Every so often there’s a book that comes along that leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy in a way that feels so genuine you can’t help but smile and tear up. This was what happened to my significant other had as she finished Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. When she lent it to me and I finished reading it myself, I had the same reaction and I loved it.
The story is written through the first person narrative eyes of Clay Jannon who is essentially all of us in the form of a lovable nerd. I found it funny how the comparisons he made were not far off from observations I would normally make. It was easy to relate to Clay and feel sympathetic towards his plight as we’ve all been through it as well. The supporting cast of characters are, for the most part, fairly static but strangely enough it adds to the story rather than detracts. It was easy to fall in love with the eccentric artist, the tech wizard, and the wise old man Penumbra. Penumbra was easily one of the most lovable characters, reminding me of a kind of Gandalf like figure in this mystery. As the story moves forward and the mystery starts to unfurl, seeing each character’s reaction makes for both a humorous and heart warming moment. Even small seemingly insignificant characters were given a touch of personality enough to make them endearing.
The setting takes place in 2012 San Francisco for the most part after the recession. The theme of job loss, job security and wandering lost that prevails in the beginning of the story is something all of us likely have experienced at one time or another. What made it more relatable were all the references to social media and the power of marketing that we’re all familiar with. Modern day tools like Google, Twitter and Facebook are seamlessly woven into the story to make it feel more akin to real life rather than shoved in the reader’s face to create an artificial connection. The bits of reality and fiction woven together feels so natural to the point where I wondered what was real and what was fiction. (I really hope its all true but that’s just me).
I was surprised how fleshed out and complete the plot was for how short the novel is. Truth be told I didn’t want the story to end as I was so enraptured with the mystery and the wonder of this world and its secrets. It follows a natural and logical progression and does feel very driven by Clay himself as his curiosity pushes him to learn and know more. It also helps that the supporting cast, while having their own goals and ambitions, never pull the story away from its main focus. Rather their side stories are still realized while the plot unfurls before Clay. There’s so much mystery surrounding the central plot that kept me hooked. I finished reading this in about a day as I really couldn’t put the book down. The story felt so mysterious and intriguing and left me feeling warm, fuzzy and satisfied by the end.
The word choice and sentence structure is very easy to follow and, for how mysterious the plot can get, never gets to a point of feeling convoluted or unnecessary. Each bit of information served to give relevant information on the plot and the development of Clay as a character. I loved the little nods to modern culture thrown into the mix that flowed naturally with how Clay observed the world. The story also follows a structure I’ve learned to appreciate in that the chapters are fairly short which helps to make the book feel easier to read. Each chapter is focused and transitions smoothly into the next without any hiccups.
What Writers can learn from this book
Writing a well thought out and comprehensive mystery is one of the greatest challenges in storytelling I feel. It’s a difficult undertaking to have everything come together in a seamless way from story elements that don’t seem related at first. As the author you are privy to the truth of the matter (since you’re creating the mystery) and understanding the amount that needs to be given to the reader to maintain interest without giving away the secret. Robin Sloan does a great job of giving bits and pieces towards a greater mystery without coming off as overly complex or obvious. Rather the rabbit hole feels organic rather than forced and I love that.
This story feels like it was written by a booklover and author for other booklovers and authors. I couldn’t help but fall in love with it after finishing it. I can’t recommend this enough for anyone who enjoys a good read an endearing story.