Book Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore


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Title & Author: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Genre: Fiction, Mystery

Whenever I’m about to write a less-than-favorable book review I feel the need to point out that I’m not a published author. I’ve never written a novel and I know that it’s much easier to critique someone else’s work than to write something original of your own. So kudos to Robin Sloan for writing something original…but I’m not a big fan of the book.

Mr. Penumbra’s is a fun, quick read and it contained a lot of interesting points about typography, data visualization, museum artifacts, code and other things I could nerd out about. But it all seemed very shallow, like the surface had barely been scratched. As I got closer to the end I kept thinking, “This is it?” Then something else would be revealed but it was never enough – it always felt lacking to me.

So back to the beginning. Mr. Penumbra’s takes place in San Francisco and focuses on Clay Jannon, a web designer who got hit by the recession and finds a job in the titular Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. The bookstore is an independent and unique in that it’s very narrow and very tall. There are ladders attached to the shelves and the store clerks have to hoist themselves whole floors above the ground on those ladders to retrieve selections for buyers. This sounds like the perfect Beauty and the Beast-style library of my dreams but I know how much of a klutz I am so I think it would just wind up as my nightmare.] Mr. Penumbra himself is a bit eccentric from the beginning so you know there’s going to be some mystery involving him, the bookstore, or both.

Clay lives in an apartment with Ashley, a PR exec, and Mat, a friend of a friend from design school who makes visual effects for Industrial Light and Magic; those two start dating pretty early on in the book. Clay is still best friends with Neel, whom he met and bonded with in sixth grade over a book trilogy called The Dragon Song Chronicles. [It’s sci-fi and made up but it sounds a lot like The Lord of the Rings to me.] Neel is now the CEO of a company called Anatomix which – *sigh* – creates incredibly realistic 3D models of breasts for video games and movies. And other portions of anatomy but mostly breasts. This has made Neel incredibly rich.

There are very few customers to the bookstore during Clay’s graveyard shift (or during the rest of the day, really) which makes Clay wonder how the store can afford to stay open around the clock. He starts a Google ad campaign to bring in more targeted customers and that ad delivers him the beautiful Kat. Aside from being beautiful, it turns out she’s very intelligent: she works for Google in data visualization.

To summarize the main characters:

  • Mat: can make any type of physical prop you would need
  • Kat: gorgeous and smart, plus she can get you access to Google
  • Neel: has lots of money and New York connections to get you what you need and where you need to be
  • Clay: inquisitive and has a design background, but main “talent” is that he’s friends with all of the above

So the great mystery of this book involves a secret society that’s trying to crack a code. Clay enlists his friends to help with the code. At the end he solves it. That’s all fine and great but I find the methods to be a bit far-fetched. I mean, I have tech-savvy friends who work for some cool companies but I still wouldn’t be able to get that code cracked – or get as many people as the book had trying to crack it – as quickly as it happened here. It just seems unrealistic that all of these pieces just fall into place for Clay every time he needs something. For example:

  • Clay needs to get to New York City in less than 24 hours. Ask Neel to get tickets…and he does! And he joins the excursion! And he puts everyone up in a fancy Manhattan hotel!
  • Clay wants to get all the information from one of the book store’s logbooks digitally but typing it out would take forever. Ask Kat to get you time with Google’s book scanner! She’s totally amenable because she’s all about data visualization!

It’s not that these things couldn’t happen it’s just…less than realistic for most people. Then there’s also the issue of the characters having very little going on beyond surface level. Kat wore the same shirt every day (bright red with “BAM” written in yellow on the front – she has multiples) because she doesn’t want to have to waste brain power on figuring out what to wear. [Sure, it could be some kind of nod to Steve Jobs and his black turtlenecks – or it could be that the writer doesn’t know how or doesn’t want to continually describe her outfits.] Mr. Penumbra said some variation of “dear boy” or “my dear boy” so many times that I wanted to scream, “Say something original!!” I guess if the characters and plot had been more thought out in other ways I could chalk these types of things up to silly character traits but it just seems like Sloan was lazy.

One thing that annoyed me about Kat was her obsession with discovering the secret to immortality. She spends a lot of time thinking about this and becomes an ally for Google Forever, a division of Google that works on life extension. She complains about how short our lives are multiple times in the book – it seems to be a constant source of irritation for her. Maybe that’s just how the mind of a programmer – or other super-smart person works: they see a problem, need to find a solution and are annoyed when there isn’t one. But to me, it just seems like a waste. Death is part of life and if you spend so much time focused on death than you’re missing the beauty of life.

The book also spends a ton of time talking about Google (or “Googlers”, the people who work for Google) and the Amazon Kindle. I like Google and I love my Kindle but it almost felt like the book was getting product placement money from these two companies. I think the point was to somehow marry old technology with new but the specific brand references kept taking me out of the story.

Alright, so what did I like? The sections that were about typography were probably my favorites. The history of Griffo Gerritszoon’s typeface, Gerritszoon, was really interesting even though the font itself is made up. I’m pretty sure that it’s supposed to be Times New Roman – which I HATE – because that was created by Francesco Griffo. Or it could be Garamond, which was created by Claude Garamond but misattributed to Jean Jannon. (“Jannon” is Clay’s last name in the book.) I’m leaning towards Times New Roman because the book mentions that the font is the default in Microsoft Word. I also enjoyed the history of how the letter punches were made and used.In the end, these sections just weren’t enough for me.

Verdict: This book was a fun read and I finished it quickly but I definitely found it lacking when all was said and done. Maybe if it was summer and I was looking for a beach read this would be ok. It wasn’t a bad book but it’s not a good follow-up to Big Little Lies.

Recommended for: young adult (YA) readers.

Price: $8.09 (Kindle) – $8.52 (paperback) on Amazon

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