Saturday, March 30, 2013

DUAL REVIEW: Mr.Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Lucinda's Rating: 4/5 Stars
Tracy's Rating: 2.5/5 Stars
Genre: Literary Mystery/Adventure
Audience: Adult/Older Teen

Summary: Forced to find another job due to the Great Recession, web designer Clay Jannon finds himself the night clerk at the mysterious Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, a bookstore where there are few regular patrons and where the regulars borrow books rather than buy them. Little does Clay know that by walking into this bookstore he will discover a secret world that will shape his future in ways he could never imagine and irrevocably alter his view of the world.

Lucinda's Views:
This book possessed a carefully crafted plot that keeps the reader interested even to the end. The seamless blend of cutting edge technology and the history of the book will delight the reader. The mystery that comprises much of the plot is believable and works to propel the story forward. The characters are likable, believable, and fit into this tale of one young man's quest to find himself in a world which is not quite what he thought it was. For those who love a good book, but also like their technology this is a perfect read.

Tracy's Thoughts:
I didn't know quite what to expect from this book. It appeared on a number of "Best of 2012" lists and won a 2013 Alex Award. Lucinda told me she stayed up ridiculously late to finish it. And yet I've also read some less than positive reviews and a co-worker whose  opinion I trust told me that it was "weird" and "disappointing." Well... I generally like "weird" so that didn't do a lot to dissuade me, but my co-worker's inability to pinpoint exactly what didn't work for her left me feeling less than enthused about reading it. But then I read more glowing reviews and I needed to read more eligible books for the Hub Reading Challenge... so I decided to take my chances.

Unfortunately, I too ended up disappointed. For me, it was a really rough start as I found nothing engaging about the voice (as a reader, I’m all about voice :)). I wasn't interested in Clay as a narrator, and I also thought Sloan's prose was choppy and even clunky at times. The overabundance of modifiers in particular kept yanking me out of the story, inspiring annoyance rather than interest in whatever was being described:

This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up—three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever. (Page 8)
As a not-so-secret bibliophile, a description that should have inspired awe or curiosity at the very least simply left me cold. I'm a girl who enjoys lengthy sentences and detailed description, but clearly Sloan's prose just isn't for me. However, I appreciate that this is an entirely subjective reaction—there's nothing really wrong with the writing after all—and that the prose will speak differently to different readers.

I also felt that the characters were a bit underdeveloped. Penumbra could have been a figure of great curiosity but instead seemed barely present. While Lucinda saw the characters as likable and believable, I interpreted them as one-dimensional and uninteresting. Luckily, about  80 pages in the thematic element of antiquity vs. technology emerged to advance the story. I enjoyed the idea of how technology and antiquity (in this case, old books and the knowledge they contain) can be seen as opposing forces but at the same time act as partners in advancing human knowledge and possibilities. For me, this concept was the heart of the book.

In the end, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is firmly in my "meh" category. The concept was promising but, for me, never fully realized. The story and characters ultimately fell flat, but the intriguing juxtaposition of traditional books and technology (particularly Sloan's imagined Google world and underworld hacker/pirate network) kept me interested enough to finish the book. For a better, more fully realized read with a similar feel (though, alas, without the book emphasis), I suggest reading Ernest Cline's Ready Player One.


Anonymous said...

I side with Tracy. I love books and a story set in an unusual bookstore appealed. I enjoy quirky mysteries and this book may qualify but there was too much quirkiness and not enough mystery. The characters were underdeveloped. I feel you need to count the recurring use of technology as a major theme. There are mentions of D and D, Cosplay, and Sword and Sorcery Fantasy novels. The underground cult with members all around the world was my favorite part but , again, it needed more development. I feel that this novel opens little windows onto new ideas.

Tracy said...

Thanks for the feedback (and backup!), Anonymous.

Skagway Alaska said...

Hooray for forbidden books - those are the first ones I'd read. Also hooray for secret societies and secret codes! Seems like we never left that treehouse, after all ;)

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