Book Review – MR PENUMBRA’S 24 HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore Synopsis

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.

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

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. (Amazon)

BOOK REVIEW

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore reminds me of a cult movie classic combo – Hackers meets The Goonies – with a helping of Gen Y style thrown in.

The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumours of accidents in the dark. So I stuck to the front half of the store, where bright midday light pressed in and presumably kept the wolves at bay.

Robin Sloan’s prose is certainly competent, and what it lacks in literary merit it makes up for in geeky cleverness. The focal point of this story is a puzzle involving books, and overtly so. What’s not to like book lovers?

Did Sloan perhaps create a product that could not have been more perfectly targeted at his consumer demographic?

But before I fall prey to modern cynicism and say we’ll see this as a case study in a product development and marketing textbook one day, let us talk about the additional value to be found amongst the pages of Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore.

Firstly there are many more subtle ‘life puzzles’ considered throughout the novel, for the old and the young.

There is word play. A simple example is on display in the title… the character Mr Penumbra is somewhat of an enigma, and the meaning of the word ‘penumbra’ is ‘a shadowy, indefinite, or marginal area’.

There is its engaging and very personable narrative style.

And, last but by no means least, its endearing characters and their charming stories of personal growth.

With its references to Google and the like this is a story that will not date well. I think knowing this, rather than hide from it, the author instead revels in that fact.

That is the key to the success of Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore – it embraces the transience of modernity.

The story in effect celebrates how inevitable technological change is but equally how enduring the traits of human endeavour, and on a more base level, greed and its counterpart generosity, are.

Why do these sentiments hold such great appeal for readers?

Whether we admit it or not, it is human nature to yearn for what we know and have grown comfortable with; to secretly wish for someone to hit the pause button on the continual evolution of the society we live in, just for a moment so that we can catch our breath. That is the appeal of Mr Penumbra’s book store to our story’s narrator and protagonist Clay Jannon, and the good-natured retro geek chic of this novel about said store was what appealed to me.

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a quick and easy read that I dare you, no make that double dare you, not to enjoy.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5

Have you read Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore? Do you want to?

Join the discussion below.

BOOK DETAILS: Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore ( Amazon | Booktopia | Kobobooks )

Free Delivery on all Books at the Book Depository
Genre: Adventure, Romance, Fantasy, Mystery

Author Information: Robin Sloan grew up near Detroit and now splits his time between San Francisco and the internet. He graduated from Michigan State with a degree in economics and, from 2002 to 2012, worked at Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter.

- Check out Robin Sloan’s website

- Listen to an interview with NPR where Robin Sloan talks about the ideas behind the book

- Flavorwire included this book in its list of 10 Essential Books for Book Nerds

Other reviews of Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore: Little Girl With A Big Pen; Writing Bar; Bookslut; Literary Exploration; My Cup and Chaucer

Comments

  1. says

    Such a great idea to add information about the author! I grew up outside Detroit and lived there until a few years ago. Even though I read and enjoyed this book, I had no idea he was from the area. Thanks for sharing that!

    • says

      My pleasure Shannon – I like to look into the author’s background, where they are in their career etc. Gives me a better understanding of the work in its totality. My appreciation is often of the talent behind the novel, in addition to the story itself.

  2. says

    Fantastic review, Jo! I haven’t actually read the book, but you’ve touched on things I’ve not read in reviews of it before. What you’ve said of case studies is really interesting, even if only a possibility. I like the idea of the author using the fact of it not dating well either; recently I’ve read books that are so good but you know they can’t last, and you also know that due to the usage of the ideas/items/whatever, the author hadn’t really thought about the fact they’ve restricted their success to the present day. Sloan’s method is a welcome difference.

    • says

      Thank you for that lovely feedback Charlie. In addition to my literary interests I have a genuine appreciation for entrepreneurial endeavours and clever yet classy marketing and believe good ideas, in whatever form, deserve to be rewarded.

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