Blair's Reviews > Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
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Oct 15, 2012

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bookshelves: contemporary, read-on-kindle, 2012-release, first-novels
Read from October 19 to 20, 2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is one of those books that appears to have the perfect blend of ingredients for something brilliant. It's a mystery/adventure set in San Francisco, revolving around an out-of-work marketeer and web designer who takes a job as a clerk at the odd little bookshop of the title. He soon realises that there is more to Mr. Penumbra's than meets the eye, and together with a group of his friends, he embarks on a mission to get to the bottom of the shop's real purpose. What follows is a fantastical series of events involving an international secret society and almost impossibly complex codes hidden inside a series of books. It's a collision of ancient mystery and very modern, internet-savvy characters. It really sounded like something I would love, and it was in fact a really enjoyable little story. However, it's short - almost certainly far too short for all the ideas it tries to cram in - and at the end I realised it had been something of a letdown, for two main reasons.

Firstly, I couldn't escape the nagging feeling that it was very familiar, that I'd almost read it before. It didn't take me long to realise that this was because the narrative voice reminded me so much of Ready Player One, a great adventure book which I read about a year ago. If it wasn't for the fact that Ready Player One is set in the future, I could easily have believed that this story was being told by a slightly older version of the same guy. Obviously the stories are very different, but their voices sound and feel very alike. Also, the plot is similar to Lev Grossman's Codex. Incredibly similar. Both have a kind-of-likeable, kind-of-annoying young male protagonist whose sidekicks are a computer-obsessed best friend and an unusually intelligent young woman (who's also the love interest), a central mystery involving a peculiar library and a centuries-old encoded book, and the use of modern technology and software to help solve a very old-fashioned conundrum. (There's even one scene, involving the main character visiting a warehouse full of museum objects to retrieve an important artefact, which I'm pretty sure is in both books, but I'd have to re-read Codex to know for definite, it's possible I'm confusing it with something else.)

Secondly, I found it very juvenile. I'm only sure it must be intended for an adult market because all the characters are adults - I really felt the author's style and execution would be much better suited to an adventure for teens (more specifically, teenage boys). Weirdly, it felt more like YA to me than Ready Player One, which actually has teenage protagonists. It also had all the hallmarks of YA that normally stop me from enjoying it: lack of a properly detailed backstory; two-dimensional characters (the bad guy is a collection of clichés and a damp squib all at once); way too many convenient details (Neel is a millionaire who can pay for everything the group needs, Kat can get them into Google and utilise all the company's resources for their task, etc). There's no real tension or peril: it's too obvious any obstacles are going to be overcome easily. I did genuinely like the fact that the power of new technology was so closely woven into a story about an arcane fellowship of book-lovers, and the progression of the story illustrated that there will always be a place for both 'old' and 'new'. But all those references to Google, Twitter, apps etc are going to sound very dated very soon, and the fact that the characters could solve practically anything by looking it up on the internet - while accurate and funny - diffused a lot of potential tension.

I thought this was a likeable, quick and very easy read but I have to admit I'm a bit bemused by all the rave reviews it's been getting. It's a nice idea, but it's been done before and done better. Ready Player One is more involving and more fun, and there are countless versions of the secret-society-intrigue-and-mystery story that have more power, atmosphere and punch.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 62) (62 new)


Steffi Only three stars? Everyone seems to be raving about this one! Looking forward to your review.


Jessica Definitely agree with your assessment. There's no tension in the story at all.


message 3: by Ben (new) - added it

Ben Babcock Robin Sloan did an interview with CBC's Spark in which he discusses some of his inspiration behind writing this book, and it got me interested. I have to say, however, that even from listening to the interview I became worried the book wouldn’t have a very compelling plot. Sometimes it seems like these sorts of contemporary “ideas” books have lots of exciting motifs but the author occasionally forgets about the story….


message 4: by Ron (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ron Reich I agree with you 1000%. Thought I'd love this when I heard the description but was overall pretty let down. It was good not great. I really like Ready Player One though.


Jessica Yes! It reminded me of Ready Player One too - I'm glad I'm not crazy!


Cathy Well, there is no need for me to write my review because I can just write "what she said" - I agree with every word you wrote!


Dobber Agree! Plus, there never seemed to be any reason whatsoever why this captivated people for 500 years. And the ending was very YA.


message 8: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne I agree mostly. I can't finish it. I don't care about the mystery. I like your review much better than this juvenile novel.


Josephine Another vote for "Thank deity, I'm not the only one who was reminded of Ready Player One" I couldn't pinpoint any single point of similarity between the two...


Gerri Wayland I agree. I might give it to my 11 year old son to read. Good teenager fiction.


Elizabeth  (Thoughts From an Evil Overlord) Very thoughtful review. I enjoy YA, so I'll probably still give it a try.


Noetic_Hatter I agree with the RPO comparison, though it does not insult our intelligence with deus ex machinae or sudden reveals a la Ready Player One.


Rannie I also gave the book 3 stars for reasons you elaborated very well. I thought perhaps the author was not as interested in the fiction as in wrapping a potent tease of technical possibilities within a palatable confection of heroquest to waken the sleeping curiosity of non-technical readers.


Annabel Smith I didn't like RPO either, and I agree very much about it feeling like a YA book with too many convenient details. Overrated!


Maciek Blair, I also had the same impression regarding Codex - which I've read a while ago and also was not crazy about. The two books are definitely very similar.


message 16: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Interesting. I despised Ready Player One, stopped reading on about page six, and loved this book. Depends on what you like, I suppose.


Noetic_Hatter Mike wrote: "Interesting. I despised Ready Player One, stopped reading on about page six, and loved this book. Depends on what you like, I suppose."

Mike, RPO doesn't get any better, I promise you.


William Torgerson I was thinking YA today too. I had some good laughs reading this book and there was an underlying message about literacy I think. Granted, I'm listening and I've got just the very end to go.


Jeanne I was intrigued by the mix of old and new...particularly while loving hard copies of books yet reading this as an ebook.


Courtney I had read ready player one right before this book and i also felt it was the same narrative voice!


Ms. Smartarse I haven't read Ready Player one, but other than that I totally agree with your review.
Not sure what it is about the writing style, but it just didn't... grip me... Perhaps it's the way you pointed it out: too juvenile.


message 22: by s.penkevich (new) - added it

s.penkevich Fantastic review. I've been on the fence about giving this one a go, and your criticisms of it definitely fit with my apprehensions of the book. Perhaps I'll try Ready Player One instead someday before this one. Really wonderful review though!


Alicia I so agree with your review. This is definitely YA genre.I don't see what the hype was all about. With Neel being a millionaire you would think he would have given his best friend a job.


Muthu Indian I'm past midway through the book, and I realize it is generally YA fiction with themes like 'Da Vinci Code'. Glow-in-thre-dark jacket is the nice take away from the book! 2.5/5


message 25: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa spot on review.


Jonathan Forman Ditto! Felt like it would be a waste to try and say it better.


Deana Maybe it's due to the fact that I haven't read the books the reviewer refers to, but I actually enjoyed this novel. The story reminded me of the story of John Henry, man against machine. John Henry lost and the machine won, but the ending is this isn't that clear-cut. Still book against digital code is a pretty interesting plot line.


message 28: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica Canlas agreed, completely. i sort of stopped caring about the "mystery" or the fate of the characters. really wanted to like it. disappointing.


Rachel Ditto. I thought "Da Vinci Code meets Harry Potter." Or the book version of National Treasure. The comparison in the description


Kathleen I couldn't agree more with your take!


message 31: by Sara (new) - added it

Sara This review is exactly spot-on.


Verusex Mr penumbra is fun, Ready, Player one is a dark and depressing catalog listing of computer and 80s nostalgia delivered without the joy it deserves. Maybe, I missed what you enjoyed about "Ready, Player One" because I was there and found the development of personal computing exciting and fun ... but never enjoyed those 80s TV shows.


Debra I was trying to figure out how to write a review about this book. I didn't hate it but I was incredibly disappointed. Your review perfectly described how I felt about the book. It could have been an interesting story, but it just seemed to juvenile and convenient (one too many deus ex machina).


message 34: by L. (new) - rated it 4 stars

L. Lawson Reminded me of RPO, too (which was a phenomenal book). Spot on review.


message 35: by Regency (new) - added it

Regency I read RPO last month. No wonder this book wasn't working for me. I couldn't really stand the narrator of RPO either. Thanks for letting me know it wasn't just me.


Cristine Anthony Butler Funny you should say YA, I thought all along that my 15 year old would like it! A good read otherwise for me.


message 37: by Libby (new)

Libby This book reminded me of 'Ready Player One' also but instead of that making me like this book LESS it made me like it MORE (because I really liked RPO).

As to your "way too many convenient details" argument: most books with a puzzle-solving plot have convenient details.


Suzanne I thought it was a fun, lighthearted book and I enjoyed it. I have not read Ready Player One. I like the humor, I liked the voice of the main character, even though he reminded me of other first person, young male characters (even Percy Jackson somewhat). Didn't matter to me, I still enjoyed the read. I do agree with the YA comments - upon completing it - I told my 13 year old son that I thought he'd enjoy it. (I also could relate to the character's "quest" scenario as I was a total fantasy geek growing up)


Nicole Reminded me of Ready Player One too and maybe that's one of the reasons I didn't like it very much. You listed a number of the others: "lack of a properly detailed backstory; two-dimensional characters (the bad guy is a collection of clichés and a damp squib all at once); way too many convenient details (Neel is a millionaire who can pay for everything the group needs, Kat can get them into Google and utilise all the company's resources for their task, etc). There's no real tension or peril: it's too obvious any obstacles are going to be overcome easily". Not worth my time.


Book Me Baby I wholehartedly agree with this review. The story felt very YA to me as well, and while I have read some great YA, I don't usually read that genre. Very disappointed in this book. I was so bored, I really didn't care if they solved the mystery or not. Definitely would not consider this adult fiction.


Teryl I appreciate the detail in your review. I haven't read the two books you mention, so will have to do so to compare. I liked your review very much, though.


message 42: by Aurélie (new) - added it

Aurélie Haven't read this book yet but the story seems very Codex-like, which I surprisingly didn't like that much considering Lev Grossman's The Magicians series is up there with my fave books.
Anyway, I guess I'll have to try this one! :)


Teryl Rachel wrote: "Ditto. I thought "Da Vinci Code meets Harry Potter." Or the book version of National Treasure. The comparison in the description"

Very apt.


Martyn Well, I wish I'd written your review! Great review and you hit the nail on the head for me on some of this stuff. Particularly your last two paragraphs.


Brett Unintentionally hilarious that a 500 year old cult of cryptographers (and also Google with all it's computing resources) were unable to solve a substitution cipher. Methods to solve such ciphers by frequency analysis were first published by Arabic mathematician Abu al-Kindi in the 9th century.


Martyn Brett wrote: "Unintentionally hilarious that a 500 year old cult of cryptographers (and also Google with all it's computing resources) were unable to solve a substitution cipher. Methods to solve such ciphers by..."

Absolutely Brett! More of that "thin" research by the author...


Joyce I agree, although I thought this was a million times better than Grossman's Codex, which I thought was horrible and full of holes and inaccuracies. This was definitely juvenile feeling. I still have Ready Player One on my kindle. I'll have to read it now!!


Brandie Great review! You pointed out a few things I glossed over and didn't think to much about (I was listening to it on audio as I worked). Now that you've compared it to the Codex and another book, I'm definitely going to have to check those out! Thanks!


Maita Domaoal Agree. There was no tension and I wasn't excited. I gave my copy to my sister. Ready Player One rocks!


Valerie Definitely had a YA feel--the younger characters seemed like overgrown teenagers with jobs and money, and the descriptions of some of the older characters showed an immature incredulity that a person can live past the age of 35.


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