Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore follows Clay Jannon, a web designer recently unemployed during the Great Recession. One day he's out for a walk around San Francisco and comes across the bookstore of the title - a narrow, tall shop with a sign in the window saying "Help Wanted". Feeling intrigued and with nothing to stop him doing so, Clay applies for a job and is accepted as a clerk. He works the night shift from 10pm to 6am. Clay soon discovers that this bookstore is not at all normal or ordinary. At the front of the shops there are your usual genre shelves - sci-fi & fantasy, biography, classics. In the back of the store, where there are three-storey high ladders, there exists a collection of very strange books. At first, Mr. Penumbra tells Clay that he must not open any of these books. Soon enough, Clay realises that there are very few customers wanting the "front of house" books. Instead, his regulars seem to belong to a mysterious club, where membership entitles them to borrow books from the back of the store. Mr. Penumbra instructs Clay to log all of these club-type visitors in a log book, describing anything particular about their appearance or behaviour.
From the first, we know that there is something going on with these books in the back of the store. The meticulous records kept of the visitor descriptions seem pointless and creepy. One day, Clay inevitably peeks at one of the strange books, when his housemate can't believe his curiosity hasn't got the better of him so far. The books are filled with strange symbols, languages, diagrams, and seem to be in code. There is no way that Clay will be able to decipher them. His curiosity soon turns into obsession, and he can't help but create a computer program which records all the books and who borrows them, to try to figure out what the borrowers are doing. Suddenly Clay is thrown headfirst into a strange cult with an even stranger goal.
I went into this novel with high expectations because - come on - it's a book about a bookstore. I love these ideas. However, I do not really feel that Robin Sloan delivered on her exciting premise. Sure, I liked the book and I enjoyed how it revered the written word and worshipped books as precious. I think that what happened was I was expecting something really interesting, but all that really happens is that the reader is taken on a whirlwind ride, swirling round and round the same material and never really revealing anything exciting. The author builds in a fair bit of suspense, tension, and mystery, which I felt was never exactly resolved. I enjoyed the use of technology along with the antique printing press. The dusty, old-smelling books were nicely set alongside the digital world, introducing Google and other digital companies as forces within the novel.
I don't like that Sloan introduced so much mystery and suspense, only to have it come crashing down into nothingness and for everyone to sort of drift apart and carry on with their lives. It seemed like Clay went through so much to achieve very little. I did enjoy how the novel was written, and I really did believe in the characters, but the ending was a let-down. Sloan seemed to wash her hands of it all at the end, making characters act oddly and not explaining why.
Image via goodreads.com
This post was written by guest blogger Jemma. Don't forget to check out Erin's thoughts on the book too!