Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, #1)

By Robin Sloan

Rating: 3 stars

I heard the short story of the same name as this novel on the Escape Pod podcast some time ago. It was a quirky and fun story which I enjoyed, so when I heard that the author had expanded it into a full novel, I was intrigued.

The novel retains many elements from the story, but takes them in different directions. The biggest change, perhaps, is the excision of any supernatural elements, which was a bit of a disappointment for me, but the expansion of the relationships, particularly between Mr Penumbra and our protagonist (Clay Jannon in the book, I think unnamed in the story) was nice.

There’s also a feeling of almost hero-worship regarding Google. This feels a bit weird to me, now that “don’t be evil” seems to have been left behind in pursuit of the usual corporate agenda and sucking up every possible datum about its users.

The mystery at the heart of the book is interesting and the resolution is nice. It’s also nice to read a novel in which typography features prominently.

Book details

ISBN: 9781782391197
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Year of publication: 2012

The Fuller Memorandum (Laundry Files, #3)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

Bob Howard’s not having a good time of it. A routine exorcism goes wrong; cultists are running around London, attacking him and his wife; his boss has disappeared; and he’s been seconded on to yet another committee. But at least he’s got a decent manager at the moment (following the demise of his last one).

The third Laundry novel is much darker than its predecessors, with CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN starting to come to the fore, and much nastier scenes, including cannibalism and child sacrifice. It’s all relevant and you never get the impression that Stross is throwing stuff in purely to shock, but still, it does come as a bit of a shock to the system after the somewhat lighter hijinx of the previous novels.

The plot seemed a bit looser as well; I was able to guess the two big plot twists before they happened (which is unusual for me, I never see them coming), but this didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book. Bob is still a great wise-cracking, Emacs-loving geek protagonist, and the supporting cast are all present and correct. Mo gets slightly scarier in each book, we get revelations about Angleton and a cameo from Pinky and Brains.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and sit in a corner and try not thinking too hard to do my bit to help prevent CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841497709
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

The Gods of Mars (Barsoom #2)

By Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 3 stars

The second of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘Mars’ books is a good old-fashioned adventure. The hero, John Carter, is rarely not stabbing or slicing someone most of the way through. Removed from Earth by the same mysterious process that took him before, he is deposited in Mars’ equivalent of Eden. But it is an Eden that is far from peaceful. Soon reunited with old friend and comrade in arms Tars Tarkas, John Carter must fight his way out back to his beloved princess Dejah Thoris.

I think what I noticed most about this book was how easy it was for John Carter. His superior Earth-muscles and training make him an invincible warrior and he seems to have an aura that persuades other people to just fall in line with him and throw their swords at his feet, not to mention having very good luck. So even if captured or facing innumerable odds, you never really feel that our hero is in any danger.

A fun book that’s easy to pick up and put down at frequent intervals as it doesn’t require a huge amount of mental effort (making it good lunch time reading).

Book details

ISBN: 9780345324399
Publisher: Random House Ballantine Del Rey
Year of publication: 1913

Postern of Fate (Tommy and Tuppence, #5)

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 2 stars

Having moved into a new house in a country village to enjoy their retirement, Tuppence is sorting through some bric-a-brac they inherited with the house. In a book she finds underlined letters that spell out a sentence to the effect that Mary Jordan was murdered. Intrigued and unable to let it go, she ropes her husband into one final adventure.

Although I’ve enjoyed the other ‘Tommy and Tuppence’ novels I’ve read, I really didn’t like this one at all. It felt turgid, plodding and I still really don’t particularly know what it was about. Something about Evil Forces that recur from generation to generation and a warning about fascism I think. Maybe this was Christie trying to get to grips with the times (the book was written in the early 1970s) but it was an odd mix of the modern(ish) and old-fashioned that failed to come off for me.

Maybe Tommy and Tuppence should have been left to enjoy their retirement without being called back to active service for one final (poor) job.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007111480
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of publication: 1973

N or M?

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are having a hard time sitting out the Second World War, as they aren’t wanted. But into their gloom comes an opportunity to hunt out enemies from within. An agent has been murdered while on the track of two German master spies, known only by the code names ‘N’ and ‘M’. Tommy and Tuppence are sent off to the least likely of spots, a guest house in a sleepy town on the English south coast to try and root out the fifth columnists.

This was a pretty gripping story made even more interesting for me knowing that it was written just when it was set. At that point, Britain was in the nadir of its war, everything really did look bleak, so this was part propaganda and part encouragement to keep a stiff upper lip. That it has these agendas and still manages to be a great read is testament to Christie’s skill as a writer.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006163015
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year of publication: 1941

The Secret Adversary

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

Tommy Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley are old childhood friends who meet up again in the aftermath of the Great War and, almost penniless, agree to form a joint venture: the Young Adventurers Ltd, willing to go anywhere and do anything. Their first assignment ends up leading them into much more danger than anyone imagined and they have to fight for their lives against the mysterious Mr Brown while searching for the one document that could save Britain from civil war.

This book feels very much of its time, with a gently paternalistic government that Knows Best and poor, misled British unions who don’t really want to strike, but those darned Bolsheviks are leading them astray. This makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy this novel. That’s not true, I did, but you certainly need to be aware of the context that it was written in to enjoy it. But that’s something that I’m quite good at, doing it regularly with the Golden Age SF novels that I enjoy so much, so it was easy enough to do the same thing here.

The book kept me guessing as to the identity of the mysterious Mr Brown right to the end, laying several false trails. I warmed to the two protagonists very early and became invested in them (so I’ll definitely look out for the other books in the series). Despite that, this book was written very early in Christie’s career and doesn’t feel as polished as some of her later work. As an indicator of things to come it’s marvellous, and it holds up well enough to be an enjoyable work on its own merits, so long as you’re able to place it in its historical context and not judge it too much.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007111466
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year of publication: 1922

Maddigan’s Fantasia

By Margaret Mahy

Rating: 2 stars

Garland Maddigan is part of the travelling circus known as Maddigan’s Fantasia. Travelling through a post-apocalyptic world that is slowly remaking itself after the Destruction and Chaos, this trip they’re on a mission to find a Macguffin and bring it back to their home city of Solis. When two young boys appear in front of Garland out of nowhere, claiming sanctuary in the Fantasia, the trip suddenly becomes even more fraught with adventure and danger.

This was quite a frustrating book. There’s a good story in there but it’s let down by niggling inconsistencies, duex ex machina and inconsistent characters. Protagonist Garland’s mood swings with the chapters, as does her apparent intelligence, although this can be somewhat excused as grief for her lost father, Ferdy, the Fantasia’s ringmaster (not a spoiler, it happens right at the start of the book and the first chapter is entitled ‘Losing Ferdy’), but I felt that Garland and her mother’s grief were clumsily handled.

The villains following the runaway boys start off as menacing, but their threat is reduced as they are soundly beaten by the Fantasia in every encounter whereas the ‘Big Bad’ pulling the strings in the background, the Nennog, always feels somewhat abstract, even when he appears “on screen”.

The book could have done with one fewer set piece to provide more time for the conclusion which was rushed and confused. In particular, the actions of the Duke of Solis came completely from nowhere and there were no reasons given for him behaving as he did, leaving me feeling confused and cheated.

There were some fun set pieces, and cool bits, and Garland’s final farewell to her father was nicely handled but this is a book that failed to deliver on its possibilities.

Book details

ISBN: 9780571230167
Publisher: Faber Faber
Year of publication: 2005

For Your Eyes Only (Bond 8)

By Ian Fleming

Rating: 3 stars

I mostly read this because I never have read a James Bond story and wanted to see how different they were to the Bond we know from the films. This is a collection of five short stories and the first thing that struck me was that Bond was only on active duty in two of them (‘From a View to a Kill’ and ‘Risico’). He was sent on a personal revenge mission by M in ‘For Your Eyes Only’, isn’t involved in ‘Quantum of Solace’ at all, except as part of a framing story and has just finished a mission and is at a loose end for a while in ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’.

The Bond of the book felt very different to the suave ladykiller that we’ve come to know from the films, very much more grounded and, frankly, not necessarily likeable. And I was struck that the stories often still reflected the trappings of empire, even though that empire was very much in decline in the 1960s when the book was written. All in all, interesting in an historical sense but I’ll not be clambering to read more Bond books.

Book details

Publisher: Pan Books
Year of publication: 1960

Moonfleet (Wordsworth Children’s Classics)

By John Meade Falkner

Rating: 3 stars

This is a children’s adventure story that reminded me somewhat of Treasure Island. It’s the story of John Trenchard, an orphan who takes up with a gang of smugglers (or ‘gentlemen of the Contraband’, as the book puts it) in his home village of Moonfleet and his search for the legendary lost treasure of ‘Blackbeard’ Mohune. I first read this story in English class at school and when I saw it going cheap, I picked it up, having forgotten everything whatsoever about it.

It’s a fairly simple story all in, with a strong message of love and family bonds, while its sympathetic treatment of the smugglers and general derring do made me smile. The protagonist was generally sympathetic and fairly believable most of the way through the book, but the events that led to the climax of the book had me shaking my head at his stupidity, although this may have been intentional and intended to link in to the idea that Mohune’s treasure was cursed and would bring misfortune on those who bore it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781840221695
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions
Year of publication: 1898

John Macnab (Sir Edward Leithen #2)

By John Buchan

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed this story of three successful leaders of their fields at the top of their game (a barrister, MP and banker), but listless and bored. And then they hit on the idea of writing to the owners of three Scottish estates and tell them that they’ll be poaching from the estate and collectively sign the letter John Macnab. The book is light, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable. The pace is fairly good, the attacks on all three estates well-described and Buchan obviously loves the Highlands, since his descriptions there are extremely glowing.

Mind you, I wouldn’t recommend this to any class warriors, since the British class system is writ large throughout, with the three upper-class gentlemen always being larger than life, although the working class also get some good roles (the young Fish Benji being the best of them). If you can get past that, then I would have no hesitation in recommending this.

Book details

ISBN: 9781846970283
Publisher: Birlinn Ltd
Year of publication: 1924

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