Sunday, January 29, 2017

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

   2012; 287 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Magical Realism  (one of Amazon’s designations, and I kinda like the term).  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    For Clay Jannon, any job is better than no job at all.  And while no one working in a bookstore ever gets rich quick, it is kind of a neat place to pass the time.

    The hours suck though.  Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore is open 24 hours a day, and Clay is unfortunate enough to draw the midnight to 8:00 AM shift.  OTOH, how many customers are going to wander in at three in the morning?

    However, the few nocturnal patrons that do show up are a curious bunch.  First, they treat the bookstore like a library: they “borrow” some very obscure books, and it’s always with utmost urgency.  Second, they all seem to borrow the same few books.  It’s almost like they know each other.  And third, if you peek inside those books, they’re all in gobbledygook.  No words, just random letters.

    Hey, maybe Clay Jannon has stumbled onto a den of spies ending each other coded messages via those books!  After all, Mr. Penumbra told him not to look inside the tomes.  Or maybe they’re a bunch of nut cases, who are under the delusion they’re reading words from random letters.  In any case, it’s worth investigating further.

    But prudently, Clay.  After all, we can’t afford to lose this job now, can we?

What’s To Like...
    Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a phenomenally popular bestseller.  It's garnered more than 2,000 reviews at Amazon, and is one of their Top 10,000 sellers, despite being almost 3½ years old. The Goodreads stats are even more insane – over 19,000 reviews and more than 118,000 ratings.  That’s a lot of readers & buyers of this book.

    The settings are a bibliophile’s delight.  Most of the story takes place in two bookstores/libraries.  The plotline is heavy on the intrigue and light on the action.  This usually makes for a dull read, but Robin Sloan’s writing style is engaging, and the characters he creates are richly 3-D.  This may be an easy read, but it’s also a fun read.

     It helps if, like me, you’re a techno-geek.  There are numerous plugs for geeky things, such as XKCD, Wall.E, Google, Kindles (and other forms of e-readers), Jackson Pollock, the blue screen of death, and Visicalc.  Jeez, I haven’t thought of that last one in decades, and once upon a time it was the cat’s meow of spreadsheets.

    You’ll also learn a lot about a fascinating man named Aldus Manutius, who is real (wiki him; I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this guy), and the Gerritszoon font, which is not.  My Gnostics get a brief mention, that’s always a plus.  Other neat things : Matropolis, GrumbleGear, the Waybacklist, Singularity Singles (speed dating for nerds), and OK/TK.

    The book was shorter than I expected, and is told from a first-person POV (Clay’s).  This is a standalone novel, with ANAICT no sequel, although there is a 60-page prequel, giving Mr. Penumbra’s backstory, for $2.99, which seems steep to me, but I suppose is to be expected for a novella by a top-tier author.  This is why I don’t read Amazon singles.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Colophon (n.) :  a publisher’s emblem or imprint, especially one on the title page or spine of a book,
Others : Proscenium (n.)

    “I did not know people your age still read books,” Penumbra says.  He raises an eyebrow.  “I was under the impression they read everything on their mobile phones.”
    “Not everyone.  There are plenty of people who, you know– people who still like the smell of books.”
    “The smell!” Penumbra repeats.  “You know you are finished when people start talking about the smell!”  He smiles at that – then something occurs to him, and he narrows his eyes.  “I do not suppose you have a … Kindle?”  (loc. 873)

   Kat gushes about Google’s projects, all revealed to her now.  They are making a 3-D web browser.  They are making a car that drives itself.  They are making a sushi search engine – here she pokes a chopstick down at our dinner – to help people find fish that is sustainable and mercury-free.  They are building a time machine.  They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.  (loc. 2898)

 Fingers of thought are raking the space behind the cushions, looking for loose ideas, finding nothing.  (pg. 43)
    The writing is superb, the character-development is top-notch, and I’m not the type that needs someone to die in a book that I’m reading.  So why not a higher rating?  Well, if you brush aside all the good stuff, you discover that the storyline itself is hit-and-miss. 

    Clay “breaks” the initial code by discovering that the patrons make a strange pattern if you plot their comings and goings in the bookstore in 3-D.  However, you subsequently find that it’s pretty …erm… meaningless.  Mr. Penumbra and his cohorts are waiting for something, and whether it’s God, Godot, or something else is a fascinating enigma.  But the ending falls flat.  

    There’s a rather nice epilogue to the story, about the various characters and what happens to them, but honestly, I thought it would’ve been more powerful if those details were fleshed out and incorporated as part of the ending itself.

    But the plusses outweigh the minuses, and I’m always partial to a story that makes you wonder through most of the book whether the cause of the oddities are natural or supernatural phenomena.

   7½ Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you find any book without at least a couple thrills and spills to be somewhat of a tedious read.

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