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Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Technology in Our Cultural Landscape

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a story takes place in a technology-laden environment (San Francisco), and uses Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore to contrast that environment. This is an adventure story and a mystery where Clay Jannon (the main character) is our guide. Anyone who takes an interest in role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons or in technology will find something in this story for them.

Why was this book so popular in 2012 when it came out? Sloan’s book talks a lot about our cultural relationship to technology. In broad terms: some of us have an awkward relationship to technology, some of us embrace it and hope that it will solve every possible problem or puzzle and are disappointed when it doesn’t, and some of us know how to manipulate technology and use it for our benefit, not expecting too little or too much from something that exists in a different plane of interaction from what we’re used to. It reminded me of the way Gary Shteyngart treated technology in his book, Super Sad True Love Story. Shteyngart was over the top with his technology-obsessed characters, but I think it’s an important topic to address. Technology is now part of or cultural landscape and it will continue to be. I liked that this was the backdrop of Sloan’s story.

Technology is infused in most aspects of this novel from characterization to plotting. I appreciated that. The book is filled with lots of semi-nerdy male characters. They make up more than half of the cast. I get that it reflects the current state of technological geekdom but I guess I wanted more than a neat cast of characters that filled in when a problem needed solving. Penumbra, for which the book is named is a slight character. I don’t know much about him and I wanted to know more. He owns the bookshop, but I wanted more specifics about how he became the owner. I would have liked to see him in action more often, I’m not afraid of flashbacks. Overall, I felt like the characters could have been a bit more fleshed out. There is one strong-ish smarty-pants female character, Kat Potente who proves that technology can be understood and revered too much. Through her we get s stronger understanding of what it’s like to be in the tech world. She works at Google in the visualization department, believes in what technology can do and generally is our conduit to knowledge about some super technical stuff that our narrator, Clay Jannon, sort of knows, but doesn’t have a strong grasp on until Kat explains it to him. It just so happens that Jannon is doing a 3D visualization of Penumbra’s shop when she walks in the store. Instant connection! Ultimately, it’s the main character, Jannon, who figures out the puzzle of Penumbra’s shop. He is the true hero of the story. Through perseverance and genuine curiosity he pulls through in the end and takes us on a journey where the end is wrapped up, no questions asked. I won’t tell you what he finds out. After I posted my Goodreads status on Facebook a friend commented. She said, “I read this when it first came out and I wonder if you found it already dated?” To answer the question: a little. I still think the overall technology piece is still fairly accurate if it is looked at it in broad terms.

Though this novel has a lot of heart it isn’t a deep story about the human condition and doesn’t provide much insight into the characters and their emotional depth or their motivations for why they want what they want. I kept thinking I was reading a Young Adult (YA) novel. I even checked multiple times online and inside the book to make sure it wasn’t YA. I think it was the tone of the novel and the fact that any problems that came up were resolved too easily. I liked this book and enjoyed reading it. I wanted more depth. Period. This book wasn’t meant to do that. I accept that. I will move on with a soft fuzzy feeling inside my head.

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