Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore


From Manchester rain to West Coast sunshine we go, with Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. A clever look at the interplay between print and digital technologies, wrapped up in a briskly -paced mystery (think Da Vinci Code light), Robin Sloan’s novel is a great pick for the Constant Reader who needs to lighten up a little, but not too much. Reading is, after all, serious business.

Image from Slate Book Review. Click through to read source.

Image from Slate Book Review. Click through to read review.

Clay Jannon, the protagonist, is not so much the hero of the book as he is the catalyst. A nice enough guy, but a bit of a bumbler, Jannon is the kind of person who innocently starts trouble and adventure by asking questions, poking his nose where it doesn’t belong, and otherwise being curious. That’s a great way to advance your plot, even if it does mean the reader ends up shaking her/his head a lot and saying, “Oh Clay. Really?” But yes, really. And because Jannon is a genuinely nice guy, it works.

After losing his job, Jannon stumbles across a “Help Wanted” sign at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and figures, “Why not?” The store isn’t very busy at all, but there are regular customers, and soon enough Jannon notices a pattern to their behaviors. Using technology to unravel the pattern leads to Jannon’s initiation into a bizarre little literary group that’s been trying to unravel its founder’s secrets for centuries…but the head of the order is decidedly not a fan of using computers to make life easier, and warns Penumbra that his employee-disciple is cruising for a literary bruising if he doesn’t straighten up and fly right (by which he means, “old-school”).

Jannon, however, being a thoroughly modern type, sees only potential in Googling his way to arcane knowledge, and ropes his friends (plus a really cute techno-geek) into the greater mystery. Madcap hijinks ensue, and as readers learn more and more about the secret society and the information it’s trying to decipher, they will find themselves riveted to the series of puzzles, pranks, and adventures Sloan sets out for them. Punctuated by “Aha!” and “Wahoo!” moments at the high points, and “Aw, rats” events at the nadir, this is a fun little roller coaster of a book that will make both print aficionados and techno-geeks happy, especially since the merits and drawbacks of each kind of reading are addressed accurately in the course of the novel. In fact, you could say that the true message here (wrapped up like an Easter egg) is, “There’s plenty of room in the world for print texts and digital ones, so let’s stop arguing about it and just have a good time.”

The novel clocks in at 288 pages, but you’d never guess that from the sprightly pace that will keep you turning pages to find out what happens next.  t’s the most delightful book about books and reading I’ve read in a long time, and the adventure tale it’s wrapped up in is so much fun, the book doesn’t feel the least bit didactic. Highly recommended to anyone looking for an up-beat summer read.


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