Book Reading Groups: Review of “Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore”

Robin Sloan’s first full-length novel is a book for today in every sense of the word; ideal for book reading groups of all ages.  It has only just been published by Atlantic Books in the UK.  The author is young and tech-savvy; he lives in San Francisco where the book is set; he has done his research; and, best of all, he writes with a touch that James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and S J Perelman would have admired and commended. 

Mr Penumbras 24hour bookstoreWhy did he write it?  Not a very subtle question at the best of times but Sloan himself says: I wrote this book because it’s the one I wanted to read, and I tried to pack it full of the things I love: books and bookstores; design and typography; Silicon Valley and San Francisco; fantasy and science fiction; quests and projects. If you love those things too, I hope and believe you will enjoy a visit to the tall skinny bookstore next to the strip club.  I couldn’t have put it more neatly myself.  The book’s hero (and the word suits the young man) is Clay Jannon, who is out of a job as a web-designer, “a result of the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century, leaving bankrupt burger chains and shuttered sushi empires in its wake. […] The whole economy suddenly felt like a game of musical chairs, and I was convinced I needed to grab a seat, any seat, as fast as I could.”  Walking for miles, eyes peeled for ‘help wanted’ signs, Clay finally sees, of all things, a 24-bookstore wanting someone for the late shift.

 Now I was pretty sure “24-hour bookstore” was a euphemism for something.  It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town.  My help-wanted hike had taken me far from home; the place next door was called Booty’s and it had a sign with neon legs that crossed and uncrossed.

 The self-styled ‘custodian’ of the store, Mr Penumbra explains that while he does look for employees with some enthusiasm for books this is no ordinary bookstore.  Clay gets the job.  He becomes the night clerk, taking over from another employee in the late evening and handing the watch back to Mr Penumbra in the morning.  But the store is not open 24 hours per day to cope with a steady flow of customers.  In fact, there are scarcely any and most of the shop’s occasional traffic consists of strange infrequent but regular callers who come in and ask for a book by author’s name.  Clay tracks its location on the store’s elderly Mac and then shins up a ladder to retrieve it and lend it out to the borrower on production of their membership card.  Clay is forbidden to “browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes.  Retrieve them for members.  That is all.”  However, he must make a detailed note on how the caller seemed, was dressed, and what he or she returns and takes out.  The shop’s logbooks, labelled NARRATIO and with sequential Roman numbers, seem to go back a long, long way.

 Inevitably, Clay breaks the rules and finds that every one of the books seems to be alphabetic gibberish.  That just gets him going; he’s a geek, or do I mean nerd, after all; and he uses his computing knowledge and skills to try and crack what might be code.  At the same time, he writes an algorithm to allow him to make a computer based 3-D model of the store on his own laptop including all the books’ locations.  What would you do in the middle watch, from midnight until four in the morning?  He does not make progress until, one night, he ‘borrows’ an earlier volume of the logbooks, copies the pages and analyses the pattern of borrowings of the callers against their location on the shelves.  That’s when he makes his first big discovery. 

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore is satisfying and intriguing

 And that’s where any further revelation of the storyline must stop.  Of course, there is some love interest; there is a visit to Google’s HQ; some very futuristic but entirely credible computer programming (programming knowledge inessential) and all these satisfying morsels are enfolded in a tale told with self-deprecatory humour.  There are pen-sharp portrayals of identifiable 21st century characters that are both witty and empathetic.  

 Almost all of my reading is a pleasure; but I seldom come across novels that are such rumbustious fun to read; subtle gags and mordant wit on every page.  I admit I was wary of it when I came through my letterbox as part of the Litro book-subscribers selection process but I have to say now that it is one of the most satisfying and intriguing books of my reading year and I will rate it an exceptional 9.2 out of 10.  More please Robin!

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