Book Geek Heaven – ‘Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore’ by Robin Sloan


You know, I’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy cults all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.

I’ll be up front about Mr Penumbra’s bookstore. I loved it. It felt like it had been written just for me. Pretty much everything I love about life and reading encapsulated in 290 breezy entertaining pages. Since I’m clearly the chosen one to receive this book, trusting my review is probably foolhardy. A bit like asking the Pope what he thinks of the Bible, or for those of a less theistic nature, asking Dawkins about Darwin.

MP24HB is geek manna. There are codes, references to Tolkien and D&D, 500 year codexes, technology, quests, Google (lots and lots of Google) and even a fictitious fantasy trilogy. And, of course, there’s an impossibly vertical bookstore, with ladders.

Clay Jannon is down on his luck. A designer from San Francisco, once riding high at an Internet start up, he is a victim of the slump. Desperate for a job he answers an ad in a bookstore window, after which he takes on the night shift. Mr Penumbra’s bookstore is most peculiar. Not only are its shelves vertiginous, but it doesn’t really sell any books. At the front of the store is a motley collection of books for sale that no one wants. At the back is a peculiar lending library; beautifully bound books, that Clay is prohibited from opening. They are borrowed by a peculiar assortment of night-time bibliophiles.

Bored, and keen to make a difference, Clay attempts to modernise his antiquated workplace. The results are, to say the least, unexpected. Along with a couple of friends Clay finds himself on a quest to understand the purpose of the bookstore. It may even be a quest for eternal life. The novel explores the intersection of traditional technology ie books, with modern technology, I.e. Kindles. Clay’s friends Kat and Neel are trailblazers in the world of computing technology.

Harold's PlanetKat works at Google and is a fervent believer in its might. She is convinced computers will form part of the next evolutionary leap. Neel owns a successful company that makes its money from simulation. Which I suppose is the nub of the book. Real vs Virtual. Is a digitised copy of a book the same as the real thing?

Mr Penumbra’s 24hr Bookstore is a bibliophiles wet dream. It reminded me a little of retro-geek thriller Ready Player One, but where that novel focused heavily on the gaming aspects. Mr Penumbra’s is all about the books. The plot is slight and the characterisation a little fuzzy, but the book is funny and filled with snippets of information about the world, old and new.  It is a delightful meld of wonder at the possibilities of technological innovation and reverence for the innovators of the past.  Above all it’s an homage to the wonder of books, printing and the written word.

As I said at the beginning, my word on this book is entirely unreliable, but you should read it anyway. It’s 2013s feel good hit of the summer.

Many thanks to all the team at Atlantic for sending me a review copy of the book



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