My friends Maggie and Hazel and I started a book club, because we love to read and two of us are recent college graduates and we 1. have nothing else to do and 2. are going slightly crazy without school schedules and deadlines. That second point may only apply to me. We live tweeted while we read and I’ll include some of mine here, but if you’re interested, you can check out all of my book tweets here. I’ll also be using that twitter account for my future reading endeavors.
We couldn’t have chosen a more fitting book to kick off our book club than Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. It was, at its core, a love story. No, not between our protagonist, Clay Jannon and his love interest, Kat Potente. The book expressed Sloan’s undying love of technology, history, and mostly, books. It was an ode to books.
Let me preface this review by saying that I don’t read mysteries. I may have read one or two when I was younger, but I’ve never been a huge fan of them. They just generally don’t interest me. It’s the same with movies. But this was a mystery about a book-reading cult and a library, so it grabbed my attention pretty well. I enjoyed the book more in the beginning. My biggest issue with mysteries is that once they are solved, I become bored. It’s like the whole book/movie/whatever is leading up to this one big secret. Why continue once you’ve figured that out? Like in the movie PRISONERS. I enjoyed the thrill of it at the time, but rewatching it a second time was dull. I loved the mystery of the library in Mr. Penumbra’s, and the Waybacklist, and the coded books. But once Mr. Penumbra revealed what the Unbroken Spine was all about, the magic of it all disappeared. Because before that, there was a magical quality to the book and I loved that. And I almost didn’t want any of the mysteries to be solved; I wanted to maintain that childlike wonder that I felt from the beginning. As Maggie said in her review, “the truth is never as good as your imagination.”
As a writer, I greatly admired Sloan’s unique style. He often wrote phrases that sounded lyrical because of his use of literary devices like alliteration and personification and half rhyme. It made me slightly jealous. Clay was such an odd narrator. I think at some point the reader becomes Clay, like we’re the ones going on this fantastical journey. The way I felt completely in Clay’s head and the way his thoughts sometimes stopped mid-sentence really put me in his shoes. It could have probably been written in 2nd person (but I’m glad it wasn’t because that feels gimmicky).
I really enjoyed all of the themes and contrasts that were woven throughout the book, like the techies vs. the luddites, but it seems unrealistic to me that almost every person involved in this story, everyone Clay meets, is either a techie or a luddite. Like the contrast between Neel, who’s all about computers and programming, and Mat, who’s all about making things with his hands. Naturally, the two team up at the end, mixing the new and the old. But I don’t mind that it wasn’t realistic, because that added to the magical aspect of the story. In the end, it was all about the old and the new mixing together and how much further we can move as a society when, rather than focusing on one or the other, we combine the two. The Internet is great and we can learn a lot from it, but OK and TK (original knowledge and traditional knowledge) are important, too.
The romance between Kat and Clay felt forced, thrown in to satisfy readers’ expectations. I liked Kat later on in the book, but when she was first introduced, I couldn’t stand her. She was a manic pixie dream girl who popped into Clay’s life right when he needed her, who happened to be super quirky and beautiful but also into computer programming and coding and happened to be able to fix Clay’s model. All of the cheesy meet cute coincidences happened at once and it was gag worthy.
I liked that their relationship faded out and felt that it should have stayed that way. Her obsession with immortality makes her unable to live in the moment and I feel like if she and Clay were real people, Clay would never be enough for her.
What really struck me and stuck with me in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore were the ideas, the mystery and magic from the beginning, the quirky characters, and the writing itself. The plot is where it dragged. I liked a lot of the little subplots and the twists and turns that it took, but overall, I was least impressed by the plot. A lot of it didn’t quite add up and felt forced and probably would have worked better if it were more ambiguous. Still, a fun read and I look forward to Sloan’s future writing.