Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Books, bookstores, secret societies, and fun characters…what’s not to like?

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a fun read that is initially set in a 24-hour bookstore in San Francisco, that seems to do very little actual book selling, but that is quickly revealed to be beside the point. That said, through the entire book I kept picturing Penumbra’s bookstore as Westsider Books in NYC. Hopefully they would approve.

Clay Jannon, the book’s protagonist, is essentially a down and out art school grad who takes on the night shift at Penumbra’s just to make ends meet. He soon discovers that the bookstore is simply a front for something much larger, much more mysterious, and certainly something much more interesting. Clay ends up drafting his many friends of disparate backgrounds and means to help him along the way.

In many ways, this book is like a two act play where the first takes place in a warm, well developed space, the bookstore. It’s a place you rapidly come to envision. A place I would like to spend more time. And then, like a needle scratching across a record, the book takes a left hand turn not unlike Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Not to worry though, Mr. Penumbra’s is no where near the length or even the depth of Anathem, but as in that book, the second act of Penumbra cannot be imagined ahead of time.

As I mentioned earlier, I really enjoyed several of the characters in the book, not the least of which was Clay Jannon. That said, I absolutely have a literary crush on Kat Potente in the first half of the book. A brilliantly nerdy programmer and designer working for Google, Kat is Clay’s love interest and co-conspirator for much of the journey. I couldn’t help picturing her as the best possible mix of Sheldon Cooper and Penny on The Big Bang Theory. Unfortunately, after a major set back, this character rapidly dissolves, becoming flat and sad. She really was a disappointment for me.

Another favorite character is Edgar Deckle. He’s essentially the guy who fills in the gaps in the story that allow it all to hang together. For that I anoint him Patron Saint of The Deckle Edge Blog.

One final criticism is that the resolution of the story, the unveiling of the riddle, remind me a lot of the way the old Scooby Doo cartoons always ended, a little too neatly packaged. I am satisfied with the conclusion of the story, but the mechanism through which it happens is just a little cheesy.

I do want to comment, ever so briefly, on my favorite quote from the book:

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

That is, in fact, my experience. There is no economy, but economies. No community, but communities. No culture, but cultures. It is this mixing of “crazy little cults” that is the richness of this life. To be known by one’s own, to have a group that totally gets your eccentricities and interests is a wonderful thing that we should each enjoy. But the blending of those little cults, where your one group of friends gets to meet another group…people they would never otherwise encounter, can be a magical experience for everyone. May we all seek out those experiences.

Lastly, I have to reiterate how much I enjoyed this book. A quick novel in which to get lost is sometimes exactly what we need and this one fit the bill for me.

Festina lente.

I borrowed this book at the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, TX. Please go use yours. 🙂

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