Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Book Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Author: Robin Sloan
Enjoyment Rating: *****
This book would be rated: PG-13 for (tasteful) sexual references and some swearing
I finished reading Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore this morning, and even though I usually like to let a book percolate for a while before I write a review, this time I had to get it down on paper right now, because I want people to read this book.
As a reader and a book reviewer, I've come to expect, probably unfairly, that young adult books are often entertaining and have good character development and a great plot that all comes together in the end, while adult literary fiction focuses on characters and themes to the detriment of plot and potboilers do the opposite. But Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore has all of the elements of a great YA novel (including a quick pace and a character on a quest who wants to learn what he's made of), but it's written for adults.
I'm getting ahead of myself. Clay Jannon is an unemployed art school grad living in San Francisco who wanders into a bookstore and ends up getting a job. But it's not just any bookstore, and not just any job. Clay is the night clerk (from 10pm to 6am) every night at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. You might think that the bookstore would be hopping (or sell "adult" books) if it were open around the clock, but this bookstore is just the opposite. It's a used bookstore, and it's rare to have a customer. And the customers, well, they're a little weird.
It becomes evident that the customers are part of a secret society, and secret societies and systems of belief are part of the mean of Sloan's book. He explores (and picks at ) cults and Google in equal measure. Sometimes, in fact, the book felt like an ad for Google, but at other times, it felt like a warning against Google. Anyway, when Clay's curiosity gets the better of him and he accidentally solves, in one night, the puzzle that the weird customers have been picking at for years, he gets launched into a quest to solve a bigger puzzle, which brings him into contact with all sorts of interesting characters. The book is really, really great-- exciting, interesting, and thoughtful. For a while I thought it was going to take an alternate world twist, but it didn't which I liked too-- Sloan was smart enough to make this quirky story work within the confines of our world. The end was a little bit of a let-down, but I really do think that was intentional on Sloan's part-- one of his themes seems to be that this world is fascinating enough if you live life to the fullest.