Readers discovered something unusual about the current selection of the FYI Book Club, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.” Its theme, a cleverly disguised one, reflects several plot twists in the book.
By KAITE STOVER
Special to The Star
The debut novel by Robin Sloan takes Clay, a young digital artist turned bookstore clerk, on an adventure into both medieval publishing and 21st century technology.
Clay is determined to crack a 500-year-old code with the help of his girlfriend, Kat, a Google employee; his best friend, Neel, a start-up entrepreneur; and Mr. Penumbra, the tech-challenged bookstore manager. The quest puts the group at odds with a secret society determined to protect the code.
When asked if this was a book about old-world handicraft vs. contemporary technology, or print vs. digital, the group paused for a moment and said almost as one, “This is a book about friendship.”
Ellen Schwartze of Kansas City said she enjoyed that “all the friendships are real and not full of drama.”
“They like each other because everyone does something cool,” said Scott Curtis of Overland Park. “No one questions why you do what you do, they just respect your art or skill or talent.”
Donna Vaughan of Kansas City summed it up this way: “This is a good-spirited book. No one was trying to ‘get to’ another character.”
Except perhaps for one character, Corvina, who took the villain’s role in the story.
“But even he was relatable on some levels,” said Cheryl Johnson of Overland Park. “The characters felt more sorry for him than disliked him. They weren’t trying to ruin Corvina or hurt him or his business. They just wanted to help Penumbra and save Penumbra’s work.”
Along this theme of friendship, readers discussed Kat, the lead female character and Clay’s love interest.
“She was my least favorite character because she wasn’t completely nice to Clay,” said Leigh Blackman of Prairie Village. “She was a bit too self-absorbed and involved in her work.”
“She’s not as loyal to Clay as he is to all of his friends,” Johnson said. “It’s a little difficult to trust her.”
Friendship is Clay’s greatest strength, Curtis said.
“He can tie the new knowledge to the old knowledge,” he said. “And he’s able to put his friends together to make a bigger thing happen.”
Andy Dandino of Kansas City continued this thread: “The other theme of this book is history and tradition and new technology. The history of a typeface, the traditions of society and the way these things translate to the current technologies — what gets left behind and what comes forward to foster even greater creativity and advancements. It’s very interesting to see the way all these things overlap.”
“I listened to this in audio and it’s fantastic,” said Aimee Gromowsky of Kansas City. “The narrator did a fantastic job with the voices, and the segment where Clay is listening to an old cassette tape is distorted to sound just like a crackly static tape from the ’80s.”
During the meeting, author Robin Sloan joined the discussion to answer questions via FaceTime.
Wendy Parrett of Kansas City immediately mentioned the strong sense of place.
“I can picture the stacks of the bookstore, the dungeon-like atmosphere of the New York store and the books chained to the tables,” she said.
Sloan said the setting was a composite of places he has visited. He was inspired by City Lights bookstore in San Francisco but also described Mr. Penumbra’s store as part dream, part Green Apple Books, also in San Francisco: “That bookstore is the bookstore of my heart.”
Participants asked him about the novel’s friendship themes.
“Some quests are quite lonely,” Sloan said, “but this is the kind of quest where you make friends along the way. You may wind up in the dark with a whole posse of weirdos facing villains and dragons, but it’s the power of the weirdos that saves the day.”
“Do you think this novel will be just as relevant 20 years from now?” asked Kathy Lindsay of Overland Park.
“The short answer is, I hope so,” Sloan said, laughing. “I do think this book may become more of a time capsule than a dated work, and that’s OK.
“The novels I get a kick out of the most are the ones that reduce and crystallize the zeitgeist, the moment that we’re in. But I admit that’s a dangerous game for writers. The risk is that the half-life for the book can be so short. It’s a trade-off, but I feel it’s a worthwhile exchange.”
Sloan left the group with one more plot twist.
“For the audio version, I wrote some extra text,” he said. “And that voice on the cassette tape Clay is listening to when he drives back to San Francisco? That’s me. Distorted, but that’s me.”
The roomful of readers gasped, then laughed with Sloan as he signed off.
And Gromowsky cued up that section of the audiobook for the readers to hear Sloan one more time.
Kaite Stover is the director of readers' services for the Kansas City Public Library.