is a hellfire young woman of privilege. Not because she is rumored to be a character based on Alderson’s own mother. Not because she spits in the eye of stuffy old-money Houston convention and runs off with the bad boy love of her life, earning herself a disinheritance to boot, but because of all that and more. She has a heart that is true and pure and completely worthy of her man. Add rum – er, tequila – running, flappers, underground jazz clubs, smoking, and dripping Southern Gothic old school duplicity, and you’ve got the adventure of a romance in which to lose yourself.

The man in question is Garrett MacBride, or Mac, for short. A refugee from Montana and newly arrived in Texas to become a wildcatter in the oil fields, Mac takes a shine to Hetty right away. And why not? Hetty’s a hottie. But seriously, Mac might not be so tempting, so gloriously mesmerizing, if her parents were a little less strict and if Hetty’s mother wasn’t such an unrepentant social climber. But who can question the motives of love? Hetty’s parents are disapproving of the swaggering young stranger, and Hetty is smitten. When faced with the twin options of an arranged marriage with proper, safe, stuffed-shirt Lamar Rusk — and the ambitious, devil-may-care risk-taking Garrett MacBride, Hetty makes the only choice she can.

This doesn’t mean the rest of Hetty’s life is all sunshine and jelly beans. In fact, her marriage is the beginning of one giant cosmic test of her character. Hetty suffers poverty, humiliation, and betrayal, but she digs deep to find the stuff she’s really made of. She may have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but Hetty is a survivor. Prohibition may be the law of the land and liquor may be the devil’s work, but Hetty knows an opportunity when she sees one. She and Mac become bootleggers and make a handsome living at it. When their business partner is arrested and imprisoned, they turn to make their fortunes in the Texas oilfields. But thwarted there too, Mac reaches the end of his steel and takes off.

Hetty does the only thing she can. She can’t return to the manse, so flees to her aunt, her mother’s sister, for comfort. Cora is an artist with an artist’s temperament, and helps to heal her niece’s wounds. Of the more important discoveries Hetty makes in Cora’s kind hands, is the reason that her mother is such a snob, and why her spoiled, lighter-skinned sister is the favorite of the family.

True to herself to the end, Hetty makes one last bootlegging venture in order to settle her and Mac’s debts from their oil field disaster. Debts resolved, she takes off in search of the man she loves. It wouldn’t be a romance if Hetty didn’t find Mac in the end. And this is a romance, so guess what? Love, (and a good story) prevail. 

Buy Magnolia City. Read Magnolia City. You will be glad you did.

Cynthia Gregory

5.8.2014

GolemJinni-PB-199x300::REVIEW::

One of the time-tested stories that holds broad appeal is the immigrant tale. Not only is the traveler’s story one of hope and belonging, it can provide the backdrop to any number of plot twists. Take for instance, The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker’s debut novel.

It is New York in 1899, and two strange immigrants have found one another. One is a Jinni, trapped in physical form by an evil wizard in ancient Syria and locked in a bottle for a thousand years. The Jinni is released by a hapless tinsmith as he attempts to repair the bottle in the slums of New York.  The Golem is a made to order bride, a woman created of clay and sparked to life with an incantation known only by her creator and by the husband who, minutes after bringing her to life in the hold of the ship bound for New York from Danzig, dies of a burst appendix.

Now we have: two super-humans, lost and made vulnerable by their “otherness.” We also have two strangers longing for connection to something not-human, and yet forced by circumstance to rely on humans and their strange customs. Finally, we have two beings, perhaps the last of their kind, who want more than anything, to live.

The tinsmith names his Jinni Ahmad, because people after all, have names. Ahmad’s essential nature is fire. And though he’s trapped in the body of a human, he still has special powers. He can, for instance, shape metal with his bare hands, creating ornate and beautiful works of art. He becomes restless however, and begins to prowls the streets of New York at night. As a Jinni, he has no need of sleep, and roaming the city  when the rest of the world slumbers brings Ahmad a small measure of comfort.

When she arrives in New York and jumps ship to avoid immigration, the Golem discovers herself in the Jewish ghetto, where she is adopted by a kindly rabbi. He takes her in to protect her, because she is technically just a few days old, and names her Chava. The rabbi teaches Chava how to behave around humans, how to mask her differentness with normal behaviors. She learns to cook, and takes a job. But like the Jinni, a Golem has no need for sleep so she too, begins to wander the streets of New York at night, seeking something she can’t name.

One night, inevitably, Chava and Ahmad meet. They immediately recognize each other as someone different, and form a tentative pact. They are lonely in a way they can’t explain to people and shape a kind of solace in each other’s company. Though their natures are complete opposites – Ahmad craves freedom and open space, Chava craves close relations and belonging, a bond forms.

But this is not an easy fable, there is evil in the city, and even life for super-humans is complicated. The Golem and the Jinni are separated, both fearing their own natures and not entirely trusting the humans with whom they must co-exist.

The Golem and the Jinni makes for great winter reading – it’s a fabulous tale of magic and love, something we can all use a little more of.

C. Gregoryelect h mouse

::REVIEW::

A fun thing happens when literary fiction slips its corsets of seriousness. In her debut novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge, Nelly Reifler spins a compact tale that is simply delicious. Under the guise of a children’s story peopled with dolls and furry creatures, Reifler manages to both question authority and challenge our perceptions of good and evil.

H. Mouse is an important figure who has inserted himself into the political structure of his idyllic town because he cares so much about the rightness of their hamlet, of prosperity and family and making right choices. In fact, Mouse’s campaign platform and personal motto is that everyone is inherently good; that bad things only happen when people are confused and make poor choices. The hook in this book starts with the first lines:

“H. Mouse was running for State Judge. He had diligently worked his way up the ranks from apprentice to secretary to uniformed guard to courtroom stenographer to lawyer to attorney to village councilor.”

However, on the day of the election, darkness looms over the H. Mouses’ personal affairs.  Mouse’s daughters, Margo and Susie, have been kidnapped by a gang of religious zealots who will kill or die for the cause, as prophesied by The Power. The Sunshine Family, stiff-jointed dolls out of the play closet from hell, have taken the girls and H. Mouse is frantic about a news leak. Quickly, and to his possible regret, he enrolls the assistance of two shady detectives: Barbie and Ken. B&K live in a mansion with Barbie’s baby sister Skipper, living a dangerous/glamorous double life with real rubber tired cars and real swimming pools, fighting crime in their own uniquely narcissistic fashion.  Barbie doesn’t just care about pretty things and banging Ken, she has a knack for hunting criminals and paying off extortionists with briefcases full of real paper money, too.

In this fast paced tale, Mouse wins the election and before the swearing in, is interviewed by journalist Liz Fox. Like any reporter worthy of the title, Liz slyly traps Mouse in a cocktail conversation, trying to sniff out corruption in the elected’s new life as a high velocity public servant.  She cleverly asks Mouse if his platform might have been. . .er. . .influenced by any private interest groups. Like the Offspring of the Mugged, Association of the Return of Separated Limbs and Digits, and so forth.  Mouse can only think of his girls, but manages to give nothing away before his inauguration. He fervently hopes his beloved girls will return before the big day and we are not sure if what twitches his whiskers is regret is for hiring B&K to find the kidnappers, or if there is indeed a darker story.

In the end, Barbie and Ken hunt down the evil kidnappers and rescue the girls by taking out Father Sunshine and Mother Sunshine. Sadly, in the melee of their covert scheme, Ken takes a shot to his plasticine neck. Ultimately, Boy and Girl Sunshine, keenly aware of Father Sunshine’s cocked-up fascist worship of The Power, willingly release the Mouse girls to the custody of B&K in exchange for their bendable joint parents. Flawed as the Sunshine family is, they are a family unit. 

Reifler’s keen satirical eye is clean and clear. Her voice is lyric and honest. Her characters, including the ubiquitous Skipper, are first rate. And if it matters, the sex scenes she writes for stiff-limbed Barbie and Ken are the funniest ever created. Reifler’s frolicking fable is a must read. Love Elect H. Mouse State Judge? Yes. Buy it now.

Cynthia Gregory

01.20.2014

::review::Mr_Penumbras_24-Hour_Bookstore-199x300

When I finally broke down and bought an e-reader, I felt vaguely disloyal to books in general but more specifically to every book I’ve ever adored. If you love books, you know what I mean. I am passionate about the printed word. I like how the paper feels as my fingers turn the page; I even like books stacked up on my coffee table and how light refracts off their covers.  An e-reader doesn’t carry the same visceral weight as a traditional book, but what e-reader offers is deep capacity, the magic of carrying a whole library of beloved books in one handy device.

Imagine the convergence of traditional books and the wonder of technology, and you have Robin Sloan’s magnificent debut novel: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store.  When Clay Jannon’s almost-launched career dissolves like debris left in the wake of the (most) recent economic downturn, he walks the streets of San Francisco looking for inspiration and a career move. To his great surprise, he stumbles upon a help wanted sign in the window an obscure bookstore located next to a strip joint on the fringe of a semi-respectable neighborhood. Figuring that any job is better than no job at all, he applies for the job and wins it.

Clay works the graveyard shift. He notices right away that Penumbra’s carries only a cursory selection of current titles and no one much notices the bookstore but an odd assortment of night-owls. These kindred souls come in returning one book, and walking out with another very specific, very incomprehensible title. No money is exchanged, and Clay is confused, but hey. It’s  a job and he doesn’t ask questions.

As it turns out, the books contain an archaic code that the store’s odd assortment of readers endeavor to translate into something valuable, knowable. Clay’s curiosity gets the better of him and he enlists an array of wonky tech-savvy characters, including a roommate who is a special effects artist, a childhood friend who has made millions with boob simulation software; and a would-be girlfriend, genius, and Google employee who scan the code using language recognition technology to solve the mystery of Penumbra’s books.

Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore represents the intersection of two worlds delivered by Sloan’s casual and lyric narrative.

“The Northbridge lobby’s the hub of the New York startup scene: anywhere two or more people are sitting together, Neel says, it’s probably a new company proofreading its articles of incorporation. Huddled together around a low table made from old magnetic-tape canisters, I guess we might qualify – not as a company, but a least something newly incorporated.  We’re a little Rebel Alliance, and Penumbra is our Obi-Wan.”

Part Valentine to the printed word, part Indiana Jones adventure, part wonky love story, Sloan’s novel is a fun read.  Clay Jannon is an affable goofball of a hero who takes the willing reader on a journey rife with Star Wars references, techno-magic; all anchored in the love of a good book, the romance of an old-school bookstore, and the promise of love requited.

If you love books and fear their future, read this book. If you enjoy a mystery and savor wry irony, read this book. If you wonder why we love a book or even a humble bookstore, download this book on your e-reader immediately.

Cynthia Gregory

january 2014

::REVIEW::america pacifica2

Sometimes a chance encounter at the local bookstore opens savory and unexpected windows into worlds undreamed of. Lucky for us, Anna North’s debut novel, America Pacifica is just that tasty chance.  A fresh new voice in the wilderness of titles, Ms. North earned her chops at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and her writing shows it. Sharp, clear, sometimes stunning narrative seduces the reader, even while it sends a shiver up the spine.

We know we are in for an adventure when the book’s opening lines are delivered with this piercingly classic hook: “The trouble started when the woman with the shaking hands came to the apartment. Her face was small but fleshy, with a little puffy mouth. . .she said she was a friend of Darcy’s mother, but Darcy’s mother didn’t have friends.”

Just a few decades in the future, 18 year-old Darcy lives on a sweltering, dystopian island presumably far enough in the Pacific Ocean to escape and ice age that has consumed North America. America Pacifica is a microcosm of the US, and run by a corrupt refugee who bestows favors on his crooked followers and virtually enslaves the rest of the population. Darcy is a disillusioned girl with a dead-end job and an apartment shared with her doting but mysterious mother. Darcy’s crap job at an assisted living facility reserved exclusively for America Pacifica’s wealthy elite, earns her enough to keep from starving. Barely. Humiliated daily by the subservient, subsistence work, Darcy’s one bright spot is her relationship with her mother. Between the two of them, they have enough, they are enough.

But one day, a strange woman appears in their tenement apartment and whispers secrets in Sarah’s ears, dark tales that Sarah explains away when Darcy asks what the woman said, what she wanted. Soon after, Darcy returns home from work, warms up a miserable piece of steak that she stole from the retirement home, excited to provide the treat for her mother. The chunk of beef is a welcome respite from the powdered jellyfish and “cheesefood” they regularly consume to stave off relentless hunger in their slum neighborhood of Little Los Angeles, located not far from Chigacoland and across the island Manhattanville. But Sarah never returns, and thus begins Darcy’s odyssey to find her mother and discover the dark truth behind her vanishing.

Darcy soon encounters a one-armed boy named Ansel Martinez an idealistic, an charismatic street dweller who has a plan to overthrow Tyson, the island’s self-appointed ruler. Darcy doesn’t take entirely believe Ansel’s big plans, but he is the only one who takes her seriously and offers to help her find her mother . . .and doesn’t try to take advantage of her in exchange.

Darcy is plucky and brave. Not because she has a wild streak, but because she has nothing left to lose. Even when she gets close to the truth – which is far more terrible than she could have imagined, a little part of her heart remains pure, and we can’t help but love her for it.

America Pacifica is part cautionary tale, part allegory, and a wholly engaging read. Support the arts: buy this book!

Cynthia Gregory

READ MORE REVIEWS HERE

Review by Cynthia Gregory/ceegregory@aol.com

11 thoughts on “first novels::reviewed

  1. I’m just about ready to read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet for my book club, plan to take it with me to my mom’s next week. So great to see this review here!

  2. What a wonderful post to have stumbled upon after a beseech for Great, new literature. I will have to take a deeper look into these books you endorse with alacrity.

    Blessings,
    Cara

    • Cara,
      The really nice thing about only reviewing books I like, is that it generates such goodwill, which in itself is noteworthy. Thank you for the kind support.
      Best,
      Cynthia

  3. Just put The Borrower on hold at the library and there are three books by the name of The Sweet By and By at the library so I got all three–if they are any good I might do a comparative review – thanks for the suggestions and I agree “literature is a verb”

  4. Thanks for this excellent and eclectic site. I glanced through the book reviews and will have to check them out further. Especially loved the posting about “only lettuce” – too true. Keep up the good work. Thanks also for liking my latest installment of the book I’m blogging: “Jake, Little Jimmy and Big Louie.” I hope you will continue to follow this children’s chapter book story. Happy holidays!

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