Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24- Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan


After a great contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century, Clay Jannon, a young web designer living in San Francisco, found himself unemployed. Him and plenty of other people as well. He started looking for a job, quite desperately even – the competition was fierce. After a while he stumbled upon a very strange establishment indeed: a 24-hour bookstore, allegedly selling a rather narrow selection of hardbacks and paperbacks in an era of almost total dominance of e-publishing and Google. No matter. The most important fact was that they were looking for an assistant and he was looking for a job.

After a very short job interview an elderly but very sympathetic owner, Mr. Penumbra, hired Clay on the spot. The hours were unsocial and the pay just enough to keep him afloat but it was better than no job at all. Especially that after the first day (or rather night – from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m) Clay wasn’t sure what he was being paid for – just manning the shop? Selling one book and several postcards a week? Where the money were coming from? Drugs? Smuggling? Something else? Certainly not from a very exclusive group of regular patrons who visited the shop just to swap books from a special section, not available to the rest of customers. They never bought anything; perhaps they paid a monthly fee at least? Nobody knew.

What kind of place is Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour book store? Clay Jannon feels he must find out.

What I liked:

The settings: an oldy-worldy book store, full of mysteries and shelves reaching as high as it is possible, was really nicely done. I would like to visit even if I had to bring my own ladder.

The glimpses of history of publishing  – the career of Aldus Manutius and his fictional coworker Griffo Gerritszoon (whoseems to be a merger of Francesco Griffo, the designer of typefaces at the Aldine Press, and Gerrit Gerritszoon, aka Erasmus, who worked for the Aldine Press as a Greek scholar), were a very interesting addition indeed.

And there was a good, although a tad too one-sided, description of Google, a big corporation with laid-back culture and plenty of brilliant employees,  “developing a  form of renewable energy that runs on hubris”. The breathy description of the internet giant’s headquarters is leavened by the appearance of “a tall dude with blue dreadlocks pedalling a unicycle” which I found rather cute.

What I didn’t like:

The jumps from past tense into present tense in the narration made me sometimes twitchy.

The first person narration itself – I am not against it but here I felt it constrained the world build and the characterization significantly. Clay was hardly the sharpest tool in the drawer and the best observer. Especially Kat Potente suffered because of it as a character. She was supposed to be his counterpoint of a kind, a love interest and a partner but everything I remember about her is the collection of the same red t-shirts with a big BANG inscription on a yellow background. She always wore one. Why? Clay didn’t know so I don’t know either.

The mystery itself was a bit disappointing when everything was said and done. I guess my expectations were too high but I admit I would fancy something  flashier. Also the romance between Clay and Kat after a very nice beginning just fizzled out without practically any reasons, as if the author suddenly lost his creative invention.

Finally the epilogue – it wasn’t needed. I bet fish need  bicycles more than this book needs an epilogue.

Final verdict:

I was supposed to adore this ode to musty bookshops. I even adored it but only for the time being – until I hit the middle mark. The closer I went to the ending, the more ‘meh’ I felt about it all. The epilogue made me completely ‘meh’ and here you go: although I still recommend the book I do it only half-heartedly.

Rating icon. A hairless cat is wearing a santa hat and a sour expression. On the hat reads: meh.

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9 Responses to Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24- Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan

  1. heidenkind says:

    “I bet fish need bicycles more than this book needs an epilogue.”
    LOL Are you going to become to epilogues what I am to prologues?

  2. blodeuedd says:

    I knew you would not like it. We will NEVER find a book we both like…NEVER

  3. Somebody is being obstinate ;p

  4. xaurianx says:

    It sounded good, the word bookstore. And now, I don’t think it is for me at all. I hate switching tenses in my book.

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