Book Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

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By Caitlyn Ward, contributor to the Underground

Clay Jannon, hit with the hard times of the recession, has been shuffled away from his life as a San Francisco corporate drone and has been plopped right down into the tall and daunting aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Working the night shift, Clay soon discovers that this strange and dusty store is more curious than he could ever have imagined. The customers are few and far between, and while there are some random passers-by, there is also a small community that frequents the store often. These eccentric customers borrow from a mysterious, and quite tall, section of the store, habitually checking out large and strange volumes that Clay has been warned not to read. As it becomes more evident that these regulars belong to some strange kind of book club, Clay’s interest in these bizarre volumes grows. Succumbing to his suspicions, Clay engineers an analysis of the bookstore and the behavior of its clientele. With the help of his romantic interest, a data analyst for Google, his roommate, a special effects artist, and his best friend, a successful designer of a “boob-simulation software,” Clay sets out on a quest to discover the secrets that lie far beyond this bookstore’s walls.

In a world where the book is threatened by advancements in technology, the author, Robin Sloan, takes on the intersection between old and new media. Sloan crafts a warm and enjoyable novel, while also raising questions about the power that books and technology contain in today’s society. He does this by bringing these issues to attention, but never pushes these thoughts rudely to the head at the expense of the story. Sloan creates a quirky constellation of characters, such as Clay Jannon and Mr. Penumbra himself, as they work together to solve the 500-year-old puzzle that lies within these peculiar texts. The many references to technology places the novel firmly in the present day. Although Clay and his friends encounter setbacks, they live in a world that provides the answers in one simple Google search. Sloan seamlessly marries these new ideas of technology with old-school paper and ink and the cleverness of it all makes the story hard to put down. By creating a novel that is simultaneously a love letter to books, a meditation on technology and its limits, a mysterious adventure, and a requiem, Sloan is able to tackle the cohabitation of old and new media in today’s world. Rendered with irresistible language, interesting characters, and dazzling wit, Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore creates an intriguing world in which you have to enter, and will not want to leave.

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