April 29, 2013

The Shadow in the Streets

The Shadow in the Streets by Susan Hill
A Simon Serrailler Crime Novel (#5)
2010 Chatto & Windus, London
Finished on 4/8/13
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)

Publisher’s Blurb:

Simon Serrailler has just wrapped up a particularly exhausting and difficult case for SIFT – Special Incident Flying Taskforce – and is on a sabbatical on a Scottish island when he is recalled to Lafferton. Two local prostitutes have vanished and are subsequently found strangled. By the time he gets back, another girl has disappeared. Is this a vendetta against prostitutes by someone with a warped mind? Or a series of killings by an angry punter? But then one of the Cathedral wives goes missing, followed by another young married woman, on her way to work.

Serrailler follows lead after lead, all of which become dead-ends. The fear is that more women will be killed, and that the murderer is right under their noses; meanwhile the public grow more angry and afraid. It is only through a piece of luck, a chance meeting and a life put in grave danger that he finally gets a result…

Susan Hill has a genius for evoking atmosphere and suspense, and her characters are so real that the reader is caught up not only in the mystery but in the drama of their lives.

Susan Hill’s novels and short stories have won the Whitbread, Somerset Maugham and John Llewelyn Rhys awards and been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She is the author of over forty books, including six other Serrailler crime novels (The Various Haunts of Men, The Pure in Heart, The Risk of Darkness, The Vows of Silence, The Betrayal of Trust and A Question of Identity). Her most recent novel is The Beacon. The play adapted from her famous ghost story, The Woman in Black, has been running on the West End stage since 1989.

I thoroughly enjoyed this mystery, which kept me on the edge of my seat (and reading late into the night) for most of the second half. Hill kept me guessing and it was only at the very end that I finally sorted out the clues, threw out the red herrings, and worked out the identity of the killer. I rarely ever read a series out of order, but I had this book in my stacks and decided to give it a try without realizing there were four others leading up to this one. My only complaint is that the lack of substantial backstory forced me to flip back and forth between the early chapters, trying to piece together the relationships among the main characters. The introduction of new characters throughout the mystery also added to my confusion, making me stop and question their importance to the narrative. As I’ve discovered in other crime novels I’ve recently read (especially those set specifically in Great Britain and Ireland), I came upon quite a few abbreviations (PC, DCD, DI, DS, DCS, DCI, CID, OIOC), but eventually was able to sort them out, pretty much in time to realize their lack of importance. However, initially their presence disrupted the flow of the narrative. I guess that’s more than one complaint, but they’re very minor quibbles and I’m quite anxious to read the other titles in this series, as well Hill’s stand-alones.

On life after loss:
Ordinary things, Cat thought gratefully. Washing up the coffee cups. Making a lamb stew. Chopping vegetables. Ordinary life. That’s what saves us.

Final Thoughts: Susan Hill, where have you been all my life?! I loved this mystery! Readers who enjoy Tana French and Mo Hayder will likely concur.

April 27, 2013

All Shall Be Well

All Shall Be Well by Deborah Crombie
Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James Series #2
1994 Charles Scribner’s Sons
Finished on 3/26/13
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher’s Blurb:

Murder strikes where Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid least expects it. Coming home to his Hampstead flat after working all night on a case, Kincaid finds his terminally ill friend and neighbor, Jasmine Dent, has passed peacefully away in her sleep.

Kincaid quickly discovers, however, that Jasmine’s death may not be as straightforward as it seems. Margaret Bellamy, a young friend of Jasmine’s, tells him that Jasmine has asked for her help in committing suicide, but had changed her mind at the last minute. When autopsy results reveal that Jasmine died from a lethal dose of morphine, Kincaid must discover whether Jasmine killed herself, or if someone else ended her life prematurely.

Why, he asks, would someone kill a woman who had only a few months to live? Did Jasmine’s younger brother, Theo, need his inheritance to keep his small antique shop afloat? Did her nurse, Felicity Haworth, indulge in a spot of mercy killing? Or did Margaret Bellamy’s unscrupulous boyfriend, Roger, decide he couldn’t wait for Margaret to come into her share of Jasmine’s money?

With help from Sergeant Gemma James and Jasmine’s own journals, Kincaid explores Jasmine’s life from her childhood in India to the final months of her illness, discovering a hauntingly beautiful young woman, secretive and ambitious. Somewhere in her past may lie the key to her murder….

I read this second installment in the Kincaid/James series in a little over a week. As with some of my favorite current TV shows (House of Cards, Justified, Homeland), I know I enjoyed the mystery, but the specific details have since escaped my memory. Please don’t ask me who killed Jasmine!

Final Thoughts: Entertaining, albeit forgettable? No notes or quotes to share, but I’m ready to dive into #3 (Leave the Grave Green).

April 20, 2013

Let's Take the Long Way Home

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
2010 Random House
Finished on 3/15/13
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher’s Blurb:

It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.

So begins this gorgeous memoir by Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Caldwell, a testament to the power of friendship, a story of how an extraordinary bond between two women can illuminate the loneliest, funniest, hardest moments in life, including the final and ultimate challenge.

They met over their dogs. Both writers, Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp (the author of Drinking: A Love Story) became best friends, talking about everything from their shared history of a struggle with alcohol, to their relationships with men and colleagues, to their love of books. They walked the woods of New England and rowed on the Charles River, and the miles they logged on land and water became a measure of the interior ground they covered. From disparate backgrounds but with striking emotional similarities, these two private, fiercely self-reliant women created an attachment more profound than either of them could ever have foreseen.

Rich with the joys of raising dogs and the rivalries of competitive sports, their friendship helped them define the ordinary moments of life as the ones worth cherishing. Then, several years into this remarkable connection, Knapp was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

With her signature exquisite prose, Caldwell mines the deepest levels of devotion and grief in this moving memoir about treasuring and losing a best friend, and about coming of age, in the middle of life. Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a celebration of life and of the transformations that come from intimate connection—and it affirms, once again, why Gail Caldwell is recognized as one of our bravest and most honest literary voices.

I love a good memoir—especially one to which I can relate—whether it be about marriage, raising children, cooking or, in this case, women’s friendships, dogs, and grief. After reading Wendy’s glowing review for Let’s Take the Long Way Home, my interest was piqued and I was happy when I stumbled upon a copy in a used bookstore. Taking a break from my self-imposed March Mystery Madness challenge, I went to my shelves in search of something that might be quick to fall into. Caldwell’s memoir fit the bill, as it was both quick to start and held my interest from cover to cover.

I should forewarn you, dear reader, that this post is quite heavy on quotes. Feel free to scroll to the bottom for my final thoughts, if you prefer not to read the passages I was compelled to record.

This passage brings to mind my dear friend, Bellezza. While we’ve never met in person, we share a passion for biking, as well as for being out on the water in kayaks or canoes. If we lived near one another, I know we’d spend a lot of time together on the trails and lakes.
One of the things we loved about rowing was its near mystical beauty—the strokes cresting across the water, the shimmering quiet of the row itself. Days after her death, I dreamed that the two of us were standing together in a dark boathouse, its only light source a line of incandescent blue sculls that hung above us like a wash of constellations. In the dream I knew she was dead, and I reached out for her and said, “But you’re coming back, right?” She smiled but shook her head; her face was a well of sadness.
On being fortysomething, a lover of both books and dogs.
I had just navigated my own crossroads. I was in my early forties, at an age when the view from the hill can be clear and poignant both. The imagined vistas have become realized paths, and I think you may live in the present during those years more than any time since childhood. I’d spent my thirties in a big-city newsroom where adrenaline and testosterone were as pervasive as deadlines, and I’d recently given up a stint as book review editor to go back to my ordinary job as book critic for The Boston Globe. This transition, as well as the recent shifts in technology, allowed me to work from home and hang around with the dog, who quickly learned that reading was my equivalent of chewing on a bone. I had long thought that the gods had handed me work tailor-made for my idiosyncrasies: I was too opinionated to be a straight news reporter, too gadabout to be an academic. I was dreamy, stubborn, and selectively fanatical; my idea of a productive day, as both a child and an adult, was reading for hours and staring out the window. It was my good fortune that I had found an occupation requiring just these talents; now, with Clementine, I could spend whole days in near silence, reading or writing or speaking in the simpler, heart-sure vernacular of human-to-dog.
On grief:
The only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course. Until Caroline died I had belonged to that other world, the place of innocence and linear expectations, where I thought grief was a simple, wrenching realm of sadness and longing that gradually receded. What that definition left out was the body blow that loss inflicts, as well as the temporary madness, and a range of less straightforward emotions shocking in their intensity. I would move as though I were underwater for weeks, maybe months, but those first few days between the death and the memorial service were a dazed cascade of tears and surprises. A part of me went through the appropriate motions with frightening alacrity: finding the poem to read at the chapel on Friday morning, practicing it aloud. But another part of me had the simple conviction that I wouldn’t be able to get from point A to point B—that giving her over, in spirit and in public, was as perplexing and unfathomable as string theory. My old friend Pete, out of town when she died, called from Ohio to see how I was. I told him what I had been afraid to say. “I don’t think I can do it,” I said about getting through the service the next day. “I don’t know how to do it.”

He was quiet for a minute, and then he said something of such consolation that I will hear him saying it forever. “You know, Gail,” he said, “we’ve been doing this as a species for a long time. And it’s almost as if—it’s like the body just knows what to do.”
The ravages of early grief are such a shock: wild, erratic, disconsolate. If only I could get to sorrow, I thought, I could do sorrow. I wasn’t ready for the sheer physicality of it, the lead-lined overcoat of dull pain it would take months to shake. Whatever I thought I knew about loss—what I had anticipated about the After Caroline state, when the fear would be over, the worrying ceased—I had no inkling that it would mean deliverance into a new, immutable world. I lived in the reality of Caroline’s absence all the time, it seems, and yet sometimes the fact of it would nearly knock the wind out of me. One night a couple of weeks after the service I tried to make dinner for two friends, and I managed to get about half a meal together before I realized I didn’t know what I was doing. They sat there kindly before their Spartan plates of chicken and rice—I had forgotten to make anything else—and I excused myself and went into the kitchen and held on to the counter. She’s dead, I thought. The word itself was brutal. I had always disliked the euphemisms the culture embraced for dying: “gone,” “passed on,” “passed away.” They seemed avoidant and sentimental, a way to bleach the concept of death of its declarative force. Now I knew why we’d diluted the vocabulary. She’s dead.
Hope in the beginning feels like such a violation of the loss, and yet without it we couldn’t survive. I had a friend who years before had lost her firstborn when he was an infant, and she told me one of the piercing consolations she received in her early grief was from a man who recognized the fierce loyalty one feels to the dead. “The real hell of this,” he told her, “is that you’re going to get through it.” Like a starfish, the heart endures its amputation.
On old dogs:
Old dogs can be a regal sight. Their exuberance settles over the years into a seasoned nobility, their routines become as locked into yours as the quietest and kindest of marriages.

Final Thoughts: I never felt quite as invested in Gail’s story about her friendship with Caroline as I had hoped, but I found myself nodding my head in agreement as I read the passages about her grief. I must admit I remained dry-eyed as I read the details about Knapp’s final days, but almost sobbed as I read about an attack on Caldwell and her dog. A beautiful and evocative memoir by a talented journalist who reminded me of the importance of friendship, both past and present. I’m anxious to give A Strong West Wind a read.

“Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a book which will stick with me. For those readers who are not afraid to open their hearts and immerse themselves in another person’s pain, but also their joy, this book is a must read.” (Wendy, from Caribousmom) Go here to read Wendy’s review in its entirety.

April 15, 2013

A Share in Death

A Share in Death by Deborah Crombie
Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James Series #1
1993 Scribner
Finished on 3/11/13
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher’s Blurb:

There is surely nothing more peaceful than the Yorkshire Moors in autumn, or so Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid supposes when he takes on the unlikely role of time-share holder at stately Followdale House in northern England.

Newly promoted, weary from overwork, Kincaid opts for a holiday “incognito,” relaxing with just a few good books. Some of his fellow guests have been to the time-share hotel before. Others are newcomers.

One is a killer.

Kincaid’s anonymity comes to an abrupt end when a new acquaintance is found murdered in the hotel’s whirlpool bath. It’s convenient that a Scotland Yard man should be on the scene, but not so serendipitous for Kincaid.

With the help from his clever, down-to-earth Sergeant, Gemma James, Kincaid searches for a hidden connection between victim and suspects. Could the murderer be Cassie Whitlake, the provocative time-share manager with a unique social-climbing agenda? Or one of the MacKenzie sisters, eccentric spinsters on holiday from their goat farm in Dedham Vale? Or Graham Frazer, the brash insurance salesman who is accompanied by his unhappy fifteen-year-old daughter? Or does one of the other guests or staff have a secret worth killing for?

Kincaid, at odds with the local officer in charge of the case, also struggles with his developing friendship with the intriguing scientist Hannah Alcock.

When the killer strikes again, Kincaid and Gemma must pool their knowledge as together they move toward a startling confrontation with the murderer.

A Share in Death places Deborah Crombie among the gifted new crime writers who add freshness and vitality to the traditional detective novel form. Readers everywhere will love the compassionate and engaging Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, a heroine for the nineties.

I first learned of this series from my dear friends, Nan and Kay. Over the years, they have spoken highly of Crombie’s mysteries, and after voicing an interest, Kay offered to send me a few of the books to help get me started. The books were promptly stacked (and forgotten) on a bookcase in my office last summer, but when I decided to devote the month of March to mysteries, I immediately pulled the first two in the series from the stack and added them to a new pile on my nightstand. It didn’t take me long to get engrossed in this new series and I wound up reading close to 100 pages on the first day. I finished in record time, as I was anxious to get back to the story at the end of each day. As soon as I finished, I was tempted to continue with the second novel, but decided to hold off so the plots and characters wouldn’t blur together in my memory. I’ve since gone on to read that second installment and am eager to return to the series now that a few weeks have passed. As with any series that involves a set of returning characters, I’m enjoying the developing relationship between Kincaid and Jemma, whom I have envisioned to resemble Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle and his driver, Samantha Stewart (of Foyle’s War), and I’m eager to see what that future holds for them. With 15 books in the series, I have a lot to look forward to!

Click here to read Nan’s review of this debut novel by Deborah Crombie.

April 13, 2013

Broken Harbor

Broken Harbor by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad Series #4
2012 Penguin Group
Finished on 3/7/13
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)

From the Author’s Website:

Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, the brash cop from Tana French’s bestselling Faithful Place, plays by the book and plays hard. That’s what’s made him the Murder squad’s top detective—and that’s what puts the biggest case of the year into his hands.

On one of the half-built, half-abandoned “luxury” developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children are dead. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care.

At first, Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, think it’s going to be an easy solve. But too many small things can’t be explained. The half dozen baby monitors, their cameras pointing at holes smashed in the Spains’ walls. The files erased from the Spains’ computer. The story Jenny told her sister about a shadowy intruder who was slipping past all the locks.

And Broken Harbor holds memories for Scorcher. Seeing the case on the news sends his sister Dina off the rails again, and she’s resurrecting something that Scorcher thought he had tightly under control: what happened to their family one summer at Broken Harbor, back when they were children.

I don’t know why I waited so long to read this latest mystery by French. She’s become one of my favorite mystery writers, if not my favorite author altogether. With each and every new installment to the Dublin Murder Squad Series, I become a more fervent fan, recommending the books to friends, co-workers, and customers with great enthusiasm. Perhaps I was subconsciously holding off on reading the novel since I knew as soon as I was finished, I would have a long wait before I’d have the chance to read another. As it was, I slowed my pace as I read Broken Harbor, trying to stretch out the experience as long as possible, savoring each and every page, all the while very anxious to unravel the clues, eager to solve the mystery before it was revealed. Isn’t that how it goes? Don’t we mystery-lovers try to beat the detectives at their own game? Or is that just my competitive streak coming out? ;)

In addition to the psychological puzzle, I enjoyed French’s thought-provoking prose:
I hit the M1 and opened up wide, letting the Beemer do her thing. Richie glanced at the speedometer, but I knew without looking that I was bang on the limit, not a single mile over, and he kept his mouth shut. Probably he was thinking what a boring bollix I was. Plenty of people think the same thing. All of them are teenagers, mentally if not physically. Only teenagers think boring is bad. Adults, grown men and women who’ve been around the block a few times, know that boring is a gift straight from God. Life has more than enough excitement up its sleeve, ready to hit you with as soon as you’re not looking, without you adding to the drama. If Richie didn’t know that already, he was about to find out.

Fiona looked around wildly, like the room would vanish any second and she would wake up. It was bare concrete and sloppy mortar, with a couple of wooden beams propped against one wall like they were holding it up. A stack of fake-oak banisters covered in a thick coating of grime, flattened Styrofoam cups on the floor, a muddy blue sweatshirt balled up in one corner: it looked like an archaeological site frozen in the moment when the inhabitants had dropped everything and fled, from some natural disaster or some invading force. Fiona couldn’t see the place now, but it was going to be stamped on her mind for the rest of her life. This is one of the little extras murder throws at the families: long after you lose hold of the victim’s face or the last words she said to you, you remember every detail of the nightmare limbo where this thing came clawing into your life.

In every way there is, murder is chaos. Our job is simple, when you get down to it: we stand against that, for order.

I remember this country back when I was growing up. We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table, and it would never even have crossed a kid’s mind to tell an adult to fuck off. There was plenty of bad there, I don’t forget that, but we all knew exactly where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly. If that sounds like small stuff to you, if it sounds boring or old-fashioned or uncool, think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbors, people left their doors unlocked and helped old women with their shopping bags, and the murder rate was scraping zero.

Sometime since then, we started turning feral. Wild got into the air like a virus, and it’s spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train, using their 4x4s to force smaller cars out of their way, purple-faced and outraged when the world dares to contradict them. Watch the teenagers throw screaming stamping tantrums when, for once, they can’t have it the second they want it. Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.

The final step into feral is murder. We stand between that and you. We say, when no one else will, There are rules here. There are limits. There are boundaries that don’t move.

I’m the least fanciful guy around, but on nights when I wonder whether there was any point to my day, I think about this: the first thing we ever did, when we started turning into humans, was draw a line across the cave door and say: Wild stays out. What I do is what the first men did. They built walls to keep back the sea. They fought the wolves for the hearth fire.

Final Thoughts: Another excellent page-turner by an accomplished writer! It would be difficult to choose a favorite in this series, simply because I’ve enjoyed all of them. The characters are authentic and well-drawn, and I especially liked the chemistry between Scorcher and Richie in this latest installment. I wonder if Richie will be the lead detective in French’s next novel…

April 6, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
2012 Random House Audio
Reader: Jim Broadbent
Finished on 3/5/13
Rating: 3/5 (Good)

Author’s Blurb:

Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.

Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.

And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy.

A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller.

Sigh. I really wanted to fall in love with this novel. I’d heard very good things about it and was excited to begin as soon as the audio showed up in my library queue. Maybe the print edition is better than the audio, but I wasn’t terribly impressed with the narrative (through no fault of the excellent reading by Jim Broadbent). As I listened, I found myself comparing the story to that of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I enjoyed tremendously, but Joyce’s debut novel was a bit flat and I never felt fully engaged in the story.

I did discover one gem that I’d like to share:
People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that.

Final Thoughts: Good, but not great. While it might appeal to fans of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, I felt The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was a little too sentimental for my taste. However, once again I’m in the minority. Take a moment to read Heather’s lovely blog post (and the follow-up comments) before you decide to skip this novel. Note to self: Leave the audio books to thrillers, mysteries, and horror, and save the printed copies for more literary novels.

Go here to listen to the author speak with Diane Rehm on NPR.

April 1, 2013

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
2012 Macmillan Audio
Reader: Ari Fliakos
Finished on 2/21/13
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)

Robin Sloan cleverly combines the antiquated world of bibliophilia with the pulsating age of digital technology, finding curiosity and joy in both. He makes bits and bytes appear beautiful . . . The rebels’ journey to crack the code—grappling with an ancient cult, using secret passwords and hidden doorways—will excite anyone’s inner child. But this is no fantasy yarn. Mr. Sloan tethers his story to a weird reality, striking a comical balance between eccentric and normal . . . The pages swell with Mr. Sloan’s nerdy affection and youthful enthusiasm for both tangible books and new media. Clay’s chatty narration maintains the pace and Mr. Sloan injects dry wit and comedic timing suited to his geeky everyman . . . A clever and whimsical tale with a big heart.The Economist

Publisher’s Blurb:

A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore.

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore.

With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that’s rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.

It took me almost a month to listen to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. While I enjoyed the references to eBooks, Google, technology, and literary world, I found the narrative slow-going after the opening chapters, and I was easily distracted, in spite of the wonderful performance by Ari Fliakos. As I listened, I found myself thinking that Clay reminded me of another young character, but I couldn't quite recall who. Then it hit me: Wade Watts from Ready Player One. Both novels involve a geeky protagonist, a quest with a motley group of friends, multiple literary references, and a romantic subplot, but that’s where the similarities stop. Ready Player One had me on the edge of my seat, rooting for Clay and his friends, while Sloan’s novel had me counting the remaining tracks on my Nano, struggling to make sense of the mysterious secret society. Maybe I missed more than the glow-in-the-dark book jacket when I listened to this novel, but life is too short to re-read mediocre books.