Review: CAMINO ISLAND by John Grisham (Doubleday)

GrishamJ-CaminoIslandUSAn enjoyable biblio-mystery

A gang of thieves stage a daring heist from a secure vault deep below Princeton University’s Firestone Library. Their loot is priceless, but Princeton has insured it for twenty-five million dollars.

Bruce Cable owns a popular bookstore in the sleepy resort town of Santa Rosa on Camino Island in Florida. He makes his real money, though, as a prominent dealer in rare books. Very few people know that he occasionally dabbles in the black market of stolen books and manuscripts.

Mercer Mann is a young novelist with a severe case of writer’s block who has recently been laid off from her teaching position. She is approached by an elegant, mysterious woman working for an even more mysterious company. A generous offer of money convinces Mercer to go undercover and infiltrate Bruce Cable’s circle of literary friends, ideally getting close enough to him to learn his secrets.

But eventually Mercer learns far too much, and there’s trouble in paradise…

This is not your typical John Grisham thriller. For one thing, it’s mostly a novel about publishing, writing and bookselling with an overlying crime story to bring everything together. I very much enjoyed it. Continue reading

Mini-Review: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan (Atlantic Books)

SloanR-MrPenumbras24HourBookstoreAn endearing novel about bibliophilia and the advance of technology

Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a Web-design drone and serendipity coupled with sheer curiosity has landed him a new job working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. And it doesn’t take long for Clay to realize that the quiet, dusty book emporium is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few fanatically committed customers, but they never seem to actually buy anything, instead they simply borrow impossibly obscure volumes perched on dangerously high shelves, all according to some elaborate arrangement with the eccentric proprietor.

The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he has plugged in his laptop, roped in his friends (and a cute girl who works for Google) and embarked on a high-tech analysis of the customers’ behaviour. What they discover is an ancient secret that can only be solved by modern means, and a global-conspiracy guarded by Mr. Penumbra himself… who has mysteriously disappeared.

This is a very quick, endearing read. The synopsis really tells you all you need to know. This novel is, in many ways, a love-letter to both bookstores and books, and also modern technology and all it allows us to do. Clay’s background in the tech industry collides with his new job, after discovering the strange goings-on at Mr. Penumbra’s store. With the help of some friends, and eventually the strange, fanatical repeat-customers/borrowers, he uncovers a peculiar society with a peculiar belief.

Written with obvious love for both the new and old, Sloan weaves and engrossing, endearing and gripping story. The novel is filled with the author’s observations about the slowly disappearing (though still highly important) book and publishing industries, and the near-hyperactive growth of the tech and internet sectors. The protagonist’s geekiness is well-done, if ever-so-slightly cliché (a couple of things raised a disappointed eyebrow, but these are minor elements to the story, and easily dismissed).

If you enjoy gentle tales surrounding a love for books, reading, and technology, then Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a must-read. If you are after just a fun, quick read, then this is a must-read. Highly recommended.

“Libriomancer” by Jim C. Hines (Del Rey UK/DAW Books)

Hines-LibriomancerUKAn action-packed, bibliocentric adventure

Isaac Vainio is a Libriomancer, a member of a secret society founded five centuries ago by Johannes Gutenberg. As such, he is gifted with the magical ability to reach into books and draw forth objects.

But when Gutenberg vanishes without a trace, Isaac finds himself pitted against everything from vampires to a sinister, nameless foe who is bent on revealing magic to the world at large… and at any cost.

This novel is an urban fantasy with a difference, and one that should really appeal to a broad swathe of SFF bibliophiles. Indeed, it has a little something for everyone. It’s fast-paced, amusing, cleverly devised, and above all enjoyable.

There’s a lot going on in the novel. The world building and magic system are great, and certainly endearing to someone who reads as much SFF as I do. How often have you wished you could reach into a book and take something out of it? Well, in Libriomancer, that is exactly what the protagonist is able to do. Using this device, Hines is able to mention a whole host of classics of the SFF genres.

“Libriomancy was in many ways a lazy man’s magic. There were no wands, no fancy spells, no ancient incantations. No hand-waving or runes. Nothing but the words on the page, the collective belief of the readers, and the libriomancer’s love of the story.”

One of the things that really shines through, therefore, is the authors clear love for these authors, novels and genres. It is also through this device that Hines is able to make his urban fantasy tale stand out from the pack – this is not your average UF, by any stretch of the imagination. In some ways, though, it is every urban fantasy – the proliferation of vampire fiction, for example, has had a real impact on the world in which Issac et al operate: there are now so many different variations of vampire (and werewolf, etc., etc.), all inspired or caused by accidental meddling with the contents of series.

Hines-LibriomancerFor the most part, the novel rattles along at a good pace, and from the moment Isaac’s library is invaded by vampires at the start, until the revelations and ‘boss fight’ at the end, it rarely lets up. I felt a slight dip in the middle, perhaps, but it picks up again nicely, once Isaac and Lena start making proper headway into their investigation. The characters are varied and well-rounded, and develop appropriately over the course of the novel. Hines writes some great combat/fight scenes, too, taking full advantage of how varied a battle can be when you have a potentially limitless variety of weapons to choose from (assuming, of course, that you have the appropriate book to hand…). This could have felt silly or forced, but it didn’t – the author managed to make this unbelievably awesome skill fit very well into the story, and he places ‘realistic’ limitations on the magic, too. I really wish I was a libriomancer… And I would also like a pet fire spider. Despite the fact that it would probably make my skin crawl…

Speaking of Lena, Isaac’s partner. I’m not 100% sure that her origin story and nature, and the way they are handled in the story, really do what they’re supposed to. That may sound vague, but I don’t want to ruin the story for others, and it’s not really that central a concern for the story. I think he was trying to make a statement about the male gaze, masturbatory teenage male fantasies, and so forth, but I don’t think the point was made as well as intended. I did, however, also learn why people find Gor novels so hilariously awful (I’ve seen them mentioned a lot, but had no clue what they were, or why they were considered so terrible). Certainly, Hines is able to weave into the story some good commentary on the state of the genre(s), and contemporary conversations and debates that are energising the readership and blogosphere, without it being clunky.

Alongside the excellent magic system, there was also some interesting commentary on contemporary, non-fiction issues. Particularly, PTSD, and the way they Hines attached this to the libriomancer idea of “locking” people (and books). I thought he handled and discussed this very well. (It is, again, not a huge part of the story, but it stood out for me.)

Overall, then, Libriomancer has a really intriguing premise, and is very well-executed urban fantasy. This was my first Hines novel, and it won’t be my last. Roll on the sequel, Codex Born!

***

Libriomancer is out now as an eBook, and will be published in paperback by Del Rey UK on March 6th, 2014. The novel is also already out in the US, published by DAW Books. Codex Born is also already out as an eBook (in both the UK and US), and Del Rey UK published it in trade paperback at the end of last year. The UK and US covers are below.

HinesJC-MEL2-CodexBorn