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

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
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bookshelves: friend-recommended, lit-fiction, mystery

Authors are magicians. I was in the early pages of Mr. Penumbra when I realized that Sloan was sneaking in a major chain of events in only a few short paragraphs with the intention of moving the story to where he needed it. It was the authorial equivalent of "look, nothing up my sleeve" in preparation of a hat trick. Rather than irritation from this momentary flap of curtain or glimpse of rabbit ear, I was rather captivated.

Thinking back on books I've loved or hated, it occurs to me that in that moment of authorial sleight-of-hand, the reader willingness to accept the underlying set-up is fundamental to the experience of the story, particularly in fantasy, sci-fiction and magical realism. A suspension of belief at the right parts, or at least belief enough in the presentation to accept and enjoy it, is crucial to a good read.

Penumbra is charming, and it was easy to be interested in Clay's search for a job, intrigued by the mystery of the bookstore, and captivated by the charisma of Clay's friends. Eventually, Sloan reaches a bit too far, tries a large-scale trick that requires more stage presence and set-up than he can pull off. In particular, the New York section started to feel like someone imported The Da Vinci Code. It's the equivalent of seeing a magician at the local theater and watching them try and disappear the Empire State Building. The story veers out of control and falls apart, yet still manages to remain charm and sincerity to be worth reading.

Part of Sloan's skill is in his ability to capture familiar emotion. I remember those days when I had job-idealism:
"But I kept at it with the help-wanted ads. My standards were sliding swiftly. At first I had insisted I would only work at a company with a mission I believe in. Then I thought maybe it would be find as long as I was learning something new. After that I decided it just couldn't be evil. Now I was carefully delineating my personal definition of evil."

There's a lovely, lovely description of a bookstore, instantly familiar to any book-lover:
"The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest--not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight's reach."

A description of Clay's co-worker, Oliver, instantly resonated with that interesting dualism of solid and dreamy:
"Oliver is a graduate student at Berkeley, studying archeology. Oliver is training to be a museum curator... He speaks in short, simple sentences and always seems to be thinking about something else, something long ago and/or far away. Oliver daydreams about Ionian columns."

I too have a nebula friend:
"So I guess you could say Neel owes me a few favors, except that so many favors have passed between us now that they are no longer distinguishable as individual acts, just a bright haze of loyalty. Our friendship is a nebula."

I also have to commend both Clay and Sloan for writing a meeting of a love interest that involves hair, tee-shirt, nail and chipped tooth, culminating with:
"This girls has the spark of life. This is my primary filter for new friends (girl- and otherwise) and the highest compliment I can pay."

Despite the strong, delightful beginning, Sloan lost me by the end. I thought the quest metaphor was clever, and appreciated the connection with a fantasy trilogy and friend that was instrumental in Clay's formative years but it didn't quite stretch far enough. Or maybe it did, and the quest was an illusion. It's hard to say; Sloan was showing his hand too much by the end and the spy caper didn't fit with the sweet bookstore mystery. The romance was lost in the quest, and imperfectly resolved. Neel's professional fascination with boobs struck me as a false note, although it had the feel of a ten-year-old voyeur over the thirty-year-old creeper. My final complaint is rooting the story so solidly in Google; perhaps integral to Sloan's version of the story, it significantly roots it in time and will date it faster than any other element. For me, these concerns added up to too many wires and mirrors, and allowed me to lose the illusion.

Three, three and a half stars.
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Reading Progress

March 26, 2013 – Shelved
March 26, 2013 – Shelved as: friend-recommended
August 4, 2013 – Started Reading
September 16, 2013 – Finished Reading
September 18, 2013 – Shelved as: lit-fiction
September 18, 2013 – Shelved as: mystery

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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Emily That second paragraph really rang true for me and my reading experience.

Harry Carol, nice review. I too thought it started out well...but fizzled in the end: reminded me of how J.J.Abrams after many seasons of LOST really did not have that spectacular ending we'd all been promised. It fizzled...

Mimi I also thought Sloan reached a bit too far, and I think I would've liked and rated this book more favorably if not for the overarching mystery.

message 4: by Beth (new)

Beth Like Emily, I found the second paragraph especially striking.

Olga Godim Great review! Emotions and dry analysis in one short piece of writing. A fantastic review, really.

carol. Thank you, everyone for the compliments! It was a challenging review because it was hard to pinpoint what specifically went wrong. Such a promising start.

message 7: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten This book fizzled for me quick. I was so disappointed because of my bookstore background. I don't know maybe I need to throw it in the mix again sometime down the road. Great review!!

carol. I wouldn't throw it back in the mix, Jeffrey--so many books, so little time. You just caught onto the stage act sooner. ;)

message 9: by Lawyer (new)

Lawyer I loved your review, Carol. I especially appreciated your analysis for the required suspension of belief when picking up a volume of fantasy or magical realism. I picked this up for a song off the shelves of our Friends of the Library Store for a song, so I will invest a few pages in it to see if it appeals. I could use a slight break from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. However, I'm quite aware of the fizzle. There is that book about A CIRCUS whose title I do not speak, but merely hope that it is made into a movie starring Johnny Depp and every imaginable teen heart throb that might allow me to make a few bucks off the signed first.

carol. Mike, thank you. You must have been reading my mind--one of the books I immediately thought of when writing my review was a certain 'Circus' book and the wide variety of reactions to it. You know, it would work well as a movie, and Johnny Depp could bring the right degree of whimsy/eeriness.

George What's the Circus Book?

As a one time rusty script writer I think the plot was subjected to a lot of jump cuts.

Visually (in imagination) it was a romping fun adventure. Even if colours were seriously symbolic in "Madam Bovary." Just Saying

Hey, Google is part of dictionaries now as a verb. I think it will be around a while.

Last, it was more relaxing than reading C.Doctow's "Little Brother" and "Homeland."

carol. Ah, George. Thanks for stopping by. If you are engaging in dialogue, you may want to contextualize your statements. First of all, the 'Circus' book probably doesn't apply to you.
Second, if you are saying Mr. Penumbra is 'visually (in imagination)it was a romping fun adventure,' I'm afraid I have to disagree. The bookstore and the underground lair were the sections that seemed most visually 'fun' to me; however, I distinguish visual imagery from romping fun, so we may be comparing apples and oranges. Which is the beauty of writing your own reviews--you get to say what your reaction was. I'm puzzled by the reference to Madam Bovary.

Thirdly, 'Google' may be a part of dictionaries. Presumably, so were "IBM" and "Kodak." Times change. I merely raise the issue because it seems like some books are written for a particular moment, and as such, run the risk of being a little too topical and a little less permanent.
Fourth, glad to hear it was more relaxing than other books I haven't read or referenced in the review. Way to be germane.

Daniela I love this book, I thought it was pretty damn spectacular and absolutely magical.

carol. Glad you enjoyed it, Daniela! So nice when that happens.

message 15: by Sara (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sara Krell I agree. I wish it wouldn't have hopped around to so many places. Didn't fit the book story mystery, like you said. I liked the tongue and cheek at Google tho.

carol. The Google stuff was potentially the most interesting thing about it, at least by my memory.

James Hollander Excellent review!

carol. Thank you, James. Good luck with it!

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