Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

By: Alyssa Wynans Email
By: Alyssa Wynans Email

I picked up this book mainly because it was on Amazon’s Best Books of the Month list for October, and it’s about a bookstore. How could I, being the bibliophile that I am, resist a book centered around a bookstore? Answer: I couldn’t.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore started much like I expected. The main character (whose name is Clay Jannon, though it took me a while to figure that out) is a product of the recent recession, and one day walks by the curious shop which has a “Help Wanted” sign on display. On a whim, he steps inside and is greeted by a bright-eyed, mysterious, old man who owns the store. Invariably, Clay gets the job and is put in charge of the late night shift.

And that, my friends, is where it started getting weird. I don’t want to give too much away, but Sloan’s attempt to mix the real world with the type of cult that belongs in a Sci-fi novel came very close to not getting a passing grade from this reviewer. In the end, it did. I enjoyed the book, but wouldn’t call it a work of literary genius. There were a lot of loose ends when it came to what exactly the group, known as the “Unbroken Spine”, believed. It was all so close to being awesome. I felt as if the idea hadn’t been fully formed when Sloan sat down and started writing.

There were a lot of helpful coincidences throughout, such as the multiple times when a problem would arise and Clay just happened to know the perfect person for the job. Also, the anonymous blogger called “Grumble” was just altogether too convenient to be convincing. A lot of it just didn’t seem realistic to me. I will say that the characters were incredibly endearing. Mat, Clay’s eccentric roommate, and Igor, the computer genius from Belarus, were my personal favorites.

You have to keep in mind when going into the book is that the majority of the characters are computer genius, not just Igor. For clarification, when I say “geniuses” I mean that they do a lot of coding and design on the computer and half the time I had no idea what they were talking about. So I guess they’re just geniuses compared to me. If you’re the type of person that enjoys that kind of thing, then definitely read this book.

For those of us who aren’t as savvy when it comes to programming languages and the like, the majority of it flies right over our heads. There were times; however, that Sloan did a really great job of explaining some of the programming details. Fairly close to the beginning of the novel, Clay explains his preference for the Ruby programming language, (which I have no idea if that is actually a programming language) and he compares it to cooking. Being a self-proclaimed connoisseur of the kitchen, I latched onto the association immediately. I would’ve been much happier if there had been more brilliant moments of description.

My other big problem was that the conclusion was incredibly unsatisfying. The whole book accumulates into this moment when Clay, in a stroke of genius, figures out the key to what this cult (or “brotherhood”, whichever you prefer) has been looking for, for the past 500 years! Don’t get me wrong, it ended exactly like I thought it would. Still, it left me with no sense of closure. I was left with a lot of questions that will probably never get answered.

All that being said, I did enjoy the book. It was a nice get-a-way from reality. Mr. Penumbra is definitely going on my list of “Literary Characters that Would Be Awesome to Get Coffee with If Given the Opportunity”. If you choose to read this book, prepare to be entertained but not super impressed.

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