Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr Penumbra
From Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
Open quote 

I pushed the bookstore's glass door. It made a bell tinkle brightly up above, and I stepped slowly through. I did not realize at the time what an important threshold I had just crossed. Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up -- three stories of books, maybe more."

This novel is the 2014 selection for "Richardson Reads One Book".

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

Besides being dizzyingly tall, Mr. Penumbra's bookstore is also stocked in a peculiar manner. The shelves in front have a somewhat normal selection of books; the shelves that can be reached only by tall ladders are full of volumes that contain what seems to be gibberish. The narrator of the story, who takes a job as a night clerk, suspects something's afoot. The mystery deepens and drags our narrator simultaneously into an ancient cult of black-robed believers and into the high tech world of Google brainiacs.

The novel is a short, easy read. It should be engaging to a wide audience, from young adults to seniors, from fans of Harry Potter and "The Da Vinci Code" to nerds of everything Google and Apple. At its heart is a mystery. But it's not like a whodunnit where the reader is looking for clues along the way. It's more like a steady progression towards the big reveal: something like the secret to universal happiness and eternal life. Of course, it's not that, exactly. Such a build-up can never be satisfactorily fulfilled by any author. Still, Sloan does a creditable job of tying up all the loose ends in a way that a reader willing to suspend disbelief doesn't feel cheated.

There are plot implausibilities that picky readers will quibble over. Plugging such holes would have required a longer, more complicated novel, a trade-off that might have risked losing some of the audience. All in all, the author chose the right balance of mystery, puzzle-solving, and thrills to keep a wide audience turning pages to the end.

This novel is the 2014 selection for "Richardson Reads One Book". In 2012, the choice was Chitra Divakaruni's "One Amazing Thing". In 2013, it was Marcus Zuzak's "The Book Thief". All three books have a lesson for readers. My congratulations to the Richardson Public Library for their choices.

Robin Sloan's "Mr. Penumbra" reminds me of Umberto Eco's "The Prague Cemetery", a much more serious work. I graded "Mr Penumbra" higher simply because it's much, much more readable, but "The Prague Cemetery" is definitely a richer work of literature. One reading is enough for "Mr. Penumbra." A dozen readings is unlikely to plumb the depths of Eco's novel, and I don't use the word "depths" lightly. It's an amusing hypothetical to imagine the reaction had "The Prague Cemetery" been chosen for "Richardson Reads One Book." It might be enough to bring the program to a crashing end. ;-)

"Mr Penumbra" is available in Kindle format from the Richardson public library.

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