Sunday, February 24, 2013

Always Open: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
FSG, 2012

Clay's luck hasn't exactly been great lately. In fact, things were looking pretty bleak until he was roaming the streets of San Francisco and comes across the hole in the wall that is Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Suddenly Clay is employed as the night shift clerk and is catering to an eclectic group of people - you can't quite call them customers because at this store, books are rarely bought. Instead, people become members and borrow huge volumes from hundreds of shelves in the back of the store. Though he's given explicit rules about what he is supposed to do, curiosity is practically a job requirement for any person who works with books. Clay soon finds himself immersed in model-building, code-breaking, data curation, possible love, and the key to eternal life.

This novel was a charming slice of adult contemporary fiction, and I'm not even sure how to best describe it. It's one part mystery, one part mystical. And I'm not meaning mystical as in magical with spells and wizards (though, in one sense, perhaps...). I mean Mr. Penumbra's store and cast are all the things bibliophiles secretly love about bookstores, especially old ones. Quirky and not quite perfectly organized (at least to the naked eye), full of nooks and crannies that make you curiouser and curiouser. In that way, I found the story to be enchanting. Honestly, there was a book I read a few years back that I was expecting and hoping would be these things, but it fell so very short and Sloan's debut novel here more than made up for it.

But even with its sense of old-time charm, the novel is also taking on questions of present day and the future. One of the main characters works at Google. There are discussions about e-readers and what they're doing to the nature of bookstores. Since I'm admittedly not the most technically inclined (though I try very hard and am getting much better), these parts didn't grab me as deeply but were interesting just the same.

The writing sounds like a conversation. There's a great eclectic cast (though other than Mr. Penumbra himself, I wouldn't say they were as developed as they maybe could have been), and setting is used spectacularly. If you're a book lover, at least see if you can check this novel out from a local library. It's worth a read at least once, and I have a feeling that if I'm ever feeling disillusioned about my jobs with books, roles I love very much, I'll be revisiting Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore in the future.

Plus, the book glows in the dark. How cool is that??

Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading!

Robin Sloan's Website
Robin Sloan on Twitter
Penumbra on Twitter

No comments:

Post a Comment