Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

  • Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
  • Author: Robin Sloan
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Year Published: 2012
  • ISBN: 0374214913
  • List Price: $25.00
  • Page Count: 304
  • Age Range: 15+
  • Genre: magical realism
  • Award(s): Alex Award Winner

Author information: This is Sloan’s debut novel. His website is fairly sparse, but it does include a short biography, a link to information about Mr. Penumbra, a link to sign up for his email newsletter, as well as a variety of short pieces (articles, short stories, etc) that fans can read online. Mother Jones interviewd Sloan about his debut novel, and the interview discusses such topics as D&D, San Francisco, the inspiration for Neel, Clay, and The Dragonsong Chronicles, and the theme of immortality. The interview also talks about Sloan’s writing process and his use of the app, Freedom (which is an Internet blocker so that he cannot access distracting websites while he’s writing), which he credits with being able to finish his book.

Reviews: It was difficult to find reviews of this title from traditional sources. Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the title, but didn’t provide much more than a synopsis of the plot and a comment on its happy ending. Other sources, like NPR, Newsweek, and the San Francisco Chronicle, were more effusive. They all comment upon Sloan’s ability to weave a traditional quest narrative seamlessly with a modern day techno-world, incorporating elements of Google and elements of centuries old secret societies side by side. Entertainment Weekly sums Sloan’s novel up thus:  “Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age”.

Readers annotation: When Clay got a job at a bookstore, he didn’t realize he would be thrown into a world of secret societies, conspiracies, and the opportunity to discover the meaning of life.

Summary: Clay is laid off from his job, and, in a fit of desperation, takes the night shift at a shady 24-hour bookstore. He notices that most of the customers that come in are borrowing titles from the “waybacklist”, a collection of books that are not sold, but borrowed. His curiosity piqued, Clay discovers that these people are members of a secret society devoted to finding the secret of immortality. This quest takes him and his friends everywhere from the Google campus to a secret reading room in New York City. Eventually, Clay is able to decipher the original text written by Manutius, the founder of this secret sect, and he discovers that it does not contain an easy answer to the question of immortality. Rather, it suggests that the only way to become immortal is by living on through the work you do when you are alive.

Evaluation: I have incredibly mixed feelings about this title–moreso than I think I’ve had about any of the other books I’ve reviewed. I loved the conceit. Setting a quest narrative in modern day San Francisco and incorporating so many aspects of technology is brilliant and sure to attract readers looking for a fresh take on the fantasy novel. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore and Mr. Penumbra himself are incredibly likable and the reader is immediately drawn into their world. The storyline–that Mr. Penumbra is a foward-thinker who, with the help of Clay and friends, might be able to finally solve the mystery of Manutius if the villainous leader of the secret society weren’t trying to thwart their efforts, is compelling and readers will eagerly follow this story wherever it is going. The difficulty with this book is that the plot deteriorates from there. Clay eventually does find the way to decode Manutius’ pivotal text, but discovers that there are no secrets hidden within his story. The novel ends with the suggestion that true immortality comes from the friendships and bonds we build in this life, as well as the works we accomplish. This ending is a letdown for readers who expected a bit of a flashier ending. Although I did not expect that the characters would unlock the key to immortality, I was hoping for something less trite than “friendship is the most important thing”. I admire Sloan for the scope of this novel, but feel that at times the focus became scattered and the payoff at the end was disappointing. I do see the appeal this title would have to a teenage audience though; most of the characters are tech savvy young adventurers, which many teens will identify with.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5 A fun blend of high fantasy and high tech, this novel breathes new life into the fantasy genre in light of all of our technological achievements. The premise is strong, but the narrative wanders and the ending leaves much to be desired.
  • Popularity4/5  The mixing of high fantasy and high tech, modern and ancient, digital and analog, is sure to delight readers, and one look at Penumbra’s bookstore will hook them.
  • Appeal factors: magical realism, technology, bookstores, secret societies, Google.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  The Magicians by Lev Grossman might be a good fit for readers who enjoyed the juxtaposition of high fantasy with an urban setting. Like Clay, Quentin Coldwater doesn’t believe in magic until he’s accepted into a magical and sinister school. Combining common tropes and ideas from childhood fantasy classics, this book is a modern-day fantasy for sophisticated readers.
  2. Readers who liked the magical realism aspect of Sloan’s novel may enjoy The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Like Sloan’s book, this title’s use of magic lets the reader decide whether or not it is real, and incorporates serious themes such as growing up, loss, and destiny.

Book talk ideas: The best way to book talk this title would be by describing Mr. Penumbra’s store. Tell potential readers to imagine that they’re going to San Francisco for the day, and after they’ve done all their shopping and sight-seeing and wandering, they discover a small, hole-in-the-wall bookstore. It claims to be open 24 hours a day, and when you walk in, the shelves are so high that you need a ladder to reach the books at the top. After describing this scene, give a bit of plot details and explain how Clay ends up working there and discovers that there’s more to the little bookstore than meets the eye, and this discovery sends him on a hunt that takes him everywhere from the Google campus to a hidden underground reading room.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Clay assigns his friends archetypes for their “quest” (wizard, rogue, etc.). Why do you think he does this?
  2. How do you think the high-tech/low-tech interplay worked in the novel? What do you think this says about the relationship of the two in real life.
  3. Do you agree with Clay’s assertion at the end of the book, that creating lasting works and relationships are the key to immortality? Why or why not?

Reason for reading: As mentioned in a previous review, I was interested in looking at Alex award winners and seeing why they were chosen as having appeal to a young adult audience. The title of this book intrigued me (what aspiring librarian isn’t immediately taken with the prospect of a hole-in-the-wall, more-than-it-seems, 24-hour bookstore?) and I decided it would be a great way to round out my reviews for this class.

Additional relevant information: Mr. Penumbra grew out of a short story that Sloan had written, and is available on his website. He also wrote a short story to coincide with the paperback release of the novel, following Ajax Penumbra and how he came to find the bookstore that he owns when Clay finds him. This story is available on a variety of platforms, but can be purchased on Amazon for $2.99.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

  • Title: The Universe Versus Alex Woods
  • Author: Gavin Extence
  • Publisher: Redhook
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN:0316246573
  • List Price: $26.00
  • Page Count: 416
  • Age Range: 15+
  • Genre: realistic fiction
  • Award(s): Alex Award Winner; more here.

Author information: Alex Woods is Gavin Extence’s first novel. His website includes links to purchase the title as well as excerpts from the book. It also includes a short biography, a music playlist of songs Alex Woods listens to in the book, a recommended reading list, and links to videos of the author on YouTube. YALSA interviewed Extence about his book, asking about his use of Vonnegut, literary and musical references, astronomy, epilepsy, euthanasia, and other relevant topics. In the interview, Extence talks about the fact that he always intended for the readership of his book to be adult, but he wanted the writing to be straightforward and accessible, so when his publisher suggested marketing it as a crossover title, he was thrilled.

Reviews: Publisher’s Weekly gave this title a starred review, saying it “skillfully balances light and dark, laughter and tears”. Library Journal also comments upon the book’s complex tone, calling it “bittersweet” and saying that it will appeal to a broad range of readers. This title also received positive reviews from publications such as People Magazine, the Observer, the New York Post, and the Denver Post. All of these reviews mention the humor of the narrative as well as the strong voice of Alex Woods.

Readers annotation: Alex Woods is hit by a meteor when he is ten years old. And his life just gets weirder.

Summary: Alex Woods has always been unusual; when he is ten he’s hit in the head by a meteor, which is an unimaginably rare occurrence. Because of this injury, Alex has to deal with epilepsy and is taken out of school so that he can learn how to cope with these fits. When he begins to get his epilepsy under control, he returns to school, but he is a misfit because of his condition as well as the fact that his mother is weird and all of the activities he likes are “gay”. He’s teased and bullied by his schoolmates, and the bullies chase him into a stranger’s greenhouse and then break the windows. Alex refuses to tell on them, so in order to make restitution to the elderly homeowner, Mr. Peterson, Alex begins visiting him every weekend to help with chores. As time goes on, Alex and Mr. Peterson develop a friendship and talk about books, classical music, and their lives. Mr. Peterson is diagnosed with a fatal illness and decides he wants to end his life, and Alex promises to help him do so when the time comes. Alex drives Mr. Peterson to Switzerland to a euthanasia clinic and stays with him when he dies, satisfied that the decision he made to help Mr. Peterson die without pain was the right one.

Evaluation: This novel has a strong narrative voice and grapples with some of the toughest questions of humanity, such as the value of human life, the importance of friendship, the struggle of how to fit in and make a place for oneself in the world, and how to stick to one’s morals in the face of obstacles. These questions frame the narrative and make the reader stop and consider her own position on these questions and how they might factor in to her own life as she reads about Alex and Mr. Peterson. Alex is crafted as an entirely sympathetic character that the reader is rooting for, and his voice is genuine and honest. Alex’s friendship with Mr. Peterson is believable and tender, and it shows two outsiders who find solace in their friendship with one another and have an understanding of each other that transcends society’s rules. Their dialogue is at once poignant and hilarious, switching fluidly from deadpanned humor to philosophical discussions without missing a beat. Extence’s decision to start the novel at the end of the story and then go back in time to work up to the climax works beautifully and draws readers in at the first chapter because they are curious to know how Alex ends up in the situation he’s shown in during the first pages of the book.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  4/5  Extence combines heart and humor in this story, and his characters are vivid and richly portrayed. The ending satisfies, and the plot is strong.
  • Popularity: 4/5 The writing is crisp, clear, and moves the story along quickly, which will likely engage readers and keep them interested. Alex and Mr. Peterson are well crafted characters, and the novel gives readers much to think about. Readers who shy away from darker themes, such as death or bullying, may want to stay away from this title, but those who enjoy tackling thematically heavy works will find much to enjoy in this book.
  • Appeal factors: outcasts, unlikely friendships, bullying, strong narrative voice, euthanasia, coming-of-age, complex themes.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon would be a good fit for readers who liked Alex Wood’s voice. The main character in Haddon’s novel, Christopher, is autistic, academically gifted but socially challenged, and his voice is crisp and straightforward in a way that will remind readers of Alex.
  2. It would be remiss not to suggest Kurt Vonnegut’s works to readers who enjoyed Alex Woods. Like Extence, Vonnegut combines humor with poignancy, and many of the themes of Extence’s novel, such as the importance of friendship and kindness, can be found in Vonnegut’s work. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in particular explores the theme of how humans should treat one another.

Book talk ideas: The strength of the plot should be enough to draw most readers in. Alex Woods is stopped at the border, with an obscene amount of marijuana and a dead man’s ashes in his car. How did he get to that point? In the interest of not giving anything away, a book talk for this title would have to be vague, but it can mention that this title deals with a variety of complex themes, like coming-of-age, feeling like an outsider, unlikely friendships, and the meaning and value of life.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you think Alex has a good relationship with his mother? Why or why not?
  2. Alex is bullied by other kids at his school, and he refuses to give up their names when they destroy Mr. Peterson’s greenhouse and Alex gets in trouble in their place. Why do you think he acted this way? How would you have handled the situation?
  3. What is the importance of the Kurt Vonnegut book club in the story? For those of you who have read Vonnegut, why do you think this author was chosen?
  4. Do you agree with Alex’s decision to help Mr. Peterson die? What would you have done in the same situation?

Reason for reading: I was really interested in reading some Alex award winners for this project because I was curious to see if I agreed that these books have teen appeal. Although I know (both from being a teenager and from interacting with teenagers) that young adults don’t tend to let labels about whether a book is for “adults” stop them from reading it if they look interesting, I was interested to see what type of book would be chosen for having special appeal to this age group. After reading Alex Woods, I agree that teenagers will probably enjoy this book as much as adults.