Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore | Book Review

Tuesday 29 September 2020


    Clay Johnson needs a new job thanks to the Great Recession. While he's on the hunt for a new job, he stumbles upon a well hidden bookstore that just happens to be hiring. But Mr. Penumbra's Bookstore is more than just a purveyor of books that never closes. It's a front for a secret society bent on deciphering a centuries old code by finding clues in seemingly gibberish books. This job is just the first step of many that will lead Clay down the oddest adventure of his life.

    This book was on my TBR for quite a while, at least two years. I picked it up initially because of it's pretty cover and then I bought it because of the interesting premise. It took me a while to read it because my wife and I were always doing some sort of readathon or other reading challenge and then I would forget about it and it'd sit there on my shelf with all my other forgotten books. Then one day I was looking for a new audio book on Libby and there it was, ready to be checked out. So I started listening to it.

The audiobook was narrated by Ari Fliakos who was in a few episodes of the show Homeland. He was a good narrator and was able to create unique voices for each of the main characters, which I find to be a key element of a narrator. His characters weren't the kind of different and unique a voice actor could do, but they were good enough for me to be able to pick out who was talking without a "Clay said" or the like after a piece of dialogue. But enough about the narration. The most important part is if the book was good or not. Even a five star narrator can't save a bad book. 

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was a good book that fell short of being great. The world Robin Sloan created was fun and full of promise but the characters he created were lackluster. Clay was a fine main character but he was a bit bland. He was like a YA protagonist. Not bad, but not a lot of personality either. He did a lot without having any growth as a character. The most interesting character was Mr. Penumbra himself, which could be why Sloan chose to write a prequel about Penumbra instead of a sequel. 

The side characters were where the book lost me. Neel Shah was just odd and creepy. A tech millionaire who made his fortune from being at the forefront of boob physics in video games. Really? He just sounds like a creepy neckbeard made it big. Sloan tries to salvage him by having him start a foundation supporting women in the arts, but it comes across more as a lame apology for his career instead of a god deed. 

The main love interest, Kat Potente, was just a sad attempt at a powerful career driven woman. Instead of coming across as strong and independent, she was just a hollow shell. Instead of strong and independent, she's just cold and flippant. Having the main female character be more career focused instead of love focused would have been great, but it just wasn't done right. 

The characters really were where the book's main shortcoming. The only characters I liked were Mr. Penumbra and Rosemary Lapin (a member of the book cult). Everyone else was either plain and forgettable or just plain bad.

The resolution of the whole book was also lackluster. This is spoiler free, of course. There was a ton of buildup as to what the secret really is that's been hidden in the books, and then it's discovered and revealed with little pomp and circumstance. When all was revealed, it didn't feel like it mattered at all. You know that big thing you've been waiting for? There it is, don't let the door hit you on the way out. 

But the interesting thing about this book is that even though I had quite a few things I didn't like about it, I still enjoyed it. It still kept me coming back for more. I still kept looking forward to listening to it and I still want to read the prequel. Despite the many negatives about the book, it still has that je ne sais quoi.

If the premise seems interesting to you at all, give this book a chance but please realize that it's the story alone that drives this book and the characters don't add much. If you think that'd be okay with you, then you may like this. If not, then maybe I saved you the trouble. You're welcome.

And the hardcover glows in the dark! I'm not sure about the paperback. 

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