By the Book @ Rogers Memorial Library

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

“There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.”

Yet another casualty of the recession, unemployed web-designer Clay Jannon chances upon a job working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  But this isn’t any ordinary bookstore.  The manager, Mr. Penumbra, instructs Clay to record each customer’s visit to the shop in a massive logbook.  The clerk must note the time, the customer’s attire, their conversation, as well as their mental and emotional state during their visit.  Most of the bookstore’s quirky customers are regulars…and the books that they borrow — not buy — are impossibly obscure.  How does the shop make money, anyway?  Although there are some token science fiction, fantasy and nonfiction books for sale in the front of the store, the wealth of Penumbra’s inventory lies in its “Waybacklist” of titles, which Jannon must clamber up and down a towering ladder to retrieve.  He must never read these rare tomes himself.

Of course, human nature being what it is, Clay’s curiosity grows.  First he looks inside some of the books, which he can’t understand.  Then he decides to write a computer program that will provide a virtual model of the store’s book loaning activity.  To accomplish this, he enlists the help of an oddball assortment of friends, all part of San Francisco’s thriving techie scene, including a genius special-effects artist, a can-do Google employee (and maybe girlfriend), along with a childhood buddy, whose start-up company is now worth millions.  When Jannon’s computer program deciphers a clear pattern in book borrowing at the shop, things begin to get really intriguing.  Jannon suspects that the bookstore may be an outpost for a secret organization, whose mission remains unknown.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, offers a charming combination of old school mystery and derring-do, along with high-tech sleuthing.  Rich in atmosphere and wit, this novel evokes a nostalgia for the world of printed books, along with an appreciation for technological advancements made in the digital age.  It’s a tricky tightrope to straddle, but Sloan succeeds, by weaving both aspects into his narrative.  He describes the home of one of the bookstore’s customers, Ms. Lapin, as “the burrow of a bibliophile hobbit — low ceilinged, close-walled, and brimming over with books.  It is small but not uncomfortable; the air smells strongly of cinnamon and weakly of pot.”  Later, he sums up the confusion of Mr. Penumbra by relating that his face was the “emotive equivalent of a 404 PAGE NOT FOUND.”  As it turns out, the key to this labyrinthine mystery lies at the intersection between the printed word and the digital one. 

Readers who appreciate fantasy laced with humor should check out this page-turning and eminently quotable novel, which provides an entertaining blend of adventure and mystery, peopled by a cast of likable eccentrics.  Readers who enjoyed Ready Player One or The Rook should check out Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

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