Book Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

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January 13, 2016
I kinda, sorta already broke one of my Bookish Goals because I said I wanted to read more of the books I already owned, but then I went ahead and picked up two books from the library. How can anyone pass up a book called Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, though? The title makes it sound mysterious and fantastic and without even knowing what the book was about, I was already in love with this imaginary place and all the crazy happenings that probably took place in it, so of course I had to check it out.

Oh, and also? The cover glows in the dark.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore tells the story of Clay Jannon, a web designer who, because of the recession, finds himself unemployed, broke and desperate. It’s this desperation that leads him to start working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a quirky little place located next to a strip club. One of the first odd things he notices about this place is the way it’s laid outthe front looks just like any regular bookstore, but the back is lined with very tall shelves, filled with mysterious, bound books that he’s not allowed to look at, which he calls the “Wayback List”.

The second odd thing he notices is the customers. Since he works the night shift the bookstore is always empty, but every once in awhile he gets these peculiar people coming into the store at all hours of the night asking to borrow specific books from the Wayback List. All of these people have some things in common: they all have a membership card (to what, exactly? Clay has no idea!), they never buy anything from the “normal” part of the store and they’re always in a rush.

This makes Clay very curious. Who are these people and what is going on with those mysterious books in the back? At the insistence of one of his roommates, Clay ends up flipping through the books to find that they’re all written in some sort of code, which only manages to make him even more curious and adamant to uncover the mysterious going-ons of the 24-Hour Bookstore.

And he does.

What follows next is a mixture of puzzle solving, secret cults, ancient codes and the search for the key to immortality, paired up with a lot of technology talk and the cameo of a made up book series called the Dragon Song Chronicles.

Overall, this was a very quick and entertaining read. The book is funny and very modern with its talks about the recession and Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, video chats and whatnot. It incorporates a lot of technology and uses the plot to touch up on a subject that comes up a lot these days: the old school ways of learning vs. the new, and it a way, it does a very good job at juxtaposing them to prove that they can reinforce each other and not negate one another. There’s still room for both, guys! Enough with the eBook killed the printed books star nonsense already!

I appreciated the use of technology throughout the book because it’s something very quotidian, but it's rare to see it addressed in books. Technology has become such an intrinsic part of our lives, it was fun to see it represented in this book as a resource
 to further along the plot! On the other hand, though, I could have done without so much Google talk. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore could have just as well be called “Google is paying me to write this book!” (DISCLAIMER: I have no idea what the relationship between Google and Robin Sloan is… I’m just saying) because you can’t go two pages without someone mentioning Google and at one point, they even use all of Google’s technology in an attempt to solve the puzzle. 

My most favorite part about this book was the premise… and that’s about it. It was yet again a case of “great premise, terrible execution” because it seemed Sloan had so many great ideas, but instead of sitting down and developing them, he just decided to speed through them to get to the happily ever after ending and it was so frustrating! The overall plot was very convenient, every roadblock got easily bypassed by the main character; there’s no real struggle or any tension, and at no point do you feel like things aren’t going to work out because you come to expect that the author will find a very convenient solution to every problem.

It was like this puzzle was specifically made for the main character, and that every supporting character was created with a specific set of skills in mind to help solve every problem. His best friend Neel just happens to be a millionaire that can pay for long-distance trips and expensive New York hotel stays; he meets and starts dating Kat, who just so happens to work for Google and holds a high enough position to allow him to use Google technology in his quest; his roommate Mat happens to know the right sort of people who work at the right sort of places and can conveniently help Clay...

You get where this is going. The word convenient has no meaning to me anymore.

It was very disappointing being halfway done with the book and already knowing that things were going to work out, and also having a pretty good idea of what the moral of the story was going to be. There’s nothing keeping you on the edge of your seat and it makes me sad because there was so much potential! This is a very small book, but I would have gladly read 500+ pages of this if the author had taken the time to flesh out his characters more and added more tension and conflict to the quest.

Don’t let my disappointment keep you from checking out this book if you’re interested, though! It was still entertaining and I had fun reading it when I took it for what it was and not for what it could have been. The premise alone makes up for it and there were a lot of elements of the book that I loved just because I’m a huge geek. The use of technology! Mysterious bookstores! Secret cults! I am all for it.

And did I mention it glows in the dark?

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