Book Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
By Robin Sloan
Published by Macmillian Audio
Read by Ari Filakos
Read by Ari Filakos
Published October 2012
7 CDs (304 pages)
Let me first qualify this review with the fact that the day before starting this book I had just finished a fantastic book that I am absolutely IN LOVE with and that may have colored my enjoyment slightly. But overall I did enjoy Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (I'm giving it a 3.5 birdie, "Great Read" rating), but there were some issues I had with the story and the characters.
Clay is a former advertising grunt who was recently laid off from his job creating marketing material and ad campaigns for bagels, and throughout the book, much is made of his near-success with his former employer. He knows Google ads. He knows his fonts and layouts. He knows coding and data. He's done great work, but didn't have the chance to fulfill his destiny with the bagels because the economy tanked. And when he gets a job working 2nd shift at a bookstore, he starts using those skills to attract customers. Only the store's target audience doesn't seem to be actual customers. The people Clay sees the most are borrowers. These are the odd and strange people who come in frantic and excited about the next book they MUST acquire from "the way back collection" - as Clay calls it.
As far as primary characters go - there is Clay's girlfriend who works at Google. There is his wealthy best friend from grade school. There is the odd, but incredibly lovable Mr. Penumbra (best character in the book). And then there is the mystery of the way back shelves. There is code breaking. There is the search for and the secret to eternal life. And the war between digital and print. But for me, it didn't all come together in a surprising or unique way and it seemed like a story I'd heard before, with stock characters and/or characters who Sloan was trying too hard to make unique. The best part of the book, by far, is the actual bookstore and the descriptions of the three-story shelves and Clay's incredibly quick and expedient way of moving around them.
My biggest problem was with Clay's data-visulaizing, upwardly mobile, Google-worshiping girlfriend. After one particularly frustrating set of pages, I said to a friend, "Do guys really want girls like this? Because it seems like they think the ideal woman is childlike, easy, and a guy. Why is it cute that a 25 year old would wear the same t-shirt every day so she doesn't have to waste brainpower picking out her clothes?" - which is where my Nick Hornby analogy comes in. I find Hornby's characters to be realistic and real - when they're male - and guy friends who have read his work absolutely agree with that assessment, 100%. But the women he writes seem idealized in a way I can't quite out my fingers on and Clay's girlfriend is the same way. I found her annoying, unrealistic, and think the book would have been better if she was a guy/friend of Clay's.
I am, however, in the minority on this book. Several friends heard I was reading it and gushed about how much the LOVED it (both were guys, take that for what it's worth). Reviews abound that praise the book as a masterpiece dealing with tough ideas about our digital world and the paper books that will soon go by the wayside. I enjoyed the book, don't get me wrong. It WAS a "great read" - just not my most favorite ever.
Final Word: Conspiracy theories, code-breaking, odd people, and the war between digital and print wrapped up into a great read, but try and ignore the girlfriend. ;)
Summary via Goodreads:
Global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, young love, and the secret to eternal life — mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore. The Great Recession shuffles Clay Jannon from his web-design drone job to night shift at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Curiously, few customers come in repeatedly and never buy. Analysis reveals astonishing secrets ...