Wednesday, April 3, 2013

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

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreLost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I've left behind.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore sounded like a really interesting novel, and it did not disappoint. "The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore."

Nick Harkaway calls it the love child of The Night Circus and Reamde.  I love The Night Circus, so that decided me: I was going to take a gamble and buy this book. The hardcover edition. But it was worth it. I loved the quirky writing style of this book, which I suppose you could call magic realism. It was a super fun and fairly easy read, but it also got me thinking. One of the chapters in particular, where Clay meets up with this girl who's wandered into the bookstore, and they're talking about the Singularity (a theory of technological advancement) and she points out that it is almost impossible for us to imagine what the thirty-first century will be like; we just can't fathom it. She's also talking about how our brains have changed so much over the years, and I just loved this chapter. It was so thought-provoking. It can be found on pages 58-62. 

The whole book, however, was interesting. I really wanted to find out what was up with this weird bookstore, and I eagerly followed Clay's adventures, romantic and otherwise. I wouldn't mind visiting Mr. Penumbra's store, though it would be really frustrating because you can never tell what they have in stock. 

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a thoroughly modern work of fiction. It's set in 2012, and it's set in San Francisco. The girl that Clay has the interesting conversation with works at Google, and he actually goes to visit the Google campus at one point. There's a lot of technological speak in the book; Clay starts off working at a bagel company designing their advertising, but it's not too much that the book is bogged down. Quite the contrary. I also learned about some new programs, which may or may not exist. Clay and Kat use these programs to accomplish things and unravel mysteries that would normally take years to solve. But sometimes even Google can't do everything. It's quite amazing, actually. But I'll always prefer a good book (and a good bookstore). However, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore explores the relationship between old and new in a unique and compelling way, while also weaving in a riveting mystery and a strange cast of characters. When Clay does something with a computer, Mr. Penumbra wants to use more technology in the mysterious fellowship that he's part of. But his boss says no. The action goes from the bookstore in San Francisco, to New York City, and then back to San Francisco. 

I expected Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore to be a light, entertaining, and quirky read. It was, but it was also much more insightful than I expected it to be, and I'm not sure that I would call it a "light" read. It's short and fairly easy in one way, but not in another. It's also magic realism and mystery and fantasy.

Nick Harkaway's blurb on the back always calls the book, "a good-hearted, optimistic book about the meeting of modern technology and medieval mystery, a tonal road map to a positive relationship between the old world and the new." I may not be as optimistic about the relationship between the old and the new as Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, but it certainly was a fascinating and enjoyable novel, one which I would highly recommend. The ending was a bit cheesy, but also really good.

288 pages. 
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

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