Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 2, 2012
Series: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, #1
Genre(s): fiction, adventure, contemporary, mystery
Format & Length: ebook, 305
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A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore.
With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that’s rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.
The premise of this story is basically National Treasure for book nerds. Which sounds amazing, right? That’s what I thought, at least, and is what prompted me to pick this up in the first place.
We jump into the book when the main character, Clay, is working at a somewhat peculiar bookstore after he lost his previous job due to a poor economy. This prior job had him doing design, marketing, and social media management for a bagel company. This was an interesting hook for me, as my full time job consists of design, marketing, and social media management. And I love books, and bookstores! So now, less than a dozen pages in, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore had my attention.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the rest of the book. It becomes a mystery and adventure, with bread crumbs in the form of books, codes, and a secret society. Through this adventure, Sloan explores some interesting ideas about old knowledge and new technology, the disconnect between them, and yet how they complement one another. All while narrating in an entertaining and funny fashion.
However, I did have some issues. First, every step of the way felt like it was solved a bit too easily. Characters dropped into the story at the exact opportune moment to help Clay out. Every problem had an all-too-convenient way to answer it. And while the ending is clever, makes sense, and all loose ends are tied up thoroughly, I closed the book (figuratively, as I read the e-book version) feeling underwhelmed.
Despite its issues, this was a generally enjoyable, easy read. If National Treasure for book nerds appeals to you, you have a love of typography, or are looking for a clever, if somewhat convenient, read, give this a shot. But for what it’s worth, I recommend borrowing it from your library rather than spending money on it.