Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Book Store
Written by: Robin Sloan
Synopsis:A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco book store.
A few Saturdays back I was in a bad mood. I was in one of those god awful funks that come out of nowhere and refuse to let you do anything. I was morose and despondent and everything seemed like the worst thing ever, but it was 6pm and I definitely couldn't sleep. So I was mindlessly scrolling on my phone and noticed a book sale on the Google play store and amongst all the books you couldn't pay me to read sat Mr Penumbra's a book I'd seen pop up in a few TTT posts over the last month or so. Figuring 'what the hell, it can't be worse than this dodgy translation of The Phantom of the Opera' (more on that another day) I paid the whopping $2 and decided to give it a go. And while it didn't cure me of my funk, it picked up my spirits right from the get go and took me on quite the enjoyable ride. Not a rollercoaster mind you, but a ride that raises the pulse ever-so-slightly and has you running back into the line as soon as you're done.
Mr Penumbra's is a touching and captivating mystery that centres around a love of books, think a better written and more bookish The Da Vinci Code. After losing his job (THANKS RECESSION) Clay applies to work at a book store, taking the late shift between 10pm and 6am. Mr Penumbra's isn't just any old book store though. While there are a few copies of best sellers, most of the books seem to be one-off unusual books that don't show up in any book registries. Clay is forbidden from examining these books, and asked to make detailed notes of the patrons who come in to loan them out. Clearly such instructions simply lead to Clay finally giving in to temptation and cracking open one of the forbidden books. This simple act leads him on an adventure that takes him across the country and deep into both a secret society and the Google company.
Clay's joined by a crew of odd balls who are all creative and special and talented in their own, very specific ways. One of his housemates is an amazing artist, another is a computer wizz (with a flair for digital breasts), another is a wall-climbing PR genius and his sort of girlfriend is amazing at all things programming. It just so happens that these are all crucial to the success of their little adventure, but they're all realistic enough skills especially among Gen Y. But best of all is Mr Penumbra, who seemed like a little elf or wizard to me - but maybe that was me just projecting my excitement for the upcoming Hobbit movie. Not only is he a bookstore owner (therefore a veritable god in my world) but he's part of a secret society doing secret things, and is wonderfully kind and eccentric.
There are parts of this novel which are completely made up - like a 500 year old typeset known as veritazoon and a fantasy author - but they're wound into the story which touches on so many real businesses, authors and books that you find yourself wondering if such a typeset exists (it doesn't), or whether the fantasy author is a thinly veiled imitation of an author you might have read. However, it wasn't all good. There's this weird fawning over of Google throughout the whole book that just ended up weirding me out. At times I felt like I was reading one of those spam comments that starts out like an actual personal statement but then turns into a straight out ad trying to sell you junk. Yes Google is a huge company that tends to be interested in things experimental, creative and outrageous - but must you mention them so much Mr Sloan? Personally, I think the company should have been invented (similar to Google, but not Google) to weed out the weird 'Google is my God' vibe I was getting through much of the book. And looking at reviews online, this seemed to be a thorn in many a reader's paw. But whatever, it didn't weaken the book by much, and unless you're super anti-Google you'll probably just shrugg and skim those sections when you get to them.
So a pretty good book, designed especially for people like us, book nerds who choose to read and review books like they're able to actually quench a thirst and fix a hunger. Have fun!