There's an ever growing pile of books I want to read…
Can you keep a secret?
Then let me tell you all about Mr Penumbra and the 24 Hour Bookstore and how it came into my life and brought a little magic with it.
A while ago, I heard that Atlantic Books were going to publish Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan and, as I sometimes do when I am very keen to read a book, I sent the publisher’s publicity department an email begging for an advance reading copy.
What I received was something I hadn’t expected.
They sent me a letter. A proper letter in the post. The letter included an email address and I replied, exchanging a series of emails with Mr Penumbra himself before I was deemed worthy of receiving a copy. Even once I had received it, they kept in touch in a way that made me feel like part of the story and sent me a coded puzzle that turned out to be an invitation to the launch event.
I had been planning to write and post this review to coincide with the publication but I changed my mind so that I could include details of the event itself, which featured Mr Penumbra in person and a Q&A (via videoconference) with Robin Sloan, the author.
Let’s divide this post into two parts, the review and the party.
Part the first, the review:
Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore is about Clay, a 20-something ex-website designer and social media expert who takes a job as a night clerk in the mysterious eponymous bookstore. He finds himself caught up in a world he had never imagined, where everyone is searching for the secret to eternal life. Clay finds himself caught up with secret societies and a beautiful girl, who happens to work for Google. I loved this book. I want to simultaneously hug it to myself & never let go and also thrust it into the hands of everyone I meet. I guess it’s pretty lucky that I’m a bookseller and actually get to do that.
What I liked:
The writing was beautiful. There was some really perfect sentence construction in there. Also some wonderful description. I didn’t have any trouble suspending my disbelief because I felt like I just fell into the world of the novel. The writing wasn’t getting in the way of the story. In a strange way, although it was beautiful, it was invisible. Does that make any sense? It’s a hard thing to describe.
The story was a pretty traditional quest, like in an epic fantasy novel, but moved into a more modern setting and with characters more like modern-day humans. As a long-time fan of the epic fantasy novel, I thought that this was pretty great. There was also a great juxtaposition of old and new technologies and cultures and, in some ways, these mirrored each other. It also had some interesting things to say about technology.
As an aside, I’m now really interested in the history of printing. Anyone have any book recommendations for that?
I think my favourite characters in the story were actually really marginal characters but, honestly, Mat and Ashley were my favourites. I loved them and Matropolis. I’d love a sequel about them some day.
I thought the US cover for this book was pretty good but I love, love, love the UK cover. Maybe this is something to do with being English. I wonder if there’s a different design aesthetic unique to here.
What I didn’t like:
I don’t have much to say in this section.
I do think that this novel is very much set in the present day, partly because of the use of Google as a main aspect of the plot. I think it would be interesting to reread it in ten year’s time and see whether I still find it so easy to connect with.
I loved this book but I can understand why it might not be for everybody. It’s almost a little too cool for its own good. There are certain people, cynical people, who aren’t going to enjoy it. And that’s okay because there are other books for those people. But if you think you can find it in yourself to believe in magic, at least a little, you should read it because I think you’ll love it.
(It’s my blog. The scores can be arbitrary if I want. This book wasn’t quite a 5/5 but it was really, really close)
Part the second, The Launch Party:
The UK launch party for Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore was in the gallery at Foyles in Charing Cross. I think I may have been the first person to arrive because they weren’t quite ready when I got there. They were very gracious, though, and let me wait and gave me a drink. They also showed me the review that Erin Morgenstern (Erin Morgenstern!) wrote on a giant post-it for the party and let me write one of my own. A giant post-it review. Surely that must be the best kind of review?
Some other people arrived, one of them wearing a red ‘Bam!’ t-shirt. This won’t mean anything to you if you haven’t read the book but, trust me, once you have, you’re going to think it’s AMAZING.
Once the party really got going, Mr Penumbra emerged from somewhere and talked a little about the book and about stories and the bookstore of the future. He had, ahem, a very interesting accent.
Then the moment that we had all been waiting for: a video Q&A with author Robin Sloan. Or, well, almost. We had to wait for a few more minutes. There were some technical difficulties but everyone pretty much found it hilarious and it all worked out okay in the end so it didn’t matter. It just added to the experience.
Robin Sloan appeared to us from San Francisco, where it seemed to be pretty sunny. There was no visible clutter in the background, which I was pretty impressed by. (If you were to videocall me, there would be a lot of visible clutter – mainly books!) He seems like a very nice human being. He said quite a lot of things that I don’t really remember, but here’s what stuck in my brain:
When asked What inspired you to write Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore? he said that the idea came from a Tweet. Someone that he is friends with tweeted about seeing a sign for a 24 hour book drop and how they were disappointed that it wasn’t a 24 hour book shop.
Someone asked What are you working on right now? and he revealed that he is working on a short story/novelette prequel to Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore about how Mr Penumbra first came to live in San Francisco.
He talked about the use of Festina Lente, which means ‘Make haste, but slowly’ and Aldus Manutius, who used it as his motto.
He talked about fantasy novels that he has enjoyed, including The Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia and then he mentioned The Dark is Rising. I read it in middle school and it’s one of the books that I credit with my love of fantasy novels. I actually got caught up talking with someone else after the Q&A about how great it is. Susan Cooper fans FTW! If you haven’t read The Dark is Rising sequence, you should. (Incidentally, it has recently been rejacketed by Vintage and has brilliant illustrations)
When asked about Kat and whether she was his dream woman, he admitted that she is not. He also said that a lot of people find her character annoying but that he thinks she’s badass. He then said that he thinks fiction could use some more badass, ambitious, competent female engineers. I agree and tweeted about it. He has earned my respect and admiration pretty much forever.
He was also asked about his favourite typeface and I can’t remember his actual choice but he went on to talk about fan fiction and fan creation and how he thinks it’s great that there are worlds that people become so invested in that they want to be part of creating them. He said that if someone were to create Gerritzoon, the fictional typeface that plays a major part in the story, it would automatically become his new favourite.
I’m sure that there were other questions but I can’t remember them or his answers.
He read us a section of the book. It was a nice section. You should read the book yourself!
Then they disconnected him from the big screen and passed the laptop containing his telepresence around the party. This was pretty entertaining for me and if you read the book you’ll be able to figure out why! It was very loud in the room so when I had my turn to be awkward in his general direction (and also ask him a question), I could barely hear his reply. I asked about Matropolis and, from what I could understand, he talked about how, in fiction, it’s possible to create things that you don’t have the skill or space or money or time to create in the real world. If you can imagine it, you can make it come to life in fiction without having to worry about any of those things. It seemed like a pretty interesting answer: I would have liked to have been able to hear more of it.
In conclusion, Robin Sloan seems like an awesome guy and Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore is an excellent book. Two thumbs way, way up.