I first came across Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore when it was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award last year. I quickly added it to my wishlist; I adore books about books. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is truly a book for book lovers. And technophiles. And publishing types. And anyone who loves a tricky puzzle.
Clay Jannon is young and unemployed, which he really ought not to be since he has designed an award-winning logo for NewBagel, working for ex-Googlers, and was the voice of @NewBagel, executing innovative digital marketing campaigns. But it’s the recession and everybody is unemployed. He’s rather desperate, so when he comes across Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore where he lives in San Francisco, advertising a night shift vacancy, he jumps at the chance. But after a few days, he notices that Mr P’s is practically desolate. There is rarely a customer in sight, except those who are old and quirky and who borrow ancient tomes from the Waybacklist, as Clay likes to call it. He’s also been instructed to diligently note down everything about each customer, including the colour of their coat buttons. It’s odd, to say the least, so Clay sets out to find what’s really going on.
After reading a few pages, I knew Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was going to end up on my Best of 2013 list. It’s the sort of book that makes me giggle in delight because it is like it’s written for me. I normally do not enjoy popular culture references in novels because it tends to bring me (reluctantly) out of the comfortable fictional world, but in Mr Penumbra, they serve a purpose. Social media, digital marketing, Kindles, graphic design and typography are all part of Clay’s life, and Google in particular plays a huge role in the book. I initially thought it would be would a novel about the triumph of paper books over digital, but it actually celebrates their coexistence and how, combined, they can create something even better. The first half jovially bombards you with wonderful booky, techie references and the second half leaves you trying to figure out the mystery itself: What on Earth are these customers doing? And what does it all mean? And who really is Mr Penumbra? And when can I take a trip to Google HQ?
But the story would not be what it is without our narrator Clay, who’s witty (‘He has the strangest expression on his face- the emotional equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND’) and brutally honest (‘I feel a pang of remorse as I [illegally] download it, but it’s really just a tiny pang’), with necessary perceptiveness, and who’s a genius when it comes to demonstrating the internal monologue. And I couldn’t help but picture Mr Penumbra as a Dumbledore-type character. Robin Sloan brought each of his characters to life and they all had their place in this magnificent, sometimes fantastical, yet feeling oh so very contemporary, story.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is delightfully geeky and bookish. You’ll love it.
Published: 2nd October 2012 (US) 1st August 2013 (UK)
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (US) Atlantic (UK)
Source: Thank you Atlantic for providing this book!
If you liked: Ready Player One & The Shadow of the Wind