Review: Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore

Book: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Purchase from Amazon, bookshops ect.

(I am starting to wonder if I should be including a rating systems…. like, one to five bars of chocolate. How much chocolate would I be willing to exchange for this book? Or Bees….)

24-Hour bookstore is another of the what I am affectionately terming ‘Family Book Group’ recommendations. Several months ago, my bibliophile aunt was waxing lyrical about this book, igniting my interest, whilst simultaneously refusing to tell me anything about it beyond the title. She was in such earnest that I received a text with the title some days later. It has taken me a little while to work my way through the list, but I have reached it! And, once again, Aunt has not failed to recommend something thought provoking and entertaining.

Recession hit San Francisco finds Clay Jannon, a web designer with a degree in art history specialising in typography, pulling the night shift at a 24-hour bookstore in a run down part of town, next to a strip club. He wiles away the evenings on his kindle, remarkably incurious about the great wall of books that he has been forbidden to look inside, but instead trying to drum up customers. Occasionally, a regular patron will rush in, swap a book from the ‘Waybacklist’ and rush out again. It is only when his friend prompts him to look at the contents of the waybacklist books, that Clay gets involved in the mystery. The mystery of the books. All of them are written in code. With the help of a grade-school best friend and a super-tech savvy Google working girlfriend, he delves into this mystery wondering quite how he managed to end up there.

The most remarkable thing about this is how unremarkable Clay appears to be. He is ordinary. He likes to learn but he doesn’t appear to be outstanding at things. But he is resourceful, he is able to make use of what is around him. He pays attention. The novel is written from his point of view, involving witty asides, random throwaway comments and observations, much like the recording of thought processes alongside the main story. Mr Penumbra is amusing, and sees more than Clay thinks, involving some chuckles as Clay doesn’t realise what Penumbra is saying.

My interpretation of the book is that people can achieve great things by combining resources and specialities, but also, that it is too easy to get caught up in the flow, romance and excitement. The mysterious regular patrons of the bookstore are amusing and a little caricaturist, and Penumbra himself is entertaining at times.

There are secret codes and societies, puzzles, mysterious books, ingenuity, problem solving, and using computers. The core of the story is that question of whether computers should be used to replace books, or if there are some things that computers just can’t do, combining the old and the new ingeniously.

I thoroughly enjoyed curling up in Waterstones for the afternoon, just whistling through this. And I definitely recommend to people! What isn’t to like?



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