Last December, I attempted to squeeze in every interesting book I hadn't read published earlier in 2012. Of course, I didn't get to read every book I wanted; one of them was Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. The blurb made it sound incredible: there was a conspiracy, code-breaking and a bookstore at the center of it all. It sounded like a da Vinci Code but more literary, and I was hooked.
Clay Jannon gets hired to work at a bookstore owned by a mysterious Mr. Penumbra; the store (as you may have guessed by the title) is open 24 hours and Clay works the overnight shift. There are occasionally regular customers, but more frequent are a strange set of men and women who belong to a secret club; they get books from the back shelf, books that Clay has never heard of, that don't exist outside of the store.
Curious, he decides to use his rudimentary codewriting skills first to create a computer model of the bookstore and then to map out the pattern the strange club members are following with their borrowed tomes. In doing all of this, he involves his nerdy/wealthy CEO best friend, his apartment mate, and a girl he meets from Google that he happens to have feelings for. In creating these models, Clay accidentally initiates himself further into the mysteries surrounding the cult/club known as the Unbroken Spine.
The opening chapters of the book--perhaps even the entire opening section (the first of three)--are great fun. Sloan did a great job in crafting Clay, who is an amusing first-person narrator. I enjoyed his observations about the bookstore, its customers and aspects of his own life. There were aspects of the book that reminded me of Where'd You Go, Bernadette--where Maria Semple was satirizing Seattle and Microsoft culture, Sloan lightly mocks San Francisco and Google in the same knowing way. I'm sure I would have enjoyed that humor more if I were an insider, but I'm not. It was still enjoyable.
But that leaves the other two parts of the book. I read online that the book was an expansion of a short story, and I have a feeling that the short story's contents belong to the first section. The other two feel less polished by comparison--the attempt to ramp up the intrigue and suspense as the gang gets closer to solving the mystery of the Unbroken Spine isn't as interesting. The intentionally anticlimactic end to part two leaves part three a lot of work to do, work that Sloan packs into a too-short space in an attempt to wrap things up. Things happen too quickly and the novel's ending is too maudlin. The epilogue feels too much like the ending of one of those based-on-a-true-story movies, listing outcome after outcome for the characters rather than presenting them naturally.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore feels cluttered, with subplots involving romance that seem pointless and backstory that feels overexplained. The actual methods by which the members of the Unbroken Spine go about their business is difficult to follow; I walked away from the book feeling like I still didn't understand how exactly they cracked the codes and solved the Founder's Puzzle. The origin as a short story makes it self apparent in the way the book doesn't flesh out all the way. There's a curious amount of "look how contemporary my book is" with mentions of technology that will surely make the book look terribly dated in three or four years.
It's a pleasant read, though. There are plenty of humorous moments, even if you're not a Google employee from San Francisco, and the characters are amusing, too. Don't get too wrapped up in the technicalities and you should be fine.
My rating: 3.5/5
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!