Sunday, August 7, 2016
REVIEW: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (audiobook) by Robin Sloan, narrated by Ari Fliakos
So, what can I say about the story without revealing too much? Clay, desperate for work after losing his Web design job, stumbles across a little place called Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. It's in a seedy location (next to a strip club), there don't seem to be many customers, and the store itself is a little strange, but Clay needs the money. Besides, he's kind of intrigued. Most of the store's visitors never actually seem to buy anything, but rather check out mysterious volumes from a collection Clay is specifically told not to browse or otherwise look at too closely.
Clay's curiosity gets the better of him, and he starts to investigate. Slowly, at first, making a three-dimensional model of the store in order in order to see if there's a pattern to the checkouts. But then he involves other people and begins to dig more deeply.
I loved this book, at first. The mystery of the bookstore fascinated me. I wanted to know who the store's regulars were, why they were checking out those books, and what, in general, was going on. The appeal that the mystery had for me reminded me a lot of Peter Clines' 14, although this book didn't have 14's Lovecraftian undertones. The fact that everything was tied to books was just icing on the cake.
The introduction of Kat Potente to the story made me realize I wasn't quite the kind of nerd this book was written for, however. To put it bluntly, I'm female. I don't think I've ever felt the need to use “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in a review before, but that was utterly and completely what Kat was. Clay set up a super-specific ad designed to attract a very specific kind of person to the store, and Kat appeared. She was, of course, beautiful, but in an adorably flawed way. Literally everything about her was adorable and wonderful, from the way she blushed to her excitement over catching a glimpse of Clay's model of the store. Not only that, but she happened to be a Google employee, which turned out to be enormously useful for Clay's investigation. I couldn't figure out why Clay thought she was great and yet thought of his equally perfect (in a different way) apartment mate as an android ("I don't mean that in a bad way!").
The thing that got me was that there were opportunities for Clay to get to know Kat as a fully-fleshed out person, beyond his “OMG she's adorable and wonderful and also wants to have sex with me” initial reaction. She was almost creepily devoted to Google, something I thought would put a wedge between her and Clay but somehow never did, at least not for long. She had a deep obsession with Google Forever, a section of Google interested in life extension and immortality. Her reaction to the idea of achieving immortality was so intense that I figured there had to be a story there...except Clay never asked her. It bothered me that, as far as Clay was concerned, Kat was adorableness and Google connections, nothing else. A rift developed between them later on in the book, but rather than either one of them realizing that they didn't really fit (she was too bound up in Google, he was intimidated by how smart and driven everyone she knew seemed to be, etc.) or even just talking their issues through, they just magically got back together again for no real reason.
The Google stuff was interesting, at first, but I eventually got a little annoyed with it. And also creeped out by it. I don't know if it was intentional, but Sloan did a great job of making Google seem, at best, like its own separate society and, at worst, a bit like a cult. And the characters trusted Google so much. I winced every time Clay or Kat took something that was supposed to be a secret to Google to scan or analyze.
It was, I suppose, part of what made this book feel a bit dated. Aside from that, there was the constant grappling with the value of digital vs. physical. Yes, articles stating that physical books are better than e-books (or vice versa) are still being written, but not to the degree they were when this book first came out, and you could see that in the way the issues were handled. I wonder how much more dated this will feel in 10 or 20 years?
I really liked the first two thirds or so of the book, but found myself becoming less and less interested when the focus shifted from the bookstore to the secret society. I disliked Clay and Kat's methods for solving the various mysteries, and I really felt for the one secret society member who acted dismayed each time they mentioned using a computer to analyze in seconds things that had taken the society years, decades, or longer to work on. After all, sometimes it's not the solution that's important so much as the process of arriving at that solution. I was just thankful that Sloan made sure that Google and its computers couldn't quite solve everything.
All in all, this made for okay work-time listening. I really liked the narrator, and I smiled when the producer took advantage of the audiobook format and included audio excerpts from Clay's favorite books (although they were very cheesy). I just wish that this had ended as strongly as it had begun.