Book Review: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Posted March 14th, 2013 by in book review / 0 comments


Title: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: October 2nd, 2012
Version Read: Hardcover (library loan)
Categories: fiction, special-interest, contemporary, mystery

Summary (Goodreads): 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.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a book for book lovers and lovers of the history of type. It’s well written and takes the reader on an incredible journey filled with an epic quest, a conspiracy and secrets to unravel.

I really enjoyed this book. There were a few times when it was a little slow going, which is why I’m giving it a 4-star review, not a 5-star, but it’s a very well-written entertaining story. I really liked how Robin Sloan kept the content of the story current to the modern day world by including things like Google (a big part of the plot is based at Google’s San Francisco headquarters) and computer animation, but managed to keep the older parts such as the books and the original type-face relevant as well.

This is a hard book to review without giving away the secrets of the plot, but suffice to say that our main character Clay must help to unravel a centuries old secret, and by doing so could change the course of history as we know it – or just change the course of history for a select group.There are several mysteries to solve, and to glean information from as Clay’s journey – from becoming Mr Penumbra’s employee to the final pages of the story – takes you on a interesting and well-researched ride.

Sloan keeps the reader wanting to find out more with his beautifully descriptive prose – which pulls you in within the first dozen or so pages and keeps hold of you while we go on Clay’s journey with him. On the back cover a reviewer compared it to Erin Morgensten’s ‘The Night Circus’ and the prose is definitely comparable, and the story-telling. I personally loved The Night Circus, and thoroughly enjoyed Mr Penumbra’s  24-Hour Bookstore as well, mostly because the writing pulled me in.

I found a lot of the inner-working of Google to be very well done – I imagine parts of them are public knowledge, or easily discoverable, but Sloan managed to entwine these with other, perhaps slightly more radical/unusual ideas and departments in such a way that they indeed seemed quite plausible. (Who knows, maybe they are?) This linked in very nicely with the parts of the story it needed to without seeming out of place, which it may have otherwise.

If you enjoy contemporary fiction, or enjoyed the storytelling of the Night Circus but could do without the magic, I think you’d enjoy this. Even if you are just a book lover I would suggest giving this a try. It’s not going to be everybody’s piece of cake, but those that do enjoy this style will really enjoy Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore.

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