Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Mini-Review: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan (Atlantic Books)

SloanR-MrPenumbras24HourBookstoreAn endearing novel about bibliophilia and the advance of technology

Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a Web-design drone and serendipity coupled with sheer curiosity has landed him a new job working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. And it doesn’t take long for Clay to realize that the quiet, dusty book emporium is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few fanatically committed customers, but they never seem to actually buy anything, instead they simply borrow impossibly obscure volumes perched on dangerously high shelves, all according to some elaborate arrangement with the eccentric proprietor.

The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he has plugged in his laptop, roped in his friends (and a cute girl who works for Google) and embarked on a high-tech analysis of the customers’ behaviour. What they discover is an ancient secret that can only be solved by modern means, and a global-conspiracy guarded by Mr. Penumbra himself... who has mysteriously disappeared.

This is a very quick, endearing read. The synopsis really tells you all you need to know. This novel is, in many ways, a love-letter to both bookstores and books, and also modern technology and all it allows us to do. Clay’s background in the tech industry collides with his new job, after discovering the strange goings-on at Mr. Penumbra’s store. With the help of some friends, and eventually the strange, fanatical repeat-customers/borrowers, he uncovers a peculiar society with a peculiar belief.

Written with obvious love for both the new and old, Sloan weaves and engrossing, endearing and gripping story. The novel is filled with the author’s observations about the slowly disappearing (though still highly important) book and publishing industries, and the near-hyperactive growth of the tech and internet sectors. The protagonist’s geekiness is well-done, if ever-so-slightly cliché (a couple of things raised a disappointed eyebrow, but these are minor elements to the story, and easily dismissed).

If you enjoy gentle tales surrounding a love for books, reading, and technology, then Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a must-read. If you are after just a fun, quick read, then this is a must-read. Highly recommended.

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