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Posts Tagged ‘Robin Sloan’

When Hurricane Irma made a mess in Central Florida last month, I ran away to the Circus. Cambridge Circus, that is, headquarters for John le Carre’s legendary British Secret Service and spies like George Smiley. In A Legacy of Spies (Viking Penguin, hardcover gift), Smiley, long retired, haunts the memory of  his protege Peter Guillam, called out of his retirement in Brittany for a reckoning with the past. Remember Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold? He had a son, now grown, who blames the Circus for his father’s betrayal in the long-ago Operation Windfall, which Smiley oversaw at Control’s behest. A new generation with little or no memory of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall demands Guillam revisit the mission and its old files with the intention of erasing any embarrassment or responsibility. Guillam reluctantly complies, and le Carre artfully unlocks the puzzle of past and present, of old lies and loves, an agent called Tulip. It’s vintage le Carre, with references to Smiley’s nemesis Karla and the search for the mole detailed in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but also the silky prose, the mordant wit, the moral ambiguity clouding the whole in every shade of gray. And, finally, Smiley — “grown into the age he had always seemed to be.” By George, it’s good to see him.

There were other windfalls. Celeste Ng’s new novel Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin Press, purchased hardcover) begins with a two-story house in picture-perfect Shaker Heights, Ohio, going up in flames, then goes back in time to chronicle the events leading up to the conflagration. Ng has talent to burn — read her Everything I Never Told You — and is a mesmerizing storyteller. When free-spirited artist Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl move into a modest rental house owned by the affluent Richardsons, the two families’ lives intertwine. Quiet Pearl is soon enamored by teenagers Lexie, Trip and Moody, their seemingly carefree wealth, and admires their mother, organized reporter Elise. But the youngest Richardson, unruly Izzie, is drawn to Mia’s unconventionality and reticence about her past. Then the proposed adoption of a Chinese-American baby by friends of the Richardsons divides loyalties and reveals secrets. Sides are chosen, boundaries crossed. What does it mean to be a mother? Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the Clinton ’90s, but the issues it raises and the emotions it evokes are timely and timeless.

Just thinking about Robin Sloan’s Sourdough (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley) makes me smile. Rich with whimsy, deliciously odd, it reminds me of nothing so much as Sloan’s first novel, the endearingly quirky Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Sloan fused books and technology and a touch of magic in that book. In this one, food combines with the tech world of robotics; as for the magic, that would be the sourdough starter that software engineer Lois Clary inherits from two immigrant chefs forced to leave San Francisco because of visa problems. Lois isn’t much of a baker, but even her first attempts with this starter taste wonderful. The cracks in the crust seem to smile, and Lois realizes the starter itself burbles melodically. It soon will change her routine life as her bread gains her entry first to the company cafeteria and then to an odd farmers’ market. Can she teach a robotic arm to bake? Or will the starter revolt?  Talk about wonder bread!

I generally veer away from “how-to” books, favoring fiction over DIY.  So it’s ok that Victoria Henry’s How to Find Love in a Bookshop (Viking Penguin, digital galley) doesn’t actually give directions to finding romance among the shelves. This sweetly predictable novel of books connecting hearts is just the ticket for escape. Nightingale Books enjoys a central location in a lovely English village, which makes it prey for real estate developers. Emilia Nightingale, who suddenly inherits the bookshop when her father dies, has to figure out a way to keep the little store going or watch it turn into a parking lot. Fortunately, the town’s book lovers band together to keep the shop open, and several of them discover love in the process, including Emilia — maybe. The object of her affection, an old family friend, is otherwise engaged, but a charming single father is definitely interested. Other would-be couples include the terminally shy caterer who has a crush on the cheesemaker, the famous visiting author who recognizes an old flame at his book signing, the stay-at-home mom with business skills who suspects her commuter husband of having an affair. Then there’s Sarah, the wealthy older women with a secret. Nightingale Books is well worth a visit.

Salman Rushdie’s satirical, Gatsby-like novel of New York City during the Obama Years, The Golden House (Random House, digital galley), is like an extravagantly rich cake. The main characters — wealthy patriarch Nero Golden, his three grown sons, the supermodel second wife, the observant narrator, the crass politician — are larger-than-life, and it’s as if Rushdie has written the whole with a Bedazzler. It was all too much, and I only read about half before setting it aside. I may get back to it one of these days, maybe not.

I was all too happy to finish to Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (Riverhead, digital galley), a beautifully written book about an ugly subject. Martin Alveston, a disturbed survivalist, physically and sexually abuses his 14-year-old daughter Turtle, who is desperate to please him. She intimidates her middle-school classmates and scorns those who might help her, then meets high school student Jacob. The promise of friendship leads her to question the value system instilled in her by Martin and will ultimately end with a violent reckoning.

Jennifer Egan’s  Manhattan Beach (Scribner, digital galley) is quite different from her award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, being a more traditional historical novel.  It has the expanse and depth of an ocean as Egan details the story of Anna Kerrigan, who becomes a civilian diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, seeks answers to her bagman father’s disappearance, and becomes involved with gangster Dexter Styles. While still working as a machinist at the Navy Yard, Anna visits a nightclub with a girlfriend, who asks her if she’s an angel. “Anna was aware of the rattle of fall leaves over the pavement, the gardenia smell of Nell’s perfume. No one had ever asked her that question before. Everyone simply presumed that she was. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m not an angel.’ “

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Over at the awesome bookriot.com (Always books. Never boring), the results are in. More than 1300 Riot readers recently responded to the challenge Name Your Favorite Novel, and “after many glorious nerdy hours tallying the data,” the Riot chiefs have posted the Top 50.  Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird claimed first place, followed by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby rounds out the top 5.

I remember two of the titles I nominated — TKAM and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is No. 14, but I have several other favs that rotate in and out of my top 5 depending on my mood or category: le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, girlhood classic Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, du Maurier’s Rebecca, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Oh, I can go on and on, book geek that I am.

Which brings me to a new favorite, Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour-Bookstore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, purchased digital edition), a light-hearted, high-spirited literary adventure quest combining tree-books, e-books, typefaces, codes, cryptographers, hackers, a secret society of readers, a fictional book about dragon-singers, a subterranean library in New York City, and the quest for immortality in the digital age. It’s funny, smart, charming — all the things you want in a new best friend. I have a feeling it would laugh at my jokes.

Early on, narrator/night clerk Clay describes his obscure place of employment in San Francisco — a tall and skinny out-of-the-way building, with laddered shelves reaching into the heavens, the kind of bookstore that would appeal to a teenage wizard, in fact “makes you want to be a teenage wizard.” Up front is a small selection of used books for sale — Dashiell Hammett, classic SF, the new bio of Steve Jobs — but behind, in the almost-menacing shadows, are stacks of mysterious volumes that Clay refers to as the “Waybacklist.”

The customers for those books are few but devoted, arriving in the middle of the night to return one rare volume in exchange for another. Clay has to log in each purchase and its buyer in detail, but ancient, blue-eyed Mr. Penumbra has warned him not to read the books. Odd. Very odd. And soon to get odder as Clay, a RISD graduate and website designer, enlists a merry band of friends (a pretty Google code genius, a wealthy digital start-up entrepreneur),  to help him uncover the bookstore’s secrets even as he develops a new marketing plan and Mr. Penumbra goes missing. There’s a villain named Corvina, and a hero . . . Not going to tell you.

His brief bio reveals that Robin Sloan grew up in Michigan and now divides his time between San Francisco and the Internet. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is his first novel. I hope he writes many more. Meanwhile, for those of you who belong to GoodReads, the voting is now open for the 2012 choices in 20 categories. Mr. Penumbra is a nominee in fiction. I’ve already voted.

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