Hi everyone! I’m sorry it’s suddenly been almost a week since I posted! Between family coming into town and watching way too many episodes of The Great British Baking Show (we are obsessing at our house!), I have gotten a bit behind on my reading and reviewing.
I am really excited to share some thoughts on a book that’s been on my TBR for several months: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore. This book is so different than I expected, but also so unique and so engaging. I expected a sweet little story about a darling bookstore (I guess I had The Little Paris Bookshop on my mind). But that’s not what this book is about.
Its about books and secret societies and technology and Google and immortality.
And I kind of love it. A lot.
A few initial thoughts:
- This is a mystery. A detective story. That surprised me.
- I really enjoyed the setting of this book. I didn’t expect it to take place in modern times. It feels like it could happen tomorrow.
- This book is so detail oriented. From the miniature cities Mat builds to Clay’s digital code breaking to the Gerritszoon font, the details matter in this book.
- It seems like there is a lot more symbolism and double meaning in this book than meets the eye. In fact, I could probably read it several more times and still not catch onto everything.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan chronicles the unique experiences of Clay Jannon–a laid off graphic designer living in San Francisco–who lands a job as the night clerk at a quirky bookstore. As he starts his shifts, Clay begins noticing just how unusual this bookstore really is. There aren’t many patrons and those that do come are strange individuals who borrow books from the “Waybacklist.” Clay starts investigating more about the store with the help of his friends–Mat (a designing genius), Neel (Clay’s childhood best friend who is now a wealthy small business owner), and Kat (Clay’s girlfriend and an aspiring Googler). Together they unravel the first puzzle of the store, travel to New York, and uncover a secret society over 500 years old that is seeking to discover the secret to immortality through a series of coded books. Can the society really find the key to immortality? And will they accept the help of Clay who believes technology is that key?
Right away, the engaging narrator and first person style caught my attention. I really enjoyed the style of this novel. We get an omniscient view inside Clay’s head which makes the story even more enjoyable. Between his internal asides, funny comments, and silly sarcasm, I found myself smiling and even laughing throughout the novel. He feels like a real, average person that is easy to relate to–making the rest of the story more plausible. I think the story is so engaging because of Clay’s narrator voice. I haven’t read a novel with a narrator quite like him and there should be more books with similar perspectives.
Mr. Penumbra is my favorite character because of how complex he is. He is a long time member of this secret society. He is quirky and a bit old fashioned. Yet he also thinks computers hold to key to solving the society’s puzzles. He calls Clay “my boy” which is just adorable. Most of all, he is caring, kind, and passionate. I don’t think we ever completely unravel Mr. Penumbra’s story. I don’t know why he joined the society, how he inherited the bookstore or why he decided to try to use computers to solve the puzzles. Or what he saw in Clay that made him hire Clay as his clerk. But in everything he does, Penumbra is genuine and invested. I appreciated the way he bonded with his regular customers, fought against the system and cared for Clay. He seems to be the key that holds the story together–without him there is no bookstore. And without the bookstore the story does not exist.
I was surprised by all the ways the author connected technology to literature and his story. The paragraphs about different programming languages, databases, and code breaking code added a neat dimension to the novel. I will admit that sometimes that language was boring or too long for me. I did skim some parts that got too detailed or didn’t interest me as much. But I appreciated the unique perspective brought to the novel. It’s hard to say much about it because it is all so intertwined and connected. But suffice it to say that this novel is different and refreshing. We don’t often see a mix of literature and technology in novels. But I think this novel shows that we should have more.
The central question that I found in this novel is this: what is immortality? Throughout the novel, the characters are seeking immortality in different ways. Some rely on traditional methods and refuse to conform to new ways of thinking. Some hope for knowledge through modern technology on a grand scale. Some obsess over the idea of living forever and are disappointed in anything short of true physical immortality. Clay’s perspective is my favorite. He encounters obstacles and must overcome barriers before he can discover the immortality waiting in unlikely places. But he doesn’t give up. And I think the ending (and his discoveries) are intriguing and illuminating.
A relatively short novel (under 300 pages), Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore surprised me and kept me turning pages to solve the mystery and discover the key to immortality. I recommend this book to mystery lovers, technology gurus, and quirky bookstore lovers.
What did you think of Mr Penumbra?
And have you seen The Great British Baking Show?