Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Author: Robin Sloan
Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Format/Source: eBook/library 
Published: October 2012
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 304 pages
Genre: General fiction/mystery
Why I Read: Liked the idea of a 24 hour bookstore, stumbled across some reviews that remind me to read it
Read If You’re: A Google superfan??
Quote: “You and I will have a son, and we will name him Hadoop, and he will be a great warrior, a king!”
Rating:  ★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

This book appeared to be one I would love. A catchy name? A 24-hour bookstore? A cover featuring bookshelves and a ladder reaching further than the eye can see? Normally that’s all it would take to sell me, but I didn’t add it to Goodreads until April this year. I guess deep down I sensed it wasn’t going to be a great read for me. After reading Lianne’s recent review, I decided to finally check it off my TBR list.

My first impression was that this would be a warm and fuzzy story meant to appeal to book lovers. I discovered through reviews that this book is primarily about old vs. new technology. I adjusted my expectations, but I still thought it might be a good read. Yet when I started reading, I realized my expectations were still way off. The tone and plot were not at all what I expected. Talk about “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” – not since 1Q84 have I been so let down!

The plot was the largest disappointment for me. The ‘secret’ behind the bookstore is (highlight to reveal spoiler) an ancient cult society trying to unlock the secret to immortality? This was not what I wanted to be reading about, and I found the reveal a big disappointment. I hoped for a more poignant reason motivated the customers of Penumbra’s store, something that would comment on why we love to read perhaps, but for me it was a dull plot point. I was not interested. The final reveal was also elicited an “oh boy big surprise =.=” reaction from me. The story was just not for me – I found it flat, disinteresting, cryptic but meaninglessly so. All the little steps leading to the conclusion didn’t mean anything to me. The use of modeling is an example of this. I think it served the plot somehow later on…but whatever. (Also who actually thinks Skyping into a party is a good idea?! Ms. Super Googler thinks it’s a fantastic great social experiment or something? Good lord, these people.) There’s little conflict and little motivation for me to care how the story will go. 

I wanted to see more reading and less obsession with technology. I thought it was a strange…The story seems to suggest the importance of balance between old and new technology but there’s waaaaaaay more emphasis on new technology.  It felt like some sort of odd new tech manifesto to me. Which made me wonder – I’m not one to dwell on ‘target audiences’ of a book but…who is the target audience? Who was the author trying to reach out to? What kind of person is meant to enjoy this story? It’s marketed towards book lovers and I see a lot of praise from such persons on Goodreads, but I’m definitely not one of them. There was a lot less book loving happening in this book than I would have guessed from the title and praises. I’d almost recommend it to a guy who doesn’t read much? Perhaps it could be ‘dude lit’. But there is the main/undercurrent of ‘reading is great, books are great’… hm, difficult. 

I’ve written so much about the plot, I don’t have much left to say about the style. It suits the story, if that gives you an idea… It’s very straightforward, I did this, I did that, Wow this girl works at Google I love her.Very casual, inside average Joe’s head style. I dunno, not my thing.

One could argue the characters aren’t great either. I could go there, but as I’ve already gone there enough with this book, I’m not going to. I didn’t mind the characters too much, even if they didn’t interest me. Most of them were stock characters, Kat is too gung-ho for me, Clay’s friends seem out of place, but Clay I actually kind of like. Possibly because I know a lot of guys like him. He’s an everyman character of sorts, a generally well-rounded, decent guy. He’s not very interesting. But at least he didn’t stand out as particularly annoying. The humour in this book also falls into the “well, it didn’t bother me much” category. I thought it was silly and cute, but some might find it annoying.

Well. This book didn’t bother me so much while I was reading it, but now that I’ve been stewing and I’m trying to reflect on my reading experience, I can’t think of any very good or redeeming characteristics, or a reason to recommend it. How did this book seem interesting to me for two years?! Tooooo baaaaaad. But wait, there is a small light! One could argue this book supports embracing both old and new technology…but there’s too much emphasis on new tech for me. I think the reader is meant to understand Clay’s love for books, but there’s little proper reading, no demonstrations of said love, just “I really liked these books as a kid once” and old people reading to break code. 
The Bottom Line: Maybe I’m just sour about this book because it wasn’t at all what I wanted. I just don’t get this book. Give it a shot if you feel desperate for some light fluffy Google praises? Don’t give it a shot if you’re looking for a charming tale of a 24 hour book store meant to delight book lovers (please let me know if you can recommend such a book).