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Friday, January 18, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore


Most avid readers are, I suspect, at least somewhat fond of that fictional subgenre in which the world of books is intricately incorporated into the storyline.  When this is done well, there is no greater reading pleasure to be found.  And there is something out there for every reading taste: literary fiction, mysteries, thrillers - and in the nonfiction field, true crime titles about book thieves, forgeries, and the like. 

Robin Sloan’s debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is a worthy addition to the genre – a novel at which booklovers will definitely want to take a look.

Young Clay Jannon, the book’s narrator, is a recently unemployed San Francisco web-designer who is not having any success finding a new job.  Clay, like so many of us, gets online with good intentions and specific goals in mind, but finds himself, hours later, wondering how he managed to waste so much time aimlessly browsing the web.  Most importantly, he remains unemployed – and has no new leads – at the end of each day of his “job search.” 

So, when he stumbles upon a “help wanted” sign in the window of a 24-hour bookstore, Clay is all over it.  After a quick job interview (that largely consists of climbing a tall ladder to the store’s top shelves and acrobatically retrieving the specified volume) Clay is installed as the bookstore’s overnight proprietor.  But, as Clay soon learns, this is no ordinary bookstore.

First, he is lucky if he sees more than one customer during any given night.  Second, the only books actually for sale are kept on just a few shelves right at the front of the store.  Third, the several thousand books housed on the bookshelves that line the bulk of this tall, narrow bookstore are only there to be loaned, one-at-a-time, to specific customers (a rather strange lot) who exchange a previously borrowed book for a new one. 

Something is up.  And Clay wants to find out what it is. 

Robin Sloan
Soon, using his programming skills, intimacy with the Internet, and a select group of similarly skilled friends, Clay begins to unravel the mystery of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  And, what a fun ride it is – especially if you love books, conspiracy theories, and unlikely quests.

Interestingly, the world created here by Robin Sloan is one in which even the most adamant advocates of the printed book and those who ardently embrace the digital world of e-books do more than just co-exist. The story focuses on a “best of both worlds” scenario that results in the discovery of a basic, but beautiful, simple truth about life.

Sloan’s writing style lends itself to a relatively quick reading of this little book, and that’s not at all a bad thing because most readers will be eager to solve the book’s inherent mystery.  I should note, however, that one of the book’s side-plots did, in my estimation, more to slow the story’s momentum than to add anything useful, or all that interesting, to the story.  Most readers, though, will easily forgive this.
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