narfna’s #CBR5 Review #49: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

penumbraThere are two questions I usually ask myself as I’m preparing to rate and/or review a book:

1) Did this book accomplish what it set out to accomplish?
2) How much did I love it?

Depending on the answers to those two questions, this is why I can give four stars to a book by an author who maybe necessarily isn’t the best writer or maybe doesn’t write in a ‘respectable’ genre, or engage ‘important ideas’ in his or her writing, but I only give three (or even two) stars to that guy over there who is way smarter, has a better handle on how to write prose, and is busy engaging with some pretty heavy themes. For me, a four star book maybe has some issues, or maybe I just don’t LOVE it, but it knew what it wanted and went for it. Mr Three Star, though, he had all these ideas and it came out a jumbled mess.

In particular, I’m thinking of reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (a book that I really enjoyed, even if it had some serious pacing and characterization issues) followed immediately by You by Austin Grossman (a book I very much expected to love, but didn’t, and that’s a story I’ll save for review #50). Grossman is undoubtedly the better writer. His prose is evocative, the under the surface stuff in that novel is beautiful in parts, but overall that book was a mess. Point: Mr. Penumbra.

I’m taking an awful long time justifying my feelings about this book without actually talking about it, but this was stuff I’d been thinking about the whole time I was reading. Most people I know who have read this book haven’t enjoyed it very much, and it’s interesting to me to think about why I did enjoy it, despite its flaws.

Clay Jannon is a newly unemployed graphic designer. He passes Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour bookstore and happens to see a Help Wanted sign in the window. Before he knows it, he’s the bookstore’s new night clerk. But this is a very strange bookstore. Most of its contents are strange leatherbound books with weird one word titles, and these books are never bought, only borrowed, and by very strange, often harrowed looking, customers. Clay can’t resist the mystery of it all, and soon he’s uncovering a bunch of stuff he probably shouldn’t, involving codes, ancient texts, conspiracies, secret societies, and a beautiful girl who works for Google.

It was a fast, fun read, and while there was a bit at the end that felt like it was trying a little too hard for a meaningful ending, for the most part this is actually a no bones about it thriller, just with books and nerds instead of guns and spies. It’s actually more Da Vinci Code than it is Ready Player One. Sloan does a nice job mixing the two worlds of technology and print, the old and the new, even if his characters are only empty cyphers used mostly for plot movement, and even if he rushes through a lot of stuff that I wish he had spent more time on.

Recommended if you are a bibliophile and you like mystery books with codes and secret societies. Fun, but not a favorite.

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