Annabel Scheme ~ Robin Sloan

  • Title: Annabel Scheme
  • Author: Robin Sloan
  • Genre: Mystery, Fantasy
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: Own
  • Reviewed by: Olga Godim
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:  Annabel Scheme is a detective story set in an alternate San Francisco where the digital and the occult live side-by-side. It’s a short, snappy read — about 128 pages/128,000 Kindle locations — and perfect for people who like Sherlock Holmes, Douglas Adams, ghosts and/or the internet. Finally, it makes a great Kindle gift. In Scheme’s San Francisco, an indie rocker’s new tracks are climbing the charts, even though the rocker herself is long dead. A devout gamer has gone missing, and the only trace of him that remains is inside his favorite game, the blockbuster MMORPG called World of Jesus. And the richest man in the city, the inventor of the search engine called Grail, might just have made a deal with a devil. Meanwhile, Annabel Scheme has just hired herself a Watson, an A.I. assistant who’s now learning the ropes on a case that will quickly transform into Scheme’s biggest — and possibly her last.

Come on. Fog City is waiting.

Review:  I’m not sure what I think of this Kindle novella. It’s too weird. It starts as a PI comedy. It proceeds as an odd kind of mystery, on the intersection between the internet and demons. It ends in a tragedy, with an assortment of loose ends still dangling. And in between, there are too many unanswered questions. But all the same, it was an absorbing read, very much 21st century. Although I’m not sure I liked it, never once did I want to abandon the book, so I can’t give it less than 3 stars.

The protagonist Annabel Scheme is a PI in an alternative version of San Francisco. She has an assistant – a computer server named Hu. His video and audio interface is located in Annabel’s earrings, so he can see what she sees and hear what she hears. He can also process information at the server speed and he has an unlimited extension capabilities. The story is told from his POV.

Their client is a young musician complaining of illegal distribution of his recordings that don’t exist – with his former partner who is deceased. From here, it’s a helter-skelter gallop by Annabel and Hu, involving a super-powerful digital search engine Grail (note: not Google), an online game World of Jesus, dead people, quantum computers, falafel, and a sinister website where body parts are for sale.

The writing is good though, the descriptions vivid and often scary, and the writer’s imagination and sense of humor seem boundless if slightly warped. One of the locations he describes is a coffee shop that doubles as an incubator of internet start-ups. The barista asks Annabel:

“What can I get you? Espresso? Drip coffee? Articles of incorporation?”
The baristas here all have law degrees.

Later, in conversation with Hu, Annabel states that some of her conclusions are just a hunch. Hu thinks:

Just a hunch. Note to self: find software for that.       

Grail’s quantum computers offer an advance variation of a search engine, one that doesn’t need a search box, just a button.

You pressed it, and it simply gave you what you were looking for. It worked even if you didn’t know what you were looking for. It worked even if you couldn’t admit, not even to yourself, what you were looking for.

This reads like a horror version of a search engine. Perhaps this book belongs to the horror genre.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore ~ Robin Sloan

  • Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
  • Author: Robin Sloan
  • Genre: Contemporary, Literary, Mystery
  • Format: Audiobook
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: DarthVal
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  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.

Review: 
I can just imagine a group of nerdy, but hip guys sitting around, drinking beer, and solving all of the world’s problems. During the course of the conversation, they lament that no one has ever truly written a book designed to appeal to fantasy-reading, dungeons & dragons playing media techno-geeks who have a deep appreciation for cheesy 80’s movies. Clearly, one of those guys thought the idea still sounded good after the buzz wore off and decided to go for it. That book is called Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. How do I know that it probably went down like that? We sense our own kind (except the “guy” part).

I love this book! While I found a lot of geek culture references to be highly amusing, I can see where the mass market audience might not get the humor. Also, the abundance of high tech references will date this work quickly. I don’t care, I still love it. In fact, the potential lack of appeal to the masses may make me like it even more – they DID buy into Twilight, ’nuff said.

The main character, Clay, is so nerdy, but lovable. I absolutely love the way that as he pulls his friends into the mysteries of Mr. Penumbra’s shop, he thinks of them in terms of D&D roles. I sympathize with his struggle to find his place as an adult. It is like the bookstore provides a safe refuge from the fickle and chaotic storm of corporate America in down-size mode.

The excitement of Clay’s merry little band of misfits is palpable as they try to solve the Penumbra’s puzzle. There are no explosions or assassination attempts, and yet this book is chock full of adventure, albeit a dorky one.

Whether you are a hard-core geek, or geek-light, I recommend you read this sooner rather than later to get the most bang out of the pop culture buck. What are you waiting for? Go get it. Shoo!

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore ~ Robin Sloan

  • Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
  • Author: Robin Sloan
  • Genre: Mainstream
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga, Guest Reviewer
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  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.

Review: 
I loved this book. Its plot is simple. A young graphic artist Clay, after he lost his latest marketing job, starts working for a 24-hour bookstore, owned by a mysterious Mr. Penumbra. The owner is not the only mystery of Clay’s new job. The shop has two distinct sections. The smaller (much smaller) section sells books; the bigger section, stuffed by dusty odd tomes, is visited regularly by some shady characters, who use the shelves as their library. Intrigued by the strange goings on, Clay decides to investigate, and his friends help him. What they uncover… would be a spoiler, so I won’t tell it here.

Anyway, the investigation itself is what the story is all about. The author maps an adventure-filled trip for his hero at the intersection of printed books and the internet, Google and secret societies, hundreds-year-old cult and coded messages. And all those story lines converge together into the printing font Geritszoon.

What a long, sophisticated name for a font. I didn’t know it, so of course, I Googled it. Surprise! What came out of that Google search were a bunch of interviews with Robin Sloan and book reviews for his novel. Still I couldn’t believe the font was fictional. It felt real to Clay, the protagonist, and it felt real to me, the reader.

I also Googled Clay’s favorite writer Clark Moffat, whose fantasy trilogy, The Dragon Song Chronicles, plays such an important role in the story. I love fantasy and I hoped those books would be real. I wanted to read them, but no such luck. Again, I was disappointed. The writer was fictional too.

In his tale, Sloan put together a delightful romp of a literary quest, a light and funny pilgrimage between books and the cyberspace. The novel starts slowly, like a gentle tide, but despite its quiet pace, I didn’t want to put it down. I wanted to know how Clay’s investigation was progressing. By the time the tale picks up momentum, about the middle of the book, I couldn’t stop reading at all.

I can’t pinpoint a single aspect of this book I loved the most. Nothing seems outstanding. The plot is okay. The characters constitute a nice bunch of young and old folks but nobody special. Even the protagonist is an ordinary young guy, and the descriptions are so-so, not especially vivid. But that seems to be the secret of this book. With not one of its component sticking out, the whole is an exceptionally balanced masterpiece of a supremely talented writer.

The range of emotion the story inspired in me was amazing. I laughed. I contemplated. I followed my curiosity into consulting a dictionary and checking out Wikipedia. I shook my head in exasperation. I gasped in surprise and waved my hands in frustration, and this one book was the source of it all.

I’d like to finish this review with a few verbal pearls, witty and deceptively simple, scattered liberally among the pages.

The hero loves fantasy but he is wondering at the genre tropes:

Why does the typical adventuring group consist of a wizard, a warrior, and a rogue, anyway? It should really be a wizard, a warrior, and a rich guy. Otherwise who’s going to pay for all the swords and spells and hotel rooms?

Aldus Manutius, one of the first printers in the 15th century, plays an important role in the novel. Manutius was the genius who ‘invented’ the concept of a pocket book and the Italic type font. This one was real: I Goggled his name. But there is a quirky myth attached to this historical personage, at least according to one of Sloan’s characters, Mr. Penumbra:

“When Aldus Manutius died,” he says quietly, “his friends and students filled his tomb with books—copies of everything he had ever printed.” 

Sloan’s dry humor is irresistible. When Clay sends a text message about one of the books he is investigating, he writes:

‘…the target is one of the most important books in the history of printing. In other words: this might be bigger than Potter. Any help?’

I take a breath, check three times for typos, then submit the post.

He checks for typos in a text message!? And that is a fellow young enough to muse later:

It [my life] feels like an eternity since I started school and a techno-social epoch since I moved to San Francisco. My phone couldn’t even connect to the internet back then.

A pure, undiluted joy of a book. Recommended to anyone: because we all love reading.