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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Mr. Penumbra's
24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan

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To purchase Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Title: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 288 pages
Availability: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - US
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - UK
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Canada
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - India

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Our Assessment:

B : fine little semi-literary adventure in the modern age

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 5/10/2012 Thom Geier
The Hindu . 3/12/2012 Pradeep Sebastian
The NY Times . 8/11/2012 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/12/2012 Roxane Gay
San Francisco Chronicle . 1/10/2012 Tess Taylor
The Washington Post B 2/10/2012 Graham Joyce

  Review Consensus:

  Entertaining and enjoyable, if a bit limited

  From the Reviews:
  • "Despite occasional stumbles -- it's best not to overvisualize computer-hacking sessions -- Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age." - Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly

  • "What Sloan accomplishes by the end is give the reader of digital books a glimpse of the debt e-books owe to the master typographers of the printed book, and in turn, have the bibliophile acknowledge that new technology can and has enhanced bookmaking, book design, and typography." - Pradeep Sebastian, The Hindu

  • "The culture clash at work here -- Google aces wielding the full, computer-assisted strength of their collective brainpower, one scholar fiddling with a quaint astrolabe -- has a topicality that works to this novelís advantage. Mr. Sloan fills his book with wittily-drawn prodigies, then makes them wonder how they can best use their new-tech talents." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Mr. Penumbraís 24-Hour Bookstore is eminently enjoyable, full of warmth and intelligence. Sloan balances a strong plot with philosophical questions about technology and books and the power both contain. The prose maintains an engaging pace (.....) Sloan effortlessly marries new ideas with old without realizing that all too often, the cleverness overwhelms the story." - Roxane Gay, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Although this book cleverly uses the technological age in the service of its fantasy, a great deal of what is written here hasn't really upgraded its own narrative operating system. In fact, at times, the sorts of mysteries that are uncovered feel a tad rote -- a totally pleasant cartoon, but not a particularly new one. And given that this book is actually speaking to a rather urgent current question about the battle between old and new forms of knowledge, at times not quite enough complexity is at stake. Still, it's a fun book." - Tess Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The narrative voice is what makes these opening pages so engaging: smart, hip and witty, like the shiny surface of a new iPhone. (...) This is a book about systems, both secret and overt, exploring codes, filing, programming and designing. Storytelling has its operating systems, too, and though the author creates a splendid opening and an acceptable resolution, he runs out of steam for the great engine system of the middle. The weakness may be in the development of character." - Graham Joyce, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore finds narrator Clay Jannon holding down the (over-)night-shift at Mr.Penumbra's unlikely 24-hour bookstore in San Francisco (unlikely, because there is essentially no foot (or other) traffic when he's holding down the fort, between ten at night and six in the morning). Art school graduate Clay went to work for an Internet start-up, but it, and he, didn't get very far, and in these tougher economic times his next job turns out to be far removed from anything remotely wired up: he wound up as a clerk in this odd little bookstore -- though he soon does envision drumming up more business using all the latest connected tools (like Google's "hyper-targeted local advertising program").
       As Clay quickly learns, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is: "really two stores in one". There is the regular, traditional-bookstore-like part -- with the sort of books one would expect to find in a (quirky) bookstore. And then there are the ancient tomes shelved high above which don't appear in any catalogs or libraries; he calls this part of the store the 'Waybacklist'. And there are regular customers who come in search of these volumes -- which Clay isn't supposed to examine more closely.
       So there is this shadowy group of generally old readers, at work on some massive undertaking or conspiracy, and Clay of course gets more and more curious and can't help but try to figure out what the hell is going on.
       Clay also makes the acquaintance of Kat Potente, who works for Google, and the stage is then completely set for presenting the contrast between old styles and new. In an amusing early scene, Kat invites Clay to a party, but since he has to work at night he can't attend -- in person. Instead, he shows up via live videofeed, Kat carrying him around at her party on her laptop (though surely a tablet or phone would have been easier to deal with).
       Kat also is willing to put some of Google's incredible capabilities at the service of Clay's undertaking, from book-scanning to data-churning. It's OK/TK -- 'old knowledge' and 'traditional knowledge', in the form of printed books such as the ones in the bookstore -- being brought into the twenty-first century.
       Sloan presents the culture clash entertainingly. He's particularly good in his laid-back presentation of the ease with which the younger generation embraces every imaginable new tool, even as that's coupled with a certain ignorance or blindness. Among the best little observations is the scene where:

Kat bought a New York Times but couldn't figure out how to operate it, so now she's fiddling with her phone.
       The tours of the workplaces -- Google, the bookstore, and then another secret hiding/workplace in New York -- he takes readers on are particularly good, as Sloan has fun with the details of these.
       There's also a plot to this novel, of sorts. Century-old secret societies, confounding texts, etc. etc. Sloan mixes in some entertaining ideas -- one thread that leads through the maze turns out to be a ... font -- but there's not that much that is very original here, and he falls short of twisting it into anything really new. Focused on pushing the contrast between the old and new technologies, and the difficulties of bridging times and approaches -- "This isn't a book anymore; it's a data dump", Clay finds at one point -- Sloan can't get much beyond that. Particularly disappointing is how flat the characters themselves remain: the promising premises -- it's an eclectic gallery of characters -- never really developed, even Kat.
       Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is an enjoyable if entirely disposable very contemporary novel. It's perfectly fine, and a good, quick read, but shrinks back from being anything like the more ambitious kinds of work it ostensibly pays homage to (The Dragon-Song Chronicles is the fictional stand-in for these here, a series Clay and one of his childhood friends have long been obsessed with). Like the glow-in-the-dark cover the American hardcover edition comes with, the book also feels a bit gimmicky.
       A fun attempt to connect the (physical-)bookish world of yore with the computer-driven present, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore gets a lot of the details nicely right but falls short with its story and characters.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 December 2012

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Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: Reviews: Robin Sloan: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Robin Sloan was born in 1979.

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© 2012 the complete review

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