Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Genre: Literary, Science Fiction
Date of Publication: October 2, 2012
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Unemployed and desperate, Clay Jannon takes a night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Mr. Penumbra is odd, there are rarely any customers, and Clay isn’t permitted to read any of the books. But of course, he doesn’t obey that particular rule, and he quickly discovers that this place is a lot more than just a bookstore…
This book is science fiction for those who don’t like science fiction, and literary fiction for those who aren’t fond of that genre. I was warned that the book is very odd, but it actually isn’t that peculiar. The reason why so many people think it’s odd is because it’s has been marketed to the wrong crowds and presented in a misleading way. Even the cover (at least the cover of my edition) – is plain with yellow books on it. It does nothing to convey just how eclectic and eccentric its contents really are. It’s ironic that a book featuring a marketing expert was marketed so poorly.
That said, this book is a whimsical and fun exploration of how books and the “old” are at odds with technology and advancement. I won’t go into details (spoilers!), but I enjoyed the plot—which at times was slow-moving, but did have some interesting twists and surprises.
Robin Sloan’s characterization of women grated on my nerves. I’ve been told that Sourdough has much stronger, more three-dimensional women, but I’m reviewing Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, not Sourdough, which I haven’t read. In this book, there are only two or three major female characters, and they’re all heavily stereotyped. The book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (the feminism-in-literature test where two or more females are seen having a conversation about something other than a man in their life). Ordinarily I don’t consider this to be the be all, end all of determining if a book is sexist. (For example, a book about a woman studying to become a doctor at the turn of the century might not pass the Bechdel test, but it sure would have feminist content!) But the way that Kat, the love interest, is described is rather two-dimensional and, quite frankly, irritating. A friend pointed out to me that she’s the “manic pixie dream girl” trope, which hits the nail right on the head. I won’t go into the trope in detail here – but you can read this article about it if you’re so inclined. Essentially—her stereotype is the dream girl, the zany one who “gives meaning to the male protagonist’s life”.
Clay’s roommate, Ashley, is determined to be an “android” because she is unemotional—the polar opposite of what a woman is expected to be, I suppose. Later in the book, Clay is shocked to discover that she has other aspects of her personality—as she falls in love with their other roommate. Insert eye roll here.
As someone who went to library school and is working as a librarian—I did find the technology aspects of this novel interesting. The discussions of information visualization, OCR, and searching databases peaked my interest, but I can’t say that they will do the same for other readers!
I recommend this book to those who want a literary science fiction novel. While there is very little “conflict” in the story, the pace is quick and the plot takes unexpected turns. This book is worth a read for anyone who’s interested in a whimsical and timely (at the time of 2012) discussion of books and technology.
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