Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

>> Sunday, November 24, 2013

TITLE: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
AUTHOR: Robin Sloan

PAGES: 284
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

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.

Our protagonist is Clay Jannon, a web designer whose job in a dotcom company has just gone south. While he finds another one, he gets a position at the very strange establishment called "Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore". It's a strange place because, for a bookstore, it doesn't seem to sell many books -in fact, no one there seems interested in selling any books. The only clients are eccentric characters who come in to borrow obscure tomes written in some sort of code.

It's not hard to realise that something more than bookselling is going on, and Clay, stuck in the night shift and with plenty of time on his hands, decides to do a little bit of programming to analyse the data from the records. To his surprise, he actually discovers something, something which sends him on a real quest -one in which the prize is immortality. But Clay's got a secret weapon, because in addition to talented friends, he's got a new lady friend who works at Google!

The best way to describe Mr. Penumbra is "good fun". There's codebreaking and secret societies and strange characters, there's a love of books but without a disdain of non-print ones, and there's a big chunk of high tech mixed in with all of it. I had a blast reading it.

Fun or not, the book does have plenty of flaws, the main one being that it never feels like there's all that much at stake, so it was hard to really care about the characters and whether they would succeed. That might sound weird. After all, if they solve the puzzle, they’re supposed to get immortality, which is pretty damned big. The thing is, it’s too obvious that this is never going to work that way, and I couldn’t believe that these people would believe it, either.

Additionally, the characters are thinly drawn and slightly cartoonish and the plot relies on coincidences and on Clay having friends with obscure skills/access to obscure things which are just the right ones that are needed at particular times.

Did I care, though? Not really. It's not a book that will stay with me, but I enjoyed it while I was reading it, and sometimes that's exactly what I want.



Marianne McA,  26 November 2013 at 12:33  

Thanks for the review - I really enjoyed the read.

To me, it read like it was written by a rather more carefree Lev Grossman. Very similar voice, somehow.

Rosario 29 November 2013 at 07:52  

Glad you enjoyed it, Marianne! I haven't read Lev Grossman yet, maybe I should try him. Would you recommend any of his books particularly?

Marianne McA,  29 November 2013 at 09:56  

I've only read 'The Magicians'. It's a Narnia/ Harry Potter mash up, except with older protagonists, and thus a darker tone. Very similar voice to this one. Don't know what else to say that isn't spoilery, which if why I can't review.
I'm glad I read it, but don't deeply feel the need to read more Grossman. (I had issues with his female characters, a little.)

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