Saturday, June 13, 2015

Review:: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Title: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Format: Hardcover
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Reading this as a person who lives in the Bay Area, I found most of the book very jarring. The strangeness of the local references kept knocking me out of my suspension of disbelief. The strangeness of the book not really being that strange made for a slightly boring read. It was okay, but nothing more.

Apparently Robin Sloan lives in the City? It definitely doesn't show. And I hate that this is my major complaint in a book, but it's really hard to think about the book itself when there's weird strangeness going on with the locale. They're minor things, but made the book difficult to enjoy.

Frex: there's a point where he's clearly talking about the Westfield mall. It has a great food court. However, no one refers to it as the "Gourmet Grotto." There's the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley, which is not in the City. He refers to the mall connection to "the train station." There is a BART stop below, and muni connects there. But a "trains station" in the Bay Area doesn't refer to BART or muni, despite both having trains. It refers to Caltrain or Amtrak.

Okay, so yes, these are minor quibbles. And yes, talking about a "BART stop" in a book that people outside the Bay Area will read, might be confusing. However, with the style of narration, it would have been very easy to say "BART—the Bay Area lightrail service" or something similar.

Later he refers to going from somewhere not downtown to being on a train to Mountain View... in 20 minutes. This will not ever happen. The only way you'd be able to get anywhere in the City in 20 minutes is to take BART or walk. Caltrain is nowhere near BART. And he was definitely too far from the train station to walk to it. Oh, and that doesn't even consider the fact that he'd have to wait for the Caltrain.

At one point "Frisco" is used unironically. I've never heard a local call San Francisco Frisco. In writing I see SF. In speech, it's usually the City. Most of the imports I know, including myself use SF and the City. Using Frisco is likely to get you rolled eyes at best. A soap box speech at the worst.

So. I'm done ranting about that now. Promise.

But my issues with this book go even further. For the most part, the serial numbers are filed off everything. Sloan seems afraid to mention any company or place by name... except Google. now granted, he does talk about a few different brands of eReaders, but for the most part, the only thing you ever see with the serial number still intact is Google.

So no wonder people call this book a shill for Google. He never shuts up about it and never mentions anyone else.

I don't hate Google. I don't innately trust them. I've had spats with them in the past. I don't like a lot of what they're doing to the Bay Area. But I'm a touch of a paranoid hacker, so what do you expect? 

(Also, why is this dude reaching out to random strangers on the internet to try and break DRM or scan books when he lives in an area with more hackerspaces than anything else? Why is he having trouble finding a laser cutter in NYC? For someone so seemingly embroiled in tech, he sure as fuck doesn't know his way around the tech scene...)

Anyway, back to Google. Like I said, I don't hate them. I think they've done some great shit and then made it free and accessible to a vast number of people. They've had some fuckups, but for the most part, they've enriched people's lives.

But this book annoys me with Google so much, it makes me want to not like them. Luckily, I am a sometimes rational person and realize that's a stupid reason to dislike Google, when there are plenty of better reasons.

The characters in the book are really shallow. They are characterized by what interests they have, more than anything else. What they can contribute to the plot. The plot that really isn't that great and made my eyes roll a lot when I wasn't yawning.

But here's the weird part: once I started reading this book, I had a hard time putting it down. It's a lot like a Dan Brown book: really not that good, but it's the cadence or something and the ease of reading (oh, it's stupidly easy to read) that just sweeps you along for a very quick read of very little substance that you'll forget very quickly.

Blah blah secret societies, blah blah technology is just so great, blah blah people who like old fashioned books are old fashioned, blah blah art and stuff, blah blah boobs.

Oh, did I just say blah blah boobs? Right. So the skeeviest part of the book is the protag's best friend from a very young age who made millions off of creating an engine to better portray breasts in video games and other media. Okay. That's legit. What's skeevy and gross is breasts appear to be the guy's only interest. And it comes up way more often than it should.

Here's a good example: He wants to sponsor a show at a knitting museum? Let's do it on how sweaters make breasts look great.

Whenever he interacts with a woman, I cringe. I can just feel her straining to do a half-smile and try not to hit him because he's that gross. Because they can't. Because they so badly need his funding. Apparently he has a grant for women in the arts or something, but he's never really able to find someone to give it to. I can't imagine why.


So yeah: glaring wtfs about SF, skeevy breast-obsessed dude, an obsession with tech being greater than books, and a really not that complex or intriguing plot about secret societies.

Even if you don't live in the Bay Area, you might want to pass on this one. But if you don't, at least it's a quick read.


  1. Yeah, I wasn't impressed either, though obviously the location stuff meant nothing to me.

    1. I felt like I must have been missing something because so many folks (not in the Bay Area though) really liked it. But I guess lots of people really like a lot of books I felt underwhelming.