Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review of Mister Penumbra's 24-Hour Book Store

Book #13. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. Unabridged audio. 

Back in 2009, I listened to the short story “Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Book Store” when it appeared on the Escape Pod podcast. It was one of my favorite stories from that podcast, and when I saw this in the library, I had to give it a listen. The novel was very well-reviewed, landing on “best of” lists from the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times. It also hit the NYT Best Sellers List.

The novel is more than just an expansion of the original story, telling a substantially different tale. Clay is a laid-off Silicon Valley tech guy who works at an odd old bookstore. The store has very few customers, and many of the ones that do wander in are quite strange. He uses skills with technology, and those of a cute Google-er named Kat, start discover secrets about the patrons, and about the bookstore. And it all leads to a confrontation with a 500-year-old secret society.

This is a magical realism story, taking place in a world that resembles our, but varies in ways that are oddly beneficial to Clay and his quest. There are helpful coincidences along the way, and the portrayal of Kat as a borderline “manic pixie dreamgirl” are issues that I had with the book. But the sense of adventure, the setting, and the characters all combine to make this a very entertaining read.

The theme of the difficulty of transitioning from old to new technology is strong in this novel. There is a recognition of both the loss and the gain that technology brings. And as powerful as the technology created by Google and others can be, the secret to unlocking the puzzle presented in the novel lies in the old way of doing things. And at my age, I don’t mind that message.

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