by Robin Sloan
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss and Giroix
Publication Date: October 2nd, 2012
Format: Kindle E-Book
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond its walls.
I picked this book up because from the title alone I assumed it was a fun and quirky read. I mean, a 24-hour bookstore, and someone named Mr. Penumbra? I was entirely correct–the best words to describe the book are ‘cute’ and ‘quirky’.
Clay Jannon is something of an everyman in a city that houses some of the brightest minds in the country–and, worse luck, he’s recently lost his job. On a jaunt through San Francisco he finds Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and a job as the night clerk. Almost immediately he’s struck by the oddness of it–while there are normal books in the front, the cavernous back section holds older tomes with names on the spine and gibberish instead of words. Who wouldn’t be curious? In an effort to crack the puzzle of Mr. Penumbra’s Bookstore, Clay combines with a Google programmer obsessed with eternal life, his childhood best friend and software company owner, and Mr. Penumbra himself.
It’s an intriguing book, in that it mixes two things that tend not to mix well, books and the internet. On the one hand, you have this secret society dating back to the advent of the printing press, obsessed with the written word and disapproving of computers. On the other hand, you have this assortment of people who are racing along with this amazing new technology–Kat from Google, Neal from Anatomix, and even Clay has some decent programming skills. I think the book does, more than anything, an incredibly skilful job of pointing out the similarities and differences, and that not all new or old things are inherently bad (it goes both ways).
The characters are also cleverly drawn. Clay acts as something of an everyman–he has some skills, but its pointed out fairly clearly that compared to his many friends he has nothing that really makes him stand out or succeed. His only skill is…well, having so many friends who have skills. Throughout the book, that’s what gets him places. Neal is also a cool character, being simultaneously a smart CEO of a booming company and a super-nerdy guy that Clay used to play something like Dungeons and Dragons with. Kat is your basic programming savant, with a surprising passion about finding the key to eternal life. Mr. Penumbra is an energetic old man, with a firm belief that new technology can unravel old mysteries. My personal favorite is Mat, Clay’s eccentric roommate who can build anything.
There are so many small ideas in the book, that sometimes I wondered if a name was just thrown out to add characterization or depth. Not so–Sloan does a fantastic job of wrapping everything up and tying loose ends back into the plot, sometimes in extremely creative ways. It was the epitome of the ‘loaded gun’ theory (if a gun is loaded in act 1, it will go off in act 3), and the ending was sweet because of it.
There are ups and downs. Successes and disappointments, like everything. The secret society is both comical and strange–mostly just endearing, however, a lot of puzzlers dedicated to a puzzle they wholeheartedly believe in. And, most of all, it’s about friendship. Because, like I mentioned, Clay has no real talent except for the friendships and connections he makes. And those get him everywhere. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, New York, to the center of a 500-year-old puzzle. It’s a fun, quirky book with something of a feel-good ending.
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Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.