Thursday, April 21, 2016

Robin Sloan - Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone - and serendipity, coupled with sheer curiosity, has landed him a new job working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead they simply borrow impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he's embarked on a complex analysis of the customers' behaviour and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what's going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore... 

Comment: This book has had quite the fame since it was released but mostly around the time it hit shelves. I added it to my TBR list because it was set on a bookstore and after my personal library and public libraries, bookstores are probably the best place to be in, so..I felt interested. Plus, all the reviews were positive for the most part and this month I just had to read it, even more so because it's not such a voluminous book.

In this book we meet Clay Jannon, an unemployed young man who accepts a job during the night in a 24 hour bookstore because he needs money to pay the rent and because a boring job is always better than not having a job at all. There aren't many costumers but the bookstore still manages to pay him a salary... and there are many rules, strange things happening when certain people do come in...many times Clay is left wondering what is really going on and why a certain section of the bookstore is only accessible to some people.
With the help of some friends, however, Clay decides to try to figure out some patters and ideas and what he discovers surprises not only his bookstore boss but puts them on a road to something bigger and unbelievable but that will change them all...or not?

This book is divided into three parts, to summarize, about the bookstore, a hidden library and a tower; all things connected in ways we don't always understand but which explain the weirdness of many things.
My favorite part was certainly the first, when we are living things through Clay's eyes in the bookstore, how strange many things are, why certain rules exist, when we follow Clay's attempts to bring more costumers to the store, how that will help him decode certain mysteries in the future... there's precisely this air of mystery around which I found impressive. Then we get to know some more characters through Clay's descriptions, and there's a wide range of ideas, concepts, notions, from Google to 3D reconstruction, among several others. All this added some technical feel to the story which, on one hand made it look "smarter" and, on the other, gave it more food for thought, even for people not always used to hear about it.
I read this first part very fast because everything was compiling to turn this into a clever, witty story. Yes, some stereotypes included, but that is to be expected, I guess.

Then we get to the other parts.
Basically, the whole story is to try to decode something to help the bookstore's owner, Mr Penumbra, to maintain his bookstore open and discover the mystery, the message hidden in the code which many people in a cult are looking for in the not-accessible-to-all books.
The second part is about an experiment and the result of t and the last part is about another explanation and final resolutions. We also have an epilogue where we learn what happens in all main character's lives.
Honestly I felt lost after the second part because what used to be mysterious but addictive turned into weirdness and confusion. I really didn't get the whole cult idea and why they had to make such a big deal out of something that is mostly private and centered on a writer or two and not such a big reveal as we are led to believe... sure, any book lover would love to find hidden messages from authors or other people in books, but as an explanation for this book and why it justified some actions and plot developments I simply didn't think it is that credible.
Perhaps I just didn't get the idea and there's a part of fantasy in all this too, but I was really invested in Clay, his inner thoughts and the people around him that had specific skills and devices that could help him and Mr Penumbra and everything went towards a path I didn't feel was as interesting or mysterious. Things turned too technical and the big goal everyone was after, what led everyone to try to reach a conclusion turned out to be something rather meh in terms of storyline, even if it gets some interest to our reader minds.

I suppose part of what makes this book amazing to many is Clay and his unique way of looking at things. Surely, I agree with that, but I think part of the story lost points to me when it turned too mystical and not as captivating as I hoped. I liked the mix of modern and ancient knowledge when it comes to books and our interpretation of them, of how we can analyze and decode them but then the human part of all this lacked something because I never felt that the characters were real people, despite the descriptions we have. In the beginning everything was interesting but then turned not so great in the whole scheme of things.

All things considered, this is a good story, not original, but with many elements that can attract book lovers to it, however, some things, namely the development, the excess of clichés when it comes to characters and the lack of impact in the end made me lower a very good grade to something more average but, as it happens to any story, it's a matter of perspective.
Grade: 6/10

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