April 1, 2013
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
2012 Macmillan Audio
Reader: Ari Fliakos
Finished on 2/21/13
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)
Robin Sloan cleverly combines the antiquated world of bibliophilia with the pulsating age of digital technology, finding curiosity and joy in both. He makes bits and bytes appear beautiful . . . The rebels’ journey to crack the code—grappling with an ancient cult, using secret passwords and hidden doorways—will excite anyone’s inner child. But this is no fantasy yarn. Mr. Sloan tethers his story to a weird reality, striking a comical balance between eccentric and normal . . . The pages swell with Mr. Sloan’s nerdy affection and youthful enthusiasm for both tangible books and new media. Clay’s chatty narration maintains the pace and Mr. Sloan injects dry wit and comedic timing suited to his geeky everyman . . . A clever and whimsical tale with a big heart. —The Economist
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.
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.
It took me almost a month to listen to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. While I enjoyed the references to eBooks, Google, technology, and literary world, I found the narrative slow-going after the opening chapters, and I was easily distracted, in spite of the wonderful performance by Ari Fliakos. As I listened, I found myself thinking that Clay reminded me of another young character, but I couldn't quite recall who. Then it hit me: Wade Watts from Ready Player One. Both novels involve a geeky protagonist, a quest with a motley group of friends, multiple literary references, and a romantic subplot, but that’s where the similarities stop. Ready Player One had me on the edge of my seat, rooting for Clay and his friends, while Sloan’s novel had me counting the remaining tracks on my Nano, struggling to make sense of the mysterious secret society. Maybe I missed more than the glow-in-the-dark book jacket when I listened to this novel, but life is too short to re-read mediocre books.