If you have ever read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, you might recall that one of Mr. Penumbra’s peculiar (and very strict) rules for his booksellers is to never read the special books that are shelved there. If you have ever set foot in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, you will find that this is hardly ever the case.
I have never been disappointed when asking an indie bookseller for a recommendation. They are an under-appreciated wealth of knowledge! They know which books have been getting the most buzz. They know which books haven’t been getting enough. They have their long-held favorites, and they are the first on the bandwagon for the hottest books of the season. Here are a few recommendations from the good people at Northshire Bookstore (Vermont), Word After Word Books (California), The Ripped Bodice (California), and Bookmarks (North Carolina). In addition to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, in this list you will also find the true crime story of a horrendous double murder, environmentally-aware short stories, a Murderbot, and more. Happy reading!
Greenwood by Michael Christie
This majestic, century-spanning novel is largely told from the viewpoint of Harris and Everett Greenwood, who were thought to be brothers after the boys were discovered by rescuers combing through the wreckage of two passenger trains. Though the bond between them was not instilled by blood, their impact upon each other would reverberate throughout their lives. Harris used his business acumen to become a prominent lumber baron in Canada while Everett led a shiftless, nomadic life until he came upon a baby left in a vast forest by her dying mother. The decline of Harris Greenwood’s fortune is counterpointed by the growing awareness in the world of the irreplaceable value of our natural resources: personified by his great granddaughter’s commitment to protecting the environment. In this rousing, engrossing saga of a dynamic family, the author has quietly woven a warning to us all.
–Alden Graves, Northshire Bookstore
The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams
Samuel, an aging Emerson/Alcott Transcendentalist type, founds an all-girls school with help from his last disciple and his adult daughter, Caroline, who serves as the point of view for this feminist historical novel. An atmosphere of dread grows as mysterious blood-red birds amass. Caroline enrolls Eliza, who is the daughter of Miles Pearson, someone from Samuel’s past and an Edgar Allan Poe type. Eliza starts exhibiting strange behavior which quickly spreads amongst the girls. And the men just know that they have all the right answers and know best.
–Dafydd Wood, Northshire Bookstore
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
My absolute favorite read of all time, Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a beautiful collection of Karen Russell’s short stories that contains her classic wit and environmentally-aware themes. The first story, matching the title of the book, is an Italian villa day-dream, set in a lemon grove owned by a sweet older family, where our protagonist, Clyde, spends his free time. He, an aging vampire who wishes only to enjoy life and feel content, shares his time with his wife, Magreb, who accompanies him to eat lemons that quench the thirst and thrill that they seek as vampires. Magreb, ever the adventurer and darer, wants more out of her extensive life, and Clyde simply does not understand. The beautiful relationship of misunderstanding is exposed in the sunlight for our two vampire lovers, who have fallen out of their graces with each other and wish to give some purpose to their monotonous and casual lives. The way they feel, the way they speak, and the way they want more out of something intangible, is so expressive of what we as humans experience: the yearning for something more. All of the stories in this collection match this obscure take on real human emotions in such a beautiful and refreshing way. There is a pull to always be something more than the mundane, than the expected. Her stories are reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, and even the Night Vale podcast. Vampires in the Lemon Grove introduced me to the world of obscure fiction, and I haven’t turned back since. I thank Karen Russell every day for this gift of a book that has inspired me as a writer, a reader, and just an idealist. She has changed the way I see the world and reflect on the many aspects of life.
–Lany Holcomb, Bookmarks
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Sharks in the Time of Saviors meanders at times, but is also abrupt. The story is subtle and mysterious, and yet filled with harsh realities and real-life truths, like the hardships faced by contemporary Native Hawaiians. The characters are rich, real, and visceral, as is the depiction of contemporary Hawaiian life, sibling bonds and grudges, parental expectations, self-imposed standards, and exile from the islands for the sake of modernity, progress, and education. I loved the parents—their chapters held the weight and rhythm of traditional oral narratives and were just beautiful and engrossing. I loved Kaui and Dean as well, and I wanted more from them, especially Kaui. The magical realism element will keep you guessing as to what is real and what is not. Washburn has a unique, magical, and poignant voice that I enjoyed from start to finish. I can’t wait to read his next work!
–Jill Sanford, Word After Word Books
Rust by Eliese Colette Goldbach
“What comes out of Cleveland?” Goldbach gives an honest and nuanced answer to that question in her heartfelt memoir. She vividly describes the inner workings of the steel mill where she works while grappling with her feelings about her upbringing and her hometown. A confident, fascinating memoir from a strong writer.
–Stan Hynds, Northshire Bookstore
The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg
A mind-blowing decades-old murder investigation is enhanced by a highly intelligent and original memoir that takes a hard look at human nature, violence, and masculinity in America. Reviewing it through the lens of Eisenberg was like being in the passenger seat with a driver who knows exactly how to maneuver West Virginia’s switchback mountain roads in the dark because she’s lived there as an outsider trying to fit in. The implications of her sociocultural findings reach far beyond the borders of Pocahontas County and are sure to place her work on every must-read list for years to come.
–Nancy Scheemaker, Northshire Bookstore
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
This is a super-fun and hilarious little sci-fi novella! The self-designated Murderbot is a “Sec Unit,” or Security Unit, (a construct with some human parts mixed in) hired to protect a team of surveyors on another planet. It has found a way to hack its governor unit, which means it could kill all of the humans if it wanted to—but all it really wants is to be left alone to enjoy the hours of music and other media it has downloaded to its feed. I loved the human-bot dynamics as Murderbot becomes more self aware and sentient. There’s lots of fun tech jargon, along with sparse but intriguing explanations for why the team is where they are and the world they came from. The characters drive the story, and that’s what makes All Systems Red great. This is perfect for fans of Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. There are three more novellas in The Murderbot Diaries series, plus a full-length novel coming out this summer!
–Tara Flanagan, Word After Word Books
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
A woman, living blissfully alone in a mountainous, remote part of Poland, purports that a string of sudden deaths in the area is the deliberate work of animals getting even with mankind for the abuses they have suffered. She bolsters her conclusion by pointing out to anyone who will listen that the planets were aligned to predict the demise of the victims. Local skepticism is palpable. The lady with the unique perspective on crime is one of the most endearing characters in contemporary literature. I loved every snow-swept moment.
–Alden Graves, Northshire Bookstore
A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah Weatherspoon
A celebrity chef gets pushed down the stairs by her nemesis, loses all her memories and returns to the ranch where she grew up to recover… and try not to fall for her childhood crush who is now a hot cowboy. Isn’t that how all great love stories start!? While the premise is on the wild side, the story is completely grounded in wonderful characters, honest communication, and charming writing. Weatherspoon writes with heart and wit and she will have you filling out your residency application for Charming, California by Chapter 7.
–Leah Koch, The Ripped Bodice
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Awesome. Great read. Highly entertaining while also poignant. A view into first generation black northerners in NYC during the mid-20th century. Unforgettable characters and a narrative thread that keeps interest up.
–Chris Morrow, Northshire Bookstore
The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
If you enjoy sci-fi fantasy books and the rich worlds we can discover within them, and have been looking for a beautiful one by a female author, The Bone Season is for you! It’s the start of a seven book series (book four is out this fall!) and it’s completely gorgeous. Shannon is also the author of the epic fantasy standalone Priory of the Orange Tree, and she certainly knows how to build incredible worlds and characters that will suck you in. The Bone Season is set in a world about 40 or so years ahead of us, where clairvoyants have made themselves known and the world has rejected them. It’s illegal and punishable by death to be one of the clairvoyants, so they turn to the underground world to survive and thrive. Our protagonist Paige is a young prodigy, and the only dreamwalker around, which puts her in high demand with dangerous people and even more dangerous otherworldly beings. TBS has everything you could want from a SFF series: a main female character who’s the most headstrong, three dimensional character I’ve ever met; a lush world that feels lived in; a tense plot that only gives you what it wants you to have; and a slow burn enemies to lovers romance that’s one for the ages.
–Cat VanOrder, Bookmarks
Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur
Wild Game is a great family saga! The story is so wild and engaging that you often forget it’s all true. There is a fascinating mother-daughter relationship that offers a serious look into what happens when a child parents a parent, and how much influence adult relationships can have on children (positive and negative!). Brodeur is a talented writer, so none of the writing felt over dramatized or descriptive, which was perfect. The story is strong enough and dramalicious enough all on its own!
–Kaeleigh Reynolds, Word After Word Books
The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure and Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird by Joshua Hammer
(Simon & Schuster)
By the author of the best-selling Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, this fabulous true tale follows the incredible decades-long story of one of the world’s most notorious smugglers of endangered raptors and the dedicated British detective determined to stop him. Woven in is the history of rare egg collecting and Arab high stakes falcon racing. Fascinating, eye-opening, and thrilling from the opening page. A thoroughly enjoyable mix of history, nature, international adventure, and true crime.
–Tambra Johnson Reap, Northshire Bookstore
Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Does Google know that about me? Can Google really do that? The answer is… maybe? How much do you want to know? In the bookstore within the book there’s a different vibe than you might expect. They have the normal assortment of gently used bestsellers and memoirs and mysteries. And then there are the 30-foot shelves that Clay, working the 10p-6a overnight shift, has to clamber up library ladders of roofing ladder height to get to the top shelves. Those tall shelves are filled with encrypted titles. And with strict orders from Mr. Penumbra to take notes on everyone who comes in, what their attitudes and countenances are, and what books they bring back and take home, clearly there’s something going on. Perhaps a secret society?
–Lisa Yee Swope, Bookmarks