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

This post comes as something of a heads-up for UK-based readers and a ‘get to Barnes and Noble right now’ for those in the US. I am completely happy to admit that there is no way that I could indulge my crazy book habit without a fairly extensive global support network. Having lived in both the UK and the US for considerable periods, I have done a pretty good job of ensuring that I am able to get great recommendations from both sides of the Atlantic (although those based elsewhere are more than welcome to join in!). At the beginning of the year and on a visit to the lovely-if-a-little-empty state of Missouri, I was lucky enough to get given ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore’ by a friend of mine (thank you to my fellow Laura), with the guarantee that it came ”highly recommended” as one for the book lovers. Needless to say, I didn’t take much persuading to dive right in.

Robin Sloan’s ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore’ is somewhat genre-defying. Set in contemporary San Francisco, the book follows Clay Jannon, an out-of-work web designer-turned-night clerk at the mysterious 24-Hour bookstore owned by (wait for it) Mr. Penumbra. For those of us who haunt bookshops like it’s our job, Sloan puts out the hook. His initial description of Penumbra’s store, told through Clay’s eyes, was enough to tell me that this was a book I would be losing sleep to finish:

“Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up – three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever. The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing on the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-weilding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumors of accidents in the dark,” (p.7-8).

After taking up the job, Clay finds himself intrigued by the enigmatic clientele who frequent the shop, coming in to withdraw a series of coded books housed in the back shelves. The story follows Clay as he attempts to unravel the mystery of these books and their bizarre readers, taking him into a world where ancient cults and 21st century technology collide. Assisted by his friends, and with considerable help from the Google empire, Clay explores the secrets of Mr. Penumbra and the mysterious happenings for which the bookstore is merely a front.

For me, this book is a resounding rejection of any claim that contemporary literature has little to offer serious readers. Sloan creates a world in which the almost timeless charm of the bookshop is forced into confrontation with modern developments such as logarithms, laptops, and the code breaking equipment at Google headquarters. Most surprising is the way in which Sloan juxtaposes these two worlds effortlessly, without rejecting either. ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore’ champions both the contemporary and the timeless, offering some reassurance to readers (like me) who find themselves worried that modernity might be leaving them behind. The fact that Sloan achieves all of this while also weaving an immensely gripping mystery, makes his skills as a writer all the more impressive.

This book has, I think, something to offer everyone. Those who shy away from the classics, those who shy away from contemporary lit, those who love a good mystery, and those who simply love an author who loves his readers. Because if there’s one thing that you will be left with after finishing ‘Mr. Penumbra’, it is that Sloan knows what it is to read until you are sleep and food deprived. He understands the way that walking into a bookshop or a library feels like walking through your own front door. He knows what a book can do – and he does it perfectly with his debut novel.

“After that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this: A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps, and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time,” (p.288).

So I urge you to run out and buy this book (or, for those of you in the UK, run to your e-readers/run to your computers and pre-order well in advance of the 24 September 2013 publication date – it will be a lovely September surprise since you will probably have forgotten about it by then). You will not regret it!

– On a final note, I have a couple of exciting Literary Excursions posts coming up! Two days away from the studies and following in the footsteps of two of my favourite authors. So stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

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